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.