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

Two solitudes

The capability to generate, absorb and use S&T should play a crucial role in addressing the new threat set by resolving differences, reducing inequality and improving security and development prospects. With few exceptions, however, the individuals and institutions charged with the responsibility for managing global issues are unprepared and ill-equipped to deliver. The thinking of most leaders remains mired in outdated, Cold War era convictions – that security is best achieved through defence rather than by addressing human needs; that the state, not the person is the primary referent; that armed force is the ultimate arbiter in international relations.

The world’s foreign ministries, development agencies, and indeed most multilateral organizations have not kept pace with the transformative impact of globalization. These institutions are without the scientific expertise, technological savvy, cultural predisposition or research and development (R&D) network access required to manage S&T-based issues effectively. How many diplomats are trained in science? How many scientists are found in diplomatic services? How often do diplomats and scientists meet, and, when they do, can they communicate effectively?

Scientists are for the most part an insular group, and prefer the lab to the polis. Diplomats tend to view science as dense and impenetrable, the subject that they could not wait to drop in high school. Diplomacy (stability, risk aversion, compromise) and science (change, experimentation, empiricism) are founded upon very different values, and effectively constitute two solitudes. The alienation of science and technology from the mainstream of diplomacy and international policy represents perhaps the greatest sleeper issue of our times.

Diplomacy                                                            Science

Stability/balancing power Change/unleashing power
Convention(s)/conventional Experimentation
Risk aversion Risk tolerance
Practice/practical Theory/theoretical
Argument (tact, discretion, persuasion, influence) Facts and data
Negotiation and compromise Trial and error
Political Empirical
Polis Lab


If decision-makers are to grapple with the daunting range of “wicked,” S&T-based challenges which today imperil the planet, diplomacy, informed by science and empowered by technology, will have to displace defence as the international policy instrument of choice. Lasting peace and prosperity – not to mention the prospect of achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – will otherwise remain elusive.

What the world needs now

Science diplomacy  (SD), a transformative tool of soft power which combines knowledge-based, technologically-enabled  problem-solving with international political agency,  is under-utilized but essential. The universal, non-political language of science has proven invaluable in keeping channels of international communication open when conventional venues are strained or blocked. In face of the negative attributes of globalization – including polarization and the tendency to socialize of costs while privatizing benefits – SD alone offers the prospect of engaging shared interests to overcome political constraints and enlarge international cooperation.  Notwithstanding conventional convictions and the present spike in the incidence of armed conflict, there are no military solutions to the world’s most pressing problems – a warming world is not susceptible to air strikes. Security is much more than a martial art; it  is rooted in broadly-based development. Bridging digital divides and responding to the needs of the poor must accordingly become priorities for both diplomacy and international policy.

Unfortunately, they are not.

The situation is not entirely bleak. Science diplomacy has produced a rich legacy of arms control and environmental agreements, including the recent pact to control HFCs. Some specialized agencies (UN, EU) and governments (US, UK, Switzerland, Spain, Japan and NZ) have demonstrated a number of best practices in SD. New Zealand’s Chief Science Advisor, Peter Gluckman, has worked tirelessly to establish an International Network of Government Science Advice (INGSA). Vaughan Turekian, the Science and Technology Advisor at the US State Department, has launched a raft of innovative initiatives. The SESAME Synchrotron project in Jordan is co-managed by a group of countries not known for their habits of cooperation – Palestine, Israel, Turkey and Cyprus, among others. Iran is no longer pursuing nuclear weapons development, and Syria’s chemical weapons program has been wound down. Still, these examples represent the exceptions rather than the rule. However admirable, even taken together these examples are not nearly enough to change the big picture.

Oh, Canada…

The Canadian case is especially worrisome. The past decade has been extremely  difficult for Canadian advocates of science and diplomacy. Since the much heralded election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government  a year ago,  scientists and diplomats have been unmuzzled and commitments made to evidence-based policy and decision making, yet little progress has been achieved in the appointment of a national science advisor (a position cut by the Conservatives in 2008), despite reference to that objective as the top priority in Science Minister Kirsty Duncan’s Mandate Letter. The sole division at Global Affairs Canada (GAC) remains situated on the trade side of the department and is without policy development capacity. There has been no suggestion that science advisors will be deployed to GAC to provide much needed specialized expertise, or to the House of Commons to assist legislators and offer guidance in assessing the quality of evidence.

Canada was a founding member of IIASA in 1972, and although it left the organization for financial reasons in 1996 will be participating in next week’s session in Laxenburg. Whether or not this will catalyze the Trudeau government into undertaking the necessary, and long overdue remedial  measures remains to be seen. To date, their international performance has been mixed.

The continuing militarization of international policy – think the failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya – has proven ruinous. It is long past time that science diplomacy, and international S&T more generally became the preoccupation of both foreign ministries and international organizations, with priorities and resources reallocated accordingly.

Perhaps last week’s meeting in Laxenburg will produce concrete recommendations to advance that end.