The New Threat Set: Science Diplomacy in the Age of Globalization

Blogger’s Note: Regular visitors to this site will have noticed an absence of new postings over the past few months. However regrettable, this has been the inevitable result of an exceptionally busy spring schedule of travel, teaching, lectures and conferences, as well as competing writing commitments. I hope to resume a pattern of more regular contributions over the course of the summer. In the meantime, the brief entry below represents a summary of some of the main messages which I have been delivering while on the road.


We cannot solve the problems we have created with the same thinking we used in creating them.

Albert Einstein


Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, today the most profound challenges which today imperil the planet are grounded in neither religious extremism nor political violence. Instead, the globalization age has given rise to a vexing array of transnational issues which are rooted in science, driven by technology and largely immune to the application of armed force. Climate change, diminishing biodiversity, environmental collapse, pandemic disease and resource scarcity, to name but a few of these elemental S&T-based issues, exacerbate underdevelopment and heighten insecurity. Unlike terrorism or ideological rivalry, however, this new threat set places everyone at risk. There are no military solutions; human security is a function of broadly-based development, and is not a martial art.

Science diplomacy – a transformative tool of soft power which offers the prospect of engaging shared interests to overcome political constraints and enlarge international cooperation – represents a particularly promising way forward.  Knowledge-based, technologically-enabled problem-solving can make an essential contribution, not only to the construction of a more secure, equitable and sustainable world order, but also to the prospects for long-term human survival. That said,   S&T capacity is largely alien to, and almost invisible within most institutions of global governance. Foreign ministries, development agencies, and multilateral organizations face a debilitating performance gap, and are typically without the scientific expertise, technological savvy, cultural predisposition or research and development (R&D) network access required to bridge digital divides and manage S&T-based issues effectively. While  innovation, imagination and creative thinking thrive in a lateral, interconnected and networked setting, existing institutions feature bureaucratic sclerosis, stovepipes and silos, rigid occupational hierarchies and authoritarian social relations. All of that must change.

The present misallocation of scarce international policy resources,  in favour of defence and at the expense of diplomacy and development, must be remedied. Even at that, enlarged capacity and major reforms will be necessary if the daunting range of process and structural obstacles are to be overcome. Future  postings will explore the revolution in culture, values and professional practice required to ensure that the proposed combination of science and diplomacy can deliver as advertised.


Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning

Albert Einstein.



Restoring Canadian Diplomatic Leadership in Five Uneasy Pieces

From the late 1940s through the early 2000s, Canada enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as an innovative international policy entrepreneur.

From  a central role in the design and construction of the United Nations and Bretton Woods institutions, through the Suez Crisis and invention of peacekeeping, to the North-South Dialogue, Earth Summit and Human Security Agenda, Canada’s much-admired diplomacy of the deed  translated into practical political influence and an oversized place in the world.

Although little of that legacy survived the Harper Conservatives’ visceral contempt for all that came before, the adverse consequences of that debilitating interlude just may have given rise to an historic opportunity. 

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Global Affairs Canada? Seven steps to a higher functioning foreign ministry

During its first few months in office the Trudeau government has shown itself admirably adept at harvesting a wide variety of low hanging fruit, both political and public administrative.

Some gestures have been symbolic, others more substantive. In the wake of a lengthy parade of largely indifferent foreign ministers, the PM chose to appoint former party leader Stephane Dion, a thoughtful and experienced academic and who reads his briefs and writes his own speeches. Diplomats have been unmuzzled, and are once again afforded the trust required to engage in unscripted conversations. The curiously retrograde “Sovereign’s Wall” in the lobby of the Pearson Building has been decommissioned, with the oversized portrait of the Queen removed and the magnificent Pellan canvasses restored.

Perhaps most tellingly, the clunky, short-lived Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has been re-christened Global Affairs Canada (GAC).

What to make of this whirlwind of activity?

