On 'allies and partners'
An international relations prof weighs in on the AOIMSG mission
If Kirsten Gillibrand drains the swamp of more expensively dressed reptiles and scavengers, I could forgive her for the Al Franken thing in 2018.
Robert Storch’s audition this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee for the Pentagon’s Inspector General job ended on one of those rare, pitch-perfect notes. No quarter whatsoever offered from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, one of Storch’s prospective bosses and the architect of the new law ordering military intelligence to form a UFO/UAP investigative office – and to produce material results.
Under questioning from Gillibrand, the current National Security Agency IG admitted he knew nothing about the Pentagon’s formal UFO/UAP initiative, knew nothing about the unauthorized and recurring violations of restricted U.S. airspace, knew nothing about whether or not the NSA had even been “responsive” to the Defense Department IG’s related inquiries to that agency. “Then can you please familiarize yourself with this issue,” Gillibrand went on, “and respond to those questions in writing before your confirmation please?”
Before your confirmation …
“Yes ma’am,” Storch replied, reaching immediately for a pen and paper to signal his undivided attention, if only for a moment. Yes ma’am. Maybe he’ll actually have to watch “60 Minutes” now, or CNN. Or maybe start cribbing from the New York Times or the New Yorker. Maybe review extensive coverage in legacy industry sites like Stars and Stripes, or Task & Purpose. What it means is, if Storch gets the job, his credibility will be at least partly predicated on meeting the October deadline, set by Congress, for keeping tabs on a no-bullshit investigation into the phenomenon. If that does indeed come to pass, the drama could be one of the hottest tickets in town.
The peanut gallery will include political scientists like Dr. Patrick Jackson. Most of Jackson’s peers aren’t tuned in yet, he says, at least not at American University, where he teaches international relations. But there’s a component of the new law that should be of interest to everyone in the field, he says.
Section 1683(a)(7) of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act calls for “coordinating with allies and partners of the United States, as appropriate, to better assess the nature and extent of unidentified aerial phenomena.” The language sounds innocuous. But the implications are potentially radical, says Jackson.
“Large portions of the foreign relations of sovereign states are formed on the understanding that each state defines its interests based on its own community within its territorial borders. This language calls for sharing, but in this case, sharing information about something that could be nonhuman in origin,” says the erstwhile Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development. “Which means you’re getting closer to the articulation of something like a human perspective, rather than just a state perspective. What’s fascinating here is the erosion of the default notion that sovereign states look after their own individual interests first.
“UAP activity has been occurring all over the world, right, and it’s sort of setting up a clash between a kind of nationalist story and a more human, or species-ist, universal story. The nationalist story traditionally has bigger financial backing and government support, and there’s a constant tug-of-war between the two.”
That tug-of-war has nevertheless produced innumerable acts of civilized cooperation among allies as well as rivals, from disaster relief to strategic-arms control. But the UAP mystery is in a class by itself. Especially since resolving that mystery will apparently require every resource that pure science can muster.
“Every scientist I’ve ever met – and I count social scientists like me among that set – they don’t want to produce information that’s only for a small audience,” Jackson says. “It’s why we got into science in the first place, not in business or something where we’re trying to commercialize it to promote the advantage of our particular state. We try to research things and come up with stuff that is more universal in nature.”
That’s why IR scholars like Jackson, and probably the bean-counters charged with administering Section 1683(a)(7), will likely keep an eye on events in the Republic of San Marino, population 33,000. That tiny landlocked nation, situated near Italy’s Adriatic coast, might soon appeal to the United Nations for formal sponsorship of its longstanding annual UFO conferences, which attract researchers from several dozen nations.
Two of those privately funded organizers recently huddled with San Marino’s top government officials to persuade them to lobby for UN recognition. If successful, that effort, called Project Titan, might conceivably transform the 23.6 square-mile parliamentary republic into the Switzerland of Earth’s cosmic roundtable.
No latecomer to this conversation, Jackson chaired a UFO symposium at American University in 2014, before the 12/17 revelations gave license to academics, politicians and everyone else to address this issue openly, without fear of ridicule. He’s also a professed “sci-fi geek” who teaches a science fiction course at AU. Despite the cultural touchstones — from the “Independence Day” apocalypse to Ronald Reagan’s assertions before the UN General Assembly that an “extraterrestrial threat” would unite humanity — Jackson isn’t convinced that Klingon war-mongers could necessarily bond Earth’s tribes.
