Over New Year I watched Star Trek and South Pacific. An unlikely mix, I know, but I was offered South Pacific very cheaply in a store and although I hadn't seen it, I liked some of the tunes. What I didn't expect was that they dealt with similar themes, which seem to be embedded within the American psyche. And much of it had to do with law and norms.
In Star Trek the "Enterprise" is stuck in an unknown part of space--the Delta Quadrant--70,000 light years away from earth. Having connected with an advanced race, who appeared human-looking, that possessed considerable technology which could help them return to earth, the question is can the Federation use this technology when the aliens have expressly forbidden them from doing so. The aliens were worried that their technology would be abused in the wrong hands. However, one alien was prepared to trade the technology for the ship's library of literature. The aliens loved stories. The Federation's prime directive of non-interference would seem to trump any action in illicitly obtaining the technology. Yet the Federation doesn't seem to consider that their mere presence may be a contravention of the prime directive.
Compare the situation to when the missionaries and traders traversed the world in search of heathens to convert in the 18th and 19th centuries. While they may have been successful in bringing the "Good Word of God" to pagans, they were more bountiful in the bacteria and germs they brought with them. Influenza and other illnesses laid siege to immune systems unprepared to this kind of biological warfare.
In South Pacific the American forces are fighting the Japanese in the south Pacific and have taken over several islands. The Americans are in terra incognita having to rely on French emigres and natives to supply them with intelligence. One can see it perturbs their omniscience. Ensign Nellie Forbush falls for the older French planter and is ready to marry when she discovers that he has two children by his now dead Polynesian wife. The innocent from Little Rock, Arkansas is ready to accept that he killed a man, but cannot reconcile herself to Emile having married a native. Another officer, Lt Cable, falls in love with Liat, a native, but he too is unable to let himself marry her.
Both Nellie and Cable are repulsed by the idea of miscegenation. While Cable has some idea of how racism is inculcated, Nellie is only able to overcome her prejudices when she hears of Cable's death. She is finally able to breach her prime directive.
Both Star Trek and South Pacific show us the superpower establishing ambiguous ethics regarding behaviour to others. Indeed, this ethical standpoint is imposed; it does not emerge from dialogue and consensus. It is paternalistic and condescending in that it suggests the superpower by virtue of its power (and not necessarily its superior intelligence) knows better than others what appropriate behaviour and action are. So the prime directive appears at first absolute, then we realise it is at best a relativist position that is open to jesuitical interpretation.
This is easily exemplified by the Americans' unwillingness to accord the rule of law--that bastion of the Washington consensus--to those prisoners of war held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. It's further reinforced by American refusal to commit to the International Criminal Court. But when you hold the prime directive in your own hands, why do you have to bother with the niceties of the rule of law?