The Galactic United Nations
I was challenged by Varad Mehta @VaradMehta to defend my (conventional) view that The Phantom Menace is far, far, and away the worst of the Star Wars movies and that the universe (cinematic and actual) would be better without it. Varad takes the contrarian view that The Phantom Menace individually, and the prequels collectively, are affirmatively good movies, but more importantly that they are trenchant political prophecy for the United States. He is (mostly) wrong on this point, but insightful on many others, and his essays deserve considered response. This is Part 1 /4. Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4
Varad Mehta believes George Lucas is a prophet, who sagely foresaw the breakdown of American politics into its presently degraded, Caesarist form. His essays are excellent and deserve a fully-baked response that acknowledges where he is and is not right. Mehta is correct that much of what transpires in the the Star Wars prequels has analogues to subsequent American political developments. Where he is wrong is in supposing this involves any sort of special insight on the part of George Lucas. On the contrary, that positing analogues is possible has nothing to do with any foresight from Lucas and everything to do with the depressingly conventional path American political decay has taken. That discussion will be tabled to Part 3, however.
Before getting into that tragedy, we will deal directly Mehta’s central claim. The best counter to Mehta’s assertion that Lucas intended the political machinations to be “about” the United States is that they are much more obviously “about” the United Nations.
First: Real-World Chronology
Lucas had outlined the plot of the three prequels in the mid-70s. He began actually writing them in late 1994. Principal filming of The Phantom Menace (TPM) took place in 1997, that of Attack of the Clones (AOTC) in 2000, and that of Revenge of the Sith (ROTS) in 2003.
To rephrase that in a political calendar: When Lucas was writing, within the previous five years U.S. politics had featured the presidency changing partisan hands for the first time in 12 years, Congress changing partisan hands for the first time in 40, successful cross-partisan compromises on both the biggest change in social policy in a generation, the first balanced budget since the invention of color television, and a vast reduction in military spending. A conventional Hollywood liberal likely would have found some of the substance objectionable, but the idea of American politics as structurally sclerotic, ineffectual, impotent, unaccountable, unresponsive, or teetering towards collapse into dictatorship would have been silly. Lucas had finished writing TPM before anyone outside of the West Wing knew who Monica Lewinsky was, and both TPM and AOTC had been filmed before “Red America” and “Blue America” had entered the lexicon and been embittered towards each other by the 2000 election.
On the other hand, the mid-1990s was the moment in the sun for the United Nations, and what the sunlight revealed was hideous. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decision of Bush and Thatcher to conduct the ouster of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait with the widest possible international coalition under the aegis of the UN, 1991 saw the UN catapulted from bipolar conflict bystander to the shining beacon of hope for the future, in which it could fulfil its original mission of being the primary locus of dispute resolution between nations.
Then, in swift succession, the UN was demonstrated to be
- Unable to check Somalia’s descent into famine-ravaged Hobbesian state of nature
- Incapable of organizing a resolution to the breakup of Yugoslavia that didn’t involve parties settling borders by ethnic cleansing and atrocity
- Unable to make stick, even when backed by the U.S. and British air forces, the terms of the cease-fire in Iraq
- Unwilling to even acknowledge the existence of a genocide in Rwanda
- Mostly indifferent to the related, subsequent civil war in Zaire/Congo, which (while only ramping up at the time Lucas was writing) would ultimately involve the direct, open intervention of no less than 7 sovereign states and a death toll so large and imprecise that the confidence interval for estimates is in the millions
When the UN did bother to send blue-helmeted “peacekeepers” into a conflict, their moniker was aspirational at best and a vile, twisted joke at worst. Not only were they mostly useless bystanders, they often actively worsened warzones by being vectors of AIDS (and more recently, Cholera) who served as the primary market for child-prostitution, and who would on occasion prefer not to pay for sex with children and just rape them instead with complete impunity.
It was also apparent that the third-world kleptocracies which by then formed the plurality in the general assembly considered the UN’s purpose to mainly be converting the proceeds implied by the klepto- prefix into Manhattan addresses and diplomatic immunity for assorted family & hangers-on of the kleptocrats, who bonded with each other over the shared enthusiasms of feigned anti-Americanism (Manhattan addresses, ahem) and alarmingly real anti-Semitism.
