Note: the following article is based on the TV adaptation of The Expanse, not the books, which I have every intention of reading in the future.
Although I only recently discovered it, The Expanse has quickly become an obsession of mine. It’s refreshing to see a mature, slick sci-fi TV show that’s inherently anchored to realpolitik and real science (sorry you’ll have to go elsewhere for an analysis of that – I’m not qualified). With so many worthwhile IR-related subjects featured in the show, including nuclear proliferation, rebellion and insurgency, and military strategy, I’m sure that I’ll return to The Expanse for future posts.
For this first analysis though, I want to look at the show’s exploration of supranationalism – the transcendence of political power above national governments. The Expanse takes place two hundred years into the future, where technology has enabled humans to spread out and colonise the Solar System. At the same time, resources have become scarcer, leading to conflict between Earth and the various colonies. Earth itself is now governed by the United Nations.
At first, the notion of Earth being ruled by the UN might seem far-fetched. In 2017, there is a strong push against supranationalism. Trump has declared a policy of ‘America First’, signalling a troubling move towards isolationism. Meanwhile, the UK is preparing for a hard Brexit and the EU struggles to maintain support in the face of panic over migration and economic austerity.
The UN itself is often seen as weak and ineffectual, divided by the competing national interests of its members (yes, I am a realist). The UN of The Expanse universe is unrecognisable from this current form. Instead, it is a powerful intergalactic organisation with bases throughout the Solar System, a powerful military and a ruthless approach to rebellion and unrest. Although the show doesn’t fall into the ‘Phantom Menace trap‘ of lengthy exposition describing the inner workings of the UN (or the taxation of trade routes), it’s clear that the future organisation isn’t exactly democratic. There’s no mention of elections and power seems to be concentrated in an elite group of public servants and military officials.
What’s more, the UN has developed a penchant for crushing rebellion and gathering intelligence through torture methods that wouldn’t be out of place in Guantanamo Bay. It also has a checkered history of killing defenceless ‘Belters’ (marginalised working class inhabitants of the asteroid belt) when they protest their poor treatment. But does this representation of an empowered and dominant supranational UN accurately project what the organisation could one day become?
In a world in which colonisation of the Solar System is possible and a much greater variety of threats exists, it doesn’t make sense for Earth to be divided by nation states that cannot fully exploit the technological advancements that have occurred. It also serves as an effective narrative technique that allows the story to focus on the decisions of the UN leadership, and their wide-reaching consequences, without getting bogged down in Earth’s internal politics.
On closer examination though, the UN of The Expanse is actually based on more conventional concepts of international relations than it seems. Although Earth is governed by an empowered, supranational UN there is still a significant opponent in the form of Mars. A former colony of Earth, the Congressional Republic of Mars has now become a powerful, independent military power, which competes with Earth for power and influence in the Solar System, risking a wide-scale space war that could destabilise the entire Solar System. Sound familiar?
Although the tension between Earth and Mars takes place on a wider scale, it in fact mirrors a bipolar power struggle in the tradition of US-Soviet Union competition during the Cold War. Earth and Mars may command unprecedented swathes of territory compared to the nation states of today but they still behave as conventional sovereign states, controlling territory and resources, commanding military forces and protecting their ‘national’ interests.
In this way, The Expanse is in fact saying much more about the continuation of the Westphalian state system than supranationalism, albeit on an expanded scale in which entire planets are now sovereign states. The UN may be depicted as a powerful supranational organisation but its characteristics are almost identical to those of a sovereign state, demonstrating that regardless of how far humanity has expanded, the traditional power structures of the international system still exist.
It’s hard to believe that in just 200 years humanity will have colonised the Solar System to the extent that’s portrayed in The Expanse, but the show says something much more fundamental about the international system that seems remarkably prescient. Regardless of how far humanity reaches and how advanced technology becomes we will still be subject to traditional notions of state sovereignty. States may take on new forms but they will ultimately behave in similar ways to how they do today.
This vision of the future fits well with the current trend of states reasserting sovereignty in response to the erosion of physical borders by technological advancement and economic interdependence. The world 200 years from now will probably look very different to the one portrayed in The Expanse but it’s hard to imagine that the Westphalian state system will no longer exist in some form.
Even if we have managed to colonise the Solar System it’s likely that states will compete to exert power and further their interests, just on a scale that spans planets, moons and asteroids. It’s this recognition of state sovereignty as a fundamental pillar of international (or intergalactic) relations that makes The Expanse such a realistic vision of the future, and an excellent simulation of international relations.