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.

Here’s why – let me try and connect the dots.

Guerrilla Diplomacy’s central argument, in its most highly distilled form, is  that if development has in large part become the new security in the age of globalization, then diplomacy must displace defence at the centre of international policy.

In this formulation, diplomacy, which is all about privileging talking over fighting and using non-violent political communication rather than armed force to resolve international disputes, would be placed front and centre in international relations.

Traditional diplomacy involves the representatives of states transacting the business of government among and between themselves. By way of contrast, public diplomacy (PD) involves the use of dialogue, advocacy and other public relations tools by envoys engaging directly with foreign publics in order to influence their governments. PD has become a critical component of statecraft – not just in industrialized countries – and it looms large in the current literature on diplomatic studies.

Science diplomacy (SD) is a crucial, if under-utilized, component within the PD constellation, and it represents a significant source of soft power, that potent form of influence which is based on attraction and harnesses national influence, reputation, and brand. Science diplomacy is significant not only in its capacity to address many of the earth’s most urgent challenges, but also because it is an effective emissary of  important values such as evidence-based learning, openness and sharing.

The use of science to advance diplomatic ends is distinct from international scientific cooperation by virtue of its connection to government interests and objectives. Cooperation in the enterprise of international science is typically a win-win proposition, for instance by pulling together to find ways to produce clean water, improve hygiene or develop disease resistant crops. Science diplomacy might produce similar outcomes, but the results could just as easily be asymmetrical, particularly if there are negotiations involved. Arms control and non-proliferation talks during the Cold War, and a whole constellation of international scientific programs and exchanges undertaken during the second half of the last century come  immediately to mind.

Not all science diplomacy, it must be stressed, is devoted to the achievement of pacific ends. Covert collaboration involving, variously, Pakistan, Iran, China, North Korea and Libya on nuclear explosive and missile propulsion technologies is an illustrative case in point.

But… back to basics, to the idea of science itself. In a contested and competitive world of voodoo economics, bundled derivatives, radical politics and religious extremism, science proceeds from the assumption that misery is not fated: because all events are caused, all problems – eventually – can be solved.

At its best, science might be seen to represent the closest thing we have to universality, perhaps even truth.  In the roiling realm of international relations, science diplomacy  merits considerably more attention than it has recently been accorded.

It may be that the conference in Dunedin, like the meeting in Oslo, will break new ground.

I hope so.

There is much to be done and the clock is ticking.