Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the Ultimate International Relations Saga

Previously, I weighed in on just how terrible I find most explicitly International Relations focused film media (P.S. as predicted ‘Good Kill’ seems to be making chump change and being seen by perhaps a few hundred people). This leads to being asked, ‘well what is a good IR movie?’ The obvious answers to this question is ‘Team America: World Police’ ‘Nixon’ and ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.’ But that is just film. In actuality I think the best visual medium treatment of IR comes from a television show-that of Star Trek: Deep Space 9.


Now before we get to into this subject I want to make a disclaimer. I am not a person who has encyclopedic knowledge of Trek canon, especially regarding the two series I gave up on early in their runs (Voyager and Enterprise) or any non-show or film lore. Before my 11th birthday I probably could have competed with the biggest of nerds on this topic but I fell out of caring about Trek for a decade and only came back to it in college-and even then only came back to the things I knew I liked (some TOS, TNG, and much more recently DS9 thanks to Netflix, plus the handful of good movies like II, VI, and maybe First Contact). When it comes to science fiction franchises, Star Wars and Battletech defeated Star Trek in my latter childhood and then Alien/Aliens and eventually the rebooted Battlestar Galactica defeated that in turn in my early teens and my late teens respectively. I am probably not the most qualified person to write this in the world-but thanks to a few months recently completed of gorging on DS9 I feel this is something I can indeed talk about.

Star Trek’s strength was always its diplomatic episodes, in my opinion anyway, but the utopian and Wilsonian nature of the setting never accounted for how something like the Federation could thrive in a somewhat hostile environment and a lot of brilliant ideas were half-formed. As we will see, the crisis of the events of DS9 cause the mask the slip-illustrating a valuable lesson in how nations see themselves, and what they really are.

God-tier IR scholar Barry Buzan has written more than one article on the IR of Star Trek, but like many pan-franchise overviews it shafts the grungy sedentary base by the wormhole for the flashy ships of the series, at least proportionally speaking. This is a major problem, because it is DS9 which deals explicitly with the IR-themed oversights of the other more euphoric series. In particular, I wish to make the argument that, probably unintentionally, DS9 is a gateway to view IR through the framework of this blog’s favorite theory: Neoclassical Realism. To put it succinctly, Neoclassical realism, like other forms of realism, recognizes the centrality of states and power politics, but adds to it the dynamic domestic factors and internal cohesion of varying states to explain why some countries follow the policies they do. But at its most blunt, its about regime survival, and how different concepts of regime survival come to arise based on diverged geographic and historical factors which together create the political culture.

The Messy Frontier:

The concept of the show is to move more in a direction of serialization in a sedentary location where the visitors move but the protagonists usually do not. There is no escaping the consequences of the crew’s actions. The storm will be weathered here rather than escaped. In this way, the station itself is a microcosm of the bigger forces which are usually more abstract in other series-the state actors. Having defined territorial boundaries and political cultures, the United Federation of Planets and the other Alpha Quadrant powers do not have quite the episodic flexibility that some of their individual ships might have-and DS9 is in a similar position.

To emphasize this point the static location on international trade and diplomacy which is the station in question is located on what at first seems to be the most peripheral of frontiers. A former slave mining station and HQ of the Cardassian occupation of Bajor, the station is a joint Federation-Bajoran operation in a place only recently vacated by a hostile power. As it is, it represents a guarantee of security by a major power to a tiny and only recently liberated nation and a long term investment in the hopes that the Bajorans will one day join the Federation.

Everything changes with the near immediate discovery of the nearby wormhole. Inhabitants of powerful non-corporeal aliens who communicate with Commander Sisko and who once apparently inspired the Bajoran religion allow transit into a whole new quadrant of the galaxy which would be beyond reach of the Alpha Quadrant powers otherwise. Now, a postwar backwater has become the single most strategic location in the galaxy. This, however, does not change the remoteness of the posting. In fact, the rapid influx of intrigue from other powers mean this is one Star Trek series where the crew seeks to navigate the muddy waters of compromise and balance rather than principle or self-discovery to a previously unheard of degree. Sisko must guide these waters with minimal oversight and little prospect of immediate backup due to his location. Furthermore the nearest ally in the still unstable and completely weak Bajor. Both sides running the joint administration of the station would be familiar to the description in the introduction to Lobell, Ripsman, and Taliaferro’s edited work ‘Neoclassical Realism and Foreign Policy’:

‘Limitations on executive autonomy in different national contexts, however, may undermine their ability to respond as necessary to shifts in the balance of power. Neoclassical realists consequently view policy responses as a product of state-society coordination and, at time, struggle. Less autonomous actors must frequently build coalitions and make compromises to mobilize social and political actors in order to enact policy […] Most states must also frequently bargain with societal actors in order to secure the provision of national security goods to implement policy. […] Finally, neoclassical realism recognizes that many states or regimes do not necessarily function as ‘unitary’  actors. Elite consensus  or disagreement about the nature and extent of international threats, persistent internal divisions within the leadership, social cohesion, and the regime’s vulnerability to violent overthrow all inhibit the state’s ability to respond to systemic pressures.’

