Housefull Housefull Foreign Policy

War of the Realists

An explainer on foreign policy using lessons from popular culture. In Installment 1, Wakanda faces a choice between two different types of Realism.

A shift from America-centrism to afrofuturism, Marvel’s Black Panther is a remarkable addition to the superhero franchise. The narrative wove race relations and the perceptions about the third world masterfully into the larger arc of the Marvel Universe with every element of the movie – from the fashion to the background score, carefully curated to celebrate black culture. But what was most interesting for me was to watch Wakanda and the Killmonger dish out International Relations 101 while getting me extremely nostalgic about grad school.

Wakanda, the kingdom of T’Challa and home of the Black Panther, is a powerful symbol of Defensive Realism. Founded in Kenneth Waltz’s Structural Realism, Defensive Realism contends that the anarchic nature of the world encourages the state to acquire power necessary for it to thrive. Therefore, a state seeks to maximise security and not power. For centuries Wakanda chose to remain isolated from the rest of the world. It was able to protect its stores of vibranium and technological sophistication by keeping them hidden.

On the other side of the coin lies Offensive Realism. Strongly influenced by Waltz, John J Mearsheimer argued that deep insecurity and the need for survival in an anarchic world makes the state an aggressive power maximiser. While he cloaks it as black liberation, the Killmonger’s plan of establishing a Wakandan empire is a classic case of Offensive Realism. The story’s antagonist plans to distribute vibranium to arms dealers with whose help he can overthrow oppressive governments across the world, thereby maximising Wakanda’s power through global domination.

The two distinct concepts come with their own assumptions and policy prescriptions. Defensive Realists believe that security is enough, and that restrained behaviour can ensure survival. The rationale is that aggressive power-maximising actions provoke an counterreaction from others, which can imperil the state. For Offensive Realists, security is not enough, and the only means of survival for a state is to increase its share of power, with world dominance the ultimate goal. This encourages the state to adopt competitive, expansionist policies to secure its interests.

True to Marvel tradition, there’s a tag scene during the end credits of the movie showing T’Challa  addressing the UN about Wakanda’s plan to share its knowledge and resources with the world. I’m looking forward to the foreign policy lessons in the inevitable sequel.

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Also read:
The Greatest Superpower of All — Housefull Economics about how Black Panther made an Econ 101 error.

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About the author

Shibani Mehta

Shibani Mehta is a Programme Associate with the Strategic Studies Programme. A post-graduate of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS, NTU), her research areas include foreign policy and India's intelligence agencies.

Prior to joining Takshashila, Shibani did research on Hybrid Warfare as an intern with the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. At Takshashila, she also manages the Graduate Certificate in Strategic Studies (GCSS) programme and enjoys writing about foreign policy by drawing parallels with popular films.