I just returned from the midnight showing of Into Darkness, the newest in the Star Trek reboot, so if you don’t want spoilers, don’t read on.
A central question in Into Darkness is whether Starfleet can continue to exist as a fundamentally pacifist organization. The opening scene shows Kirk acting out one answer: pacifist, yes; non-interventionist, no, not without significant avoidable loss of life. This version of the Star Trek universe allows characters to grapple with the same moral paradox that the Prime Directive has always inspired: is it moral to allow other civilizations, other beings, to die rather than intervene in their development?
Different episodes and writers and captains have handled this question differently, and this Kirk proved he was willing to intervene and allow a burgeoning civilization to become aware of advanced technology to protect his crew. (Spock was, expectedly, horrified by Kirk’s disrespect for the central tenet of Starfleet). So when can a technologically advanced society intervene in a growing one, when can they do so to prevent harm, when can they cause harm or allow harm to be caused in service of another, higher goal?
Another version of this questions comes in for the second two-thirds of the movie: how far in advance can a pacifist organization intervene to avoid harm before it becomes non-pacifist to do so? The Admiral who seeks to pick a war with the Klingons sees himself as preemptively striking to avoid more Starfleet casualties and within the morality of the movie, he is wrong to do so. There is a bright line for the people of Starfleet, and that is at ending life. When Spock uses Khan’s crew to demoralize and destroy him and the ship he had commandeered, he preserves their lives. When Spock freezes the alien race’s volcano, it is to preserve life.
In the mostly theoretical discussions of whether the United Nations should have a standing army, currently a question for high school debates and shrill alarmist think tanks, this question of whether a fundamentally pacifist organization is best served by containing within itself a military component. The UN Blue Hats, as they are all too often mockingly called by those who overestimate and also fear their power, are peacekeepers by charter, not war-fighters or even conflict-enders. What would it mean for them to exist as a separate, well-armed, military force?
The United Nations is not a perfect cypher for Starfleet. Starfleet has a primarily scientific mission, while the United Nations covers everything from development to political guidance to food distribution to peacekeeping. Starfleet uses military hierarchy, training, and ranks, while the United Nations is more like a government and government bureaucracy. And Starfleet certainly has better funding than the United Nations.
Given these, the parallels are still instructive. Both are pacifist, both bring warring peoples together and create a template of shared values, both are working to advance society. So while it may feel more efficient for the United Nations to contain within itself a standing army, while that could lead to a decrease in scandals and regularization of training, it would so undermine the United Nation’s moral authority as to be destructive in the long-run.
Peacekeeping is not war-fighting or conflict-ending, but is designed to hold true to that bright line in the moral universe of Into Darkness: the preservation of life.
“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”–Winston Churchill