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International Relations, Star Wars, Star Trek, and All That

International Relations, Star Wars, Star Trek, And All That

“We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands! But we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers…but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes! Knowing that we’re not going to kill — today!”

-Captain James T. Kirk, Star Trek: the original series


The Wonder of Exploration

In January, 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush announced a $12 billion plan to build a new generation of space rockets, return to the Moon for a new round of exploration, and push on to Mars by 2020. The plan generated much excitement in the news media for a few days, but several members of Congress expressed skepticism about the technical feasibility and fiscal sense of such a plan. The plan went nowhere, and Congress did not act on it (Bush, 2004: 1). Later in the year, the election cycle eclipsed all talk of an ambitious return to space. In April, 2010, Barack Obama announced a $6 billion plan to boost space exploration, including development of a new family of heavy-lift rockets and crew units (Matson, 2010: 1). As with Bush’s proposal, it went nowhere in Congress and was quickly forgotten. But the dream of a return to space was far from dead. New entrants into the space race, such as China and India, were putting spacecraft up above the planet, and sending robotic vehicles to the Moon and Mars. Most excitingly, a number of private entrepreneurs, such as Virgin’s Richard Branson, SpaceX’s Elon Musk, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos developed their own rockets. The SpaceX rockets showed the most promise of commercial viability (Schmidle, 2018: 38). Voices around the planet began to dream again of going to Mars, the Red Planet, and establishing permanent bases there by the 2030s. As in the 1960s, when John F. Kennedy inspired America to go to the Moon the first time, we really could dream again.

Where does this dreaming come from? Well, some of it derives from science and the desire to understand how the universe works. It also comes from the same place that drove Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus and all the other explorers of history: the desire to see what is on the other side of the world, to enjoy a dangerous adventure, and to make some money to boot. But one more source has stimulated dreamers young and old for generations: science fiction and its cousin fantasy in literature, films and television. Why is science fiction unique among genres of fiction? First, it is the only type of story consistently dealing with change, placing its stories in societies different from our own, off the planet or in the future. Second, while other genres present acts of people, science fiction forces us to think about ideas. And these ideas stretch our minds in new directions. Third, it discusses a variety of possibilities for the development of polities and societies, which the reader or viewer may never have considered. Fourth, it takes current scientific and political theories, and pushes them in directions that might happen in the future. Think of it: our world of smart phones, pad devices, social media and the Internet was partly the child of science fiction of decades ago. Fifth, it looks at contemporary developments and asks the most intriguing question: “What if?” (Evett, 2009: 1-2) What if robots become smarter than people? What if humans make contact with space aliens? What if you could go back in time to witness the trial of Joan of Arc, the sinking of the Titanic or the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Could you change those events—or should you even try?

Those are exactly the reasons why science fiction is so useful for understanding both international relations and political science. By enjoying stories of people on various planets in this and another galaxy, science fiction forces us to think about possibilities for political action and organization, and relations among nation-states, here on Earth. Political development of the human species has followed a parallel path to the advance of natural science. Our distant ancestors lived in hunter-gatherer bands and later tribes, and employed relatively simple organization for their societies. The creation of the first city-states led to larger empires, along with more complex authoritarian methods for ordering societies. Medieval European society was a complicated mix of cross-cutting forms of secular and clerical authority. With the advent of the modern world, our key political philosophies evolved: statism, mercantilism and realism vs. liberalism and free market economics (economics was once called simply political economy). Contrasting ideologies of democratic capitalism, fascism, socialism and communism dominated the world of much of the twentieth century. The late twentieth and early twenty-first century saw a decline of ideological passion and control, but nationalism and populism have been on the rise since 2010.

This book uses the two most important science fiction television and movie franchises of the past fifty years to present and discuss major IR theories and their application to contemporary international relations and world politics. Star Wars and Star Trek both enjoy young, passionate fan bases and fervently explore the possibilities for human and other intelligent life in their respective galaxies. Star Wars presents a story of the downfall of a republic, then the restoration of democracy, and finally the rise of a new authoritarianism. This see-saw of freedom and repression represents the human struggle of the past four centuries, as well as the advance and retreat of democracies on Earth since the eighteenth century. Star Trek gives us a future United Federation of Planets animated by liberal ideals, yet recognizing the realism of conflict and balance of power. Radical or Marxist, constructivist and feminist ideas can also be found at work.Classical realism and liberalism, along with radical, constructivist, feminist and environmental theories all apply to this far away galaxy.