It is this kind of diplomatic grunt work that Sisko and his crew must deal with. Everyone can only be placated so far before it rubs up against someone else. All decisions must ensure the survival of the station and of Bajor’s new independence. And the setting further marks a break with what is usually seen in Star Trek by further adding the variable that humans as a species are not the star of this story. Human characters predominate, sure, but humanity is a background species. The real species whose culture is shown in nuance, detail, and variance in this show are the Bajorans, the Cardassians and their difficult and historically tragic relationship with each other. This has been written about before, and quite excellently too, so we I won’t dwell on it here, but it is part of what makes the show so great and also in some sense, very real. This is not a show about one culture interacting with others, but of many cultures continually interacting over a sustained period, and in turn influencing each other’s decision making process.

But I want to fast forward to the story arc the dominates the latter sections of the show: the Dominion. The Dominion is the monster that lurks on the other side of the wormhole whose existence is only found out about once lots of exploration begins on the far side of that cosmic aperture. A type of almost anti-Federation, it is a state which exists as effectively a web of protection for a species of shapeshifters (the Founders) who uphold their hegemony of the quadrant with an intricate web of multiple genetically modified species to carry out their will. The details of how they govern are never fully explored, but one thing becomes immediately clear-because of their history as persecuted by ‘solids’ they will do whatever it takes to become hegemonic over other humanoid life.  Their brazen expansionism and plots to use their unique abilities to destabilize potential threats from the inside are actually for a psychologically defensive purpose, or so they claim. Most likely, they even believe their claim-as ridiculous as it clearly is to outsiders.

The Dominion is possibly a match for the entire Alpha Quadrant, but not being ones to take risks set on on an indirect campaign to destabilize that region before they launch their official invasion. Shapeshifters lure Romulan and Cardassian intelligence agencies and fleets into a devastating trap (and in so doing validating tragic literature as a concept in a sub-plot way far better than most story arcs I have seen), and then proceeding to use their shapeshifting abilities to infiltrate other powers from within, possibly causing a Klingon-Cardassian war and almost causing a major rift in even the utopian Federation where for the first time in centuries troops are deployed on the streets of the future crime and prejudice free Earth. All the while, the Alpha Quadrant remains as divided as ever. Alliances that should be formed are not, even in the face of knowing quite clearly what the intentions of this new and dangerous foe clearly are:

Cardassia, smarting from its instability and loss of standing decides to throw its weight in with the new power under Dukat’s new government-the kind of vindictive re-alignment in diplomacy which is guaranteed to upset the status quo. This is something on the scale of Sino-American rapprochement in the 70s or Japan joining the Axis Powers. It gives the enemy a foothold for free in the Alpha Quadrant and a large supply of allied ships. When the war finally does break out over Sisko’s mining of the wormhole to prevent further reinforcements to the Dominion, everything changes.

With even the ostensibly pacifist Starfleet forced to launch a pre-emptive strike you know things are going to a bit more hard core in this show. And to its credit, DS9 shows us the evolution of a country used to long periods of peace of security and how it changes over prolonged total warfare.

The loss of DS9 itself, and the awkward political situation which the Bajoran crewmen are put in (not to mention the planet itself) of knowing they will be destroyed if they resist, but also that they will be occupied if the war they are forced to declare neutrality in is lost speaks volumes to the struggles of small states in times of chaos. Major Kira struggles with her past as a freedom fighter and now worries about being a collaborator when a dramatic event makes her disavow her government’s stated neutrality-if not overtly.

The war has many back and forth shifts, as one would, and eventually with the re-taking of the station after some Not Your Father’s Star Trek battles settles into a kind of exhausting stalemate. It is here that the show really develops its spine of steel at looking at the anarchic world of foreign policy head on, and to an extend science fiction perhaps did not do before in this particular medium.

To understand the transformation that Starfleet is undergoing, I actually find the career trajectory of the character Nog the best way to see it in microcosm. He starts off exuberant to be the first Ferengi in Starfleet, becomes a prodigy in training, and then fights in the war with the crew and even falls in with some new cadets who the war has shaped into fanatics far removed from the ideals of the service they most likely joined for very different reasons.

Eventually, Nog is terribly wounded in a ground battle of dubious necessity and has a subsequent entire episode devoted to his recovery from PTSD by temporarily living in the fantasy world of a holodeck. He eventually overcomes the worst of it and when asked if he will is better responds with a frank, ‘No, but I will be.’ Here we see the terrible cost of the war, the tragedy that ensues when diplomacy breaks down or the paranoia of an enemy prevent negotiation. But yet in the end this tragedy must be burdened as the alternative is infinitely worse-enslavement for the entire Alpha Quandrant is something worth any sacrifice to stop. Through the microcosm of Nog’s experience we see what Starfleet itself goes through, a torturous realization that their civic mythology is not enough in a time of extreme danger. A crisis of conscious, self-doubt, but ultimately when faced with the reality, adaptation for survival. If some values must be sacrificed in the defense of others it still preferable to the sacrifice of all of them. The Federation must grapple with how to marshal its options and function in the trauma of wartime crisis situation. As M.R. Brawley states:

‘Neoclassical realists look to the state as the manager of the nation’s resources for competition in the anarchic international environment. The state’s position as mediator between the two realms of politics-domestic and international-gives it a unique role. It must coordinate diplomacy and domestic policies, harnessing economic capacity to generate military power in the defense of interests.’

