Basic Concepts

Strategic Priorities

It is a basic truism that all military tactics, strategies, personnel, and equipment are intended to pursue goals which are set at the level of national government. In this regard, they complement civilian factors such as diplomacy, economics, industry, and numerous social policies including criminal justice, human rights, environmentalism, social welfare, and infrastructure. In addition, public attitudes concerning factors such as militarism, racism, nationalism, and even religious beliefs and moral values can play a major (perhaps even decisive) role in determining national policy.

Fixed Priorities

Certain national policy values appear to be near-universal among nation-states on Earth, and presumably nation-states in science fiction as well:

  1. Survival of the nation

  2. Territorial defense

  3. Internal stability

These priorities can be considered fixed priorities, in the sense that nation-states generally do not have the flexibility to disregard or even minimize any of them.

Survival of the Nation

History furnishes no examples of nation-states which went willingly to their own destruction. The prime value in national policy is obviously survival. Even unconditional surrender is generally preferable to annihilation. Imperial Japan surrendered unconditionally to the United States in 1945, and within a few decades the country had not only recovered, it had become a prosperous, modern economic powerhouse. In this case, Emperor Hirohito's decision to surrender actually ensured the survival of Japan.

However, this rule is not universal: ancient Carthage fought literally to the death, because they knew that their Roman enemies intended to show them no mercy. They lost, and the Romans did exactly as expected: they slaughtered almost the entire population, enslaved the handful of survivors, burned the city to the ground, and salted the earth out of spite. As a general rule, if a nation-state believes that it will be annihilated by its enemy, then there is no reason to surrender no matter how bad the situation becomes. So why did the Romans pursue such an absolute strategy? In general, when faced with such a threat, a nation may use one of two approaches: "massive retaliation" and "flexible response".

Massive retaliation is the modern term for the Roman preference, ie- attempting to completely annihilate the enemy. This makes for a very costly campaign by forcing the enemy to fight to the death, but it also has the benefit of deterrence: if a potential enemy knows that a war with Rome might be a fight to the death, they may think twice before starting one.

Flexible response is the modern term for the less extreme strategy of seeking only to inflict enough pain on the enemy to force him to the negotiating table. This approach carries less risk, and it allows wars to be fought with limited means and limited objectives. However, there is a serious problem: risk reduction may actually encourage nations to start wars! One could even argue that the "flexible response" doctrine was responsible for the seemingly endless series of wars between European states throughout the medieval period, because kings and nobles could start wars over trivial matters (even matters of personal pride) and be reasonably assured that the royalty and most of the nobility would survive, even if the wars were lost.

Another problem with flexible response is that it is not a binding resolution: a flexible response conflict might escalate to massive retaliation. Alternatively, one nation may believe it is fighting a flexible response war, only to discover that its enemy has decided upon massive retaliation. These uncertainties can put the survival of the nation at risk, hence, the Roman policy of unrestricted warfare: what appears to be a pointless brutality can also be viewed as a powerful deterrent to other potential enemies: the threat of massive retaliation.

There are those who feel that the deterrent effect of massive retaliation should not apply to science fiction. Phrases like "<insert nation here> would fight to the death because of their warrior culture" or "<insert nation here> would never negotiate because they are fanatics" are common in certain circles. However, there is no reasonable basis whatsoever for such statements. Individual acts of heroism in real-life, such as the infamous last stand at Thermopylae, involved groups of soldiers fighting to the death for the survival of their respective nations, not entire nations willingly accepting destruction. Even fanatically militaristic nations such as the Imperial Japanese or fanatically religious warriors such as the medieval Christian Crusaders were quite capable of compromising their principles if practical concerns forced them to do so. Similarly, the 21st century Al-Qaeda terrorists, whose religious fanaticism is known far and wide, have been known to talk quite readily when threatened with imminent death (in one case, a high-ranking specimen reportedly capitulated after only 35 seconds of water-boarding).

The fact is that even the most fanatical ideology must recognize that its cause, its beliefs, and its customs, no matter how cherished, must all fall by the wayside if survival is threatened, even if it is for no other reason than the fact that those customs and beliefs would not survive the nation's complete destruction any more than its people do. Hence the famous exchange:

"You can't destroy an ideology".

"No, but we can kill everybody who believes in it and burn all their books".

Even if an individual leader was sufficiently deranged to want to sacrifice his entire nation, he would most likely suffer repeated assassination attempts from others in his government until he succumbed. Of course, some might point out the example of Adolf Hitler who never surrendered, and who actually survived multiple assassination attempts, at times exhibiting a streak of good fortune comparable to the cartoon character Bugs Bunny. However, even his fanatical devotion to the Nazi ideology could not stop large groups of German soldiers and civilians in his nation from surrendering to Allied forces on their own, until the nation was completely overrun.