Grappling with all of this can help students gain a better understanding of our world, and can give them a lens for more enjoyment of these franchises. It is your task to then apply these ideas to issues and countries throughout this world. And, like Luke Skywalker and Captain Kirk, it is your job to make a better world. Just as the heroes of these stories save populations of planets or restore republics, maybe you can move us toward a planet where war, famine, inequality, racism and sexism are things of the past. Just like Kirk in the opening quote, we can learn not to kill—today. Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator, once said:

“I believe in humanity. We are an incredible species. We’re still just a child creature, we’re still being nasty to each other. And all children go through those phases. We’re growing up, we’re moving into adolescence now. When we grow up – man, we’re going to be something!” (Daum, 2016: 1)

We’re going to be something. We will try to lay the table for you. We also provide a “starter menu” at the ends of most chapters to get you started on viewing of the two franchises, and some discussion exercises where you can put yourself into the shoes of policymakers. Then, it is up to you to take the next steps.

 Television and Movies as Learning Tools

We believe in the power of film and television to teach political science and international relations. As students and citizens, there is much we can learn from any fiction, especially science fiction. And we can all be teachers of each other by relating stories that explain how our world works. Instructors are relying more and more on films and television series to illustrate the concepts that they teach because visual stories help us understand IR concepts in practice. With careful selection of the TV programs or movies, professors can stimulate intriguing discussions that allow students to understand how policy is made, how actors’ choices matter, and how we are all connected to global events.

In this technology-oriented era, we need to go beyond traditional teaching techniques of readings, lectures and open-ended class discussions. Today’s learners—you reading this book—are often more visually-focused, more involved with class group activities, and more proactive in seeking out additional materials than your GenX and GenY predecessors in the 1990s. Using film, television and multi-media materials, you can gain not just knowledge of how the world operates, but develop your critical thinking and analytical abilities. That is our hope and wish for you. And then in time, maybe you will educate the first generation to live in space.

Plan of the Book

Chapter 1 examines the importance of science fiction as a genre of fiction and film. It considers why the sub-genre of space fiction, specifically Star Wars and Star Trek, are so important. It suggests that among the key roles of science fiction are to consider alternative futures and counter-factual developments, to think about the possibilities presented by other worlds, to cast a critical eye on contemporary society and current issues, and to examine the interaction of humans (or aliens) with technology. Science fiction thus constitutes a kind of thought experiment, and is an excellent tool for understanding international relations, apart from real-world examples. Gene Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek is of a future humanity that had solved its age-old political and social problems, and was united in exploring the galaxy. George Lucas in Star Wars creates a distant galaxy driven by an ongoing struggle between good and evil. The chapter includes sidebars on great science fiction books and films with strong political content.

Chapter 2 is an overview of key international relations theories. We begin with the traditionally dominant realist/neorealist and liberal/neoliberal theories. We then go beyond them to consider Marxist or radical approaches, which remain relevant nearly thirty years after the end of the Cold War because of their critiques of capitalism. We include the neo-Marxist theories of post-colonialism and post-structuralism. Also, we consider the constitutive approaches, i.e., which look at how the international system itself is constituted or constructed. These include constructivism, feminism, and environmentalism. This is not intended as a detailed, technical approach to the subject, but as an introduction for those unfamiliar with the theories or as a review for those who have already studied them.

Chapter 3 presents an overview of liberalism and neoliberalism as key drivers of the Star Trek phenomenon. We review the original series, later Trek series, and three movie series derived from the TV shows, in terms of liberalism. The original series reflects the prevailing American-centric liberal values of the Cold War era, yet many episodes demonstrate a distinctly realist approach to relations between the United Federation of Planets and other civilizations. The three Trek television series which ran from 1987 to 2005, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager, are even more liberal in both values and IR approach.

Chapter 4 looks at Star Wars movies in terms of the interplay of realism and liberalism. These movies operate closer to the societal and individual levels of analysis. They are thus suitable for discussion of political development, types of regimes, authoritarianism vs. democracy, and the roles of leadership and individuals in political change. The first trilogy, released between 1977 and 1983, reflected the post-Vietnam and post-Watergate skepticism of American government and foreign policy, as well as a desire to return to simpler values. The story arc centers on a rebellion against an oppressive empire, how the differing roles and paths of individuals shaped that rebellion, and how hubris can bring down an authoritarian government. The second trilogy, a backstory to the first trilogy in theaters from 1999 to 2005, illustrates George Lucas’s post-Cold War, post-9/11 and Iraq War allegory of an America that had transitions from a republic to an empire, and illustrates how democracy can be subverted and eventually destroyed from within. The most recent trilogy began with The Force Awakens, the first installment without Lucas as either director or producer, and continued to The Last Jedi. Using various plot elements from the first trilogy, it shows that the battle between authoritarianism and democracy, good and evil, is an ongoing “twilight struggle” that may continue for generations.