So, what’s more likely? A) Lucas looking at the American government, recently triumphant over its multi-generational great enemy, and foreseeing decrepitude that would not even begin to manifest for several years, or B) Lucas taking a cold-eyed look at the current reality of the United Nations, which much of his industry was then apotheosizing? Occam’s razor suggests B.
Second: Organizational Structure
As clunky as the political exposition in the prequels is, Lucas at least spared us a literal reading of the organizing articles of the Galactic Republic. Thus, we only have a handful of examples and offhand statements from which to extrapolate its formal structure (Note: I will adhere to the JVL Rule whereby only the content of the movies themselves qualifies as canon, unless modified by definitive public statements by Lucas himself).
Practically all identifiable structural features of the Galactic Republic resemble those of the UN more than they do the US:
- We know the Republic historically lacks a standing army, as creating one in defiance of a thousand years of tradition is central to the plot of AOTC (Point: UN).
- Individual member systems do possess independent military forces, sometimes sufficient to dominate others, which the Republic proper possesses few means to counteract (Point: UN).
- The organization is so incapable of monitoring members that massive weapons programs can be illegally organized without the Senate’s knowledge (Point: UN….well, mostly)
- The information-gathering capability is so meager that establishing an “investigation” of blatant acts of war (blockade, invasion) is accepted as providing plausible deniability to parties who wish that no counter-action be taken (Point: UN)
- The senators we see appear to operate much more like ambassadors than independent legislators. While Naboo’s government is democratic, with an elected, termed monarch, their senators are appointed by the monarch rather than elected by populace at large. They are furthermore expected to answer to and advise the monarch as members of the court when present on Naboo (Point: UN).
- The Republic has an influential, permanent bureaucracy over which neither the Senate nor the ostensible executive have any effective control (Point: … eeeeesh let’s call it a tie).
- While it’s not clear what exactly the bureaucracy does (Point: Universal Truth), the Republic does not appear to have anything that could properly be called executive function. The chancellor and Senate seem to operate along the lines of a parliamentary system, except without ministries whose heads would be called a government (point: UN). The Jedi, whose constitutional place is murky (see Part 2) and over whom the chancellor has no direct authority, accomplish some functions that would normally be classified as executive (point: neither).
- The only thing we learn about the court system is that it is so preposterously useless that the suggestion of resorting to it for dispute resolution is reacted to with horror and immediately rejected (point: UN).
Additionally, while Naboo is presented as having a democratic government, there is every indication that is an exotic exception rather than the rule for systems in the Republic. That Senator Bail Organa’s adopted daughter bears the title “Princess” implies hereditary aristocracy ruling Alderaan. The Trade Federation possesses senators of their own and shows no signs of democratic form. Dooku’s title of “Count” likewise implies non-democratic government on Geonosis, which could only be called “separatist“ if it had previously been a non-rebellious member of the Republic. Naboo’s governor protests his treatment by the Trade Federation with, “We’re a democracy!” which is only meaningful if it implies a contrast to other systems.
Furthemore, even Naboo is not quite as democratic as it protests. While above-water Naboo operates a elective monarchy, the Senate seems content to treat senators appointed by this monarch as speaking for the whole planet, effectively disenfranchising the Gungan population. They have to settle for a parade and a glowing orb, at least until Padme displays her bottomless contempt for the Republic by appointing as her surrogate in the Senate a certain someone whose suitability for that body compares unfavorably to Caligula’s horse.
Third: The Oil-for-Food Program
I omitted a special case of 1990s UN shenanigans above because it also shares enough features with the central plot of TPM that one suspects it was actually what inspired Lucas: the Iraqi embargo and related “Oil-For-Food” program administered by the UN.
