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Do intelligent aliens exist somewhere out there in the universe? It is a grand mystery that has captivated humans for generations, fueling ever-more sophisticated searches of the skies for signs of advanced civilizations. But while aliens have taken many forms in our imaginations—from hostile invaders to inscrutable ciphers—we have absolutely no idea what extraterrestrial life-forms might look like, how they would communicate, or even if they exist at all.

We can, however, make some assumptions about the only intelligent space-faring species that we know of—humans—and how we might react to contact with an alien civilization. Indeed, people have spent decades developing protocols that attempt to anticipate this momentous event and all of the extraordinary potential consequences it could have on our civilization. It’s an especially important question now, as the world appears more strongly divided than at any time in recent memory, with major powers taking on increasingly antagonistic stances toward each other. 

In 2020, a pair of researchers dug into this question in an article in Space Policy by suggesting that humans might pose as big a risk to ourselves in the aftermath of alien contact as any extraterrestrial species. The study views the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) through the lens of “realpolitik,” a term that describes the kind of gritty power plays and practical maneuvers that nations pull to enhance their own positions.

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