Out of the World Politics

Enough alien invasions--let's try alien negotiations

I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:

Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.

This week, we’re talking about how the federal government would handle first contact.

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Out of the World Politics

From The War of the Worlds to The Tomorrow War, powerful societies have envisioned themselves encountering and resisting alien invasions. At times, like Independence Day, these fantasies are explicitly metaphors for the privileges and alleged burdens of being powerful (“must I always be the protagonist?”); more often, the texts play with the fun of inverting hierarchies so that the victors become the victims. (In the non-capitalist world, different space fantasies emerged, as with the non-caricatured reality of Posadist thought.)

The prominence of these fictions has spurred many speculations about how the world would really react to first contact. Most prominent was Ronald Reagan’s superficially bizarre musings as president about what would happen should aliens attack the United States—in a conversation with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev:

"From the fireside house, President Reagan suddenly said to me [Gorbachev], 'What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?'

"I said, 'No doubt about it.'"

"He said, 'We too.'"

"So that's interesting," Gorbachev said to much laughter.

Reagan himself told the story but in terms that make it seem rather more hopeful and grounded:

I couldn't help but—one point in our discussions privately with General Secretary Gorbachev—when you stop to think that we're all God's children, wherever we may live in the world, I couldn't help but say to him, just think how easy his task and mine might be in these meetings that we held if suddenly there was a threat to this world from some other species, from another planet, outside in the universe. We'd forget all the little local differences that we have between our countries, and we would find out once and for all that we really are all human beings here on this Earth together. Well, I don't suppose we can wait for some alien race to come down and threaten us, but I think that between us we can bring about that realization.

In this telling, Reagan’s story is a thought experiment designed to make the similarities between the United States and the USSR more salient than their differences. He doubled down on this interpretation in a speech to the United Nations:

Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world. And yet, I ask you, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien to the universal aspirations of our peoples than war and the threat of war? 

For Reagan, then, the notion of an extraterrestrial force was a useful fiction that could illuminate new paths out of the Cold War. His successor Bill Clinton would later endorse a similar reading of Independence Day:

Very interesting, don't you think, that this movie "Independence Day" is becoming the most successful movie ever? Some say it's because they blew up the White House and the Congress—[laughter]—and that may be. But, you know, you see story after story after story about how the movie audiences leap up and cheer at the end of the movie when we vanquish the alien invaders, right? I mean, what happened? The country was flat on its back, the rest of the world was threatened, and you see all over the world all these people have all of a sudden put aside the differences that seem so trivial once their existence was threatened, and they're working together all over the world to defeat a common adversary.

Neither president, however, appears to have seriously thought about what an encounter with a genuinely alien civilization would look like (although Clinton did specifically deny that aliens crashed in Roswell, New Mexico).

Depictions of how such encounters would “really” work have ranged from the idealized (Star Trek: everyone gets along and humanity gets enlightened) to the metaphorical (the immigrant/refugee politics of Alien Nation, V, and District 9) to extermination fantasies like Independence Day but without Will Smith. For some reason, scientists love to talk about these issues without ever calling political scientists, leading to articles like this Space.Com piece citing international-relations luminaries like Ann Druyan and Stephen Hawking.

Even in the scholarly literature, an article in Space Policy embraces a crude “realpolitik” model to propose that a detection of a signal from extraterrestrial life would lead a country monopolizing such knowledge “to dominate the world”. Consequently, they predict that “monopolizing communication with [extraterrestrial life] could be the trigger for the first information-driven world war.”

The crudity of these models derives from the relative ignorance of history and international relations among scientists and science aficionados. For them, as for the crudest anti-imperialist college sophomores, the history of the interaction of human societies, on which they model their assumptions about interspecies contact, is a story of domination or extinction taking place between monolithic societies.

The real story is always more fluid, involving a mixture of agendas and interests in which no society is monolithic, individual actors and groups pursue their immediate goals rather than long-term social interests, and comparatively few civilizations are ever extinct. (I recall a Mayan tour guide in Belize remarking that Americans always assume his people had gone extinct— “but we are still here.”) Even the Spanish conquistadors, officially acting in the name of the distant Spanish monarch, did not triumph in the Americas because of superior technology but because of a mix of careful and inadvertent exploitation of indigenous misunderstandings, jealousies, and turmoil caused—among other reasons—by the introduction of diseases. The much slower European dominance of Asia emerged not from conquest but an imbrication of coercion, wealth, patient bargaining, and an outsider status that eventually allowed them to displace indigenous power structures, often over the course of centuries.

Cracking open any history book could have told the scientists that their hypothesis was falsified. Nevertheless, such imaginings are useful precisely because, being crude and simplistic, they reveal a lot about the models and assumptions that those imagining such encounters hold in their heads. Even H.G. Wells, envisioning an inversion of European colonization through disease in The War of the Worlds, could not envision that an ancient, technologically advanced civilization could find any path toward peaceful coexistence with a backward one.

That makes a rare instance in which the United States government actually considered how to react to an extraterrestrial encounter all the more interesting. And thus we come to one of the more curious documents in the Foreign Relations of the United States series is a 1963 memorandum dealing with this question: “Thoughts on the Space Alien Race Question”.

