imperialist adventures

Image: Jimmy Chan


The First Directive of Star Trek draws on popular culture to highlight that it is irrelevant to question whether claims of good intentions to justify imperialist adventures are real or hoaxes

On February 9, 1967, hours after the US Air Force bombed the port of Hai Pong and several other Vietnamese airfields, NBC aired a politically defining episode of Star Trek. Entitled "The Return of the Archons", the episode marks the entry into the scene of the Prime Directive - the supreme law of the United Federation of Planets and its fleet, starfleet, which forbids any intentional interference with alien peoples, civilizations and cultures. Envisioned in 1966, as President Lyndon B. Johnson sent an additional 100 troops to Vietnam, the Prime Directive constituted a direct, if well-camouflaged, ideological challenge to the activities of the US government.

Maintaining its central role in the series, the Prime Directive is, today, even more relevant. Military adventures always involve a variety of different issues, making a rational debate on their merits difficult. For example, were the US invasions of Vietnam and Afghanistan really driven by good intentions, whether to contain totalitarianism or to save women from radical Muslims? Or were such intentions invoked to politically cover up cynical economic and strategic motives? Were they a mistake because US forces were defeated? Or would they have been wrong even in case of victory?

The charm of the Prime Directive is that it cuts through this labyrinth of confusion and deceit: the invader's motives, whether good or bad, don't matter at all. The Prime Directive precludes the engagement of superior technologies (military or otherwise) for the purpose of interfering with any community, people or species. It is actually quite drastic: the sterfleet must respect it even if it costs them their lives.

In the words of Captain James T. Kirk, "The most important oath of the captain of a starship is that he will lay down his life, and that of his crew, before he violates the Prime Directive." To what his successor, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, adds: “the Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it's a philosophy... and a very correct one at that. History has always shown us that whenever mankind interferes… no matter how well-intentioned that interference is, the results are invariably disastrous.”

Consolidate this philosophy into a program mainstream television, and at the height of the Vietnam War, it was a bold move. There is little doubt that this is an intentional critique of US foreign policy. In the episode "Patterns of Force" (1968), the series' writers Star Trek they imagined an engineer who tries to help the development of a primitive planet by instilling, in its people, a humanist attitude while building a State with such efficiency that only an authoritarian regime could achieve. His well-intentioned intervention soon falls apart as the standards of authority he instituted give way to institutional racism, and the humanism he tried to nurture is crushed by a genocidal regime.

The screenwriters of Star Turk they were neither naive moralists nor isolationists. They knew that, as with all rigid moral imperatives, their Prime Directive could not be simply and directly applied. Simply visiting a foreign territory, or another planet, means interfering in some way. Although the agents of starfleet are presented as willing to die in order not to violate the Prime Directive, in several situations their moral revolt leads them to distort it or even to ignore it. In "Guerra Privê" (1968), they encounter a planetary civil war in which one of the two factions has received more advanced weapons from the Federation's archenemies, the Klingons. How could they respect the Prime Directive when the enemy power does not respect it? Deciding that the best way to respect the Prime Directive is to violate it, they seek to level the playing field by offering nearly identical weapons to the other faction. The result is a runaway arms race and a rare unhappy ending.

But not all Prime Directive violations lead to disaster. “Taste of the Apocalypse” (1967) portrays a unique war between two planets whose leaders had agreed to simulate their battles on a computer to put an end to the constant destruction of infrastructure. The people “killed” in the simulation were, however, later taken to execution chambers. Convinced that the risk of returning to open war would be preferable to continuing the cruel simulated killings - with their real dead -, Kirk violates the Prime Directive, blowing up the execution cameras.

In any case, the scriptwriters had to try very hard, in such cases, to show that the positive consequences took place. although violations, not because of them. Or, more precisely, was it the belief, engraved in the minds and souls of the agents of starfleet, that the Prime Directive is good and correct that it has enabled positive results in some violations. Similarly, Western soldiers may occasionally do good in some remote, war-torn country precisely because they do not believe it would be wise to try to build a coherent civilization at the point of a foreign gun.

The First Directive of Star Trek draws on popular culture to highlight that it is irrelevant to question whether claims of good intentions to justify imperialist adventures are real or whether they are hoaxes. She brilliantly dramatizes how the invasions high-tech, from above and planned in advance to save an “inferior” people from itself, can only lead to loathsome lies, crimes and cover-up maneuvers of the kind we find ourselves in. Pentagon Papers or Wikileaks.

The Prime Directive is also a useful and necessary reminder of the contradictions in American society – in particular, how it produced not only the liberal imperialist doctrine responsible for so much carnage in countries like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, but also a liberal anti-imperialist doctrine that remains comfortably ensconced in a television series that has captivated US audiences for longer than the lives of many Americans.

*Yanis Varoufakis is a former finance minister of Greece. Author, among other books, of the global minotaur (Literary Autonomy).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published on the portal Project syndicate.


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