Thank you, Trekkies

My thanks to all of you who pointed out that the PRIME DIRECTIVE comes from Star TREK, not Star WARS. My memories of Captain Kirk go back decades, so I apologize for the slip.

Regardless of the source, I find it interesting that today’s international donors and foreign ministries are looking for advanced social science to produce formulas for successful interventions — what actions, with which targets, in what sequence, will lead to a desired outcome?

It would be nice if building a state was as simple as assembling a bicycle (or even a nuclear reactor) — just get the right parts, assemble according to the right principles, and enjoy the sound functioning of the result.

But as we know, in this case the “moving parts” — the people and groups involved — have their own volition, their own often conflicting goals, and constantly seek to use the available circumstances and resources for their own advantage.

The idea behind Star Trek’s prime directive — No interference in the affairs of other civilizations — was to prevent a much more powerful Federation force from using its power to impose its will and its desires on other societies (in one episode, if I recall correctly, a rogue Federation officer defied the prime directive, sought to impose his idea of “order” on an unruly and barbarous civilization he encountered, and ended up producing a Nazi-like society). The prime directive also argued that societies had to solve their own problems and achieve their own progress if it was to be meaningful and truly change their situations.

Now I do not wholly buy that argument. I was in favor of NATO intervention to prevent slaughter and support the overthrow of Ghaddafi in Libya. I have supported early intervention by the West in Syria (which did not occur; and yet every outcome that was supposed to be avoided by the West staying out has come to pass — a more severe civil war, opportunistic influence exerted by jihadis, and inflamed sectarian conflicts). I would have been in favor of intervention in Rwanda to prevent genocide, and I believe the UN blue helmet international peacekeeping forces have saved hundreds of thousands of lives around the world.

But I do agree that nations need to solve their own problems, and that outside powers imposing leaders or solutions (as the US has done with Karzai’s continued leadership in Afghanistan) will not work. So international intervention has to be a careful mix of preventing slaughter, separating hostile forces and keeping peace, helping opposing forces to negotiate agreements, providing support for enforcement of those agreements, and providing assistance in designing better governance institutions and political and economic rules to favor economic growth, inclusion, and management of conflict.

Peacemaking is difficult, always demanding yet delicate, and dangerous. It is often easier to turn away. Yet I believe that morally, powers that could intervene to reduce death and suffering must try to do so. But it is equally a moral imperative to learn from past mistakes and try to do better, to always keep sight of the ends — the well being of the people and the legitimacy of the social order — when choosing the means, and to not do unto others (e.g. drone assassinations) anything you do not wish others to do unto you.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
This entry was posted in The Middle East Revolts and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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