In the many Star Trek franchises, the Prime Directive is the guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets. In essence it states that there can be no interference in the internal affairs of other civilisations; that the development of a culture should be permitted to proceed at its own pace, unguided by external intervention. The term was introduced in the original 1960's series, but much of the refinement of the concept took place in the later Star Trek: The Next Generation franchise.
Just as the United Federation of Planets is a thinly veiled analogue of the United Nations, so the Prime Directive corresponds to a concept in political philosophy known as Westphalian sovereignty. The term originates from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which many academics assert was the beginning of the modern concept of nation-states. There is much debate among political theorists and historians as to the validity of this claim, but this sideline is unnecessary for discussion of the concept.
There are three elements commonly ascribed to Westphalian sovereignty. Firstly, the principle of the sovereignty of states – that is, the right of political self determination. This establishes the concept of a sovereign state. Secondly, the principle of legal equality between states, which determines that no sovereign state possesses legal ‘high ground’ with respect to another. Finally, the principle of non-intervention of one state in the internal affairs of another. The parallels with the Star Trek Prime Directive are apparent, with civilisations (principally portrayed as other planets) taking the role of the sovereign state, such that we might consider Westphalian sovereignty as “the real world Prime Directive”.
Naturally, people are divided as to the wisdom of maintaining such a principle. Much criticism has been given in recent years to models of international relations which take the Westphalian notion of the nation-state as a unitary actor as an axiomatic principle. Arguments against this view note that treating all nations as separate entities overlooks the cultural enmeshment of the modern age, as well as other vital points of interconnection, such as the fact we all make use of the same environmental system as our “global life support”.
Since the 1990s, the issue of Westphalian sovereignty has come under particular scrutiny in connection with military interventions (both proposed and actual) in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and elsewhere. One proposed justification for violating the non-fictional Prime Directive is humanitarian grounds: that the prevention of imminent genocide (for instance) provides a just basis for overriding the principle. One dangerous consequence of this thinking occurs when people reason that the absence of democracy foreshadows future humanitarian crises, and thus claim that the absence of democracy creates a humanitarian justification for intervention. The fallacy of this reasoning can be found in the continued occurrence of humanitarian crises in democratic nations. For example, what was the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans but a humanitarian crisis within a democratic state?
Another such criticism relates to the idea of a failed state, a claim usually levied against Afghanistan prior to the NATO invasion of 2001. In such cases, it is often argued that there is no coherent sovereign state and thus intervention is justified both on humanitarian grounds, and on the basis that such failed states represent a threat to both neighbouring countries in particular, and the entire world in general. This represents a slightly less contentious situation: since the first element of the Westphalian concept is political self determination, any situation where this is absent may be a viable cause of action. How the absence of this state of affairs should be determined by people external to the region in question remains a matter of debate.
Even within the context of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the idea that one should not intervene on humanitarian grounds proves difficult to uphold, and many Star Trek fans find the application of the Prime Directive in its more extreme cases to be quite absurd. For instance, in the episode “Homeward” the crew of the Enterprise is expected to stand idly by as a primitive civilisation becomes extinct as a result of an atmospheric disaster – in this situation in particular, fans were vocal in declaring the Prime Directive immoral in its application.
The desire to bypass Westphalian sovereignty and allow for humanitarian intervention has lead to the development of new political philosophy concepts that would be open to such actions, in particular a newly evolving concept of contingent sovereignty. In this model, nation-states are assumed to have certain obligations, including the protection of its citizens, thus when a government makes war on its own people or conducts genocide it forfeits its claim to non-intervention. The appeal of such a variation – a Subprime Directive, if you will – is apparent.
Kofi Anan, speaking in 1999 in the position he then held as UN Secretary General, advanced a view that there was a developing international norm that “massive and systematic violations of human rights wherever they may take place… should not be allowed to stand”, and furthermore that frontiers should not be considered an absolute defence behind which nation-states could commit crimes against humanity with impunity. In many respects, such a view can be seen as an evolving response to the atrocities of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, and the commitment the world made at that historic juncture, but has thus far failed to live up to: Never again.
The problem with this emerging concept of contingent sovereignty is in its application, and critics have been quick to point out the degree to which it affords powerful countries, such as the United States and China, too much leeway to invade sovereign states on the basis of their own private judgements of the moral standing of the country in question. It naturally follows that if contingent sovereignty is to be validly developed, it must be applied within the context of a transnational organisation such as the United Nations: no single country can be allowed to make the judgement call that results in the denial of sovereignty to another.
Whether one supports or opposes the idea of the Prime Directive (both in a fictional and a non-fictional context), now is the ideal time for discussion of the application of Westphalian sovereignty or any principle that might replace it, such as contingent sovereignty. Since the latter depends upon violation of human rights as its yardstick, it inescapably follows that renewed discussion of human rights on the global stage is a necessity before attempting to codify new principles of sovereignty in international law. Certainly, we must not accept a hypocritical situation in which one nation-state violates the sovereignty of another while simultaneously committing gross violations of human rights statutes it has publicly ratified. We should take any and all necessary steps to ensure that such gross abuses will not be tolerated.
The opening image is an oil painting by Iranian artist Farnaz Tahbaz, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.