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Asimovian Diplomacy

Art by David Kyle. May be found at the following website: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?14435., Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9908274

The war in Europe — and specifically the tack the West has adopted to oppose it — reminds me of ideas I first encountered in the science fiction of Isaac Asimov.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit how much influence Isaac Asimov’s writing had on me. After reading Asimov’s Foundation series in the fall of 2008, the series kindled my interest in the science of linguistics. The siren song that a marriage of cognitive science and inferential statistics could unlock a pandora’s box for manipulating the course of human history offered an allure too tantalizing to neglect. In fact, Foundation influenced a wide spectrum of social science intellects. People from as diverse orientations as the liberal economist Paul Krugman to conservative ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich have cited the influence of Asimov’s seminal space opera.

But in the first book of Foundation, Asimov sets up a series of incidents that exemplify the theory of “soft power” before it became popular with political scientists.

Wikipedia defines “soft power” as follows:

In politics (and particularly in international politics), soft power is the ability to co-opt rather than coerce (contrast hard power). In other words, soft power involves shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction.

Soft power. (2022, March 18). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soft_power

The concept of soft power and its role in a nation’s arsenal of public diplomacy has occupied a prominent role in academic literature since Joseph S. Nye published his book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004). Moreover, several Asian countries, including South Korea and China actively pursue avenues of influence that rely on soft power (Cull, 2021; Weissman, 2020). However, fans of science fiction might note that Isaac Asimov introduced the principle in his Foundation (1951) series before serious literature began to discuss it.

Moreover, because the West is relying exclusively on soft power, the theory is undergoing a vetting rarely seen in soft sciences.


The laws of history are as absolute as the laws of physics, and if the probabilities of error are greater, it is only because history does not deal with as many humans as physics does atoms, so that individual variations count for more.

Isaac Asimov. Foundation and Empire (1952). Doubleday.

In the first installment of the series, Asimov concludes with one of his numerous protagonists — Mayor Hober Mallow — averting the martial threats of a nuclear-powered world — Korell. Like most of Asimov’s heroes, Mallow employs principles of economics, psychology, and sociology to overcome threats of violence and brute force. This theme recurs throughout Asimov’s literary oeuvre, and he states it explicitly in his famous quote from earlier in the book:

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation (1951)

Observe the following passage in which Mayor Mallow explains himself to his assistant Jorane Sutt:

“This is a Seldon crisis we’re facing, Sutt, and Seldon crises are not solved by individuals but by historic forces. Hari Seldon, when he planned our course of future history, did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweeps of economics and sociology. So the solutions to the various crises must be achieved by the forces that become available to us at the time.

“In this case,—trade!”

[…]

“Trade alone! It is strong enough. Let us become very simple and specific. Korell is now at war with us. Consequently our trade with her has stopped. … Now what do you suppose will happen once the tiny nuclear generators begin failing, and one gadget after another goes out of commission?

“The small household appliances go first. After a half a year of this stalemate that you abhor, a woman’s nuclear knife won’t work any more. Her stove begins failing. Her washer doesn’t do a good job. The temperature-humidity control in her house dies on a hot summer day. What happens?”

He paused for an answer, and Sutt said calmly, “Nothing. People endure a good deal in war.”

“Very true. They do. They’ll send their sons out in unlimited numbers to die horribly on broken spaceships. They’ll bear up under enemy bombardment, if it means they have to live on stale bread and foul water in caves half a mile deep. But it’s very hard to bear up under little things when the patriotic uplift of imminent danger is not present. It’s going to be a stalemate. There will be no casualties, no bombardments, no battles.

[…]

“a general background of grumbling and dissatisfaction which will be seized on by more important figures later on … The manufacturers, the factory owners, the industrialists of Korell. When two years of the stalemate have gone, the machines in the factories will, one by one, begin to fail. Those industries which we have changed from first to last with our new nuclear gadgets will find themselves very suddenly ruined. The heavy industries will find themselves, en masse and at a stroke, the owners of nothing but scrap machinery that won’t work.”

[…]

“Arbitrary rulers throughout history have bartered their subjects’ welfare for what they consider honor, and glory, and conquest. But it’s still the little things in life that count—and Asper Argo won’t stand up against the economic depression that will sweep all Korell in two or three years.”

Isaac Asimov, Foundation (1951)

Asimov may have overstated the influence soft power can exert. Nevertheless, it’s not every day that we see a science fiction theory so vetted.


Header image by Braňo on Unsplash.

By P. Ezra Vasquez

Educator, writer, musician, linguist

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