Marvel’s mega-blockbuster Black Panther has spawned a cottage industry of talk about its racial symbolism and resonance as well as the marvelous world-building of its fictional African kingdom of Wakanda. It remains to be seen if there are as many interesting stories to be told in Wakanda as there have been in, say, Middle-Earth or Hogwarts or Westeros, but the vision of a hidden, technologically superior African kingdom untouched by the West has certainly captured the imagination of millions of moviegoers. One of the most interesting aspects of Black Panther is how Wakanda’s foreign-policy debates mirror the same arguments among American conservatives over the past two decades.
A warning, if you have not seen the movie: major plot spoilers ahead.
The traditional Wakandan policy towards the rest of the world is not only proudly nationalist, but nationalist in a way that should be instantly recognizable as a Trumpist species of “Wakanda First” separatism. (This is a parallel that Ellie Bufkin has engaged at some length over at The Federalist.) Wakanda is racially homogenous, has no trade and no immigration, and is literally cut off from its neighbors by a big, beautiful wall. Wakanda’s worldwide network of spies exists solely to keep the country’s secrets, and its military does not venture beyond the wall except on the smallest and most secret of missions to track down its individual enemies and bring them home. Wakanda is looking out only for Wakanda.
When it is suggested that Wakanda should take in refugees, W’Kabi — a friend of the new king, T’Challa — responds, “When you let in refugees, they bring their problems with them.” Nobody offers a counterargument, and it is strongly suggested that this is the majority consensus in Wakanda. The film’s central conflict derives from the fact that the previous king, T’Chaka, refused even to admit an orphaned child owing to the sins of his father — an action with its own resonance in our debates about so-called “Dreamers.” The boy, who adopts the nom de guerre of Killmonger, is half-Wakandan (of the royal family, in fact) but was born in what Wakandans see as a foreign “s***hole” — specifically, Oakland — and becomes radicalized when T’Chaka kills his father and leaves him in California, outside the Wakandan wall.
T’Challa has every intention of following in his father’s isolationist footsteps until two representatives of America’s national-security “Deep State” end up in his country — CIA agent Everett Ross and Killmonger, now an Annapolis graduate and hardened Special Forces veteran of Afghanistan, Iraq, and other American “savage wars of peace,” trained and skilled in the trades of insurgency and counterinsurgency. In their own, Hollywood-caricatured way, Killmonger and Ross act as stand-ins for Trumpist nationalism’s most vigorous opponent on the Right, neoconservatism.
Killmonger seizes the throne from T’Challa in ritual one-on-one combat, and determines to launch Wakanda in a new, interventionist foreign-policy direction built on what can only be described as Wakandan exceptionalism. He proposes that Wakanda’s technological superiority entitles it to export weapons and foment insurgencies aimed at rescuing the world’s downtrodden people from their oppressors, and in the process create an empire on which “the sun will never set” (a deliberate nod to British imperialism, though the British themselves borrowed the phrase from the Spanish). Ross, by contrast, espouses no doctrines — but he instinctively inserts himself into what swiftly becomes a Wakandan civil war, taking what he sees as the right side for America.
Of course, Killmonger’s vision of Wakandan exceptionalism, unlike the American neoconservative version, is not based on a superior system of government and individual rights; as he graphically illustrates, Wakanda’s absolute monarchy and system of determining kingship by physical combat is its Achilles’ heel. As Jim Geraghty notes, the film gives scant attention to the broader question of Wakandans’ complete absence of political rights. Just as in the most recent Star Wars films, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, the failure to build political institutions with the democratic legitimacy to withstand coups is a necessary plot device, but one that illustrates in practice the wisdom of our own system. In the real world, if you wanted a nation that’s culturally homogenous, ruled by a family monarchy, suspicious of outsiders, mineral-rich, and never conquered or colonized by the West, you’d relocate to Saudi Arabia.
Killmonger’s Wakandan exceptionalism manifests itself, instead, as a global race war, and that idea brings along some traditional Wakandans like W’Kabi. He promotes a kind of pan-Africanism similar to the pan-Arabism of the 1960s, the pan-Germanism of the 1930s, and the pan-Slavism of the 1910s, with the expectation of similarly destabilizing results. Yet even his racialism is met with resistance among the Wakandan elite for being too global and too inclusive: They see themselves as part of the Wakandan nation, not an international tribe of all people of African descent, and they don’t want to expend Wakandan blood and treasure for suffering foreigners.
Killmonger wins the argument over whether Wakandans should engage with the problems of the outside world.
Killmonger’s cruelty and callous disdain for tradition stacks the deck against him with the audience — we know he’s the bad guy — but he is nonetheless given powerful and seductive arguments along with his distraught backstory that make his case a sympathetic one. And in an ironic twist, while T’Challa saves his throne, Wakanda, and the world from Killmonger and his violent plot, Killmonger wins the argument over whether Wakandans should engage with the problems of the outside world. At the end of the film, T’Challa reveals Wakanda to the world and embarks on a campaign of nation-building public diplomacy aimed at winning over the hearts and minds of the same people Killmonger wanted to help — starting in Oakland. Even carrying the burden of a hostile Hollywood storyline and a caricatured version of their philosophy, the neoconservatives win this round. T’Challa ends up the movie sounding like George W. Bush, even at the expense of taking the jibes of what appears to be a French U.N. diplomat sneering at him for representing a nation of provincial farmers.
Equally striking is the complete absence of even an argument in favor of progressive foreign policy. In a post-credits scene, T’Challa appears at the United Nations to announce Wakanda’s new policies, but nobody in the film tries to use multilateral organizations to constrain Wakanda, to eliminate its national borders, or to redistribute its wealth against its will. There’s no Obama-style effort to “engage” and pay off foreign tyrants in the vain hope of “moderating” them, for example. It’s simply accepted that the outside world is hostile to Wakanda, and that Wakanda needs to pursue its own interests and control its own destiny. To the extent that liberal foreign-policy impulses appear here at all, they are in the form of the kind of Hillaryesque liberal internationalism (foreign humanitarian aid, public diplomacy) that overlaps significantly with the favored tools of neoconservatism.
Should we be surprised that such a “woke” Hollywood film in 2018 gives voice to two contending and fundamentally conservative/right-wing foreign-policy philosophies? Maybe not. The original Black Panther comics drew on the black nationalism of the 1960s, which was always right-wing in its impulses and worldview, if not in its place on the American political spectrum. The entire Marvel Comics universe is built on the philosophy that “with great power comes great responsibility,” a neoconservative motto if ever there was one, and the restraints of supranational world governments were vividly resisted in the last two Captain America films (Winter Soldier and Civil War) by that walking red-white-and-blue-suited icon of optimistic, interventionist mid-20th-century American nationalism. And of course, fighting the bad guys has always made for better theater than appeasement and bureaucracy.
We have not, by any stretch, seen the last of the longstanding foreign-policy arguments between those who want America to stay home and stand for “America First” and those who believe that America has both interests and responsibilities in promoting the American system abroad. Even the Trump administration, despite the campaign rhetoric of candidate Trump, has continued those debates. And now, Black Panther has given a massive audience a thought-provoking dramatization of that ongoing American dilemma.