A Role for Science Diplomacy? Soft Power and Global Challenges – Part I

Readers of Guerrilla Diplomacy will know that in that volume I argue that if development is the new security in the age of globalization, then diplomacy must displace defence at the centre of international policy.

Were policy-makers to accept this formulation, then diplomacy, and in particular public diplomacy (PD), would be placed front and centre in international relations. Science diplomacy (SD), a term which encompasses both the use of international scientific cooperation to advance foreign policy objectives and the use of diplomacy to achieve scientific ends,  represents a critical component within the broader public diplomacy ambit.  Science diplomacy is an expression of soft power. It is perhaps best understood as a way to liberate scientific and technological (S&T) knowledge from its rigid national and institutional enclosures and to unleash its progressive potential through collaboration and sharing with interested partners world-wide.

Framing and contextualizing science and technology within international relations

In the globalization era, the most profound challenges to human survival – climate change, public health, food insecurity, and resource scarcity, to name a few – are rooted in science and driven by technology. Moreover, underdevelopment and insecurity, far more than religious extremism or political violence, represent fundamental threats to world order. In that context, the capacity to generate, absorb and use S&T could play a crucial role in improving security and development prospects.

By way of comparison, the continuing pursuit of the Global War on Terror – under whatever new name – tends to have the opposite effect.

To compound further the complexity of this calculus, S&T is haunted by an abiding paradox in relation to international policy (IP). While it can provide the remedies which contribute materially to the achievement of security and development, for instance through remote sensing, agronomy, or the introduction of game changing information and communication technologies, it can also give rise to the opposite – insecurity and underdevelopment.  Here I refer to the scourge of weapons of mass destruction, the mismanagement of toxic wastes, the repression of human rights and civil liberties, and so forth.

In other words, when it comes to understanding the dynamics of contemporary international relations, S&T plays the part of a powerful, two-edged sword.

So… hold that thought. But not at the expense of the main point of emphasis, which is that development – addressing the needs of the poor, and bridging the digital divide – advances the cause of security, and accordingly should become a pre-occupation of diplomacy in general, and of science diplomacy in particular.

If science diplomacy is so important, then why is nobody paying much attention?

At present, little is heard of science diplomacy. This may be attributable in part to the fact that public diplomacy, the larger construct in which science diplomacy is situated, is today but a shadow of its former self. PD boomed during the global struggle for hearts and minds – and client states and proxies – which characterized the Cold War. In those days, PD was about winning converts in a competitive political and territorial context.  But in the 1990s, the blocs melted and rigid alliance politics gave way to the globalization age. Large swathes of the globe no longer mattered, or no longer mattered as much. Over the course of that decade, many of the international programs which promoted science (and education, and culture) as part of broader ideological and geopolitical strategy were either wound down or greatly reduced. Notwithstanding  some build-back in the wake of 9/11, support for  the S&T dimension of public diplomacy has not recovered to anywhere near its Cold War levels.

In sum, to address the global security deficit, contemporary PD/SD should be about working to achieve equitable, sustainable, long term and human-centred development.

The fact that PD is not fulfilling this promise in my view goes much of the way towards explaining the underperformance of foreign ministries, the continued incidence of international conflict, and the persistence of a variety of vexing transnational issues.

Two solitudes, triple whammy

Given the nature of the threats and challenges faced by decision-makers in the 21st century, it would seem to follow that science diplomacy should occupy a central role in international policy. However, there exists a fundamental problem: S&T issues are largely alien to, and almost invisible within most multilateral institutions. S&T, on the one hand, and international policy, on the other, are effectively two solitudes, existing in separate, floating worlds which rarely intersect.

When diplomats or politicians talk about international policy, you rarely hear anything about S&T, and vice versa.

How often do scientists and diplomats mix?

How many diplomats are scientists?

How many scientists have ever thought about diplomacy?

Worse yet, in mainstream popular culture, diplomacy is widely regarded as irrelevant and ineffective, its practitioners perceived as dithering dandies lost in a haze of obsolescence somewhere between protocol and alcohol. International policy is seen as esoteric and exotic, far removed from everyday domestic concerns. Science is viewed as complex and impenetrable, something that you might have had to study in high school, but can now largely forget about.

Put all three together – diplomacy, international policy, science and technology – and you will very likely be able to stop any dinner party conversation in its tracks. Most people’s eyes will instantly glaze over.

That’s the image problem.

The substance problem, unfortunately, is even more serious.

Last month I made a presentation on these matters at the Canadian Science Policy Conference. More on all of that in the next post.