Interestingly enough, the Star Trek episode "A Taste of Armageddon" deals directly with the primacy of the national survival priority. In this episode, the planet Eminiar VII had been continuously at war with the neighbouring planet Vendikar for over 500 years, because both parties had agreed to remove the option of massive retaliation from consideration. The result was centuries of limited warfare with no end in sight, because national survival was no longer at stake for either party. In the episode, Captain Kirk ended the war by forcing an escalation to massive retaliation, at which point both sides' fear of national destruction forced them to declare an immediate ceasefire. As per the episode name, the war could not end until both parties had received "a taste of Armageddon".

Territorial Defense

A nation can scarcely guarantee its own survival if it cannot even protect its own borders. Some nations are naturally blessed in this regard: the United States of America is virtually immune to invasion, thanks to vast oceans to its east and west and friendly nations to its north and south. Therefore, the likelihood of an enemy nation successfully landing expeditionary forces and seizing control of territory is negligibly small. In this context, Alfred Mahan pointed out that island nations such as Great Britain (and, logically, the USA) have a great natural advantage in the race to become great powers because they could make themselves immune to invasion through sea power alone. Therefore, "a nation so constituted may take as much or as little of a war as it chooses".

But for other nations which share land borders with potential enemies, the possibility of armed incursions into their territory is a constant threat. They must maintain large standing armies at all times, ready to mobilize at any moment. Such mobilization always inflicts economic damage on a country and repeated mobilizations can arguably limit a country's development until it falls behind its competitors. In this case, a near-war can do almost as much damage as an actual war. This was the basis of the (ultimately successful) containment strategy used by the USA against the USSR.

The mere possibility of a territorial incursion can be destabilizing. Massing troops on a border is virtually guaranteed to provoke an immediate response, and has been used as a justification for initiating hostilities many times in the past, such as the Six Day War between Israel and two Arab states (Egypt and Jordan) in 1967. In many cases, nations will react disproportionately to even the most minor incursion, in order to send the message that more significant incursions will be met with a much larger response.

Territorial incursions may occur unintentionally in coastal waters, where borders are not clearly marked. Territorial disputes may also focus on such areas, particularly with respect to resource exploration and exploitation as well as transit rights. For example, as the Arctic ice melts due to climate change, the potential for oil drilling and shipping in the Arctic Circle has created a situation where numerous countries are simultaneously laying claim to Arctic territories. Territorial disputes over resources are not limited to oil: other resources such as fish can lead to similar disputes. In 1995, long-standing tensions over fishing rights escalated until Canadian military forces boarded and captured a Spanish fishing vessel for overfishing of turbot with illegal trawling nets, thus sparking a dispute with the European Union which ended when the Hague refused to hear the Spaniards' case.

Territorial incursions and disputes are common in science fiction, and they often involve colony worlds which possess large reserves of an important resource such as a rare mineral ore. One thing which is rarely seen in science fiction is a disputed area where two competing powers hold different land masses on the same planet in an uneasy peace. Writers generally treat planets as "all or nothing" propositions in science fiction even though regions as small as a single city have been subdivided among competing powers in reality.

Internal Stability

Internal unrest harms a nation's military readiness, saps its economic strength, threatens its government, and damages its social fabric. This can be a self-reinforcing effect: economic turmoil may cause internal unrest, which in turn causes more economic turmoil by disrupting shipping and other economic activities. Food shortages in particular can easily cause serious internal unrest; at the risk of being trite, people who face starvation have nothing left to lose.

The task of maintaining internal stability can be viewed as a combination of three factors:

  1. The habit of obedience

  2. Monopoly of the means of coercion

  3. Monopoly of economic resources

The Habit of Obedience: this means that the people of any given country obey its edicts simply because it is the government. They reflexively become submissive when confronted by a police officer. They (mostly) pay their taxes, drive on the right side of the road, make an effort to obey most traffic laws (to within a margin of error generally determined by the proximity of the nearest police officer), etc. To a large extent, the habit of obedience is determined by citizen satisfaction with their government. One might assume that a citizen of a totalitarian state cannot possibly be satisfied with his government, but totalitarian states devote considerable resources to internal propaganda for a reason: even they cannot maintain order through force alone.

