Supranational government in Mass Effect

As I continue to set up this new blog and decide how I want to handle frequency of new posts, I’ve decided to post some older blog entries from my days as a solo attorney. My posts on my law firm site already got a little weird–I can become a little preoccupied with my personal interests, what can I say. Below is one of those older posts, slightly revised and adapted for this new site.

In BioWare’s Mass Effect series, humanity is collectively led by the Systems Alliance. The Systems Alliance controls the interstellar military spaceships and colonial military garrisons, invests in scientific research and appears to regulate trade, and sends an ambassador (and, in later games, a council member) to the Citadel Council, which is in turn a governmental body responsible for maintaining diplomatic relations between the various species who have sought representation with the Council.

The codex entries in the Mass Effect games provide a considerable bit of context for the Systems Alliance. In the first game’s entry for Earth, the codex notes that the planet “is still divided among nation-states, though all are affiliated beneath the overarching banner of the Systems Alliance.” The third game, taking place amid the Reaper invasion, explains that the “militaries of Earth’s disparate nation-states have retained only partial communication with the Systems Alliance Fleets, leaving the planet’s resistance efforts uncoordinated and vulnerable.” So we know that there are still several nations on Earth, each with their own military forces, and we can presume that they have their own rules of law and their own cultures. These latter assumptions are supported in the first game’s Earth codex entry with the following: “Advanced nations have eliminated most genetic disease and pollution. Less fortunate regions have not progressed beyond 20th century technology, and are often smog-choked, overpopulated slums.”


The Systems Alliance logo.

The codex entry for the Systems Alliance delves into more detail about the structure of the organization:

The Systems Alliance is an independent supranational government representing the interests of humanity as a whole. The Alliance is responsible for the governance and defense of all extra-solar colonies and stations.

The Alliance grew out of the various national space programs as a matter of practicality. Sol’s planets had been explored and exploited through piecemeal national efforts. The expense of colonizing entire new solar systems could not be met by any one country. With humans knowing that alien contact was inevitable, there was enough political will to jointly fund an international effort.

Still, the Alliance was often disregarded by those on Earth until the First Contact War. While the national governments dithered and bickered over who should lead the effort to liberate Shanxi, the Alliance fleet struck decisively. Post-War public approval gave the Alliance the credibility to establish its own Parliament and become the galactic face of humanity.

This suggests an amazing amount of power and responsibility. The Systems Alliance, originally meant to oversee colonization of new planets, came to represent all humans in interactions with other alien races. The Systems Alliance controlled the humans’ space-faring military. The Systems Alliance would negotiate new colonial interests, and the level of colonial protection would be dictated by the Systems Alliance. The scale of governance is so vast that massive nations suddenly seem like municipal governments. And to a large extent, an individual nation’s “foreign policy” becomes a muzzled issue, not necessarily by limiting the scope of traditional interactions, but by preventing a single nation from attempting to engage with another alien species. This seems a terrifying proposition, especially given that there is no indication that all Earth nations are members of the Systems Alliance.

One real-world analogue to this massive interstellar government is the United Nations. But the United Nations is an intergovernmental organization, not a sovereign governmental entity. It does not have its own military, instead relying on volunteers from member nations. And while its General Assembly, consisting of representatives from member states, passes resolutions, these are non-binding. This loose authoritative presence means, for example, that the United States can simply remove itself from compulsory jurisdiction of the UN’s International Court of Justice–and has in fact done so. In other words, there is none of the sweeping authority of the Systems Alliance. The Citadel Council may in fact more closely match the UN, as it drafts policies agreed to by the member species which must be adhered to for continued membership in the Citadel Council (note that the enforcement ability of the Citadel Council is still considerably greater than that of the UN).

The European Union is another example that was pointed out to me when I prepared this essay in its original format. The EU is a supranational form of governance that developed out of a limited-aspect intergovernmental organization meant to regulate trade. It therefore has a sort of mission creep similar to the expansion of the Systems Alliance from an organization focused on colonization to a galaxy-spanning political body setting rules for the people back home on Earth. The EU also has limited security oversight, with cooperative military forces established between member states, and it also has established spheres of governance, including the European Council with its member state representatives. But I don’t think that the EU is a close match to the Systems Alliance, either. While it is at least an economic and political system that shares common laws to facilitate trade and unity, it does not have quite the same power of the Systems Alliance. A European nation can choose to leave the EU–just look at Brexit–and while this would be economically disruptive, it would be possible. The membership or non-membership of a nation in the Mass Effect galaxy is almost a moot point, as the Systems Alliance will make decisions that affect and basically control all nations of Earth. It is a governmental system that clearly draws from several international organizations existent upon Earth, but surpasses them all. The level of oversight is wildly broad, but then again, the sheer volume of space involved and the sheer number of represented constituents perhaps necessitates such massive control.

It is actually rather hard to imagine a situation where a nation like the United States would vest such power within a supranational organization like the Systems Alliance. How would this even be accomplished? Presumably the United States government, or some successor government, bound itself to the Systems Alliance and member nations by a treaty or series of treaties, which must have been rather extensive in content and scope.

In today’s world, you don’t need to look further than the fervent politicking around the Iran deal (now a dated example, admittedly) to see how unlikely such a binding series of agreements with foreign powers, in which some degree of military control was ceded, would be.

But that is one of the benefits of science fiction: imagining worlds of tomorrow, worlds that are often implausible by the standards of today.


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