Let’s say that First Contact does occur some day. Just who do we meet? Is it a lonely civilization or a group of civilizations, part of a galactic amalgamation of some sort? SETI researchers have called this concept the Galactic Club, so named by Ronald Bracewell.
The informal nature of the name gives it wide latitude in organization. The Galactic Club could be just a couple of extraterrestrial civilizations communicating over the vast distances of space. It could also be a more organized and controlled group, similar to the United Federation of Planets concept in Star Trek.
In his paper, “Networking with our Galactic Neighbors” (part of the The Foundation For the Future report “When SETI Succeeds: The Impact of High-Information Contact.”) Albert Harrison explores both the possibilities and impacts of the Galactic Club concept. Harrison posits that the nature of the Galactic Club could depend on its level of development. Early efforts would likely be looser in connection. A more highly developed organization could come to act as a supranational system of galactic government.
This idea is a critical one for humans to consider. If we meet a lone civilization there is a clear path for diplomacy and relations. If First Contact occurs with a member of a Galactic Club things could be much, much more complicated. Alliances and rivalries could enter into the picture. We could easily find ourselves involved in a galactic political struggle.
On a more positive note a strong Galactic Club, as Harrison points out, could have strict rules for First Contact with a newly found civilization. This could help make the process easier and perhaps include safeguards in protecting our culture.
Harrison points out that humanity could actually be the founder of such a Galactic Club. But given the high odds that any extraterrestrial civilizations we make contact with will be further along in development than us, in thousands, if not millions of years, we need to consider the more complicated scenario of us entering into an established Galactic Club as a naïve member.
Humans speaking with one voice is essential in any First Contact scenario. In the case of a complicated, multi-civilization scenario it becomes critical for our survival. We may not last long, or have an outcome we like, if we act as a disjointed group of nations here on Earth. At the very least, it seems improbable that we would benefit from interstellar relationships if we remain divided and warring here on Earth.
Harrison says that a galactic club of any formal organization would likely have a well-developed framework for First Contact, carefully managing when such an event might occur and the subsequent communication and diplomacy. If it is a beneficent club that could be good for us. They could walk us through an established process. Harrison says dealing with a group could be less threatening to us, since a single civilization could act in a number of extreme ways in First Contact, while an organized bureaucracy would likely act in a more careful and established fashion.
There is always the possibility of a controlling, malevolent Galactic Club. One can imagine the Empire in the Star Wars series. However, Harrison points to political research to show that quarrelsome, violent civilizations would likely have a shorter life than civilizations that form defensive and strategic alliances. Perhaps a tougher thing for humanity to handle would be a Galactic Club that we didn’t understand at all, in terms of makeup or interaction. It might take years and decades to wade through the history to determine just how a Galactic Club came into being and what it holds for us, the newest members.