What if the US Adopted the Prime Directive?

– By J.W. Fox –

No starship may interfere with the normal development of any alien life or society.

-Starfleet General Order 1

Star Trek portrays a utopian future where humanity has overcome many of the flaws in its nature to become an advanced, enlightened, peaceful, and prosperous civilization. Our rise takes place before the events of the original series and are not described in much detail. Basically, we met the Vulcans and realized we needed to get our shit together. The Earth powers became unified and then came paradise.

In the early years of the Federation, mistakes were made but we learned from them, adopting a set of principles that are at the center of what Enterprise’s mission. The first principle, known as the Prime Directive, is the cornerstone of its philosophy. It prohibits Starfleet from interfering in alien cultures or societies. For pre-warp civilizations, starships are prohibited from making contact or allowing the alien race to be aware of their existence. For more advanced civilizations, starship captains can preach and lecture but they cannot act to change an alien civilization’s path.

This is extremely different from the governing philosophy of the United States today. The US and the Western world have blatantly contradicted the Prime Directive for the past five centuries. Whether it is the “White Man’s Burden”, manifest destiny, or the Bush Doctrine, we have felt compelled to bring Western values to the rest of the world. By force, if necessary. Knowledge, reason, and democracy are exported for the good of all.

The US, like all major world powers, has involved itself in the internal affairs of smaller nations in order to affect outcomes in their favor. This is a cornerstone of realpolitik and has been a part of American foreign policy since its founding. In the last seventy years, the US shifted to a much more activist position that involves directly altering a foreign nation’s development. We have helped launch coups and influenced political processes to get the governments that favor our interests. Sometimes covertly, other times with military power.

So here’s a thought experiment: what if the US abandoned its foreign policy tradition and adopted something like the Prime Directive?

To run this thought experiment, we need to understand how the Prime Directive would apply to modern foreign policy. Based on Star Trek episodes and the Directive itself, here are the rules:

  • No taking actions to generally affect a society’s overall development
  • No taking actions which support one faction within a society over another
  • No helping a society escape the negative consequences of its own actions
  • Sharing of Knowledge is permissible with advanced societies but not primitive societies

Obviously, American foreign policy would need to be completely overhauled to adhere to these rules.

First, the US would have to immediately withdraw from Syria, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Libya. Any country that qualifies as a third world country should be treated like a pre-warp society. The world is already aware of our existence so the Prime Directive can’t be strictly obeyed. However, minimal interference would be the next best thing. The Federation does act to defend itself from threats from any alien race but only when there is a major, imminent threat. Terrorism remains a threat to the region but the last decade or so has demonstrated that it lacks the ability to reach us here as it did on September 11th.

The Prime Directive would prohibit nearly all types of preemptive action as well as forcible regime-change.

Second, our security aid to allies like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt would cease. All foreign aid designed to influence foreign politics, including cash to governments and propaganda would also end. No more efforts to manipulate the balance of power in regions that are outside of our sphere of influence, or outside of the Federation boundaries. Especially third world countries. No more regime-change policies in countries like North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela.

Our meddling in the local politics of African, Latin American, and Asian countries would cease immediately. Foreign aid arrangements and covert operations would all be scrutinized and inevitably pulled back. Only humanitarian programs could remain in place with careful restrictions on how it is distributed. The Federation is sensitive to inadvertently empowering one faction over another by providing such aid, or allowing a dictator to collect the aid and distribute only to his allies.

What about our allies? Would we withdraw from their territory and withdraw from our mutual defense treaties? In most cases, no. The Federation enters into alliances with alien races that are their technological equals. The Klingon alliance is an example. Federation itself is an alliance of like-minded races. So, building peaceful coalitions remains a viable policy. However, Federation members enjoy a higher status than external allies like the Klingons. The Federation may involve itself in internal matters of its members consistent with its Charter.

So who would be our Federation partners? Like-minded countries with similar notions of democracy and human rights seem the most “Federation-like.” They would also have to be sufficiently advanced, or developed as we would call it. Our European allies, Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel all fit the bill. Some could argue Israel and Mexico may have some issues with their Federation membership application but let’s include them for now.

Turkey’s descent into autocracy and oppression means they would be removed from NATO and could not be a Federation member. Another blow to our influence in the Middle East.