The new government certainly embarked from a strikingly diminished base. After a decade of diplomatic inactivity, with the foreign ministry largely sidelined and marginalized by efforts to promote Canada as a “warrior nation”, almost any action was bound to seem significant. Yet changing the amalgamated department’s name – not unlike attending summits, offering a comforting range of international assurances, hosting the UN Secretary General, and endlessly repeating the mantra that “Canada’s back” – was definitely the easy part. Now that the early gains have been registered, the real work must begin.

If Canada is to regain its stature as an innovative, engaged and valuable player on the world stage, and in so doing burnish its tarnished brand, the performance of the foreign ministry will have to improve. Drastically.

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Is Canada “Back” on the World Stage? Maybe…


In conversation last week with members of the global elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos, PM Justin Trudeau undoubtedly emphasized once again that “ Canada is back” on the world stage.

Repeating that mantra may be good communications practice, but after a decade of foreign policy retrogression, the substantive case will be more difficult to make.

The Canada to which he refers has been a long time gone.

In such circumstances, the effort to reconnect with this country’s storied internationalist past won’t in itself be enough. But it might represent a useful point of departure.

Canada once contributed imaginatively, generously and energetically to the construction of broadly-based international security and prosperity.

That stature was not merely conjured by spin doctors. It was earned, grounded demonstrably in the diplomacy of the deed.

Lester Pearson and Justin’s father Pierre, for instance, are renown for their commitment to development and peace.

But there is much more.

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Diaspora Scientific Communities at Home and Abroad – Part I: An Untapped Resource for Diplomacy?

Blogger’s Note:  This is the first installment of notes for an address delivered 25 November 2015 at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa.


Many thanks to the conference organizers and CSPC volunteers, and warm greetings to all attendees.

I would like try and launch our discussion of the putative role and place of diaspora science communities (DSCs) in international relations by offering an overview of some key considerations and constraints.

The idea of tapping into the skills and expertise resident in diaspora science communities (DSCs) in order to advance international policy goals and more effectively address global challenges is certainly an attractive proposition. That said, much complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity lie just below the surface. The relevant literature is thin, initiatives have been few, and as a result there is little by way of an established track record which might be examined to illuminate the way forward. Moreover, even if it can be demonstrated that scientists who share a common nationality but live abroad do in fact exhibit characteristics of something which could reasonably be described as a community, it is by no means clear that would-be members of DSCs self-identify as such or could be motivated to contribute to the attainment of objectives lying largely outside of the lab.

Would, for example, Chinese or Indian-born scientists living in Canada be willing to participate as a group in any kind of a larger, and in some respects more inherently political enterprise?

Tapping into DSC’s for the purposes of science diplomacy is quite possibly more easily said than done.

In trying to frame and contextualize the issue, there is much to contemplate.

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After the liberation: Is Canada’s public service equipped to deliver?

There is no worse heresy than that high office sanctifies the holder of it.

Lord Acton

These are exciting times across the country, and not least in Ottawa, where the repercussions of Oct.19th continue to rock the capital.

The sensation of a new beginning is palpable – something akin to awakening from a decade long coma to discover a world on the cusp of transformation.

The debilitating communications gag, which had in particular compromised the work of scientists and diplomats, has been removed. Federal government employees, assured that they may once more speak and write freely about their work and will be treated with trust and respect, are exuberant.

The “Sovereign’s Wall” in the Pearson Building lobby – dominated by a larger than life portrait of Elizabeth II once described to me by a British diplomatic colleague as the expression of a “curious royalist fetish” that induced in him an “out of body” experience – is gone. It has been replaced by the pair of canvasses by Quebec artist Alfred Pellan which were removed on the occasion of a visit by Prince William in 2011. The restoration of these paintings, which celebrate Canada and Canadian artistic achievement rather than our colonial past, is a powerful totem.

More substantively, a striking array of initiatives – on refugees, climate change, foreign and defense policy – have been launched to compliment the raft of symbolic gestures and encouraging statements.

Still, the question must be put: with much of the low hanging fruit now harvested, what are the realistic prospects for bringing in the more complicated and difficult elements of the new government’s program?