Monopoly of the means of coercion: this means that the government "carries the biggest stick", so to speak. Remember that government is the only entity which is allowed to use violence or the threat of violence in order to enforce its edicts. This doesn't mean it has to control every aspect of life; its laws can be very strict or very sparse, but either way, it reserves for itself the right to coerce obedience to its rules. A private citizen can use a gun to defend himself, but he cannot set a rule and then forcibly imprison other citizens in his basement for not following it. Of course, this is all meaningless without the means to back it up, which takes us back to the "biggest stick". If a private group acquires the means to successfully resist government coercion, then the government no longer has the "biggest stick", so it has lost its monopoly of the means of coercion. The result is usually a civil war, since governments almost always react with extreme prejudice to such groups.

Monopoly of economic resources: this means that the government controls the way in which economic resources are employed and distributed. This doesn't mean it controls every transaction, but it does set the rules which dictate the form of those transactions. For example, the government controls whether a country will be communist or capitalist. The government decides whether pyramid schemes are permitted. The government decides whether banks should require a 10% down payment on a house before issuing a mortgage. The level of control depends on the government, but that control does belong to the government, and no one else.

In the case of food shortages, the government might use its monopoly of economic resources to declare a food rationing policy, and then it could use its monopoly of the means of coercion to enforce this policy. As long as the habit of obedience remains, this can work effectively. But what if food rations are inadequate, and people begin to starve anyway? What if food rations are being distributed unequally, so that groups favoured by the government are well-fed while other groups are not? Black markets may form, the habit of obedience may break down, riots can ensue, and the government's monopoly of economic resources can break down, as people decide to ignore its rules. The government might then decide to send troops to suppress the rioters, but what if some of the troops are sympathetic to the rioters? The government might lose its monopoly of the means of coercion as well, thus demolishing the third pillar of internal stability and plunging the nation into chaos.

When faced with serious internal unrest, a nation-state will normally address the problem according to its inherent proclivities, but whatever those proclivities, it still must maintain the three attributes necessary for internal stability.

In order to maintain the habit of obedience, a totalitarian government will tend to use harsh punishments for those who disobey. For example, the Chinese government reacted to localized student protests in Tiananmen Square by sending in military forces to crush dissent in 1989. In contrast, the relatively liberal United States government reacted to widespread civil-rights riots in the 1960s by passing sweeping new civil-rights legislation to address protesters' concerns and keep the riots from escalating into an insurrection. Both approaches reinforced the habit of obedience: one by crushing dissenters, the other by addressing their concerns.

In order to maintain its monopoly of coercion, a government may attempt to remove arms from the populace, although people have a way of acquiring or fabricating arms anyway (especially in nations with heavy smuggler activity or industrialized nations where refined metals and machining equipment are commonplace). Alternatively, it may permit the populace to carry arms, but with tight controls on the quantity or nature of those armaments. For example, few nations allow private citizens to own a fully armed main battle tank. Or, it may allow the populace to carry arms but attempt to co-opt them into the government system of coercion, by forming government-controlled militias. The Thai Army once defeated a communist insurgency by forming such militias, but this tactic relies upon the people being sympathetic to the government. It obviously fails if their sympathies lie with the rebels.

In order to maintain its monopoly of economics, the government can either use its monopoly of coercion to enforce its edicts with greater severity, or it might alternatively change its rules to better accommodate the needs and wishes of the population. For example, a nation faced with class riots (simultaneously threatening its habit of obedience and monopoly of economics) might try to violently suppress them with military forces, or it might alternatively create a policy of wealth redistribution in order to address the rioters' concerns.

In terms of science fiction, homeland insurrections and political unrest do not seem to happen to any of the major powers in Star Trek, although they have played major roles in the story development of other science fiction series such as Star Wars and Babylon 5. In theory, a nation which consistently maintains a high level of material prosperity and social equality for its citizens can avoid most of the historic causes of domestic turmoil, although it is not unusual for science fiction empires to have wealthy "core worlds" or capital planets while outlying systems suffer under much less generous conditions and are ripe for insurrection. In the case of the Federation, all is not necessarily as well as it seems: the Federation lost the member planet Turkana IV (Tasha Yar's home planet) due to mounting internal unrest, the source of which was never explained.

However, it should be noted that prosperity alone does not necessarily guarantee internal stability. Many nations which have experienced rapid increases in prosperity have also experienced the rise of insurrectionist groups, such as the Red Army Faction in Germany during the 1950s. Rapid economic upheavals can cause instability, even if they are upward rather than downward.

