Alien Frontiers of Global Governance

Congratulations to David Bosco and the rest of the folks at American University’s School of International Service on the conference over the last couple of days on the future of global governance.  I took part on a panel on how to globally govern for which my advice, readers will not be surprised to learn, was very little if at all.

That said, I was intrigued to see how much David Bosco and I actually overlapped in our views specifically on the genuine utility of the Security Council, given the many areas on which we would disagree.  The overlap seemed to include a shared prescription for caution in messing around with a SC structure that has accomplished certain things, if properly understood as a great power confabulation and not as what Kofi Annan took to calling it in his final days, the “management committee of our fledgling collective security system.”  David stressed, correctly in my view, the ways in which the Council had been a success since 1945, if one had a set of criteria in mind that were not about global governance or collective security in any strong sense, and if one looked to the informal processes and results of being able to consult and discuss behind closed doors.

I agree.  This is why I argue in my upcoming book on US-UN relations, while there are elements at the UN with which to engage only sometimes, and others with which to engage never (e.g., the Human Rights Council), the Security Council is the organ with which the US should always engage without hesitation.  If you have not read David’s splendid new book, Five to Rule Them All, on the Security Council, it’s well worth it.  Likewise his blog at Foreign Policy, The Multilateralist.

But all that pales beside the important news from the UN this week.  News.com.au reports (h/t Jonah Goldberg):

THE United Nations was set today to appoint an obscure Malaysian astrophysicist to act as Earth’’s first contact for any aliens that may come visiting.

Mazlan Othman, the head of the UN’s little-known Office for Outer Space Affairs (Unoosa), is to describe her potential new role next week at a scientific conference at the Royal Society’s Kavli conference centre in Buckinghamshire.  She is scheduled to tell delegates that the recent discovery of hundreds of planets around other stars has made the detection of extraterrestrial life more likely than ever before – and that means the UN must be ready to coordinate humanity’s response to any “first contact”.

Curiously, this coincides with a long held view of mine – not that the UN need be the “take me to your leader” point of entry – but instead that global governance, in the strong planetary sense, only becomes a serious possibility, once the Vulcans arrive in our skies, passing through at the very moment that we achieve faster-than-light drive.  At that point, assuming that the Vulcans actually engage with us on a pretty continuous basis and don’t flee, never to return, we are the defined by something else out there, so to as to create sufficient possibilities of uniting in order to deal with what is beyond.  Governance is defined by borders, by what is excluded as much or more by what is included.  (Cf. the great Stephen Krasner.  Also, I rethought a bit of what I said and changed it.)

But it is also – my re-thinking this a bit – perfectly plausible that aliens deal with individual states.  The traditional Star Trek Whiggish history assumes that progress requires that dealing with the out-there requires a single entity, but there is no particular reason that should be so.  Aliens can deal with the US and China and the UN and Russia and whomever.  It is not so obvious why any of this requires a central point of coordination.  It depends on what our purposes are, and those of the aliens.  Meanwhile, continues Othman:

[W]e should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The UN is a ready-made mechanism for such coordination.

Not everyone thinks the UN is a ready made mechanism for coordination. More likely is that there will be Five to Rule Them All – that’s the closest I could think the UN could get to coordination.  As for take me to your leader … well, my estimation is that whether the aliens go to the UN or the US or China or Bhutan, we are easy pickin’s for a divide and conquer strategy, no matter who one talks to first or whether one starts with the UN as the ready made mechanism for coordination..  I think that the arrival of the Klingons or the Romulans would result in something very much like Cortes arriving in the Aztec empire.  Lots of unhappy vassal states willing to make deals.  I think Earth would be enslaved and perhaps turned into a giant alien ‘long pig’ factory farm faster than you can say, Have Spacesuit Will Travel.