Science, Diplomacy and the Great Disconnect: An Opportunity for Canada?

Back in mid-June, I wrote a retrospective piece entitled “Rebranding Canada: From the Siege of Sarajevo to Rio Plus 20”. In that essay I tried to highlight the extent to which Canadian foreign policy has been transformed over the past several decades, and argued that although gradual and in large part unnoticed, the reorientation has in fact been profound.

The one-time cheerleader for North-South cooperation, environmental sustainability and world peace has morphed into something quite different.

Canada is now the tough talking, free-trading, warrior nation, extolling the victories attained in long forgotten wars, and investing in the preparation for new ones.

At the level of political rhetoric, and as expressed even more convincingly in terms of allocating resources in favour of the military, this is very much the new script.

It may be time for a re-write.

Increased complexity and a transnational threat set

Although conventional defence issues remain in the mix, since the end of the Cold War territorial and ideological competition between major geopolitical blocs has drastically receded; economic interests are now paramount.

Moreover, today a host of non-military challenges, ranging from climate change to genomics to food insecurity represent the most pressing threats to human survival.

Amidst all of this, a new model of world order is emerging. It might be described as heteropolar, because unlike the days of bi- or multipolarity, in this dispensation the sources of power and influence are characterized by difference rather than similarity.

Religious extremism and political violence? They are out there, but the odds of anyone reading this article being affected directly by a terrorist incident are about the same as those associated with being hit by lightening or drowning in the bathtub.

Which is to say, not impossible, but highly unlikely.

By way of contrast, global issues such as collapsing ecosystems, growing inequality and social polarization touch us all.

Evidence-based learning and policy development?

It was just these sorts of concerns which were supposed to have been tackled at the U.N.’s  Rio Plus 20 conference referred to above. Given the importance of the matters being broached, I was surprised at how little was made of the spectacular failure this year’s event in comparison, for instance, to the 1992 Earth Summit.

Many factors undoubtedly contributed, not least a crisis of global governance which seems to have afflicted so many international organizations, but one factor in particular appears to have been overlooked and under-appreciated.

The preamble of a People’s Petition circulated by an NGO called Occupy Rio+20 called on participating governments to:

“…vastly scale up political, financial & public response to the environmental, social & economic crisis of our time, & to raise ambition to the level that science demands “.

I found it significant that the authors cited not justice, or fairness, but science as the primary imperative, the driving force underlying the need for change.

This seems to me an insight that many governments, not least our own, could usefully take on board.

When it comes to many of the world’s problems – and their solutions – the prospects for security and development writ large are intimately linked to science. Yet there exists a yawning disconnect between science and technology, on one hand, and diplomacy and international policy on the other.

For the most part, these exist as two solitudes, floating worlds which rarely intersect.

A northern bridge across the digital divide?

Science is a field in which Canada enjoys significant, and in important respects underutilized potential.

Although science-based federal departments and agencies have been having a tough slog lately, with employees “muzzled” and budgets slashed, in universities, research institutes and the private sector, the news is more encouraging.

Centres  of excellence have been established and support for R&D in some areas is growing.

How, then, to translate this capacity into something positive and tangible internationally? The answer would seem to lie in finding ways to link up the producers of scientific and technological knowledge, many of them based in civil society, with those who specialize in the creation and maintenance of global networks – the diplomats.

A commitment to that formidable combination, sometimes referred to as science diplomacy, could help to restore Canada’s place on the world stage.

Easily enough said.

Unfortunately, Canada is without an international science policy or strategy. There is no plan, no grand design.

At the operational level, with a few exceptions such as the Global Partnerships Program, DFAIT does not do much in this area. Its staff in the main are without the background, skills or experience required to manage issues rooted in science and driven by technology. Unlike the U.S. or U.K., Canada’s foreign ministry is without the benefit of a high-level science advisor.

And, like much of the public service, the Department is also struggling to accommodate the latest round of budgetary reductions.

The time has come to turn that page.

New look for fall?

In the face of a growing suite of threats and challenges which imperil the planet, I believe that Canada should offer the world more than expeditionary forces and investment opportunities.

Drawing on the creative energy generated throughout this cosmopolitan crossroads, it should be possible to forge a vision of Canada as a dynamic hub for innovation – not just social and political, but scientific, technological and cross-cultural.

A logical place to start might be an enlarged initiative on Arctic and northern environmental issues, which directly or indirectly implicate not only Canadian interests, but those of our immediate neighbours and nations far beyond.

Were this direction to be chosen, several recent decisions related to the termination of existing programs would have to be re-visited.

In that regard, and amidst signs of growing confidence, there just might be a new openness within government to the idea of pursuing science diplomacy as a priority within Canadian foreign policy.

This is the kind of activity which could engage the collective imagination of Canadians, and in so doing help to develop a popular constituency in support of renewed internationalism. Rather than harkening back to some mythical “golden age”, however, this enterprise would be constructed on a contemporary foundation.

Imaginatively executed, a commitment to addressing global issues through science diplomacy would contribute to international security in ways far beyond costly participation in NATO’s uncertain adventures in Libya or Afghanistan.

At the very least, a focus on looking forward seems enormously preferable to looking back in celebration of victory in the War of 1812.