When it comes to science-fiction and fantasy media, the narratives and metaphors that they contain are often direct commentaries on our own society – Star Wars is no exception. The franchise has always been about politics and its prequel trilogy, specifically, was George Lucas’ attempt to draw attention to American hegemony on the international stage and what he felt were the warning signs of a democratic republic turning into an authoritarian empire (both internally and internationally). The very foundations of this trilogy include disputes of trade routes and taxation, blockades, ineffective international forums, democracy, corporate greed, militarism, corruption, fascism, slavery, and much more. Moreover, while many aspects within the movie trilogy have focused more on acting as a lens for Bush-era politics, I hope to focus on some of the parallels I have noticed between the international politics of the prequel trilogy and our own international rules-based system. That is, the decline of the Western rules-based system, hypocrisy on the international stage, and the lack of diplomacy.
In the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the Republic, embodying the values we find in our own international system, is in decline, in great part due to its own actions, and through a lack of diplomatic relations, negotiations, and compromise. In Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the Jedi were sent by the Chancellor of the Republic to negotiate with the Trade Federation and put an end to the blockade of Naboo. The Jedi were not given the chance to speak; instead, they were met with an assassination attempt. As Obi-Wan Kenobi accurately sums up, “You were right about one thing, Master. The negotiations were short.” In Episode II, while the audience is informed of the Separatist threat and an upcoming vote by the Senate on declaring war, the only form of negotiation that occurs between the Separatists and the Republic (apart from aggressive negotiations involving weapons, including lightsabers) is with a Sith Lord who is helping to start the war in the first place. Episode III is more concerned with the end of the Clone Wars and the collapse of the Republic as it transforms into the Empire. Even The Clone Wars (TCW), which focuses on these themes in greater depth, almost never directly addresses the issues that created the war in the first place nor does it spend much time on trying to find a more peaceful resolution to the conflict. The Separatists, for the most part, are simply villainous agents of Darth Sidious who only cause destruction.
However, what I find telling is that the Separatists as a group are twofold, illustrating what I feel is an important reflection of our own international system. As depicted by the movies and TCW, they are led by the Sith, composed of droid armies and sadistic leaders, and constantly commit atrocities and crimes against humanity. However, they are also a legitimate political movement – the Confederacy of Independent Systems. The reason that the Separatists exist in-universe is because a coalition of planets felt that the Republic was failing by not upholding the standards it espoused and by ignoring the legitimate concerns of less-connected planets. Namely, it is a breakdown of the rules-based international order that leads to the Separatists forming in the first place, and the Republic’s immediate response is the threat of war, with absolutely no dialogue, negotiations, diplomatic envoys, and understanding of what led to this schism in the first place.
The Republic as an entity was fractured, broken, unequal, and repressive long before Palpatine ever set his machinations into play. In fact, the Senate only seems to muster unity in matters of pushing for war and profiting from exploitation, with only a few dissenting voices. As Qui-Gon Jinn puts it in Episode I, “they didn’t come to Tatooine to free slaves”. The Jedi are agents of the Republic first and foremost; their role as peacekeepers is hindered by the constraints of a galactic governing body that ignores and oppresses swathes of its people. Moreover, even when Separatists who have legitimate grievances with this broken system are humanized, as shown in TCW episode “Heroes on Both Sides,” it is short-lived. Only Senator Padmé Amidala thinks to extend the hand of diplomacy in the hopes of creating a cease-fire and putting an end to this destructive war, which is nevertheless undermined by Count Dooku and Chancellor Palpatine. Padmé herself still believes too much in the Republic, and cannot fully grasp her old friend’s perspective on the broken system.
Here, we see echoes of Western hypocrisy, which promote “universal values” and advocate for an international system based on them, while constantly undermining them. Much like the Galactic Republic, which allows its own planets and people to suffer while promoting its own, often capitalist interests – yet reacts with war when those seeking a better situation decide to secede. The United States has weaponized the use of sanctions as a way to force other states to comply with its foreign policy views and objectives for years. The U.S and its allies, including Canada, have condemned invasions by other states, yet have turned around and done the very same. As Rajan Menon writes, “Universal human rights, of course, occupy a prominent place in Washington’s narratives about that rules-based world order it so regularly promotes but in practice frequently ignores, notably in this century in the Middle East.”
In the case of Star Wars, this legitimate political stance was undermined by Sith machinations from the beginning. The Clone Wars was orchestrated deliberately to bring about the downfall of the Jedi Order, and allow Chancellor Palpatine to forge an empire. The non-Sith Separatists are being used and manipulated and lied to. Those who legitimately wanted change and improved circumstances, who were never offered proper dialogue by the Republic, likely cannot be considered to be fighting a legitimate war.
Yet unlike the fictional world of Star Wars, there is no single Sith puppet-master deliberately causing war and destruction in our international system. What many have termed a decline and a breakdown of this international rules-based system is of our own making, undermined by states that oppose this system, but also by states who helped build it in the first place.
It matters when states, especially Western states that espouse support for the international system, have a rhetoric-reality gap that has widened to its current state. It matters that the legacy of Western imperialism and colonialism is still present and that its effects remain today. When these states use unilateral economic sanctions as a weapon and a foreign policy tool; when invasions are committed under the veneer of preventing threats to international security and crimes against humanity; when Canada espouses a feminist foreign policy yet still sells arms to Saudi Arabia; and when the West uses sensationalized rhetoric against states that commit human rights atrocities while ignoring their own atrocities, then that international system is undermined even further. And when that system is continually undermined, more states and more people suffer.
Rather than attempting to change it so that it can benefit more states, rather than opening dialogue toward non-Western states who would perhaps choose different alliances and foreign policies if there were other options available, it seems Western states continue to break and undermine its own rhetoric with conflicting actions. Issues such as human rights, or projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, or the logistics of where states receive their energy, only worsen when there is no real dialogue or an attempt at diplomatic relations.
There is, of course, so much more complexity to both Star Wars and our own international system. Negotiation and diplomacy can only go so far when we consider that the other side is willing to break their word and continue committing atrocities. Force can often only be met with force. There are also cases where interventions for humanitarian reasons are needed – the solution is not to simply ignore atrocities. In many situations, the decision of a state as an entity in the Realist perspective does not account for the perspectives of its people, which creates a dilemma of respecting these people while still taking the state’s actions at face value.
Perhaps recent crises will allow states within the international system to rally, to understand the importance of diplomacy, fair negotiations, unity in the face of atrocities, and the need for cooperation. Perhaps there are ways to fix and change the breakdown in multilateralism, respect, and cooperation in the world system. I do not believe that all hope is lost. Nevertheless, the Star Wars prequels give us food for thought, and show us what could potentially happen if we disregard genuine diplomacy and rely solely on hypocrisy, intimidation, use of military force, and targeted measures that only seem to do more harm than good.
Safia Hafid (she/her) is a first-year MA candidate in International Affairs with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, specializing in diplomacy and foreign policy. She graduated with a BA from Bishop’s University, completing an Honours in International Studies and a Minor in Creative Writing and Journalism. Working as a research assistant at Carleton University, her research interests centre on American Foreign Policy, human rights, and the politics of representation in popular culture.