That outcome will depend in large part upon the capacity of the public service to deliver, and in that respect, beyond the loss of critical expertise, the challenges may prove unexpectedly formidable.

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New CGAI Policy Paper on the prospects for science and diplomacy under the new federal government

Blogger’s Note: Following is a summary of the subject report which sets out in more complete detail the arguments which have underpinned my last several postings.

In the twenty-first century, Canada’s security and prosperity – and the shared prospects for peace and development globally – depend increasingly on diplomacy rather than defence. In that regard, not least because there are no military solutions for the most pressing problems facing the planet, science diplomacy, and international science and technology more generally, have never mattered more. Yet rather than building a capability to join in collaborative efforts to find and deliver effective responses to complex global issues, under the Conservative Government key Canadian policy instruments were run down. Preoccupied with foreign wars, Islamist terrorism and related fear-inducing threats, Canada’s political decision-makers shunned science, disdained diplomacy and dismissed multilateralism. That record diminished this country’s international reputation and influence while leaving the population vulnerable and exposed to a wide range of S&T-based threats. If Canada is to face the future with confidence, the new government must reallocate priorities and resources in support of science and diplomacy, and move immediately to address performance issues. Specific policy recommendations conclude this analysis.

Rebuilding Canada – and its place in the world: Science and diplomacy after the decade of darkness

We cannot solve the problems we have created with the same thinking we used in creating them.

Albert Einstein


During the recent federal electoral campaign, little was said about the state of science in Canada.

That’s unfortunate, because science policy matters, and in that respect, as the electoral dust settles, it will become clear that the new Liberal government has inherited some daunting challenges. Years of resource reductions and the centralized political control and manipulation of all scientific and public communications have deeply corroded Canadian democracy, governance and public administration.

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Canada’s lost decade: Withered diplomacy, and whither multilateralism?

Saturation coverage and shocking images of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Middle East and Europe have focussed attention on Canadian foreign policy and on this country’s decade-long record of diplomatic and multilateral underperformance.

While unusual for an electoral campaign, such scrutiny is long overdue.

The inventor of peacekeeping, longstanding proponent of North-South relations, and determined promoter of sustainable development – once universally welcomed as an honest broker, helpful fixer and provider of good offices and innovative ideas – is today regarded as an obstruction to progress, a country with little to bring to the table.

Canada’s vaunted foreign service has languished, marginalized and under-employed by a government uninterested in professional diplomatic advice or enlightened international initiative.

Unrecognizable to its former partners and friends, Canada has become something of an international pariah – a serial unachiever, the fossil of the year, the country that others don’t want in the room. The one-time boy scout has become a distant outlier in the international system, sometimes ostracized but more often simply ignored

In a world in which nothing can be achieved by acting alone, Canadian influence has become spectral, and the orchestration of action in concert, through the United Nations and most other international organizations, next to impossible.

The Conservative Government has shot Canada in the foot when we are in a race.

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Advancing Insecurity: How the Conservative Government’s “War on Science” has Undermined Canada – and Our Place in the World

Foreign policy issues rarely figure centrally in electoral politics, and in the public and media mainstream science is an even more distant outlier.

That’s unfortunate, because science policy matters. Years of resource reductions, and the centralized political control and manipulation of all public communications have deeply corroded Canadian democracy, governance and public administration.

Less visible – yet of at least equal consequence – has been the damage to Canada’s global brand wrought by the government’s ill-conceived war on science and rejection of evidence-based policy and decision-making.

Among the warrior nation wannabes in Ottawa, spin rules.

Ideology has displaced rationality.

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Bridging the Chasm: Why science and technology must become priorities for diplomacy and international policy – Part III

What is to be done?

The problems faced by the world can be remedied, but not easily, and certainly not quickly – enough. As long as international policy makers remain so heavily addicted to the use of force, any gains will be modest at best.

