Daniel W. Drezner

How do you say “realpolitik” in Klingon?

How do you say “realpolitik” in Klingon?

Your humble blogger has been concerned about paranormal threats to the planet Earth for some time now.  Via Glenn Reynolds, I see that Stephen Hawking is also concerned:   

The aliens are out there and Earth had better watch out, at least according to Stephen Hawking. He has suggested that extraterrestrials are almost certain to exist — but that instead of seeking them out, humanity should be doing all it that can to avoid any contact….

He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky”. He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

Hmmm… this is undeniably true, but dare I say that Hawking is being a bit simplistic?  Oh, hell, who am I kidding, I’m a blogger.  Of course I’ll say that Hawking is being simplistic.   

Critics might accuse me of being soft in the Theoretical War Against Aliens, embracing the mushy-headed liberalism of Contact over the hard-headed realpolitik of, say, Independence Day.  And the risk-averse approach suggested by Hawking is certainly a viable policy option.  But let’s dig a bit deeper and consider four five thought-provoking questions from an interplanetary security perspective. 

1)  In space, does anybody understand the security dilemma?  In international relations, there is at least full information about who the other actors are and where they are located.  Clearly, we lack this kind of information about the known universe.   

What Hawking is suggesting, however, is that efforts to collect such information would in and of themselves be dangerous, because they would announce our presence to others.  He might be right.  But shoiuldn’t that risk be weighed against the cost of possessing a less robust early warning system?  Isn’t it in Earth’s interests to enhance its intelligence-gathering activities? 

2)  Carried to its logical extreme, isn’t Hawking making an argument for rapidly exhausting our natural resources?  If Hawking is correct, then the sooner we run out of whatever might be valuable to aliens, the less interest we are to them.  Of course, this does beg the question of which resources aliens would consider to be valuable.  If aliens crave either sea water or bulls**t, then the human race as we know it is seriously screwed. 

3) Why would aliens go after the inhabited planetsCeteris paribus, I’m assuming that aliens would prefer to strip-mine an uninhabited planet abundant with natural resources than an inhabited one.  Three hundred planets have already been discovered in the Milky Way, and there are "likely many billions."  Even rapacious aliens might try some of them first before looking at Earth, since we are mostly harmless

There is a counterargument, of course.  Over at Hit & Run, Tim Cavanaugh tries to assuage fears of aliens by observing, "Why would a race of superintelligent jellyfish or blue whales even take notice of us, let alone want to conquer us?"  This cuts both ways, however.  If those jellyfish fail to notice us but notice our abundant amounts of salinated water, they could decide to come without a care in the world for the bipedal inhabitants of Earth. 

4)  How do we know that some human aren’t already trying to contact aliensStephen Walt and others assume that the presence of aliens would cause humans to form a natural balancing coalition.   I’m not so sure.  My research into other apocalyptic scenarios suggests that some humans — that’s right, I’m looking at you, Switzerland! — would bandwagon with the aliens.  Indeed, for all we know, some humans are already trying to welcome their future alien overlords.  Which begs the question —  wouldn’t Hawking’s isolationist policy allow the quislings to monopolize the galactic message emanating from Earth? 

5)  What about preventive action against the microbials?  Hawking admits that most forms of extreterrestrial life will likely exist as micro-organisms.  Which is swell, except that, if you believe those crazy scientist types, then humans also started off as little microbes.  But if Hawking is correct about the motivations of any alien that would seek out strange new worlds, then we are missing a golden opportunity to wipe out any and (nearly) all extraterrestrial threats at the preventive stage.  Perhapsw we should nuke all these emergent microbial life forms from orbit — it’s the only way to be sure

I look forward to a healthy exchange of diverse viewpoints in the comments — remember, the future of mankind may depend on it.