Why worry about Direct First Contact protocol? It comes down to the inherent weakness of our position. Direct First Contact entails having an extraterrestrial civilization come to Earth to say hello. It’s not the most likely form of First Contact. SETI based messages are much more likely due to the physical constraints of interstellar travel. SETI contact could happen with a civilization of a lower level, same level or higher level of technology. The mere nature of interstellar travel would mean that the visiting extraterrestrials in a Direct First Contact situation would have a much higher level of technology than us, at least in some areas. Direct First Contact poses much more of a threat for several reasons. And it’s not just the difference in technology.
Surprise is a weakness. We have done little to prepare for such a moment. Without an organized system of response we open ourselves to authority issues. Who on Earth should be in charge of First Contact? It’s easy to assume a United Nations role, but there are many people who are opposed to United Nations authority. Clear diplomatic procedures would need to be established quickly. There could be in-fighting among nations as leaders realize the real benefits of controlling First Contact. Our military systems are not unified and do not have a system of communication. The lack of a protocol leaves our economic systems in jeopardy. How will the global markets respond to news of First Contact? There is, of course, only so much planning you can do for something that probably will not happen in our lifetimes, if ever. Any type of protocol is better than none.
Another weakness is the fact that the visitors have come to our planet. That means they have very little to lose and we have everything to lose. It is the classic European explorer example that we love to use when it comes to First Contact scenarios. The Europeans send a ship to visit a Pacific Island. They find a society there and establish relations. If outright hostilities don’t develop they form trading relationships and perhaps the Europeans establish an outpost. In most examples the native population suffers from an erosion of their society. Slowly and in some cases quickly, the culture and values of the native population are destroyed by influence from the larger and more technologically advanced civilization.
The only real protection we have to any of these weaknesses is a swift and conservative response. Does that sound like a contradiction? Here’s what I mean: We must move quickly to establish control of the situation and then slowly and deliberately in forming a long term relationship with a visiting civilization. We must limit interaction and have a formalized process of diplomacy. We must establish rules of contact and procedures for future visits. We must contain the flow of certain information (technology and science related matters) until we can determine what impact such information might have on our society. We must establish an organized observation system to track incoming craft and a unified world military response in case relations go sour.
Alien First Contact doesn’t need to go poorly for us. We can overcome the inherent weakness of our position. Of course it will help if the visitors arrive with peaceful intentions. We can’t assume that’s the case, even if they say so. In the end it is what we do to prepare ourselves that will make the biggest difference.