Let’s start with a simple premise, widely accepted to the point of making the claim almost banal:
we live in a time of crises.
The whole perceived global consensus created in the aftermath of World War II, and we may give it any of its different possible names – Pax Americana, Bretton Woods, the rules based international order, whatever – isn’t in a happy place, and that’s merely the political manifestation of the larger issue. Global metacrises are numerous and frightening, and they range from climate change and pressing environmental concerns, to nuclear weapons (testimony to our considerable potential to blow ourselves up and out of existence), to rogue artificial intelligence and probably well beyond.
Doomerism figures prominently in the debates for all kinds of good reasons. Future thinkers (Daniel Schmachtenberger’s talk of the third attractor, for example) believe that at least one of the big problems the human civilization is facing lies in the contradiction between the human capacity to create complex, accelerated and mutually reinforcing systems and our lack of proper evolutionary tools to follow the pace of that complexity, with the underlying multipolar traps potentially leading to cascading issues.
With this glum global backdrop in mind, if we were to bring all this closer to our métier, it’s not a wonder that this is also not an easy time to do diplomacy. In fact, it would be tempting to establish a correlation between the current diplomatic environment and the fractured larger world in which people, entities and nations appear to constantly talk past, rather than listen to, each other. If we believe that societies are getting increasingly polarized, that hardly provides fertile ground for successful diplomatic advocacy.
In addition to all the various crises and metacrises, there seems to also exist a crisis of meaning and interpretation – two categories that also lie at the very foundation of diplomacy. Both the traditional and internet media repeatedly indicate the same sense of divisions, opposites and mutually exclusive doctrinary standpoints. How does one inhabit that space of competing truth claims and evolve to do our work properly, to make connections, bring people and ideas closer together?
The desperate search for sources of collective imagination often leads to science fiction. In his influential essay Progress versus Utopia; Or, Can We Imagine the Future?, Fredric Jameson writes that “… the apparent realism, or representationality, of SF has concealed another, far more complex temporal structure: not to give us ‘images’ of the future … but rather to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present, and to do so in specific ways distinct from all other forms of defamiliarization.”
It is interesting that, in this quest to restructure our present, contemporary science fiction often turns, explicitly or implicitly, to the issues of diplomacy, coming to epitomize the ultimate appeal to bridge gaps rather than create and perpetuate them. Arguably, all these efforts in science fiction to build different worlds, where political subjects talk instead of fighting, where we have access and agency in places we previously didn’t know or understand, and where boundaries are overcome, have in many cases recently shifted from technological and other utopias toward various tales of diplomacy.
This isn’t entirely new. In all fairness, “diplomatic sci-fi” has been around for quite a while. The desire to know the previously unknown or seemingly unfathomable, and to approach the Other as a partner rather than the enemy, is perhaps nowhere more visible in classical sci-fi than in the Star Trek universe. Unlike Star Wars, where the world is defined and redefined through power struggle (between the Empire and rebels), Star Trek is a prime example of intergalactic diplomacy based on the idea that alliance building through a healthy consensus rather than by force is possible. The main props in the two universes are clear giveaways. While the lightsaber in Star Wars is a weapon, Star Trek’s tricorder is primarily a communication device.
This idea is arguably circumscribed in the reality of enlightened leadership, the same kind of founding myth that made the United States into the global superpower it has been over the recent decades. As the tide turns and its status is no longer that obvious, the more recent Star Trek spinoffs, such as Discovery or Picard, are far less certain of themselves and their explorer (or missionary) type heroes than, for example, the canonical Next Generation.
Contemporary reworking of the diplomatic theme in sci-fi is much more subtle. In the movie Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, the main character is a linguist, and, when the strange, non-human aliens appear on Earth, her mission is to crack their communication by non-linear code. Working as an interpreter, she not only gets to understand what they are trying to communicate, but also brings meaning to her own life. As if to stress the obvious kinship of interpreters and diplomats, this sounds like the very definition of diplomacy – understanding what others are telling us, and interpreting that to inform our own thinking.
That essential diplomatic act of cultural interpretation is even more of an uphill task in China Miéville’s 2011 novel Embassytown, where the link to diplomacy is clearly established starting with the title. The emissary to a vastly different alien civilization not only succeeds in comprehending the seemingly impenetrable alien language, but also uses it to irrevocably change the aliens and their society. In some ways, there is even more to diplomacy here, going beyond mere interpreting toward influencing.
Perhaps the richest hommage to the allure of our profession in this suite of recent works is Arkady Martine’s duology of novels about the intergalactic empire of Teixcalaan, consisting of A Memory Called Empire (2019) and A Desolation Called Peace (2021). Her main character in both novels is a diplomat, Mahit Dzmare, from a small space entity (Lsel Station), who grows up studying, and being seduced by, the empire to which she’ll be sent. When caught in the whirlwind of imperial intrigue, her diplomatic skills are put to test as much as her loyalty.
The novels argue that, although we may embrace the Other and be fascinated with the culture of our rivals, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to lose sight of who we are. This fascination doesn’t have to represent the antithesis of loyalty because true diplomatic loyalty is about serving those who send us while synthesizing the host culture with the sending culture to the extent possible. Familiarity with the Teixcalaanli empire helps Ambassador Mahit to work in the best interest of her own station, but the byproduct of her actions is that the empire also becomes a better place. Cultural affinity for Teixcalaan doesn’t hamper her from being an agent for her world; it arguably does the opposite by giving her the advantage of knowing, akin to the act of performative agnosticism where one internalizes the conversation partner’s position to better understand it.
This is merely a small sample of a recent cluster of works that reaffirm constructive and collaborative diplomacy as a way forward, and as a counterbalance to the forces that divide us. It’s perhaps not surprising in the current climate, marked by the absence of dialogue and understanding, both within societies and between them, that the imagination of science fiction creators turns toward diplomacy. This can be read as an expression of desire to bridge gaps between people and nations that appear to be widening constantly.
In terms of what may happen next, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (2020) ventures beyond diplomacy to questions of global governance. The Ministry itself is created after a catastrophic, climate change related event, which kills over 20 million people. As dystopian as the premise may sound, the rest of the novel is significantly less depressing than the opening chapter. Using the mechanisms of global governance to their full potential, people manage to find some solutions that put humanity back on a difficult but promising path. Of course, the implicit, large and important question for all of humanity is whether improving our current predicament can be accomplished without a major catastrophe as a preamble.
Whatever the case may be, the fact that our profession figures so prominently in contemporary artistic imagination as a way to potentially make things better should be a source of inspiration, but also a reminder of our own great responsibility as diplomats.