There has been a significant movement towards nationalism and protectionism across the globe. The most notable examples would be the U.S. presidential election of Donald Trump and the British vote to leave the European Union. While there is much debate about the policies associated with nationalism and protectionism, the philosophy comes down to world leaders wanting the best for their country.
First contact with aliens would at first blush appear to be a threat to nationalism and protectionism. Certainly from a military perspective it could be so- if the aliens have hostile intentions. But if an extraterrestrial civilization offers a non-threatening introduction that perspective could be very different for world leaders, especially where it concerns the United Nations. The UN has long been a flash-point when it comes to supporters of nationalism and protectionism. The UN is often viewed as a threat to national sovereignty. But in a Direct First Contact situation, one where the aliens come to our solar system to say hello, the United Nations could be a necessary tool for world leaders.
Much of the debate would be decided by the aliens themselves. If they extend their welcome to one nation or a specific group of nations, that would have to be respected. Other nations could argue their point, but ultimately it’s up to the aliens to decide who they want to communicate with. The same is true if the aliens want to deal with all nations. Individual countries could grumble about it and even try to gain advantage behind the scenes. But if the aliens are not interested in dealing with individual nations, this would quickly prove to be a fruitless endeavor. More so, it could risk an individual nation’s relationship with aliens and the rest of the world. This could prove to be a big problem for aggressive nations who are intent on making their own deal. They may very well get left out of the international deal-making.
The countries most likely to seek control of First Contact would be the United States, Russia and China. Why? They have much at stake with large economies and a preference for asserting influence in global affairs. All three are members of the UN Security Council- likely to be the first UN body to consider alien contact. The question is how the use of their influence would be most effective – alone or in the UN Security Council? Taking a separate path could be dangerous, as it could cause the straying country to be less influential in the United Nations. It would seem prudent for world leaders to consider this- the United Nations may be their most effective way of exerting influence on the process. This is true for the Security Council nations, especially the P5 permanent serving nations of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Other nations would also be advised to exert their influence through the United Nations. To go it alone would be foolhardy. If the aliens want to deal with individual nations they will. If they want to deal with everyone, the United Nations would be the best alternative for individual countries.
The problem is what the United Nations represents for nationalists- the threat of an extra-governmental agency running the show. There is already a fear of the United Nations turning into a world government. First Contact would likely increase that fear. However, in the specific case of alien First Contact the United Nations could be viewed as a valuable tool- a conduit of sorts for contact. The major nations exert much influence over the United Nations currently and would continue to do so in a First Contact scenario. Less powerful nations would have their only opportunity to be involved in the decision making process through the United Nations. Does this mean that the United Nations should gain more control over international affairs? That would depend on how the arrangement is put together. In a conduit scenario the UN would be a process body. And much of First Contact would be about process.
Nations could decide how the UN should structure response to First Contact and the framework for a global relationship with aliens. Strong involvement from the General Assembly in the decision-making process could ensure national control. It also means a great deal of responsibility for nations to work together and make decisions with alacrity. Hesitance and in-fighting could make a General Assembly controlled First Contact strategy untenable. Nations can control how much of the process is decided by United Nations bureaucracy. There will have to be some level of action and decision-making in the United Nations. The framework for the process will be an important point for General Assembly consideration. It comes down to this: if the General Assembly can be effective in decision-making countries will retain control. If they fail, the bureaucrats in the UN will have to lead the way.
That means it is critical that American, Russian and Chinese UN ambassadors work together to solidify support for actions in the General Assembly. This is the type of superpower leadership that will be necessary in the wake of First Contact. Those ambassadors can be extremely important in the process, but only if they have the complete backing of their bosses. And First Contact would not be a time to play games. If a national leader chooses to “go rogue” in public statements and push for something else behind the scenes they could find their national influence undermined. Any sign of gamesmanship would send a signal to other nations that the process cannot be trusted.
So, how should the United States, China and Russia present themselves in a First Contact situation? It depends on what the aliens want in the First Contact process. If the aliens want to deal with the entire planet it would seem best for the big three, and the rest of the UN Security Council members, to act as strong leaders within the context of the UN. It seems likely that the nations who figure this out quickly, and set forth a UN-based strategy will fare better in the post- First Contact world. It’s one situation in which going it alone could be a very, very bad idea.
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