This post is the third in a roundtable co-edited by Marc-William Palen and Rachel Herrmann on science fiction and imperial history. You can read our call for posts here, and the other posts in the series here, here, and here. Posts will run twice a week until the second week in July. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Ahmed R. Memon
University of Kent
Star trek Discovery—the new instalment to the Star Trek universe—only confirms what enthusiasts of the series have long said: that it is a science fiction show with unmistakable allusions to an international vision of a peaceful, cooperative world reflecting the liberal internationalism of the post-Second-World-War global legal order.
The Charter of the United Federation of Planets is in fact based on the international vision of global order entrenched in the United Nations charter. The text of the Federation’s charter was merely a rewording of the United Nations, wherein Earth-centric terms such as “people,” “human,” and “international community” have been replaced by inclusive and expansive “life forms,” “planetary communities,” and “sentient beings.” The main body of the text in the Federation charter even reproduces important phrases from the United Nations charter such as “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” “promote cooperation, maintain peace and security” based on values of “universal peace, liberty and equal rights,” “obligation to treaties,” and the “social progress and better standards to life.”
Yet despite these obvious allusions to the United Nations, the imperial history of the League of Nations is an even more apt historical parallel to Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets (the Federation). In understanding the ideological discourses of the League of Nations, we can thus see how the Federation is a far-future model of early-twentieth-century imperial internationalism.
Discovery reiterates the same political inclinations of its series predecessors. From Episode 9 to the season finale, the show focuses on Starfleet Discovery’s encounter with its “Mirror version” in the alternate dimension: the Terran Empire. In episode 10 Michael Burnham, the show’s protagonist, describes the Terran Empire’s culture as based on unconditional hatred and rejection of anything “other” than itself. This mirror world of violence and imperialism run amuck is described as an antithesis of the Federation, which is portrayed as a peaceful, cooperative, and diverse union of worlds. Michael Burnhum’s fight against the Terran Empire reflects, in a sense, the clash between competing values of liberalism (i.e. equality and diversity), and fascist ideologies of the rejection of anything “other” than itself. The show makes the assumption that liberal internationalism embodied in the Federation is a morally progressive vision of the interaction between inter-galactic species. This narrative follows another common conception: that social progress through the values of international liberalism cannot be imperial in nature.
But this narrative, which places liberal internationalism as a utopian anti-imperial order, ignores critical issues concerning the kind of imperialism that remains part of twentieth-century internationalism as embodied in the League of Nations.
The League of Nations was as much a product of a reconstitution of global power after the First World War as it was a supranational organization spearheading internationalism as a way toward global peace. Although in many ways unique, the League of Nations also had an ideological similarity to earlier iterations of liberal imperialism, most notably in the European empires’ “Scramble for Africa” in the late nineteenth century. The Scramble’s basis followed a historical colonizing justification of the “civilising mission” transformed into a concept of trusteeship. This “burden” of teaching uncivilized peoples, as IR theorist William Bain puts it, was propelled from Enlightenment era concepts of “unity, progress, and perfection”. The concept of trusteeship over uncivilized people then resurfaced through the political and intellectual movements led by founding members of the League of Nations.
Following the Great War, this liberal imperial idea of trusteeship became formally integrated within the League of Nations through the Mandate System. Described as the internationalization of the trusteeship into the interwar period, the Mandates system was realised as a specific kind of Anglophone liberal internationalism. The League was influenced by American and British political discourses based on “self-government” and “unity in diversity.” The Permanent Mandates Commission, the executive arm of the League, was established to guide “lower” countries to self-government by “higher countries.” The “lower countries,” or what we might now call the Global South, were considered socially and technologically backwards, while “higher countries” were the Anglophonic superiors in culture, social and technological progress.
In the League’s vision of global order, progress was measured by a benchmark of “universal” as defined by greater powers that are also the pinnacle of a standard of civilization. The League of Nations accordingly described the Mandate territories in accordance with their degree of civilization dividing them in A, B and C mandates, with A mandates being the most “civilized” and C mandates the least. As historian Susan Pedersen points out, the Mandates commission and their classification became not just a way of categorization but creating a system of control and indirect rule over former colonies based on their “superior position.” The Mandate system was inherently imperialistic in the way indirect governance over mandated territories was justified through the rhetoric of guiding “lower countries” to “modernity” from their “traditional” ways. This particular logic of a ladder of civilization based on technological progress is deeply rooted in the imagination of the Star trek universe.
The concept of civilizations in the Star Trek lore is portrayed as a natural progress of stages that should be all too familiar to historians of empire. Uncivilized cultures in the series are usually pre- or proto-industrial, as well as pre-warp, retrograde, space faring, and warp-capable. By contrast, marks of civilization in the Star Trek lore include culture, science, technology, industry, and government.
Discovery, even more than previous iterations in the Star Trek franchise, embraces this early-twentieth-century imperial internationalist ideology and rhetoric in its assertion that industrial/technological advancement is synonymous with “progress,” and that only in “unity” with the federation that one is truly cooperative. Discovery illustrates the Federation’s civilizational rhetoric and ideology time and again. To provide but two illustrative examples, Kelpian Commander Saru states that “harmony” for the “advancement of all species” is the prime objective of the Federation, and that it has sought this through its “diplomatic and exploratory efforts.” Furthermore, in the season finale of the series, Vice Admiral Katrina Cornwell, using civilizational language, passionately denies the Federation’s liberal imperial motives when talking with L’rell, a Klingon scientist: the federation does “not seek to destroy Klingon culture,” and Federation “laws are based in equality and freedom.” These representations ignore the hierarchical assumptions of “progress” and civilization the federation is based on, simplifying the kind of “superiority” it attaches to itself.
Imperial characteristics that were part of early-twentieth-century liberalism challenge two common assumptions about internationalism, both back then and in the far-future setting of Star Trek Discovery. First, that we have moved beyond differentiation based on standards of civilization only because there is no colonisation by conquest. Second, that because it is underscored by “unity in diversity,” liberal internationalism does not operate through the logic of assimilation into modernity. These early-twentieth-century assumptions are precisely what we continue to see in the Star Trek series, especially in the newest instalment. Like the imperial internationalists that designed the League of Nations Mandate System after the First World War, the Federation thus shrouds its imperial ambitions within a liberal legal framework, a “peaceful” mission of exploration, and the rhetoric of “civilization.”
 All Star Trek lore information taken from memory-aplha.wikia.com.
 William Bain, Between anarchy and society: trusteeship and the obligations of power (Oxford University Press, 2003).
 Daniel Gorman, The emergence of international society in the 1920s (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
 Recommendations Adopted, ‘The Aims, Methods and Activity of the League of Nations” (Geneva: Secretariat of the League of Nations 1935).
 Susan Pedersen, The guardians: the League of Nations and the crisis of empire (Oxford University Press, 2015).