Superheroes and International Politics

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

When was the last time you saw a non-American superhero? Almost every Avenger or Justice Leaguer hails from the United States or from outer space. Unfortunately for your average international relations/superhero enthusiast, there isn’t much interest in non-American superheroes. We never get to see the interaction between the United States and other countries in a world of spandex and laser beams. Let’s imagine a world where super-powered humans aren’t confined to the US — how would the distribution and capabilities of mutants, heroes, and villains affect international politics?

For the purposes of this thought experiment, let’s make four assumptions. First, we’ll assume all superpowered humans are mutants. Mutants, unlike most superheroes, derive their superpowers from random genetic variation—we can assume that the distribution of mutants throughout the world is more or less random. Furthermore, let’s say that only one out of every million humans obtains superpowers; assuming a global population of roughly seven billion, makes for seven thousand superpowered individuals. Finally, let’s assume some variation in powers for our seven thousand mutants. Some of them might be Superman, but some of them might be Squirrel Girl.

So if seven thousand people wake up tomorrow with the ability to fly, shoot lasers from their eyes, or throw vibranium shields really, really accurately, what does that mean for international politics? Based on a realist framework, I argue that the introduction of superhumans into the international system dramatically increases the odds of conflict—not just between different superhumans, but between different nation-states.

The most evident change in the international distribution of power is that there’s a lot more of it. The potential strength of all states in the system goes up dramatically, given how many new superhumans there are. The catch, though, is that increases in state strength are highly random.

First, the distribution of mutants is random; even though we might expect countries with larger populations to possess more mutants, some countries might just get lucky. For example, on average, there should be about 1300 Chinese-born mutants (1.3 billion population)—but that number will fluctuate based on chance. Countries like Argentina (41 million) might get forty mutants, ten mutants, or four hundred.

Second, and most importantly, the capability of states to harness their superhumans will vary significantly. In most superhero media, superpowered individuals are rarely controlled by the government. Some become villains, some vigilantes—even among heroes, only a few choose to work directly for the government. Even among those who do work for the police or army, superpowered individuals have more autonomy than your average soldier. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon to see superheroes refusing orders because of their own moral scruples—the level of obedience to government does vary.

On the other hand, some governments may have extensive control over their superpowered individuals. Golden Age Captain America was under the direct authority of the United States in World War II. In another case, after Marvel’s Civil War, all American superheroes are registered with the American government. Although SHIELD only has loose control over its superheroes, it does technically employ them in the service of the United States. Although some governments may have absolutely no control over their superhumans, some states may have more control than others.

Because of the random distribution of superhumans and the variation in state control over superhumans, added power will vary tremendously throughout the system. Some states might get lucky, gain a lot of superhumans, and have the state apparatus to constrain them. Others won’t get lucky—they’ll lose out on the “superhuman power bump”.

What does this mean for the international system? First, the system will most likely transition from a system with one overwhelmingly dominant state (the United States) — to a system with many strong states. We call the former a unipolar system, and the latter a multipolar system. Because of the random nature of mutant distribution, weaker states will benefit as much as stronger states. More populous states are more likely to get more superhumans, but total population is a tenuous proxy for power at best. Factors like economic development, military strength, or technological advantages won’t affect the distribution of superhuman. Because all states benefit, stronger states will have their relative advantages mitigated.

As famous international relations theorists like Kenneth Waltz have argued, multipolar systems are inherently unstable and prone to war. The thought might have never occurred to him, but superhuman multipolar systems will be especially unstable for Waltz’s own reasons.

Multipolar systems make it harder for states to balance against each other effectively. In the international system, maintaining the balance of power is crucial — if a potential aggressor or coalition of aggressors is on the horizon, failure to balance against it invites war. Prompt and effective balancing is needed to maintain stability. Better balancing means less war.

Unfortunately, in a system with a large amount of actors, it’s harder to balance effectively. That’s because it’s harder to monitor the strength and intentions of all states in the system, it’s harder to coordinate an effective defensive coalition, and it’s easier to pass the buck — it’s easy for a couple of states to think that other states will handle the problem. Because of this, multipolar systems are especially prone to war.

Our superhuman multipolar system will be particularly affected by uncertainty. Not only will the distribution of mutants will be random, but the ability of particular states to harness their superhuman powers will be relatively unknown. Moreover, the abilities of individual superhumans will vary widely and might be kept secret. States might pretend that their superhumans are weaker than is the case (calling their Spider-Man an Ant-Man). In addition, the motives of superhumans are volatile. It might be impossible to predict the military capabilities of a state when half of its offensive power depends on the whims of one person.

It’s also worth mentioning that the power of non-state actors increases dramatically because of superhuman added power. Preexisting violent non-state actors—terrorist groups, insurgencies, militias—are much scarier when some of their members can blow up buildings without bombs. The added strength of militant non-state actors will make an uncertain multipolar system even more uncertain and more multipolar.

In this light, the prospects for our new universe definitely looks grim. A world with seven thousand extra superhumans will feature much more wars between different countries. However, most comic book universes display billions of dollars in property damage, countless terrorist groups, plagues, genocides, devastating alien wars, etc. Given the destruction that happens in most comic book universes, a world with heightened inter-state conflicts should be expected.

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