Variable Priorities

Variables priorities are those which are not considered paramount by all nations. They cannot be completely ignored (although that is true of any strategic priority), but not all nations will consider them to be high priority items:

  1. Economic Prosperity

  2. External Stability

  3. Ideology

Economic Prosperity

Generally speaking, a nation-state will always attempt to achieve a high level of economic prosperity. However, there are numerous cases on record where national leaders sacrificed economic prosperity for the sake of suppressing uprisings, ensuring their continued personal grasp on power, or simply obeying an ideology.

Two well-known examples as of 2008 are Kim Jong-Il of North Korea and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. In both cases, they have adopted policies which had the effect of impoverishing their respective nations, and they refuse to amend those policies (or in Kim Jong-Il's case, even accept foreign aid to mitigate the damage) because of a toxic blend of ideology and a desire to cling to power. This is why economic prosperity is a variable priority rather than a fixed one: not all nations will give it the same attention.

Complicating the matter, there is more than one type of "economic prosperity". A nation's overall gross domestic product (GDP) is an oft-used measure of prosperity, but if this wealth is unevenly distributed, it can destabilize society. For example, let us imagine that a country is attempting to enter the club of industrialized nations, so it increases industrial investment in an attempt to lure investors. These investors will naturally want maximum return on their investment, so they will build factories or mills or processing plants in a location which will maximize their profits. Of course, they would rather not build their own infrastructure (roads, worker housing, sewage facilities, power generation or transmission, etc), so they will locate where such infrastructure is already built: typically near the capital city. The result is that these new industries pour wealth into one small area, while actually harming the rest of the country by driving up price inflation for basic goods: inflation that newly enriched cities can deal with, but which rural areas cannot. The resulting rural/urban divide threatens the nation's internal stability: a pattern which has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout Southeast Asia.

Unfortunately, laissez-faire "free market" capitalism fails spectacularly at correcting this kind of problem. In fact, it actually preaches that one should not even try. Since there are no economic incentives to extend modernized infrastructure into impoverished areas, foreign investors will not pay for it. The government could pay for it, but if it raised taxes to do so, it might anger those foreign investors. The proper balance is difficult to achieve, particularly among governments which lack experience dealing with these kinds of changes.

Trade balances are another potential pitfall: if a country attempts to become economically self-sufficient by manufacturing its own products and resources whenever possible, it can reduce its dependence on imports and the drain on foreign exchange, but it also has a tendency to produce inefficient industries which produce goods at higher costs than other countries can (such as aluminum in countries with little electrical power), thus forcing the government to put tariffs on imports of those goods in order to keep its domestic industries viable. This has the effect of turning its much-heralded domestic industries into net drains on the economy, rather than contributors, so that instead of helping the country build its own infrastructure, they actually consume money that would otherwise be spent on that infrastructure. India is an example of this phenomenon.

Alternatively, a country might attempt to produce goods for export, in a market where they have supply and there is high world demand. That could be textiles, frozen shrimp, base metals, low-cost electronics, etc. In this case, the exports bring in large amounts of foreign exchange which boost the economy and can be used to import the goods and services needed to improve its infrastructure. Unfortunately, this scheme falls apart if another country manages to undercut its prices, thus forcing the government to subsidize this export industry in order to keep it competitive. Once again, the result is that the industry, instead of helping to build the nation's infrastructure, actually ends up becoming a drain on the economy and retarding infrastructural development.

In science fiction, the struggle for economic prosperity is generally not an issue. Nations are either prosperous or poor, and they generally stay fixed that way, almost as if it is impossible to change the economic status quo. Even technological disparities seem to be unaffected by trade even after decades of interaction, which suggests extremely comprehensive export restrictions on the part of the more advanced societies. In general, science fiction societies seem to prefer the closed-border domestic manufacturing model of economic development. If cracks develop in this model, the logical outcome usually fails to happen: science fiction often portrays societies with extreme disparities between rich and poor, and these disparities endure for decades, maybe even centuries. In some cases, entire worlds are impoverished while other worlds bask in wealth. The same phenomenon occurs in reality, but in reality, it is usually not stable for long. Tensions build and eventually erupt into social upheaval and/or violence. The fall of the Shah in Iran was largely attributable to such tensions, with radical Islamic fundamentalism taking root as a result, rather than being the root cause.

Interestingly enough, Star Wars provides a more realistic depiction of the priority of economic development than Star Trek. In Episode One, a minor (and uninteresting) trade and tariff dispute threatens to precipitate a war and therefore becomes an issue of concern for the galactic government. In this case, economic policies threatened the internal security of the Republic, and internal security is a fixed priority rather than a variable one: it must take precedence. Therefore, the threat to internal security posed by the Trade Federation's dispute with the planet Naboo took precedence over whatever economic concerns might have previously been in play, and the cessation of hostilities became a matter of priority for the galactic government.

