Rather withering reviews of the season finale of POLI 150.001 (season 20) led producers of this series to include a previously unreleased alternate ending in the online version of the course, (to be released to UNC students as a downloadable zip file from the Friday Center in September 2014). In contrast to other such compilations, this set will include only very limited interactive components. Sarah Bauerle-Danzman, a cast member for season 20, commented on the absence of interaction that “though students might find the powerpoint slides useful, the accompanying lectures are entirely predictable and thus really quite boring.”
The alternate ending is the most exciting component of this online version. Referred to on set during production as “World War III,” this alternate ending was filmed during a mid-season contract dispute that threatened to prevent a renewal of the series for a season 21. Reluctant to leave viewers hanging, the producers sought to tie up all of the loose ends of international politics in a single episode (and not even a double episode). When POLI 150 was renewed for the fall of 2014, producers shelved the alternate ending (and thus contrary to rumors, the course has not been relegated to an exclusively online offering).
SPOILER ALERT!!! STOP READING IF YOU DON’T WANT TO LEARN THE ALTERNATE ENDING
For those who may have slept through an episode or two of the series this season, a brief synopsis might be helpful before we turn to the alternate ending. The United States is the hero. The US is a generally well-intentioned though sometimes idealistic hegemon. The US is not an extreme “idiot hero” in the mold of Maxwell Smart, but falls somewhere between the exuberant yet naive Finn (from Glee) and the somewhat more sophisticated and powerful Peter Petrelli (from Heroes). The US uses its power to construct and sustain an international order that embodies its belief in the pacifying consequences of democracy, trade, and international law. By constructing this international order, the US banishes war from the northern hemisphere (though precisely why the order has this effect remains uncertain–is it democracy? economic interdependence?) and ushers in a period known as “the Long Peace.”
Rising powers in the global south provide the show’s anti-heroes. These emerging states are accumulating economic and military power and seem increasingly able to challenge the American order. China, the leader of the so-called BRICs, has benefited from rapid economic growth during the past twenty years and has been spending heavily on military power. Yet, the episodes leading up to the series finale refuse to reveal China’s true power and objectives: is China a paper tiger or a real challenger to American hegemony? Will China insert itself peacefully into the American order, or will it instead use its accumulated power to challenge this order, even if doing so risks a war with the US? Rather annoyingly, the series refuses to answer these fundamentally important questions.
Though the series encourages us to expect a finale that involves a military clash between the US and China, other villains emerge over the season and thereby reduce the inevitability of a clash of the titans. Thomas Malthus, for instance, appears half way through the season as a foil to the Long Peace. Though banished to the global south, will he once again sow dissent in the global north? Vladmir Putin’s misadventures in the Ukraine emerge as a recurring theme about midway through the season. What is he up to in central Europe, and do his actions harken back to 19th century czarist Russia?
The season finale that aired on April 23 refused to resolve any of the questions. The alternate ending does so by weaving them into a single storyline that builds to an explosive conclusion. As the finale begins we see Malthus traveling north to meet American policymakers in Washington, DC. The news he delivers sparks a sharp decline in living standards across the global north, and sets off competition between the US, China, the EU, Japan, and Russia over the world’s energy reserves. Putin exerts control over central Asia and the “ikistans.” The EU asserts control over the north sea. China and Japan compete for control of Asian oil reserves, and the US strives to maintain its position in the Gulf States against Chinese and Russian encroachment and contemplates annexing Canada, Mexico and Venezuela. As competition intensifies, the great powers turn to military power to secure the energy reserves necessary to sustain current standards of living.
I will not recount the frantic and ultimately futile diplomacy that failed to prevent World War III as the crisis built. Nor will I reveal whether the great powers used nuclear weapons in this war. I will note, however, that this alternate ending makes it quite clear that the series’ creators believe the Long Peace to be a consequence of the American order, an international order that, by providing security to most of the states in the northern hemisphere, enabled people fortunate to have been born in or emigrate to this part of the world to enjoy a level of material well being and personal liberty without equal in human history. The alternate ending suggests that we should think a bit about how to sustain these achievements for future generations.
The one question the alternate ending failed to resolve concerned the ideological divides between different diaspora cultures, an issue of concern to at least one student in the course. When asked why he chose to leave this one question open, the series creator, Dr. Thomas Oatley, replied, “diaspora culture? I think you have me confused with GLBL 210.”