Science fiction is the realm where people traditionally wrestle with the idea of contact with an ETI (Extraterrestrial Intelligence). But now, those discussions are migrating from science fiction into more serious realms.

Academics are going back and forth, one paper at a time, concerning the response and geopolitical fallout from potential contact with an ETI.

The discussion is interesting whether you think it’s likely or even remotely possible that humanity ever contacts an ETI. And it might tell us more about humanity than it does about an ETI.

A new paper titled ‘Geopolitical Implications of a Successful SETI Program’ is the latest salvo in the back and forth among professional thinkers. The paper’s three authors are associated with institutions including NASA, the Penn State ETI Center, the Department of Philosophy at Spring Hill College, and Harvard Law School. The lead author is Jason T. Wright from Penn State University.

The paper’s been accepted for publication by the journal Space Policy, and it’s currently available on the pre-press site

This paper is a response to a previous article published in 2020 called ‘The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: A Realpolitik Consideration’. That paper was also published in the journal Space Policy, bringing a new emphasis to the discussion around potential contact with an ETI.

The authors are Kenneth Wisian and John Traphagan. Wisian is from the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas, and Traphagan is from the Department of Religious Studies and Program in Human Dimensions of Organizations, also at the University of Texas. We’ll refer to their paper as WT 2020.

In WT 2020, the two authors pointed out that much of the thinking around ETIs is centered on the risks of Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and Messaging an Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI).

What if the ETI is technologically advanced and menacing? What if they’re like conquistadors or something? Stephen Hawking expressed this fear well in 2010 when he said, “Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they could reach”.

Those types of invading aliens make millions of dollars for Hollywood, but the authors of WT 2020 focused on a different risk, one which doesn’t garner as much attention.

What’s that risk?

“Specifically, the risk of merely detecting an alien signal from passive SETI activity is usually considered to be negligible,” they write.

What’s so risky about merely detecting a signal? Us and our realpolitik.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term realpolitik, history is full of examples. Merriam-Webster defines realpolitik as “Politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives”.

In WT 2020, the authors use this definition of realpolitik from historian John Bew: “…the view of interstate relations where ‘the notion that the state could be regulated or controlled by law [is] flawed’ and that ‘power obey[s] only greater power.’”

Realpolitik is the down-and-dirty, nitty-gritty politics between political groups, usually nations. Realpolitik is separate from the oration political leaders use in elections and public-facing situations, where ideology and virtue-signaling run amok and leaders use political theatre to sway the populace and advance their causes.

Realpolitik is about the mechanics of power in our world. A great example of realpolitik comes from World War 2.

The American President Roosevelt and the British Prime Minister Churchill played nice with Stalin and Russia. They called Stalin an ally, shook his hand and smiled when they met with him. They needed Stalin to continue to fight and weaken Hitler, and the Americans even sent a steady stream of supplies to Russia to enable their war effort.

All good on the surface, as this famous clip from the Yalta Conference shows. At the 2:35 mark, we can watch the three leaders make nice with each other. But behind the scenes, realpolitik spun a different web.

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Churchill and Roosevelt needed Stalin to help win the war, and Stalin knew that. Stalin promised democratic elections for Poland after the war because he needed the allies to help him beat Germany. He backtracked on that as soon as the war ended, occupied Poland and other countries, and Russia and the West became open enemies. That’s all realpolitik, and Stalin practiced it well.

But that was long ago, and the world was at war. Why is it relevant to our more modern age and the potential contact with an ETI?

Because human nature hasn’t changed.

If we passively detect a signal from an ETI, it could be troubling for religious people. Their worldview could be severely threatened, and there may be some significant upheaval in