Star Trek has remained popular for 50 years because it does more than entertain viewers; it prompts us to engage with pressing social and political issues. During the ’60s, Star Trek The Original Series (hereafter TOS) offered pointed commentary on everything from nuclear war to segregation. In the twilight of the Cold War, Star Trek: The Next Generation explored ethical dilemmas involving abortion, artificial intelligence, gender identity, and euthanasia.
Unfortunately, we haven’t had a recent Star Trek show to help us make sense of the early 21st century. By the time Star Trek: Enterprise attempted to address post-9/11 issues, such as terrorism and torture, the show’s ratings had plummeted and the franchise seemed headed for a hiatus.
In a sense, however, we did get a post-9/11 Star Trek; it just happened to air long before 11 September 2001. As blogger Darren Mooney states on TheM0vieblog, “Deep Space Nine arguably speaks perfectly to the War on Terror and post-9/11 anxieties.” The show proved eerily prescient about terrorism, religious extremism, and domestic surveillance.
Further, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is also the only Star Trek series to seriously explore nation-building. This aspect of the show is particularly relevant because America’s relations with developing countries have never been more important. Many of the problems America is currently facing, from refugees to the drug trade to terrorism, originate from weak or failing states. As President George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy stated, “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.”
In the ’60s, ST: TOS held a mirror to America’s role as a Cold War superpower. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of the Enterprise frequently encountered planets with different political systems, cultures, and levels of technological development. To regulate these encounters, the Federation issued the Prime Directive (first mentioned in “The Return of the Archons”, 1.22), prohibiting any interference in the internal affairs of non-Federation planets.
The Federation worried about the unintended consequences of interacting with less advanced civilizations, especially those that had not yet achieved interstellar travel. For example, in the episode “A Piece of the Action” (2.20), a human ship landed on the planet Sigma Iotia II and left behind a book about mobsters in America during the ’20s. When the crew of the Enterprise arrives a century later, its members find that the entire planet has adopted the book as a holy text, leading to a civilization run like the Chicago mob. This memorable — if farcical — example goes out of its way to emphasize that even seemingly innocuous contact can have dire consequences.
The Prime Directive reflected a growing skepticism of American involvement overseas. During the ’60s, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) funded ambitious projects to support governance reform in developing Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The Kennedy administration adopted a doctrine of “flexible response” that shifted US military strategy away from massive nuclear retaliation and towards more aggressive use of conventional military assets.
Yet by the late ’60s, a majority of Americans viewed military action in Vietnam as increasingly futile. Scholars and donors declared USAID’s “law and development” program a failure, in large part because it failed to account for local political conditions. In fact, many of the newly independent states across the developing world collapsed into civil war or dictatorship. In short, Americans were ready to embrace a cautionary tale about the dangers of overseas adventurism.
The resurgence of American self-confidence during the late ’80s coincided with the return of Star Trek to television. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and eventually the Soviet Union contributed to making America the world’s superpower. In 1991, the US overcame “Vietnam Syndrome” with its quick and decisive victory over Iraq in Operation Desert Shield. Between 1974 and 1995, the number of democracies around the world almost tripled.
This encouraged USAID and donors to once more fund massive programs aimed at reforming political and legal institutions in new democracies. Expatriates from the United States and Western Europe became involved in key political decisions, from drafting new constitutions to working as technical experts in government ministries. By 2012, USAID spent over $1.5 billion annually on governance and rule of law projects.
Many of these developments occurred too late to affect the narrative of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but they had a profound influence on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Indeed, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine isn’t only the first Star Trek show to tackle nation-building, but it’s one of the only TV shows ever to feature what’s essentially a foreign aid project. In the pilot episode “Emissary” (1.1), the Federation establishes a presence on a space station orbiting the planet Bajor. In a clear echo of Eastern Europe, the Bajorans had just gained their freedom after 50 years of Cardassian occupation. Starfleet sends Commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) to prepare the Bajorans for Federation membership.
The litany of challenges facing Bajor would be familiar to anybody who’s kept up on political reform in post-conflict societies. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) warns that the Bajoran ruling parties are constantly at each other’s throats. Some of those factions oppose the Federation presence in the system, arguing that Bajor had simply traded one occupation for another. Bajor is also a hotbed of religious extremism. Although the head of the Bajoran religion (the “kai”) accepts the Federation, some of the more fundamentalist priests (“vedeks”) don’t. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s first season finalé (“In the Hands of the Prophets”, 1:20), Vedek Winn (Louise Fletcher) attempts to shut down a school that refuses to teach Bajoran religious beliefs (the Bajorans believe their gods reside in a nearby wormhole).
In retrospect, the Federation does little to help Bajor overcome these challenges, especially compared to the types of good governance projects the US undertakes around the world. International donors regularly fly experts to a country to meet with government officials so they can provide them with information about political reform in other countries. In some cases, expatriates actually work as contractors within government ministries.
Of course, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a television show and capacity-building workshops wouldn’t make for good TV, but even so, the lack of governance or law and development projects is striking. We never see Starfleet advising Bajor on important political decisions or training government officials. When Bajor holds elections for a new first minister, the Federation doesn’t even send election observers (“Shakaar”, 3:22).
