Science Diplomacy: New Day or False Dawn?

A few weeks ago in Oslo, Norway, in the company of about 40 other invitees from around the world, I attended an OECD “experts” meeting, sponsored by the Norwegian and German Ministries of Education and Research, on the subject of Science, Technology, Innovation and Global Challenges.

The workshop was predicated upon the shared realization that if  international policy and decision-makers cannot be convinced that a radical course correction is needed, then in the not too distant future the planet may reach a tipping point. Beyond that point, recovery will be difficult, if not impossible.

Think climate change, diminishing biodiversity, food insecurity, resource scarcity, pandemic disease, and so forth.

So… we were talking about the principal threats imperilling life on the planet.

Not your standard bit of bureaucratic process.

Today, I am en route to Otago University in Dunedin, New Zealand, to speak at a conference entitled Science Diplomacy: New Day or False Dawn. Among many other speakers are Murray McCully, the Foreign Minister of New Zealand, Vaughn Turekian, head of  the science diplomacy unit at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, and Dr. Jeffery Boutwell, from Pugwash USA.

Two global gatherings in two months on science, technology, diplomacy and international policy. Is it possible that something’s happening here, even if what is ain’t exactly clear?

Maybe.  I certainly hope so.

Read more…

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.

Diplomatic Surge? Part I – From buzz to becoming

These should be heady days for diplomats. After a long stretch languishing in relative obscurity, the willingness to explore diplomatic alternatives to the use of armed force in the pursuit of international policy objectives has become suddenly, well, fashionable.

The arrival of the Obama administration, and especially Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, has unleashed a torrent of commentary on soft power, smart power, branding and public diplomacy. Harvard Professor Joseph Nye – the guru of soft, and now, in the vernacular of the moment, smart power – is becoming almost a household name. Special envoys have been appointed, difficult issues broached, executive orders signed and new directions indicated. Diplomatic studies specialists, long neglected by both the media and the mainstream, and rarely if ever consulted by decision-makers and opinion-leaders, are finding themselves surprisingly popular. Even within the sometimes rarified heights of international relations scholarship, diplomacy is receiving unprecedented attention.

The short road from heresy to liturgy is getting even shorter.

Foreign ministries and diplomats everywhere will welcome the attention; they have been through a rough patch and now have their work cut out for them, doing things like assisting with broad-based development, supporting democracy and human rights, and building bridges to civil society. Moreover, practitioners have rarely been better positioned to address pressing professional issues, to burnish the tools of the trade and to engage publics abroad through dialogue and partnership. In much of the world, the image and reputation of the West in general, and the USA in particular, has huge potential on the upside.

In short, statecraft is on a roll, and the timing could scarcely be better.

For those accustomed to toiling unnoticed in the diplomatic wilderness, all of this is giving rise to something akin to an out of body experience.

Carpe diem.

What might be said of this promising trend? How might the diplomatic difficulties of the past few decades be explained? And where to now – can smart power deliver as advertised? In this calculus I see both change, and possibly a disconcerting hint of continuity.

Some observations. Firstly, the new political leadership in the USA appears to have re-discovered that diplomacy per se matters. In the face of a profusion of unresolved conflicts and unaddressed global threats and challenges, many rooted in science and driven by technology, a fresh willingness is in evidence to give negotiation, compromise and meaningful exchange an overdue test drive. But the machinery and its operators have been idling on the sidelines in recent years. A major tune-up, if not a complete re-build will be necessary.

Secondly, and in that regard, the delivery of something broadly similar to the core of former Secretary Rice’s program for transformational diplomacy – representational reform, the retooling of organizational structure and bureaucratic process, and enlargement of the resource base – will be imperative. The implementation of this strategy will not in itself, however, suffice if talking is to triumph over fighting as the international policy instrument of choice. The dominant world view, too, needs a complete refit.

Thirdly, then, and perhaps most fundamentally, it seems to me that diplomacy reached this critical impasse as a result of the imposition of a particular ideological perspective which conditioned, if not determined the political and intellectual environment in which the foreign ministry and foreign service have had to operate.

Let me deal summarily with the first two points:

1. Over the long history of delivering international policy results for states, diplomats have had to manage issues such as territorial disputes, treaty and legal problems, and ideological competition. In the early 21st century, these sorts of challenges, to which might be added terrorism, migration and criminality, are still out there, but have been joined by a daunting set of S&T based issues: climate change and pandemic disease; resource scarcity and environmental collapse; weapons of mass destruction and genomics, to name a few. Most serving diplomats are not equipped, in terms of background, knowledge and experience, to handle successfully these types of files.

2. The prescription for transformational diplomacy recognizes that diplomacy needs to be re-invented from the bottom up, and that this will involve a complete rethinking of the diplomatic business model and reimagining of the essential skill set of the diplomatic person. I am convinced completely of the need to reconstruct the foreign ministry. In OECD countries especially, these tend to be among the oldest of central government institutions. Westphalian conventions are profoundly embedded, and the culture tradition-laden, hierarchic and risk averse. Placing adequate emphasis on overcoming these internal obstacles will be crucial.

Globalization has radically altered the role and place of states in the international system diplomats, diplomacy and the foreign ministry have not adapted well The main diplomatic institutions must accordingly be reconsidered fundamentally or face irrelevance, if not oblivion. Success at this game of catch-up will require vision and dexterity. Which brings me to the third point. Foreign ministries and diplomats have their shortcomings, but are their other reasons that performance has faltered? Might this affect the ability of the apparent diplomatic surge to endure?