Science, Technology and Diplomacy

In his typically excellent September 1 – 2 press and blog review of the burgeoning discourse on public diplomacy (PD), John Brown cites a quotation by Manuel Castells, author of the magisterial Information Age trilogy:

Public Diplomacy is the…projection in the international arena of the values and ideas of the public… The aim of the practice of public diplomacy is not to convince but to communicate, not to declare but to listen. Public diplomacy seeks to build a sphere in which diverse voices can be heard in spite of their various origins, distinct values, and often contradictory interests.

Among the almost infinite variety of subjects which might form the basis for that kind of conversation, science (because of its universality, inclusivity and relevance to almost everything) and technology (because of its power and ubiquity) represent one area which is is particularly well-suited to international ventilation.

For those reasons, among others, scientific exchanges, alongside similarly popular educational and cultural programs, were prolific during the Cold War. Although not necessarily considered an element of public diplomacy at the time, international S&T programming nonetheless played a prominent role in both the American and Soviet camps.  In those days, wide-ranging ideological, strategic and geopolitical competition provided the framing and context, both directly and through third parties whose allegiance was being sought. One of the sources of continuing Russian influence in places such as India, Syria and Iran, for instance, stems from the scientific training received in the Soviet Union by at least a generation of  students.

In the globalization era, however, world order has become more hetero– than bi- or even multi-polar, and the institutional memory of those Cold War activities is fading fast. Now, markets rule, and much of the scientific research and technological development has  been either moved out of government and privatized, or has remained focussed on defence-related objectives.

None of that, of course, makes S&T writ large any less relevant. But it does make it harder to understand why so little is said about it outside of a few specialized, and somewhat isloated and obscure circles.

Although many of the most pressing issues facing humanity are based in science and propelled by technology, with critical downstream implications for development and security, most governments have not made significant efforts to ramp up the level of scientific and technological interchange globally. Were this to become a priority, foreign ministries, as the primary points of contact between the national and international interests of states, would almost certainly have to become involved.

All of which brings me to offer an account of a session I attended recently on “The Foreign Ministry of the Future”. Senior officials spoke at some length about matters related to to the creation of an international platform for the efficient delivery of common services abroad to other federal government departments, about the need to transform various aspects of the bureaucratic process, and about a number of human resource initiatives.

S&T?

It never came up.

In fact, the entire episode was suffused with a somewhat surreal air, not least because of the complete absence of any references to either diplomacy or foreign policy, which one might otherwise think would have to be germane to such a discussion. Nor did the acute shortage of resources, which is at present wreaking havoc upon operations at home and abroad, attract any commentary. All of which is quite surprising.

One dimension of S&T which might have come up regards the issue of virtuality and foreign ministries, by which I mean the application of information and communications technology (ICTs) and the use of the new media. Especially in OECD countries, and particularly in the USA and UK,  diplomatic methods and practices after a slow start have in fact have in fact adapted quite well to the possibilities inherent in the new media and ICTs. Ambassadors and foreign ministers are blogging, the web is being used interactively for the conduct of outreach and public diplomacy, foreign service officers in the field are being enabled through the issue of mobile communications devices such as Blackberries, and personnel departments are experimenting with telework and distance learning.

Among the many factors subversive of  the lingering elements of hierarchy, secrecy, cultural conservativism and top-down control still prominent in contemporary diplomatic institutions, these sorts of developments, and the revolution in S&T more generally, are likely to figure centrally.

In my view, that can’t happen too soon.

I began with a quotation from communications theorist Manuel Castells; let me conclude with a passage from Canada’s own Marshall McLuhan:

The vested interests of acquired knowledge and conventional wisdom have always been bypassed and engulfed by new media.

Enough said.

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