As with real-world development projects, Commander Sisko and his crew must walk a fine line between helping Bajor and interfering in its politics. That said, the Federation errs on the side of caution. The Prime Directive seems to instill a belief that any involvement in Bajoran politics is unacceptable.
By contrast, most donors who work on governance projects attempt to differentiate between “technical” assistance and ideological or partisan advocacy. Donors believe they can provide advice on how to run government more effectively without taking sides in partisan disputes. For example, if a donor holds a workshop for legislators about a policy issue, h/she makes sure to include members from all political parties. The Federation apparently doesn’t even go that far.
Starfleet does use Federation membership as a carrot to promote Bajoran reforms the same way the European Union promised membership to Eastern European countries in return for political and economic liberalization. In the fourth season episode “Accession” (4:17), Akorem Laan (Richard Libertini), a Bajoran man from 300 years in the past, arrives through the wormhole. He claims to be an emissary from the Prophets, and criticizes Bajor for abandoning its caste system (“d’jarras”).
Sisko tells the Bajoran government that a caste system would violate the Federation Charter and that Bajor’s application for Federation membership would be rejected; however, where the European Union (and other donors) helped Eastern European countries reform their institutions, the Federation seems content to let Bajor make its own decisions. The Federation never lobbies the Bajoran government to change its position, issues a public statement of disapproval, or writes reports detailing the ways in which caste systems lead to human rights violations. The conflict is only resolved through a literal deus ex machina, when Sisko and Akorem ask the wormhole Prophets to choose between them (the Prophets chose Sisko).
While Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has been off the air for more than 17 years, the show can still provide timely lessons for international development professionals and the lay public that follows their work. First, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine reminds us to remain humble in our ambitions. Although Starfleet tasks Sisko with guiding Bajor towards Federation membership, he can’t force or even push Bajor down that path. The Federation’s reluctance to provide Bajor with much — if any — governance assistance might come across as overly cautious to modern audiences, but it reflects an acknowledgement that Bajor must get its own political house in order. Outsiders can help, but at the end of the day Bajorans must find political solutions that meet their needs (which they eventually do).
One of the most prominent critiques of good governance projects is that they can lead to perverse incentives, in which government officials enact reforms to please donors, not because they believe such reforms are needed. Donors often hold normative assumptions about reforms that might not hold true in all contexts. For example, most donors view transparency as an unadulterated benefit, yet a recent study found that transparency laws in Vietnam made members of the National Assembly less likely to participate in legislative debates. The Prime Directive reminds us that even seemingly innocuous reforms can have unintended consequences.
On the other hand, if local political elites have an incentive to exacerbate religious or social differences — as Kai Winn repeatedly does on the show — then outsiders have few tools short of military force to induce change. This was arguably the underlying reason for the failure of America’s nation-building efforts in Iraq. The international community provided technical expertise and monitored elections, but ultimately could not dissuade the government from persecuting Sunni rivals, which ultimately fueled the rise of ISIS.
Fortunately, Bajor was eventually able to overcome its political factionalism and apply for Federation membership, but the Federation was always prepared to leave the talks if the Bajorans did not want it there. (Ironically, the series ended without any official confirmation that Bajor did indeed become a Federation member.)
The series also advises aid practitioners to approach their work with a sense of professionalism and humility. In the pilot episode, Dr. Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig) tells Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) that he chose this assignment because “[t]his is where the adventure is. This is where heroes are made”. Kira responds, “This wilderness is my home… You can make yourself useful by bringing your Federation medicine to the natives.” Over the course of the series, Bashir comes to learn that playing hero isn’t always what’s best for the people he’s trying to help.
Bashir’s comments immediately bring to mind the recent controversies surrounding voluntourism. Of course, most international development professionals I’ve met care deeply about the countries in which they work (and they’re almost never as unabashedly glib as Dr. Bashir); however, there’s always the risk that donors and practitioners will view foreign aid more for what it does for them than for its recipients. Governments and NGOs spend enormous sums of money to bring in foreign experts, host conferences, and conduct research, money that might be better spent elsewhere. Indeed, aid is a big business, with firms and NGOs competing for multimillion government contracts. It’s not uncommon for a company bidding for a contract to tailor the project around the needs of the donor rather than the needs of the recipient country.
While some of the social commentary in TOS comes across as dated, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine remains surprisingly relevant in 2016. Our failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have made many Americans once again skeptical of the value of foreign interventions and international development aid. Meanwhile, the international NGO Freedom House claims that during the past decade more countries saw declines in political freedom than gains.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a primer for how we should respond to these developments; it is, after all, only a TV show, and there are thousands of books and databases about best practices in foreign aid. Yet, like the best of the Star Trek franchise, the show pushes viewers to consider the moral, ethical, and political questions surrounding foreign aid and nation-building. It may not have the best record of predicting the future (remember the Eugenics Wars?), but Star Trek: Deep Space Nine seemed to have a sense of where we’re headed.