[WARNING: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS FOR “BLACK PANTHER”]
Like much of the developed world, the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts went to see “Black Panther” and enjoyed it a great deal. It’s an exceptionally well-acted movie all around. Michael B. Jordan as Eric Killmonger offers up the most complex villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While not everyone loved it, its craftsmanship and compelling characters makes the film very hard to dislike.
I particularly enjoyed it because foreign policy questions were at the crux of the film’s plot. To sum up: Wakanda is a technologically sophisticated country that has pursued a grand strategy of isolationism. It purposefully shields knowledge about its power and capabilities from the outside world, exploiting stereotypes and prejudices about sub-Saharan Africa to sustain its subterfuge. At the start of the film, many of Wakanda’s power brokers are fine with this, though some have their doubts.
The plot is driven by a contender to the throne who wants to use Wakanda’s technology to create a vast empire upon which “the sun will never set.” This expansionist policy is rejected, but by the end of the film there is a change in the country’s grand strategy. In one of the closing scenes, Wakanda’s leader T’Challa announces at the United Nations that the country will share its technology with the rest of the world.
Here’s my question: Will this grand strategy work?
One could argue that it’s a strategy fraught with peril. A country suddenly revealing itself to be far more powerful and technologically sophisticated than previously thought has generally not made the rest of the world feel safe. The United States did not react calmly to the Soviet development of the hydrogen bomb or the launching of Sputnik. Even more recently, North Korea’s developments in nuclear and ballistic missile technology have not exactly been greeted with hosannas either.
This is being unfair to Wakanda, however. Both the Soviet Union and North Korea were viewed as threats prior to their weapons developments. In the context of the film, Wakanda was not. Indeed, history does not offer much of a guide here. There is no historical precedent for a technologically superior but isolationist power to change its policy. Countries have pursued radical isolationism: Japan’s sakoku policy for two centuries during the Tokugawa shogunate, for example. Japan then had to play technological catch-up, however, because its isolationism left it behind the technology of the West.
Will Wakanda be viewed as a new great power in the world? How will other great powers react? How will its neighbors?
There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about Wakanda’s new grand strategy. First of all, its perceived rise would be unlikely to alienate other great powers. Africa hosts some regional powers (Nigeria, South Africa), but Wakanda would not emerge right next to a Russia or China. There would be no immediate security dilemma in its future. T’Challa’s close relationship with a CIA official would alleviate U.S. fears as well. This would allow T’Challa to reveal his country’s power without instigating local conflicts.
Second, for Wakanda to have become so advanced would be a credit to its governance. As Mariama Sow and Amadou Sy noted in their Brookings piece, Wakanda’s success as a natural resource economy mirrors Botswana’s success in avoiding the resource curse (though, with its tribal governing structure, Wakanda would more closely resemble the United Arab Emirates). This example, along with the offer of technology transfer, should generate an immense reservoir of Wakandan soft power.
Third, paradoxically, Wakanda’s previous policy of isolationism should aid its more active foreign policy. The realpolitik tendency after discovering another country is vastly more powerful than previously understood would be to fear it. The advantage of Wakanda’s previous isolationism, however, is that the country would have no enduring rivals to worry about, no past history of expansionism to explain away.
So the optimistic assessment would be that Wakanda would be a sub-Saharan equivalent of Norway, a thriving society with vast resources that has dedicated itself to helping the outside world.
How could the policy fail? For one thing, Wakanda would suddenly face a huge demand in its diplomatic capacity. Wakanda is apparently so starved of diplomatic skill that T’Challa assigned his sister/chief scientist to their first outreach center in the United States. Its supply of diplomats would need to be bolstered, and that might prove to be tricky. No matter how sophisticated the country’s technology, the movie also revealed how its isolation left many of its leaders ill-equipped to deal with outsiders.
A related problem would be the likely inward flow of economic migrants. As Sow and Sy note, “Wakanda’s approach to utilizing vibranium creates considerable and widely shared benefits to society.” An egalitarian, high-growth society would be a magnet for those in the region seeking good jobs at good wages. Given Wakanda’s chauvinism about the outside world, one could envision tensions created by a large influx of immigrants. Whether those immigrants would share Wakandan values is also a good question. In the real world, even thriving Nordic countries have had their difficulties in this area. Wakanda would likely have to retain its immigration restrictionism, which might create problems with neighbors eager to benefit from citizens sending back Wakandan remittances to their coffers.
The biggest problem, however, would be the effect of other countries weaponizing vibranium, much as Ulysses Klaue did in the film. Whether Wakanda would be able to apply appropriate export controls would be an important question to raise.
There are risks to T’Challa’s new policy of openness and engagement with the rest of the world. Whether Wakandan society could handle the stresses of economic openness would be an open question. The international system, however, would likely welcome this shift.
It is possible that, with quality leadership, Wakanda could pull off such a shift in its grand strategy — provided Wakanda exceptionalism does not prove to be the country’s undoing in negotiating with other countries.