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The Galactic Empire: Lessons in Geopolitics from a "Galaxy Far, Far Away"

JURIST Guest Columnist Roy Lee discusses the applications of principles from the Star Wars film series to contemporary issues in international relations...

In the ever-popular Star Wars series, the Jedi and the Rebel Alliance are pitted against the Sith and the Galactic Empire, a dictatorship based on "tyranny, xenophobic hatred of non-humans, power projection through brutal and lethal force, and above all else, constant fear," pretending to be the good guys half the time.

We intuitively recognize the Rebel Alliance as the good guys and root for them against the Galactic Empire. In the battle between good and evil, most of us would choose good any day, any time.

Sadly, in the conduct of international relations between democratic states in the 'the West' or the Western Alliance and the not-so-democratic states in the rest of the world, the governments that purport to represent us appear to choose evil much of the time.

Our governments support and arm dictators until they cease to be convenient, then we overthrow them (e.g. Saddam Hussein ). Our governments support democracy and democratic elections until it throws up a party that stands against our short-term interests (Hamas in the Palestinian Occupied Territories ). In living memory, our governments provided lists of suspected Communists to an Indonesian dictatorship known to 'disappear' and execute suspected communists without due process. Our governments sell arms to dodgy regimes known to intentionally or recklessly inflict civilian deaths and genocide in armed conflict or foreign occupation (currently Saudi Arabia in Yemen, most recently a reported $100B of arms sales (US); and UK arms sales during the Indonesian occupation of and genocide in East Timor). Our governments license millions of pounds worth of arms sales to Turkey in the midst of a purge of 150,000 civil servants, academics, judges, police and military personnel, most without due process and the arrest of another 50,000 people on the pretext of an attempted coup. No blinking now, even after Erdogan has engineered a referendum to make himself the new Sultan of Turkey.

Our governments support and turn a blind eye to regimes that massacre their own citizens or boil them alive because it is in our short-term military and strategic interests to do so (Uzbekistan). For decades our governments have been actively encouraging our corporations (through Bilateral Investment Agreements, trade deals, trade and investment delegations) to invest and reap profits in pseudo-democracies like Russia and China and definitely-not-democracies like Gaddafi's Libya (including intelligence cooperation and handing over known dissidents ), knowing full well that their citizens face repression and oppression, arbitrary detention, torture and often extra-judicial execution. We now reap the fruits of those policies. All three countries pose strategic and military threats to the West (in the case of Russia, what may be a rebirth of the Cold War).

What is wrong with investing in countries like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand? Strong, stable democracies that by and large respect human rights. Profits there do not yield enough to keep our shareholders, investors and pension funds sated: no easy money to be gained in those countries. Far more money to be gained in investing in the Wild, Wild East, where weak governance keeps labor and environmental standards and wages, in check, and deals can be done with the elite at the expense of the masses.

Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, embodies this best, recently stating that US values are one thing, and its foreign policy another. This was apparently greeted with howls of dismay from State Department officials and many US commentators, but is really nothing new: he simply stated what is at the heart of many Western countries' foreign policies. Whilst we may insist on democratic values, free and fair and elections and basic human rights for ourselves, we selectively choose which countries and which peoples are entitled to the same, depending on convenience, our perceived realpolitik and strategic needs. In 2004, Anna Politkovskaya wrote Putin's Russia documenting war crimes, child rapes and murders committed with impunity by senior Russian army officers in Chechnya, and numerous other abuses committed by state agents in Russia. In 2013, nine years after the book was published, the amount of foreign direct investment into Russia had more than quadrupled, much of it originating from EU member states. Sadly, Ms. Politkovskaya was not around in 2014 to chastise Russia for intervening in the Crimea to separate the region from the Ukraine. She was assassinated in a contract killing ordered by persons unknown two years after she wrote the book. On Putin's birthday.

These days, I watch with trepidation and a sinking heart moves to hold corporates responsible for human rights breaches. The same trepidation I had in my heart when more than 20 years ago, after writing a mini-book on perestroika and the numerous ills of the Soviet Union, I read all about Western corporations and Western government-led trade delegations rushing to invest in Russia and China, without insisting on any systemic or grassroots changes to establish or strengthen democracy and the rule of law. Any Western aid provided to reform democratic institutions and mechanisms must have failed dismally as in 2013, Russia and China sat at 132nd and 144th place respectively out of 167 countries worldwide in the Democracy Index.

Corporate liability for human rights breaches in the Wild, Wild East will keep an army of corporate lawyers, academics, investigators, insurance assessors and public relations advisers employed and busy for decades to come. But what makes people think they can regulate corporate actions taken in far-flung countries where the rule of law is weak, corruption endemic and institutions and witnesses easily corruptible, when countries in the West can barely regulate corporate actions taken in their own jurisdictions (e.g. banking crisis and subprime securities, 2009)?