FRUS, if you don’t know, is the official U.S. government history of American foreign relations, prepared by historians at the State Department with a mandate to release key documents about U.S. foreign policy. Volume XXV of the series for the Kennedy administration concerns “Organization of Foreign Policy; Information Policy; United Nations; and Scientific Matters”, neatly confirming that the UN and science both rank as secondary issues for U.S. international relations managers. And in that volume, Document 383 is a memorandum from Maxwell Hunter at the National Aeronautics and Space Council (not to be confused with NASA, and since renamed the National Space Council) to Robert Packard in the Office of International Scientific Affairs in the State Department.

Whereas Packard was apparently a career State Department official, Hunter was an aerospace engineer who bounced between defense manufacturers and government service. He worked on the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) and a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) vehicle and in retirement worked with the High Frontier lobbying group to push for government support on those issues. Much later, he chaired the rules committee for the Ansari X Prize. He was, in other words, exactly the same sort of space enthusiast that we’ve seen before.

Hunter seems to have written the memorandum unbidden, describing it as “miscellaneous thoughts” about “what to do if an alien intelligence is discovered in space”. Much of the memorandum is given over to pointless throat-clearing about the possibility that life could contact terrestrial civilization. He assumes that the chances of finding extraterrestrial intelligence have soared because “not only … are a huge number of planets in the galaxy” but “life is quite likely to arise spontaneously on a large number of these.” Jarringly but correctly, Hunter also discusses the possibility of intelligent life within the solar system, mentioning that decades previously scientists (or at least one of them, the influential Percival Lowell) had suspected that there might be canal builders on Mars. Rather less persuasively, he also discusses speculation of life on the Moon, a reminder that even in 1963 much of the solar system was terra incognita. (Of course, plate tectonic theory was then a recent, controversial innovation.) Eventually, he discusses faster-than-light travel (“scientifically abhorrent”) and its implications for truly space-faring civilizations.

The principal importance of Hunter’s memorandum comes from his conclusions that alien contact would not have one meaning for Earthlings but that the importance would depend on the kind of race humans encountered. Martians, he concludes, would likely represent no threat to us, especially if they lacked fissile materials—the United States would already possess the military means to defeat them (“our current national policy”, presumably meaning nuclear and space buildups, “would be made to order for the situation.”). Indeed, if anything, Hunter concludes, they should be scared of us:

I would expect the Martians to be scared to death of what they have seen recently on this planet [presumably meaning nuclear testing and development], and would expect that the highest priority development program in the solar system is being conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission of Mars.

An intermediate scenario concerns spacefaring intelligences without faster-than-light travel. Such a race would be expanding throughout the galaxy to colonize and strip resources, and although they would lack warp drive they would nevertheless be fierce. “[I]f we were to run across representatives of this kind of interstellar race, they would not be nearly as tame as the previously hypothesized chemical Martians, and our policy would need to be revised accordingly,” Hunter assesses, but argues that humanity might still fight them to a draw. (Incidentally, this is almost exactly the Independence Day scenario.)

Encountering a warp-capable civilization, by contrast, would be cataclysmic. “If we were to meet such a race, our policy had better be to negotiate fast, because the implications of their far better understanding and control of the fundamental forces of nature would be obvious,” Hunter concludes. “[W]e would want to know as quickly as possible which of the three types I have indicated it was, as our diplomatic policy would damned well be influenced by the results.”

The upshot of Hunter’s speculations echo Reagan and Clinton’s arguments more than the dire predictions: “Even if we only found tame chemical Martians, or merely the debris from some intragalactic survey mission, it would be a good idea to proceed on the assumption that the human race would finally have found a bigger problem than the ones it has created for itself.” The impetus would be that “a policy of the immediate burying of all Terrestrial hatchets would likely be in order.” Yet Hunter, unlike Reagan, and probably more realistically, viewed the situation with pessimism: “no one of consequence is going to take this rubbish seriously unless it happens”—and at that point “our policy will be determined in the traditional manner of grand panic.”

For Hunter, Reagan, and even Clinton, the principal metaphor for alien contact was nuclear war, hence the setting aside of earthly rivalries to resist (or maybe dominate) alien civilizations. Now, having lived through a global pandemic and confronting a slow-motion cataclysm alien to the standard tenets of international relations thought (which has always treated the environment as a background assumption, or at most a vector for the projection of power), we know that “panic” is too optimistic a depiction of what would happen. A combination of apathy, denial, and greed would likely result instead.

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What I’m Reading

This week, I’ve been reading J.C. Sharman and Andrew Phillips’s Outsourcing Empire: How Company-States Made the Modern World.

From the seventeenth century onward, organizations like the Dutch East India Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company played a sustained and central role in extending European power into the rest of the world. Their influence, however, was uneven. India and Southeast Asia proved much more pliable to companies’ mixture of capitalism and warfare, while the Western Hemisphere and Africa much less. Moreover, after the effective abolition of these companies in the middle of the nineteenth century, long after they had ceased to be powerful, a late revival at the end of the nineteenth century fizzled out quickly as the nouveau corporate-states couldn’t turn a profit (even if they could, as in the Congo Free State, bring misery).

Phillips and Sharman recount the history of these in-between actors, neither government nor corporations but with aspects of both, in an analysis of why some flourished and all eventually failed. They complicate the traditional narrative of European state building as reaching its apotheosis in “1648” with the “Westphalian” system by demonstrating that these hybrid forms were pivotal to statecraft, diplomacy, and international relations (Grotius was a propagandist for the VOC). Similarly, they also complicate the analysis of lazy critics of imperialism that capitalism drove expansion by demonstrating that most such ventures were far from profitable (even if they did enrich a certain few people). It’s a careful, readable work that deserves a wide audience.