  1. Security is not just a martial art, yet militaries around the world continue the receive the lion’s share of international policy resources. This misallocation has resulted in serious domestic costs and distortions, and has wrought untold damage abroad. If that is to change, publics must insist on breaking the influential stranglehold of what President Eisenhower, in his now famous 1961 farewell address, referred to as the Military Industrial Complex. Legions of lobbyists, think tanks, special interest groups and the right wing media have joined with the defence industries, uniformed armed services and congressional interests to stifle any kind of meaningful reform. Yet of this there can be no doubt. Absent a shift in emphasis in international relations from defence to diplomacy and development, and a decisive move away from defence research in favour of public and civic applications (for instance health, agriculture, alternative energy, conservation, urbanization, etc), progress will remain largely out of reach.
  2. Diplomacy and international policy, on one hand, and science and technology, on the other, represent two solitudes, floating worlds which rarely intersect. How many diplomats are scientists? How many scientists are diplomats? Why is there no Venn diagram showing shared space and functional overlap? Insularity on the part of the scientific community, and anxiety over the unknown on the part of the diplomats must give way to a pattern of cross-fertilization and regular interaction and exchange. The two solitudes must be eliminated, in part through the creation of networks, connections, and collaborative commons. Rigid hierarchy and authoritarian social relations must give way to the lateral and the unorthodox. Think Silicon Valley style skunkworks. During the Cold War, science was more deeply embedded in diplomacy; that characteristic requires re-instatement, but on a larger scale; today the challenges are more diverse and the needs enormous. Back to the future.
  3. S&T capacity in diplomatic and multilateral institutions must be broadened, deepened, and, where it does not exist, constructed from scratch. This outcome could be encouraged through promotion and recruitment processes and career specialization. But a faster way to build capability would involve turning the inside out and bringing the outside in through training and professional development, secondments and exchanges, and the provision of incentives. In some cases (such as Canada) unnecessary obstacles and constraints would have to be removed, and replaced by a commitment to information sharing and critical thinking. Perhaps more easily achieved would be the injection of high level S&T advice into policy formulation and decision-making throughout government and the international governance process. High quality science advice , and more easily intelligible science communications are desperately needed.
  4. Public-private partnerships and institutional linkages – between governments, corporations, NGOs, universities and think tanks – need to be encouraged in order to leverage international S&T cooperation. To this end, it would be useful to go beyond tapping the usual suspects by embracing dynamic new forces, facilities and actors. Here I am thinking of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), private philanthropists and foundations, venture capital firms, and the like. Creative use could also be made of collaborative intelligence, global value chains, open source problem solving and web-based policy development. A little out of the box thinking about how best to engineer S&T teamwork could pay high dividends.
  5. Finally, any and all measures intended to improve performance in science diplomacy and international S&T must be rigorously benchmarked, monitored and evaluated. Re-investment cannot be justified in the absence of a convincing demonstration of value for money and results achieved. If you don’t know where you are, you can never be sure where you are going. And, as George Harrison once famously observed: “If don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there”.

The wrap

Science and diplomacy do have one thing in common – problems with image and reputation in popular culture. Science is often recalled as a bewilderingly difficult subject which most people were keen to drop as soon as they could in high school. And although the WikiLeaks “Cablegate” episode helped to dispel some of the myths, diplomacy is still frequently associated with ineffectiveness, weakness and appeasement, with caving in to power, with pin stripes and pearls, receptions and exotic travel.

Putting the two together – science diplomacy – and raising the topic at a dinner party is usually sufficient to stop any conversation dead in its tracks.

The best way to counter popular misconceptions about science and diplomacy is through better advocacy and what Secretary Clinton referred to as “diplomacy of the deed”.

Notwithstanding the present spike in the incidence of armed conflict, there are no military solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. The path to peace and prosperity, security and development lies elsewhere. To that end, and as a response to the negative attributes of globalization – including polarization at all levels and the tendency to socialize costs while privatizing benefits – science diplomacy will be indispensable.

The very idea of science, as an evidence-based form of knowledge acquisition, underscores that all events are caused, that misery is not fated, and that poverty and suffering are not intrinsic to the human condition. Threat conjuring, issuing terror alerts, and fomenting the politics of fear – be afraid, very afraid – are part of the problem, not the solution. A more lasting and effective approach would be to genuinely address the needs of the poor by sustaining broadly-based development.