For the benefit of millennials unaware of this ancient history, one of the conditions imposed by the cease-fire that ended the 1991 Gulf War was an embargo on Iraqi oil exports until such time as UN inspectors had certified Iraq’s compliance with the disarmament provisions. The Iraqi regime remained infamously noncompliant for the remainder of its existence, and so the embargo remained. By 1995 however Iraq had convinced the world, with statistics recently shown to be completely fraudulent, that the embargo was causing a humanitarian catastrophe, principally a huge increase in child mortality (in what must be considered a contender for the GOAT of evil chutzpah, the Iraqi government included among the fictitious deaths of children attributed to sanctions the anachronistic but distinctly non-fictitious ones of Kurdish children more rightly attributable to the regime’s poison gassing). In response the UN, largely on the initiative of the US, established a program whereby Iraq could sell oil onto the world market, collect the proceeds in a UN-administered account, and then spend the funds on certain qualified humanitarian items.
This program solved a lot of problems for a lot of people. The world wanted the oil. The Iraqi government wanted the money. Numerous countries no longer wanted to enforce the sanctions but did want to pretend otherwise. Countries that still wished to enforce the sanctions did not wish to be blamed for the deaths of tens of thousands of children per year. Of course, absolutely everyone wanted to pretend to be a humanitarian, and who could possibly be opposed to “Oil-for-Food?”
There was an additional problem it solved for the UN. Several years previously, Congress had concluded the UN was, in addition to being generally corrupt and useless, principally concerned with constraining the sovereignty of the United States while jealously guarding the sovereignty of tinpot third-world autocrats, and so ceased contributing the US’s membership dues. These dues had previously accounted for a substantial portion of the UN’s operating budget, and thus the UN institutionally had a pre-existing need for a new revenue source (ideally one independent of the domestic politics of any great power). As administrator of the Oil-for-Food program, the UN would naturally be entirely justified in collecting administrative fees out of the revenue. Boom, done.
In operation, the Oil-for-Food program was spectacularly corrupt. As it turned out, the entity most opposed to the program as originally envisioned was none other than the Iraqi government, whose sticking point was a demand to have sole control over choosing to whom to sell the oil (sovereignty, natch). This demand was granted, which let the Iraqis immediately turn the program into a world-wide web of bribes, kickbacks, and graft spanning globe from the West Bank to the Left Bank to offshore banks to, allegedly, the Russian Orthodox Church. While the corruption of the program was well-known beforehand, it was only after the 2003 invasion of Iraq produced enough public documentary evidence to that effect that the UN was finally embarrassed into conducting an investigation. Unsurprisingly, in this web of corruption was none other than the head of the program, Benon Sevan, who was ultimately indicted for bribery and wire fraud. The trail stops at “indicted” however, because Mr. Sevan fled to his native Cyprus on the eve of the UN’s report’s release, where he remains to this day as a fugitive from justice. The full extent of the corruption has never been authoritatively determined, nor is it ever likely to be.
While not in any way a 1-to-1 mapping, the conceptual similarities to the plot of TPM are quite striking. In TPM we observe 1) a planetary embargo that 2) is depicted as causing great hardship, which 3) becomes an irresolvable diplomatic impasse as a result of boundless cynicism at the Galactic level, and is 4) a source of corruption, which (in Palpatine’s telling) is both wide-ranging and infects the Galactic Republic’s own bureaucracy. The only reason to doubt the Iraqi situation as inspiration for Lucas is back to chronology — doing so would have required him to be paying quite close attention to current events and suspecting a number of things that, while reasonable to suspect, were only later definitively revealed.
With so many similarities, the analogy of the Galactic Republic to the United Nations rather than the United States is quite clear. The Star Wars prequels have a special focus, though. The parliamentary maneuvering and politicking is in the background. The foreground and personal drama is centered on catastrophically failed peacekeeping, first at small scale, then at galactic scale. For all the structural deficiencies and corruption of the UN, the most damning of its failures are where the rubber hits the road: Peacekeeping. The failures of the peacekeepers represent the United Nations failing at its core mission.
In Star Wars, the central actors proudly style themselves “keepers of the peace.” They likewise comprehensibly fail at this task, and their failure is the failure of the Republic. They are the Jedi, the subject of part 2.