For reasons that are perhaps too complicated to go into here, many scholars of and commentators on international affairs are also pop-culture geeks of one variety or another. Thus we get books like Theories of International Politics and Zombies and Battlestar Galactica and International Relations, as well as the slew of op-eds and blog posts that accompany the release of many big-budget science fiction and fantasy films and television programs: everything from the economics of the Death Star to the interplay of realpolitik and ethical norms in Game of Thrones. Certainly a lot of people who spend time thinking about diplomacy, foreign policy, and international institutions seem to also spend a lot of time thinking about popular culture.
In their edited book Harry Potter and International Relations Daniel Nexon and Iver Neumann lay out a four-part typology for the study of popular culture in international affairs that serves as an insightful way of organizing various approaches to speculative fiction, including the Star Wars franchise (currently, canonically, composed of seven films, two animated television series, and a few novels, with more on the way). While in my view the most useful way to engage pop-cultural artifacts to generate insights about international affairs is their fourth category, I will briefly explicate their first three categories before I make my case.
Cause/consequence. In this first category, pop-cultural artifacts like the Star Wars films are treated either as causes of outcomes, or as consequences of political and economic and cultural forces. Here we would find analyses of whether watching Star Wars makes one more or less likely to support strict border controls or increased military spending, as well as analyses of how Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm might change the direction of the franchise due to Disney’s distinct corporate profile and interests, including international market interests. In any case, analyses in this category treat Star Wars like any other international phenomenon, which is perhaps justified in light of the massive global ticket and merchandise sales for Star Wars product—Star Wars is popular not just in the United States, but all over the world. So from this category of analysis we primarily learn about international affairs in ways that are broader than formal relations between states, and that involve issues beyond military might and economic growth.
Allegory. In a second category we would find treatments of Star Wars that would seek to “map” different characters and situations displayed on screen onto a variety of “real-world” international events. This approach is more popular in teaching than anywhere else, as classroom instructors looking for convenient illustrations of imperial overstretch, armed rebellion, illicit economies, and the corruption of democracy can find ample material in the Star Wars films on which to draw. The cost of doing so, as with any allegorical interpretation of a text, is that we may lose sight of the manifest plot. Reading Anakin Skywalker’s line “if you’re not with me, you’re my enemy” as an allusion to G. W. Bush’s post-9/11 declarations about a war on terrorism can obscure the fact that, in the context of the film, Anakin’s line is evidence of his corruption and his turn to the dark side of the Force, which is presumably not the case with Bush (since Bush was never a Force-wielding Jedi Knight who had been prophesized to restore balance to the Force). So I would suggest that allegorical readings of Star Wars don’t tell us anything new about international affairs; instead, they illustrate things that we already know, or think that we know.
Data. In a third category we would find uses of Star Wars as proxy sources of data about public attitudes, collective beliefs, and the like. The panel that we recently held at the International Studies Association’s annual meeting featured a number of papers in this idiom, including a content analysis of press coverage of the “China threat” and its frequent use of allusions to the Death Star, and a study of how references to the “dark side” inform discussions of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy. The focus here is not on the pop-cultural artifact itself, but on what its popularity represents; Star Wars provides a set of shorthand expressions that we can see prominently on display in U.S. national security discussions, and that provides us with additional insight into those discussions. Of course, the real trick is that the operative meaning of “the dark side” or “the Death Star” might be rather far removed from the roles that these notions play in the films themselves, as is certainly the case with 1980s-era references to the Strategic Defense Initiative as “Star Wars”—the proposed missile defense system had almost nothing in common with the stories we see depicted on screen in the Star Wars films. So we must be cautious.
Constitutive effects: “folk theory.” The final category of ways to approach pop-cultural artifacts involves treating them as statements of perspective, not on real-world events in any narrow sense, but on broader issues. A pop-cultural artifact can thus be read almost the same way that one would read a scholarly article: examined for its theoretical assumptions, evaluated for its internal consistency, placed in dialogue with other perspectives on international affairs. I say “almost” the same way because most scholarly articles feature relatively explicit statements of their theoretical perspective, but pop-cultural artifacts typically do not. So extracting the operative paradigm, or the conceptual architecture, from a pop-cultural artifact requires a different kind of reading, one that seeks in the first instance to produce a coherent account of the whole text in order to determine what it is “saying” about international affairs. Analyses in this category are the most concerned with the integrity of the interpretation, and the least concerned with the ways that people might misquote or misuse bits of the story in other contexts.
Applied to Star Wars, this kind of reading highlights the fact that, in important ways, Star Wars is more fantasy than science fiction. What we have on screen is an epic tale of the struggle between the dark and light sides of the Force, which is itself (to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi) “an energy field created by all living things; it surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together.” Closer to magic than to science, the Force has a will and a direction, and despite generations of study, it remains the “great mystery” that only the adept can truly experience. And the Force holds together “good and evil,” as Han Solo tells us in the most recent film, existing someplace beyond both but giving rise to clear, unambiguous options. All of which is to say that the Star Wars universe is presented to us as a morally charged cosmos, a place where right and wrong aren’t matters of ethical debate, but hard-wired into the fabric of things. The films never leave us in any doubt that Emperor Palpatine, Anakin Skywalker, and other Sith and users of the dark side of the Force are evil, and the fact of Anakin’s eventual redemption doesn’t change that fact—it just underscores how the Force, in tending towards balance, makes use of both good and evil in mysterious ways. Certainly other things happen on screen, but the central drama of Star Wars is always concerned with the Force, and with various characters discerning the difference between the dark and the light—unlike, say, in Star Trek, where the plot often hinges on (pseudo-)technical issues about fluctuations in subspace and the condition of the Enterprise’s computer.
What does this have to tell us about international affairs? Analyzing pop-cultural artifacts as folk theory doesn’t tell us anything directly about people’s beliefs and attitudes, but it does sensitize us to similar gestures made in the course of debates and discussions of political and social alternatives. Star Wars rests on a dark/light dichotomy in which our heroes are tasked with remaining true to the light, and because this dichotomy is not a matter of perspective but a fact of the imaginary world, virtue creates its own reward. We see precisely the same complex of notions at work in a variety of nationalist rhetorical appeals, including but not limited to the “manifest destiny” framework within which U.S. foreign policy is typically debated: because we are on the side of the light, all we need to do is to hold firm, and the universe will ensure our ultimate victory. But Star Wars also serves as a criticism of such rhetoric, since remaining true to the light in Star Wars doesn’t ensure the victory of the light over the dark, but only ensures balance. Such a perspective can perhaps provide a check on the unbridled arrogance of politicians who believe themselves to be unequivocally on the side of the angels, and temper their chauvinism with some humility. The popularity of Star Wars suggests that such humility is not entirely foreign to our broad cultural ways of making sense of international affairs, and perhaps opens the possibility of an alternate way of “doing” international affairs.
In the end, the most important benefit of studying pop-cultural artifacts may therefore be the kinds of possible worlds that they help us to envision. Speculative fiction is perhaps uniquely poised to help us do this. Where science fiction gives us scientifically plausible alternate futures, fantasies like Star Wars provide cautionary moral tales about the limits of our own technological grasp of things. Darth Vader—evil, but in this instance the voice of truth on screen—comments at one point that “the ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force,” and in an era where we all-too-quickly throw technical expertise at problems, being reminded of the moral and ethical dimensions of our social and political actions is all to the good.
Cover Image: The Imperial Senate (starwars.wikia)