For these reasons and more, S&T must become a pre-occupation of both diplomacy and international policy. The case is clear, and it is long past time that governments and international organizations reconsidered their priorities and reallocated resources accordingly.

Bridging the Chasm: Why science and technology must become priorities for diplomacy and international policy – Part II

S&T matters in international relations

I see five primary reasons favouring a wholesale course correction and significant re-profiling of international policy priorities and resources. For purposes of brevity they will be set out at a high level of analysis:

  1. Science, technology and innovation drive the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous age of globalization, and are now central to all aspects of our lives. Still, despite a widespread preoccupation with the latest gadgetry, and particularly with hand held digital devices, S&T per se is accorded relatively little attention. Yet the planet is imperilled by a host of vexing, “wicked” issues for which there are no military solutions. From climate change to diminishing biodiversity, nanotechnology to ecosystem collapse, genomics to to cyberspace, these issues have one feature in common: they are rooted in science, driven by technology, and immune to the application of armed force. This has been evident for some time. Simply put, you can’t garrison against pandemic disease, call in an air strike on a warming globe, or send out an expeditionary force to occupy the alternatives to a carbon economy. But make no mistake. A “wicked” issue is one which CUTS all ways (C for cross-sectoral; U for unresolved; T for transnational; S for science-based). These defining attributes render the management of such issues notoriously difficult.
  2. Development – equitable, sustainable, human-centred and long-term – has become the basis of security in an increasingly heteropolar world order. This relationship has become particularly clear with the transition from the Cold War era to the globalization age. Human progress in large part turns on the ability to successfully harness S&T in service of achieving development objectives related to agriculture, food and water; urbanization, public health, environmental protection and remediation; population and demographics; resource scarcity; energy and so forth. The capability to generate, absorb and use science and technology (S&T) can play a crucial role in advancing development prospects, in resolving differences, and in reducing inequality. Improved security would be the inevitable result.
  3. Evidence-based decision-making and public policy development are the hallmarks of good governance and responsible public administration. As is often remarked, policy without science is gambling. (This seems, incidentally, to be unknown to the Government of Canada, who have muzzled their scientists, imposed deep cuts on science-based departments and slashed spending on research and development (R&D)). Moreover, certain aspects of scientific endeavour – not unlike the case of democracy or human rights – are of universal value and applicability. Scientific culture and methods encourage openness and transparency (through the publication of research findings), merit (through peer review), civic values and citizen empowerment (through the expression of critical and diverse perspectives). Science offers a methodology and approach which produces the closest thing we have to proof and truth. These attributes are desirable and there are no substitutes.
  4. S&T offers the opportunity to turn adversity into opportunity by fostering solidarity, cooperation and action in concert among all peoples and nations. Science is inherently collaborative; its focus on mutuality and common cause is a pre-requisite to managing the global commons (polar regions, high seas, outer space, etc.) and bridging digital divides. Science diplomacy, for its part, serves as an important, and sometimes critical medium of international political communication when regular diplomatic channels are strained, blocked, or non-existent, as was the case between the US and USSR during the Cold War, or between the US and Russia or Iran today. Although I would not put them on my A-list of threats, I would add that S&T can also provide a tonic political extremism and religious violence by addressing the root causes which generate anger, alienation and resentment. Invasion, occupation, special operations, bombing and drone warfare serve mainly to make matters worse and to generate blowback, as Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq have so painfully and indelibly demonstrated. S&T engagement represents a vastly preferable alternative.
  5. Science diplomacy combines S&T content with the strategy, tools and tactics of public diplomacy. As a result, SD, when properly designed and delivered, can be a highly supple, versatile, and adaptable instrument in the management of international relations. S&T also functions admirably as a vector of soft power – the power of attraction. But not all science diplomacy is undertaken in support of peace and development. For instance, the secret collaboration between Pakistan, North Korea in pursuit of nuclear explosive and missile propulsion technology was SD, but was widely condemned. S&T, therefore, is a double-edged sword: it supports and underpins development and security, yet it can also exacerbate underdevelopment and insecurity. S&T can be the keys to peace and prosperity, but they can also bring war and devastation. However ironic that may seem, one of the (few) mature pleasures of adulthood involves learning to live with ambiguity and uncertainty. In that regard, S&T is best understood as not good or bad but good and It cannot be viewed in simplistic, binary, Manichean, or black and white terms. It can only be apprehended as consisting of over 50, often very subtle shades of grey.

