Paul Pillar

International and Interplanetary Relations

A feature article in Monday's New York Times reports that an effort at a radio astronomy observatory in California to search for extraterrestrial intelligent life has recently resumed operations after a gap caused by a funding shortfall. The article cites the conclusions of some scientists involved in the search that, based on the discoveries of planets orbiting stars other than our sun, there are likely to be many civilizations, maybe thousands, in our galaxy. The idea of finding and contacting intelligent beings outside our world has always had fascination on several dimensions, from the astronomical and biochemical to the philosophical and poetical. As a political scientist, I think about questions involving the interaction of polities. What political issues may arise if the international system that we have always regarded as embracing everything and everybody is suddenly only a subset, confronting entities outside that system?

For example, who in such a situation should speak for the Earth? The scientists doing the searching probably would have the first opportunity to speak, but why should they be allowed to take the lead in any subsequent dialogue? That would be sort of like letting technicians who manage a diplomatic cable system determine the substance of what the United States says to foreign states. Should the political authority in whatever state hosts the contact effort (right now that would be the United States) have the right to determine what is said to the beings in another world? If not, who would have that right? If we receive a message equivalent to “take me to your leader,” what should be the response? Should the extraterrestrials be patched in to a meeting of the United Nations Security Council? Or how about a G-20 summit?

Perhaps we can draw lessons from instances in our own world's history of systems that were formerly thought of as the whole shebang but then, with more interaction with those outside the system, collectively became an entity participating in a larger shebang. Most Europeans long thought of power politics as chiefly involving interaction with other Europeans, but now the European Union is an entity playing in a larger system. Possibly even more instructive would be historical episodes in which interaction began with an outsider so unknown and foreign to previous experience that he may as well have come from outer space. The improbable conquest of Mexico by Hernan Cortes depended on divisions among the tribes in that land and a belief among Aztecs that he represented a long-anticipated deity. We on earth are divided today and vulnerable because of that. What could keep us from suffering the same fate as Native Americans in Mexico?

Of course, any dialogue with an extraterrestrial civilization currently seems so remote that the whole subject perhaps can be safely left to the astronomers for now. Those astronomers are still just looking for some indication of a narrow-band signal, as the first step in searching for a signal with artificially made and intelligible content. But it may be a useful thought experiment to consider how we would respond to some of these questions. Thinking about how we would represent the interests of the Earth and its inhabitants as a whole might help in finding reasonable solutions to some of our earthbound problems, even if an extraterrestrial is not listening in.

Image: Kathleen Franklin