As for the rest of the world, we would seek peaceful relations and perhaps share some knowledge and goodwill, but we would refrain from the full benefits of Federation membership. Does that mean we only engage in trade with fellow Federation members? Not really. In numerous episodes, Federation members conduct trade with non-Federation powers like the Ferengi and Klingons. Starfleet guarded certain technologies from being shared but the US also guards military and dual-use technologies as well.

To sum up, we would pull out of the Middle East and pull back our presence in Latin America, Central Asia, and Africa. Our sphere of influence would shrink considerably, creating power vacuums. Events in many of these regions would begin charting a new course, one that may benefit or threaten the US and its allies.

What about the Consequences?

We’ll have to speculate a lot on the results of adopting the Prime Directive. No specific predictions can be made with certainty. However, there are a few recent historical cases and some common sense that give us some guidance on a few of the immediate consequences of adopting the Prime Directive. There is a cost to the pulling back and ignoring the utilitarian calculations behind many of our current policies. In other words, no everything the US is doing now is wrong.

We saw some of the consequences of rapid withdrawal in Iraq. The US withdrew somewhat abruptly in 2010 at a moment when Iraqi security forces were not ready to take over. Al Qaida morphed into ISIS and threatened to tear apart the whole region. Our withdrawal from Vietnam did not end well either.

Foreign powers have come to rely on US support and tend to make decisions that assume that support will continue. Very few of them are prepared for a rapid US withdrawal. The vacuum left will inevitably be filled by other powers, many of which are hostile to the US. Russia and China may move in, offering to sell weapons or perhaps intervene on behalf of their new allies. Any democratic movements in the region are sure to be snuffed out.

War could spread without US forces to provide stability. Conflict in Iraq and Syria would heat up as enemies test the weak central governments in the region. The Taliban and ISIS would take their shot at overthrowing the Afghan government as well. Whether they succeed or not is unclear but there is little doubt they would try. An age of instability and violence would follow until the new order adjusted. Iran is sure to become more influential, bullying its vulnerable neighbors. In response, there could be a new Arab alliance to counter Iran, which may see countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel become real allies. There are signs this is happening already.

Withdrawal from our non-Federation allies will also make future coalition-building much more difficult.  We will be seen as a cautious, unreliable partner. At the same time, it could put pressure on them to make important reforms in an effort to become full Federation members. The European Union has an accession process for new members that is similar in principle to the Federation application process. Many Eastern European countries have made significant internal reforms in order to gain full EU membership.

Things in Europe and East Asia would not change much. One notable exception is that we probably would not be as adversarial in our approach to North Korea. Peace would be the objective, not democratization of the North or unification. If the two Koreas wish to unify, they will do it on their own.

Another likely consequence: the risk of nuclear proliferation would necessarily increase without the threat of US military intervention or the threat of force to back sanctions. With decreasing fear of US strikes, Iran and North Korea may become emboldened to develop their nuclear weapons programs. However, there are some who believe that both countries began nuclearization because of the threat of US force. So, there is a chance both countries may reduce or abandon their nuclear arsenals. I would not bet on it though.

More WMDs is a real risk, since the Prime Directive has no exception for preventing an alien race from developing the means of annihilating itself or its neighbors. The Romulan and Klingon Empires were free to build formidable fleets and devastating weapons without Starfleet moving to prevent it. They remained vigilant and steadfast in their defense of the Federation but almost never crossed the neutral zone. The Federation did engage in weapons control among its members and did seek treaties with other races to limit certain types of weapons such as isolytic weapons, banned by the Second Khitomer Accords (Star Trek: Insurrection).

Latin America has been steadily trending towards freedom both politically and economically. If that were to continue a growing number of them could become members of the Federation. It is hard to see most of Africa or the Middle East adopting such reforms. If anything, they have become more theocratic and corrupt. Perhaps the lack of US involvement may help progress grow organically. It seems more likely these regions will remain much less free and prosperous for the foreseeable future. It may take generations.

Gene Roddenberry foresaw a future where all world powers would unite to form his liberal, humanist utopia. All countries would become members of his Federation. Today, that simply isn’t realistic. We should not be surprised that Roddenberry, Kirk, and Picard don’t have the answers. Countless policymakers have been trying to get it right for a long time and still have not discovered the magic formula. At the same time, it is helpful to explore the various philosophies through thought experiments and get a better idea of what the world may look like if we went down a different path. One day we may stumble upon the answer. Fearing change is a guarantee that things will never change.


J.W. Fox is the Editor of Prescientscifi.com and author of two novels: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls under the pen name Jacob Foxx. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works for a small biotech company in Raleigh, North Carolina.