That said, taken together these five clusters strike me as powerful testament in favour of mobilizing support for international S&T in general, and for science diplomacy in particular. There is, however a crucial disconnect, and here’s the rub. Although treating the drivers of suffering and poverty contributes to development, and development is a precondition to security, S&T capacity is largely alien to, and almost invisible within most institutions of global governance. Foreign ministries, development agencies, and indeed most multilateral organizations are without the scientific expertise, technological savvy, cultural pre-disposition or R&D network access required to manage S&T-based issues effectively.

Bridging the Chasm: Why science and technology must become priorities for diplomacy and international policy – Part I

Blogger’s note: The following article represents a partial reconstruction of remarks delivered at the second AAAS/TWAS short course on science diplomacy in Trieste, Italy on June 8th, 2015. For purposes of illustration, that address featured several rather elaborate stories. One spoke of Albert Einstein highlighting the distinction between timeless questions and evolving answers while invigilating a first year physics exam at Humboldt University in Berlin in the early 1920’s. Another set out the tale of fearless, innovative Scheherazade speaking truth to power in ancient Persia, and in so doing providing us with important insights for diplomacy and science. A third referred to Eleanor Roosevelt’s eloquent meditation on the gift of life. Those stories have been omitted here, but other sections of the address will be elaborated in greater detail.



Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity and is the torch which illuminates the world.

Louis Pasteur


Today, headlines in the mainstream media are filled with lurid tales of the campaign against the Islamic State (ISIL), suicide bombings, violence in Ukraine, earthquakes and tornadoes, mass shootings, and all manner of sensational reportage. In the face of such a barrage – if it bleeds, it leads – it is very easy to become distracted, and to allow the shocking or the urgent to trump the essential or the important.

Policy and decision makers most everywhere have become preoccupied with apparent threats at the expense of responding to more profound challenges, including those which – unlike terrorism, religious extremism or political violence – actually imperil the future of the planet.

In this article I will argue that in the 21st century our collective security and prosperity – the globe’s shared prospects for peace and development – depend increasingly on diplomacy rather than defence. In that regard, science diplomacy has never mattered more, but it has become something of an orphan in international relations, sidelined, among other things, by the militarization of international policy.

Science diplomacy (SD) is relevant, effective, and potentially transformative. It can play a key role in responding to some of the most elemental challenges facing the international community. Yet relative to other international policy instruments it receives little notice and is being starved of resources.

To remedy those problems, science and technology (S&T) must be brought from the margins into the mainstream of diplomatic institutions, training and practice, worldwide. In foreign ministries and international organizations everywhere, S&T capacity and performance must be radically improved if the world is to avoid plunging over some still undefined tipping point and human survival is to be ensured.

Canada and the Asia Pacific: Unsteady interest and opportunities lost

It is now the received wisdom the dynamic centre of the global political economy is migrating from the North Atlantic to the Asia Pacific. Emblematic of this dramatic example of shifting power and influence is the likelihood of China’s economy surpassing that of both the US and the EU within the next decade or two.

And what might be said of Canada’s current approach to the countries and institutions of the Asia Pacific in the midst of this tectonic re-alignment?

Surprisingly little.

This country has been mainly watching from the sidelines, spurned by key players, sometimes clapping, often pouting… and always hectoring.

This is not the stuff upon which durable relationships are constructed.

What went wrong?

A debilitating combination of bad luck, dismal timing, and serial misjudgement.

If could be characterized, it might be seen as a winding and bumpy road, leading mainly downhill.

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