And how would holding corporations liable for their actions (or those of their subsidiaries) improve governance in those countries where individuals are purged, imprisoned, tortured or killed by police or State agents for trying to hold their government accountable or simply having and expressing an opinion different from their government's? Here's an uncomfortable home truth: every dollar or pound of foreign direct investment into a repressive country is a dollar of investment in repression and oppression, in the torture and imprisonment of those whose only crime is to exercise their universally recognized human rights, or to be on the wrong side of power. Corporate responsibility for corporate human rights breaches is a fig leaf to lend respectability to funding torture and oppression in despotic countries. The Emperor is naked. Giving him two silk threads to drape around his waist might assuage your conscience, but it sure ain't going to cover him up.

Who is the Emperor? In the good old days this was easy: He was the Soviet Union, Communism and sometimes Iran and North Korea, forming the Axis of Evil. These days, Iran and North Korea are still around, but the Soviet Empire and Communism is no more. You have to look a bit harder. But you can still figure it out. The Emperor is the one who oppresses his people, demonizes minorities, stifles dissent, rigs elections and referenda, imprisons, tortures and 'disappears' dissidents and human rights lawyers and bombs civilians. The Emperor despises, neuters and dismantles democratic institutions such as a free and independent media, an independent judiciary, and NGOs that do not toe the party line. The Emperor sacrifices the common good (such as preventing human-induced climate change) at the altar of personal revenge or political gain.

These days there are reputable international standards, indices and reports that you can use to finger the Emperors and their Galactic Empires. If experts from governments and international NGOs advocating for democracy and human rights got together, I am sure they could come up with universal standards to determine the countries in or to which investments and arms sales should be forbidden (or at least not encouraged). Off-hand, apart from the usual suspects, Iran and North Korea, I would venture that the Galactic Empires are currently Xi's China, Putin's Russia, Erdogan's Turkey, Sisi's Egypt, the King's Saudi Arabia, Duterte's Philippines, and lately, Trump's America, to name but a few.

How should we in the Rebel Alliance oppose these Galactic Empires? Human rights lawyers and publishers (not to mention dissidents) are disappearing, abused and tortured with impunity in China. Sanctions against China, anyone? Once we had courage, and roundly sanctioned South Africa for its apartheid regime. Now we have consumer electronics and only impose sanctions that don't interfere with the supply chain.

Will we all eventually sing One Belt, One Road (and One Whip), in a Mandarin falsetto? Certainly, I haven't heard many lawyers speak up against OBOR (think of the billions that will flow into law firms from international arbitration, bilateral investment agreements, and trade agreements). Even the proud and snooty EU, champion of democracy and human rights, appears to have omitted any mention of human rights when explaining why it would not endorse China's OBOR. It's as if human rights dropped off a cliff entirely in the face of China's colossal trade surpluses and bank balance. One almost longs for the days of the Soviet Union: we were morally superior because we respected human rights and they did not. Back then we knew who was the Rebel Alliance and who the Galactic Empire; these days I can hardly tell the difference.

There is a form of willful blindness in constantly cracking down on so-called tax havens, money laundering and corporations that breach human rights abroad. These are all ways of averting our eyes from the elephant in the room. The elephant in the room is that countries in the Wild Wild East (and quite often the Wondrous, Wondrous West) need to strengthen their governance systems, enact good laws and enforce these laws properly. Yet we in the West frequently choose to turn a blind eye to appalling governance, corruption at the highest levels of government, and widespread and well-known abuses of human rights, in the Wild Wild East. When it suits us. In fact we frequently reward it by encouraging our corporations to invest billions in these countries. The more corrupt, the higher the profit margins. Put a peg on your nose and invest, is the general mantra.

Can you imagine the Rebel Alliance striking a deal with the Galactic Empire? "We will sell you arms, sign a bilateral investment agreement with you, and encourage our corporations to invest in you, as long as you oppress and attack other settlements and your citizens, but not us." Sounds like the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between Russia and Germany in the Second World War, and we all know how that went.

UK Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn (the trans-Atlantic equivalent of Bernie Sanders) is right to state that the UK has rubbish foreign policy. I concur and would go one step further. The answer is not simply to leave the Wild, Wild East to sort itself out. It is a principled foreign policy: to forbid or discourage investments, arms sales and non-essential aid to countries that do not meet universally accepted standards of democracy and human rights; to take concrete and well-resourced steps (short of armed intervention or interfering with elections) to foster strong, stable human-rights respecting democratic neighbors all over the word, to make for a safer world. Terrorism festers in and emanates from troubled unstable countries, in oppressive places ruled by naked Emperors, and in Galactic Empires (with no real outlets for democratic expression) often fueled by Western military and other aid. Ponder that fact, and review our policies on trade, investment, aid and arms sales for despotic countries.

In the language of social media: "This is Luke Skywalker. Be like Luke. Don't be like Darth Vader. Or worse, Jabba the Hutt."

Roy Lee is a legislative drafter and lawyer in Guernsey, Channel Islands. He lectures and writes on upgrading Democracy based on his experience in various countries ranging from Afghanistan to New Zealand. Feedback welcome at scrivener2017@gmail.com

Suggested citation:Roy Lee, The Galactic Empire: Lessons in Geopolitics from a "Galaxy Far, Far Away", JURIST — Professional Commentary, June 19, 2017, http://jurist.org/hotline/2017/06/Roy-Lee--Galactic-Empire.php.



This article was prepared for publication by Sean Merritt, an Assistant Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.
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