External Stability

External stability is relevant to the selfish concerns of any nation-state insofar as they affect the global economic and political climate in which the nation must operate. An unstable political climate means that wars can break out at any time, jeopardizing trade, causing collateral damage, and potentially drawing neighbouring countries into the fray.

In some cases, a nation-state may also attempt to enhance international stability for altruistic reasons. If its cultural values are such that it feels an ethical obligation to prevent war, it may expend considerable financial and human resources toward that end. UN peacekeeper operations aim to accomplish precisely this, by putting neutral military forces in harm's way in order to forestall the possibility of war in unstable regions.

Interestingly enough, this motivation is almost never seen in science fiction writing. Science fiction nation-states may start wars, defend themselves when attacked, or avoid wars, but one rarely (if ever) sees a fictional science fiction nation-state use its military forces to prevent wars. In science fiction, peacekeeping is seen as the exclusive territory of diplomats, not soldiers. In some cases (most notably Star Trek), non-interference is even praised as an "enlightened" ethical imperative.


A good definition of ideology can be found in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: "the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a socio-political program". For the purposes of this discussion, an ideology is an ambitious program of social and political beliefs which may or may not be organized and self-consistent, but which would generally have a large impact on the daily lives of citizens.

Some ideologies are primarily economic, such as communism, socialism, capitalism, and free-market libertarianism (which, contrary to popular belief, are four distinct ideologies). Other ideologies are primarily religious, such as Christian supremacism in the United States or Wahhabism in Muslim countries.

All of these ideologies are capable of influencing political decisions to varying degrees, up to and including the initiation of wars and the incursion of great costs in terms of men and material. During the 20th century Cold War between the capitalist USA and the communist USSR, both countries spent vast sums of money and sacrificed tens of thousands of men toward the goal of spreading their respective economic ideologies. During the medieval Crusades, western Europe's Christian nations raised huge armies of hundreds of thousands of men and marched them thousands of miles into the Middle East, to fight the Muslims over Jerusalem: a remote city with no other discernible strategic value. During the 19th century American Civil War, some four hundred thousand men perished in a bitter nation-wide struggle over the Confederate states' self-proclaimed "right" to perpetuate the institution of slavery: a "right" which was so important to them that they specifically wrote it into their Constitution and named it as their casus belli in their Declarations of Secession.

The maintenance of military supremacy could be considered a separate priority, but it is arguably just another ideology. Military forces are usually a means to an end rather than an end in and of themselves, unless a state has a militarist ideology, in which military supremacy itself becomes a valued goal, even when it is not required for defense or the pursuance of other goals. In that case, even if the state is not faced with any serious identifiable threats, it may nevertheless pursue an aggressive program of military expansionism simply to maintain its supremacy.

Ideologies can also figure prominently in science fiction wars, but not always when you would expect them to. In Star Wars, despite the mutually hostile ideologies of Jedi and Sith which dominate some of the character interactions, the wars themselves were primarily fought over economic concerns and the acquisition of power. In Star Trek, the original-series Klingons and Federation were quite obviously meant to be analogues of the 20th century USSR and USA, but the conflict was framed in racial or tribal terms rather than ideological ones. In fact, most of Klingon ideology was not developed by the writers until after the conflict ended and Klingons became allies of the Federation. Similarly, the Dominion had a prominent religion, but the motivation of the Dominion to conquer the Star Trek powers appeared to be nothing more than simple territorial expansionism. In contrast, Babylon5 had a long-running "Shadow War" which was entirely about ideology: it was literally fought between super-combatants and their proxies over contrasting theories of social development. And of course, the Dune books involve a universe where all of the combatants accept (apparently without question) serious constraints upon their technology as a result of their anti-computer ideology.


When we look at the likely actions of a science fiction nation-state, we have to consider its priorities. As per realistic nations, all science fiction nation-states will have certain fixed priorities:

  1. Survival of the nation
  2. Territorial defense
  3. Internal stability

They will also have certain variable priorities:

  1. Economic Prosperity
  2. External Stability
  3. Ideology

One of the keys to avoiding an incoherent storyline when dealing with science fiction combatants is to recognize the fixed priorities of the state, and to develop a clear picture of the emphasis placed on variable priorities by the state. Only after establishing this picture can you determine what the state should or would realistically do when faced with a particular threat or competitor.


Last Updated: May 9, 2008

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