A couple of days after watching “Black Panther” on the big screen, a young Foreign Service officer who served in Mexico and is now heading to Saudi Arabia posted a note on Facebook: “Are we establishing diplomatic ties with Wakanda? If so, I want to go there next!”
Based on early attendance and revenues, “Black Panther” has struck a strong cultural chord, not only in the United States but across the world. Much of the media commentary focuses on the emergence of a black superhero on film and what it says about black pride and race relations.
As it happens, a large part of “Black Panther” was produced at film studios in Atlanta, another example of Georgia’s emergence as a factor in the global movie industry.
Some reviews mention parallels with certain African countries that seem to have helped inspire both the film and the mythical nation of Wakanda on which it is based. For example, some scenes were clearly filmed in Lesotho, a kingdom of stunning cultures and landscapes including mountains and high plateaus in southern Africa. Other reviews have compared Wakanda to Ethiopia, the one African country that was never colonized by a European power, defeating attempts by Italy to conquer it less than a century ago.
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But the movie will also resonate with anyone who follows international relations, reflecting as it does three very distinct approaches to foreign policy, each of which are studied at universities, discussed on internet and worked through in real life situations around the world.
First, there is the “defensive realism” point of view, practiced by Wakanda for centuries. Maintaining a strong defense, it also remained isolated, choosing not to engage with the rest of the world. When attacked, it fought back; but it did not extend its influence beyond its borders, choosing instead to keep its technology and natural resources a secret.
Reflecting a “Wakanda First” approach, the leaders of Wakanda would never dream of offering foreign aid, providing assistance to refugees or accepting immigrants. When the late king of Waka does venture beyond his borders, he is killed in a terrorist attack.
Second, there is the “offensive realism” adopted by would-be king Erik Killmonger, raised in Oakland, California, by his Wakandan father and American mother. As king of Wakanda, he believes that power grows out of the barrel of a gun and wants to use that power on behalf of the oppressed peoples of the world.
Killmonger also wants to extend Wakanda’s influence, establishing an empire on which — to borrow a phrase from the British Empire — “the sun never sets.” In his view, the world is an anarchic and violent place and military power is the only power that truly matters.
Third and finally, there is the “liberal” approach to foreign policy pursued by King T’Challa aka the “Black Panther,” consciously projecting a moral foreign policy and committed to the proposition that diverse people and tribes can actually work together to build and maintain a better planet. In this view, ideas matter and will ultimately prevail, even over military might.
At the end of “Black Panther,” King T’Challa is shown establishing a “Wakanda Center” in a housing project in California, specifically aimed at spreading the culture, ideas and technology of Wakanda to a wider world. “More connects us than separates us,” he announces in a final scene. “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”
Whether or not King T’Chala will be successful in protecting the interests of Wakanda while also promoting a better world for all is an open question, one that moviegoers and foreign policy specialists alike will continue to discuss and argue about, as they have in the past. Without doubt, though, “Black Panther” is successful in depicting in a highly entertaining way the three main foreign policy “choices” that go to the heart of how every country including the United States interact with each on the world stage.
Jonathan S. Addleton teaches international relations at Mercer University. A former Ambassador to Mongolia, he also served as a foreign service officer in Afghanistan, Belgium, Cambodia, India, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, South Africa and Yemen. His books include “The Dust of Kandahar,” “Some Far and Distant Place” and “Mongolia and the United States: A Diplomatic History”