On a Wagon Train to Afghanistan: Limitations on Star Trek's Prime Directive

30 Pages Posted: 20 Feb 2013

See all articles by Richard J. Peltz-Steele

Richard J. Peltz-Steele

University of Massachusetts School of Law at Dartmouth

Date Written: March 21, 2003


The Prime Directive has taken on a life of its own. Born of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's distaste for the Vietnam War, this science fiction rule that technologically advanced humans ought not meddle in the affairs of alien cultures has lent credence to noninterventionist principles in terrestrial affairs, from anthropology to international politics. And those principles have merit, intended as they are to prevent the peculiarly devastating cultural havoc that can result when two worlds meet in unmitigated collision.

But as any Star Trek fan can tell you, there is more, or maybe less, than meets the eye when it comes to the Prime Directive. Star Trek writers seem never to tire of storylines in which violation of the Prime Directive strikes starship captains and Star Trek fans alike as not only attractive but imperative. In many situations, it turns out, the Prime Directive is neither the primary concern nor an inviolable directive.

Part II of this article acquaints the reader with the Star Trek universe, both as a mirror of Western cultural development for the last three and a half decades, and conversely as a force that has had a remarkable impact on contemporary Western culture. This acquaintance provides a foundation to understand how and to what extent the Prime Directive, a product of science fiction, can be useful in understanding future intercultural contacts right here on Earth. Part III of this article reviews specifically the appearance of the Prime Directive in Star Trek lore, for the most part with reference to Star Trek's captains Kirk and Picard. This review analyzes the fictional evolution of the Prime Directive from its straightforward origin as political commandment to its fuzzy, modem complexity as an aspirational principle.

Part IV.A transports the reader back to "the real world" to show how the Prime Directive has operated both before and since the advent of Star Trek, chiefly in international relations, but also in areas ranging from the hard science of space exploration to the thoughtful business of eco-tourism. Synthesizing the lessons learned from fictional starship captains with the practical and real world applications of the Prime Directive, Part IV.B recognizes three important and related principles in understanding and employing the Prime Directive: (1) it is not inviolable, rather its violation is inherent in its nature; (2) it is not a rule of law, rather an aspiration; and (3) it is a product of a Utopian fiction, and as such can never be fully realized on the Earth as we know it. Finally, Part IV.C applies the Prime Directive, understanding these limiting principles, in the context of the present conflict between the West and the Islamic world, concluding that the modem Prime Directive should not and cannot flatly prohibit Western involvement there.

Part V concludes that the proper and modem understanding of the Prime Directive dictates that the value of cultural autonomy must be balanced with the inevitability of cultural interference and transformation. Ultimately all that the Prime Directive can teach is that when two worlds collide, people must work together to preserve the best of both.

Keywords: popular culture, prime directive, non-intervention, Utopia, Afghanistan, international relations, Western culture, science fiction

JEL Classification: K33, N40, N42, N45, Z10

Suggested Citation

Peltz-Steele, Richard J., On a Wagon Train to Afghanistan: Limitations on Star Trek's Prime Directive (March 21, 2003). University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review, Vol. 25, No. 3, 2003, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2220868

Richard J. Peltz-Steele (Contact Author)

University of Massachusetts School of Law at Dartmouth ( email )

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North Dartmouth, MA 02747-1252
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15089851102 (Phone)

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