No Military Solutions: Science, Technology, Diplomacy and the New Threat Set – Part I


In February 2016, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences hosted a meeting that was convened by the Science and Technology Advisers to the Foreign Ministers from Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Although the observation was not new, during this meeting the importance of increasing the capacity and capability of Foreign Ministries to broach the ever increasing number of issues at the interface of science, technology and innovation was identified as urgent.

On 18-19 October 2016, a small group of about 30 international policy experts and practitioners  will gather in Laxenburg, Austria to discuss the  vital – if largely unappreciated –  relationship between science and diplomacy. The meeting is being convened by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in collaboration with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, the International Network of Government Science Advice (INGSA) and the Global Network of Science and Technology Advisors in Foreign Ministries.

The purpose of this high-level international dialogue on science-diplomacy is to explore opportunities for delivering on national foreign policy priorities by increasing the quality and quantity of science and technology advice into policy development and implementation process.

Principle objectives of the dialogue will include:

  • Highlighting areas where science and technology are impacting the work of foreign ministries
  • Sharing experiences and best practices in providing scientific advice to Ministers
  • Identifying practical issues, such as how best to engage with scientific institutions
  • Developing a global network of practitioners.

I will be attending the conference at IIASA and will be chairing a panel on Mechanisms for Delivering Science Advice in Foreign Ministries”.

Sound boring and bureaucratic? It’s not.

In fact, when it comes to the relationship between science and diplomacy the prospects for human survival may hang in the balance. That said, don’t expect to read about the Laxenburg meeting in the mainstream media.

Planet in peril

When thinking about the foremost threats and challenges facing the planet, the received wisdom suggests that we should all be afraid, very afraid, of religious extremism, political violence and terrorism. While it would be a mistake to understate these risks, the probability that most of those reading this article will be directly affected by these sorts of  events is lower than the likelihood of being hit by lightening or drowning in the bathtub. Fomenting the politics of fear certainly serves certain special interests, but the more profound threats survival lie elsewhere.

During the Cold War, ideological rivalry and geopolitical ambition on the part of the superpowers dominated the international agenda. Today, under whatever guise, it is the Global War on Terror. But consider this list of issues, which is by no means comprehensive:

  • Agriculture, food and GMOs
  • Alternative energy
  • Diminishing biodiversity
  • Climate change
  • Cyber security and surveillance
  • Desertification/soil degradation
  • Disaster preparedness/ management, emergency relief
  • Environment/ecological issues
  • Food/water insecurity
  • Genomics
  • Global commons conservation
  • Habitat destruction
  • Pandemics, infectious  disease
  • Public health
  • Population and demographics Remote control war
  • Resource scarcity
  • Species extinction
  • Urbanization
  • Waste disposal
  • Weapons of mass destruction

Unlike the machinations of ISIL, Al-Qaida, lone wolves and various insurgent groups, many elements of his new threat already impact most, if not all people on earth. And what do each of these issues have in common? All are complex, unresolved, transnational and – key point – characterized by the presence of a very significant scientific and technological (S&T) dimension.

We will unpack this argument further in the next post.