Buoyed as he is by the evolution of the UAP controversy – from fringe taboo to formal policy imperative in less than five years – recent events tend to keep the true scope of an international imprimatur, UN or otherwise, in perspective. The coronavirus pandemic, for instance, demolished the façade of the European Union’s ability to mount a coordinated response to a collective health crisis, which precipitated a backslide into what Jackson calls “a resurgence of state-based selfishness.”
Still, UN intervention in an international flashpoint, UAP or otherwise, can swing a hot white light onto just about any project.
“Even if the mission is imperfect, even if it screws up, even if bad things happen and it’s not successful, the point is, the status of it changes,” Jackson says. “Now it’s no longer one country invading another, it’s something else, and the people who are participating in it can be held to a different set of standards. So I think it’s a really important piece of political symbolism.”
NDAA Section 1683 says nothing about consulting adversaries like China and Russia. But excluding rival perspectives from a such a novel project – especially if and when we determine UAP aren’t theirs – would be a mistake, says Jackson. Especially since China is already employing AI to evaluate UFOs.
“If you follow what’s going on in Chinese science fiction, there’s a lot of people there, a lot of scientists, who’ve been thinking seriously about extraterrestrial life, and the relationship between human beings in the cosmos, for a long time,” he says. Jackson extols the virtues of Chixin Liu’s popular The Three-Body Problem trilogy – the first Asian novel to win a Hugo Award – for its provocative and disturbing storylines.
“It reminded me of the comment Stephen Hawking made at one point, that we should stop broadcasting signals because if the aliens show up, they’re going to kill us. Well, I think that’s ridiculous, but it has reflections in international relations, in what’s called the theory of political realism, where states are out for themselves and they want to pre-empt attacks by other states so they do all these awful things to protect themselves.
“It’s not unlike what Liu calls the ‘dark forest’ view of the universe in The Three-Body Problem. The dark forest is one of the solutions to what Frank Drake called ‘the eerie silence,’ right? Where are all those civilizations out there? Well, the universe is a nasty place, and civilizations that reach a certain level of development get wiped out by other civilizations.
“My point is, if we’re talking about something that is universal, then why wouldn’t we want to include people with whom we might have political and economic disagreements? Since we’re talking about something here that is much broader.”
Jackson makes one firm prediction. For America’s UAP inquiry to make meaningful progress, advocates should abandon the “threat”-themed rationale as soon as possible.
“The initial framing of something as a threat may be what gets the wheels in motion for authorization and to remove some bureaucratic obstacles, but ‘threat’ implies this is an urgent matter with a quick time frame. The problem is, everyone’s always going to be asking, what are the results, what are the results? Then maybe you start to fudge on some of the nuances you’re discovering – we see this with national security projects all the time.
“Excessive focus on urgency, threats and results leads to systematic distortions of the results. Because of course nobody wants to say we took millions of dollars and we’ve got very little to show for it — and we’re definitely not going to solve this overnight. I mean, imagine, hypothetically, if the UAPs are evidence of alien intelligence, or maybe they’re some kind of hitherto unknown psychological phenomenon. Well, that’s interesting. And investigating that might show us all kinds of things about cognition and image processing and how the brain works and so on.
“But as soon as it becomes ‘Oh, it’s not a threat’, well, suddenly the urgency disappears and there goes the funding, right? That’s why the threat issue might be important to get the ball rolling, but it can’t continue to be what controls an open-ended investigation like this.”
Does the language in NDAA Section 1683 give the mission room to evolve past the threat scenario and breathe?
“The answer to that question is going to depend on who is operationally in charge on a day-to-day basis. It all depends on who’s reading and interpreting the language,” Jackson says. “It’s kind of like the Supreme Court.
“My favorite historical example is the reconstruction of Germany after the Second World War, in which you have the U.S. military occupation authority reading clauses that had been authorized by Congress intending to keep Germany down. Instead, those very same clauses were read as justification for industrial development in Germany to get back up to a particular level, as opposed to making sure Germany doesn’t develop past a particular level.
“The people who are really good at playing that game were in government procurement. They knew what was happening on the ground, and probably they went against the more punitive measures the original authors of the language had in mind.”
Exactly where the buck stops on interpreting the language in the Pentagon’s new AOIMSG – an acronym the DoD dreamed up during a Lost Weekend bender with Monty Python – remains unsettled. All we know for sure is that at least one contender has to take it seriously or he may not get the job. We all heard him say “Yes ma’am” this week. And now he owes us some homework about his knowledge deficit — in writing.
Jacques Vallée Still Doesn’t Know What UFOs Are
Particularly now, with relations between the western and eastern superpowers increasingly grim and adversarial, I see no chance in hell of any meaningful cooperation. (Although research sharing between Russia and China is a possibility.) We want UAP technology for weaponization. And we want it now!