If you’re a fan of movies and haven’t visited Red Letter Media’s website, you should. The critics there are among the funniest and smartest on the Internet, as evidenced when they started joked about the geopolitics of “Captain America: Civil War.” Founding member Rich Evans summed up the punchline best: “Strangely everyone seems to think that the UN has actual powers. That was the most jarring thing for me.”
This point is especially interesting when you consider the foreign policy debate in this presidential election. The Republican candidate, Donald Trump, has defied more than seventy years of bipartisan consensus on the importance of internationalism, abhorring the “dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interest in becoming a Western democracy” and arguing that, as a result, America should no longer feel responsible to “international unions that tie us up and bring America down.” This is an intriguing inversion of the foreign policy conducted by the last Republican president, George W. Bush, who shared Trump’s disdain for organizations like the UN but did so precisely because he wanted to engage in nation-building. Their shared reasoning, though, is that because America can exercise its might in a way that only a handful of countries could meaningfully check (Russia, China), that means we should… the rest of the world be damned.
There are a number of reasons why men like Bush and Trump succeed in the Republican Party and, as such, in this country. In part it’s because the United Nations itself is riddled with corruption, often controlled by nations whose values are diametrically opposed to our own (e.g., large sections of the Middle East), and has a long history of incompetence (see the Rwandan genocide). That said, our compliance in international unions doesn’t automatically mean that we view all participants as our moral equals. This would be ideal, of course, but we live in an imperfect world, and to change it we often find ourselves needing to choose between lesser evils. If America sincerely stands for the belief that all human beings are inherently equal, we must allow ourselves to be accountable to the international community. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aggressively protect our self-interests and distance ourselves from nations who don’t share our values, but we lose our own ethical authority when we don’t strictly abide by the standards we preach. Holding our nose isn’t nearly as bad as selling our souls.
And what are those ethical standards? I turn to the words of Adlai E. Stevenson, a two-time presidential candidate who played a significant role in developing the United Nations and famously bested the Soviet Union while serving as our ambassador during the Cuban Missile Crisis. During his first presidential campaign in 1952, he decided to pay tribute to that organization in a broadcast celebrating its seventh anniversary. “We must not lose faith in the United Nations,” he declared. “We see it as a living thing and we will work and pray for its full growth and development. We want it to become what it was intended to be – a world society of nations under law, not merely law backed by force, but law backed by justice and popular consent.”
It is here that I switch my history nerd cap for that of a Marvel movie nerd (to avoid spoilers from “Captain America: Civil War,” skip to the end of this paragraph). I discuss the politics of that movie at length in a previous article, but suffice to say that it presents Iron Man as the champion of internationalism and Captain America as the advocate of unilateralism. Team Captain America believes that their leader and the Avengers can be better trusted to protect the world than organizations directly accountable (albeit in varying degrees) to its own inhabitants. As Cap himself puts it, “I know we’re not perfect, but the safest hands are still our own.” Team Iron Man, by contrast, acknowledges that “if we can’t accept limitations, we’re boundaryless, we’re no better than the bad guys.” Naturally the movie sides with Captain America, which is a shame because the world of this movie seems to be one in which the UN acts more or less in accordance with its mission. I could be wrong – although if I’m right, this would certainly rank as the most fantastical notion in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe – but if that is indeed the assumption, then it speaks volumes that the filmmakers felt so comfortable having its hero defy accountability to the global community.
We have grown so used to being the most powerful guy in the room that our culture’s biggest pop culture mythology, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, dedicated one of its most important films to the notion that might really does make right – or, at the very least, that it just so happens the mighty are usually also righteous. It’s a troubling moral to say the least, particularly when you consider that we may soon elect a president whose entire candidacy is based around a cult of personality. Trump practically embodies the idea of strength being in an of itself a noble quality, of bullying as an indicator of greatness. Our world may not contain real-life superheroes, but there are a handful of men and women with enough wealth, fame, and power to single-handedly decide all of our fates. These people and the institutions they control must be accountable to the rest of us, and we in turn must be accountable to ideals that value individual human rights above all else. When we fail to remember this, we become a bad guy ourselves, whether by invading other countries or working as an agent for the interests of the wealthy few instead of genuinely representing all of humanity.
The problem, in the end, is that we don’t have anyone like Captain America or Iron Man acquiring real power in our world. All we have are the likes of Donald Trump and the lesser evil running against him in this election, Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure if our reality will ever look like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but if it does, it will be because we join Team Iron Man instead of Team Captain America. The former path offers something approaching justice; the latter, only more of the same.