First diplomacy failed, then military only options  could only go so far. Now we reach a point in the final two seasons where only special operations of the most delicate kind can turn the balance. This is, of course, the famous moment as well as the best episode of the series-when Sisko and Garak conspire to bring the so-far neutral Romulans into the war by an act so illegal, so dangerous, and so unethical it could cause war with the Romulans if ever found out. The sham is found out by its Romulan target (‘It’s a FAAAAAAAAKE!!!!’), but before he can relay this news Garak assassinates him in a way that covers up the false data and brings the Romulan Empire into the war against the Dominion. This is, to me, the star episode of the series and the peak of the show’s IR themes. Shadows of the Zimmerman Telegram coupled with who knows how many forged intelligence coups in history  tie this firmly into reality and strategy. In the ethics of Starfleet this is the most heinous thing imaginable, and so it took someone without a country and with a strong understanding of the inter-state system to do it for them. And of course, they can live with it:

Furthermore down the dark path of grand strategy, up until this point much has been made of the Cardassian and Romulan intelligence services, but what we find out, and which shatters the myth of Federation success  as values based as a sole explanation for their thriving for the past few centuries, is that Starfleet has an intelligence service so good no one even knows of it. Not only that, it has already used Odo as conduit for which to infect the entire Founder race with a deadly bioweapon before the war even began. This is Section 31, what I imagine to be the most controversial aspect of the show. An organization accountable to no one, filled with dangerous individuals whose very existence compromises the stated goals and intents of the Federation itself. It is precisely this which has enabled Starfleet to be so principled. Aside from that first point, this is Sun Tzu’s fantasy right here.

The main figures have after all never had to get their hands dirty, someone else did it for them-and possibly did so without anyone finding out. Who knows how many events Section 31 pulled off in the past which have never been exposed? A friend of mine postulated the theory that the relatively organized and potent Klingon of the original series seemed to give way to the brittle warrior feuding culture of later renditions precisely because of some kind of Section 31 operation that indirectly backed the most right wing and chauvinistic elements of a country in order to make it easy to manipulate and destabilize much like the United States with organizations like the Gray Wolves in Turkey or military regimes in Latin America in the Cold War. After all, near the end of the series the Federation basically has Worf kill Gowron to get a better strategist in the cockpit of the Klingon Empire-and that little change wasn’t even hidden from public view.

But here is the kicker, love it or hate it the most subversive part of DS9 is not just showing the Federation being a great power out of necessity when the chips are down-just like the others it does what is necessary and hence must forfeit the mantle of moral superiority-that is only part one of the real message. The real message is this: politics is lesser evils. the Federation was worth defending against the Dominion. All those events that showed it at its worse and most fanboy purist upsetting-these are the things that enabled its survival. Naturally with the war over, Section 31 becomes more a danger than a benefit, and the galaxy at the end of the war is left in an ambiguous position with quite possibly the Romulans in the driver’s seat of regional affairs. Political problems will never end, and allies and enemies always change, but in a crisis one doesn’t have the luxury of playing with all considerations in mind, only the most immediate ones. After all, who would have predicted Kira as the leader of the Cardassian resistance? That the ‘bad guy’ races advocating a pre-emptive attack on the Dominion who were portrayed as warmongers would be more than justified as events ensued? That the drive for regime legitimacy in the eyes of its own people would be enough to drive Cardassia entirely into ruin? Well, a world history major perhaps, but few others.

Given all the messy compromises of politics, something that only gets worse as the scales increase, one is never going to get a happy ending in IR, or even an ending barring sentient extinction. But ultimately the prevention of things getting worse must stand as the positive outcome. A rough lesson DS9 and human history alike tell in abundance. Whereas before DS9 Star Trek clearly dealt with power politics without *really* dealing with them, in DS9 we see the darker reality that makes even something like the Federation possible. Just as in real life Wilsonism or other ideals driven foreign policy views can be shown to be a superficial guise for what often really lurks beneath. DS9 brought the realism to Star Trek in more ways than one.

The only thing I felt the series was lacking, as a Jeffrey Combs fan, was a scene where Dr. Herbert West re-animates a Weyoun clone.

I would also like to nominate Garak to be one of the spirit animals of this blog.

Well the next few posts will probably be back to normal after that, but at some point in the future I would like to do something similar-ish for the Battletech Universe, we will see.

The book cited twice in this post can be found here.

4 thoughts on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the Ultimate International Relations Saga

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