[Edited to correct the name of the First Order.]
First off, this post about The Force Awakens will be spoiler-free—with the exception of a few bits of data about the power-politics situation in the Star Wars galaxy, which are actually provided in the opening crawl, so it’s not a big deal. If even this bothers you, feel free to click away; but the political background actually played very little role in the plot, so I feel comfortable discussing it more even for people who have not seen the movie.
Okay, so you’re still with me. I just saw TFA this evening (has that become the official acronym yet?), and the film gives us very little indeed about the politics behind it all. This is not a problem, exactly; the original films told us nothing except “Here is an empire, here are some rebels, go play.” I’m not demanding a strategic overview like something out of Clausewitz. (And of course, it would be silly to have some contrived plot about trade federations and blockades that hardly makes sense to a three-year-old… ahem.) But TFA gave us some tantalizing hints, that I can’t help but expand upon.
The Empire has fallen. The messy aftermath is not explored in any great depth, except that the New Republic apparently controls much of the Empire’s old territory—but not all of it. And in what remains, the First Order arises. It views itself as a strategic enemy of the New Republic, but has not launched an open war. Furthermore, the Republic has not made open war either, but instead creates a proxy group to fight the First Order, called the Resistance. (Because “Rebels” was taken, I suppose.)
This has many fascinating parallels with real-life insurgent groups, which are often supported or funded by neighboring states who wish to cause trouble for their enemies, while maintaining plausible deniability. (One of the key recent works on state support for insurgencies is Idean Salehyan’s Rebels Without Borders, a concise and informative work.) Usually, states support insurgencies if they are too weak to confront their enemy directly, or if they are powerful enough but simply don’t want to incur the costs of a direct conflict.
The movie is ambiguous on which of these is true for the Republic, but there is some evidence that the second case holds. In my view, the First Order would have dearly liked to crush the Republic even before the movie starts, but did not have the naval power to do so. So then why would the Republic resort to proxies instead of defeating them directly?
Furthermore, there are some hints (much more debatable) that not all of the Republic agrees with supporting the Resistance. A particular figure even seemed to have paid a political price for providing aid, giving up her prior position of authority. (I could be misreading this, but it seems right.) So why would the Republic be so reluctant to confront the First Order directly?
Perhaps the difficulties of rebuilding the galaxy have been too taxing. Reimposing order after the Empire’s fall would have been a grueling job, and it may not be done yet. Committing the fleet to a war might expose the Republic to dangers from other quarters. Or it may be simpler. Even if the Republic is wealthy and powerful on paper, its leaders may still bear scars from the last conflict that make them flinch away from taking on another one.
Whatever the reason, in the real world supporting proxy insurgents carries its own risks. For the state sponsor, insurgents can often provide a cheap and easy way to cause your enemy a lot of trouble; but the immediate costs may not be the whole story. The targeted country will be just as angry at state support of an insurgency as it would if it had been the subject of a full-blown war—without actually being weakened by one. And even though diplomatic fictions and strategic constraints may make retaliation difficult, the targeted country will often use any means available to strike back. Sometimes, support for proxies can lead to the worst of both worlds for the state providing support, an angry enemy at its full strength. In those cases, it would have been better to attack directly, or not at all.
Though I do hope that we get more information about the Star Wars Universe’s strategic picture in future films, I know that it’s not really that kind of film. But there does seem to be a lot more going on behind the scenes than is openly discussed in TFA, and all of it is compelling. Well done to the filmmakers!