Chapter 5 examines Star Trek movies and television series in terms of realist thought. We examine democratic peace theory, the security dilemma and other key IR concepts through the lens of the 2013 Star Trek movie, Into Darkness. The original series occasionally toys with realist ideas, while Star Trek: Deep Space Nine presents a darker view, and occasionally veers toward a traditional realist view of politics. The first series after the 9/11 Incident, Star Trek: Enterprise, is a prequel to the original series. It initially seems like a return to realism, but also embraces a kind of elemental liberalism. This chapter establishes a theoretical approach for analyzing international relations issues centered on the movie’s characters and their interactions. It looks at the decisions and choices that world leaders make. Through the various theoretical lenses, students of international politics can see the connection between science fiction and the real world. uses other key IR theories to discuss the Star Wars phenomenon.

Chapter 6 focuses on Marxist/radical and constitutive approaches applied to Star Wars and Star Trek series. All of these theories find fertile ground in the galaxy far, far away. Radical and Marxist theories can find planets of class or other economic conflict, pronounced inequality among the various planets depicted, and extreme exploitation of various intelligent species by the oppressive Empire and First Order. The two republics can be viewed as bourgeois societies that do little to attack these vast economic differences. Constructivism would note the changing values, ideas, norms, identities, and institutions in the three trilogies, which in turn reflect the ongoing changes in American and Western politics, international relations and foreign policy from the 1970s to 2010s. Feminists might call attention to the quite gendered nature of the Empire and First Order, the more inclusive nature of the republics, rebellion and Resistance, and the evolving portrayal of female characters, from the part-fantasy lead character Leia to the fully realized female lead character Jyn Erso in Rogue One. Star Wars also is a useful tool for pondering environmentalism, as the galaxy contains a dizzying array of different kinds of planets with remarkably different ecosystems. The Empire and First Order are exploitive systems that thrive on environmental destruction, while the rebels and Resistance show more interest in preserving the environment of various worlds. The original series and all four 1980s-2000s Star Trek TV series illustrate radical/Marxist and constitutive theories. For instance, all have episodes pondering inequality within societies and environmental issues. However, the more recent series departed from the original series in presenting strong and autonomous female characters.

Chapter 7 provides a bonus with another recent science fiction series and a very different illustration of I.R. concepts and theories. We limit this discussion to one franchise for comparative purposes. Battlestar Galactica has gone through two television incarnations, in the late 1970s and 2000s. The first one-season series played on Cold War and Middle East fears, as it presents an implacable robotic enemy, the Cylons, which attack the Twelve Colonies of humanity in a devastating surprise attack, causing the humans to flee in search of Earth. The second series, on air for four seasons (after an earlier mini-series, and followed by the Caprica series), deals with various post-9/11 issues, such as oppression of unpopular minorities, torture as an instrument of war, and insurgency against unpopular foreign occupations. We also compare the more recent Galactica series to Star Wars and Star Trek.

As some of you are not into sci-fi, or are not fans of Star Wars and Star Trek, we provide two primers for novices at the end of the book. The first one is an overview of the key elements that make science fiction. It suggests that among the key roles of science fiction are to consider alternative futures and counter-factual developments, to think about the possibilities presented by other worlds, to cast a critical eye on contemporary society and current issues, and to examine the interaction of humans (or aliens) with technology. The two franchises began as watershed moments in the development of movie and television science fiction, respectively. Star Wars is a unique film franchise that blends film genres (samurai movies, 1930s matinee serials, coming-of-age stories, swashbucklers, and 1950s low-budget science fiction) in a high gloss package that appeals to children’s, youth and mature audiences. Grounded on mythological and religious themes, it became the foundation of the blockbuster movie phenomenon of the 1970s to 1990s. Star Trek’s three-year broadcast run on NBC television in the 1960s, and its subsequent popular afterlife in syndication in the 1970s and 1980s was unique in American television history, and became a cultural touchstone for both Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, and beyond. The original series, along with its reboots (three movie series and five television series) consciously dealt with political themes and perhaps unconsciously with international relations theoretical perspectives.

Now, it’s off to the stars. As Han Solo might say, get ready, we’re about to make the jump to hyper-space.

May the Force be with you. Live long and prosper.


This excerpt is from The Final Frontier: International Relations and Politics Through Star Trek and Star Wars. Our review of the book by Michael Henry and Paulette Kidder are available.

Joel R. Campbell and Gigi GokcekJoel R. Campbell and Gigi Gokcek

Joel R. Campbell and Gigi Gokcek

Joel R. Campbell is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Troy University; Gigi Gokcek is an Associate Professor ofPpolitical Science at Dominican University. They are authors of The Final Frontier: International Relations and Politics through Star Trek and Star Wars (Lexington, 2019).

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