Seven Obstacles to a Science Diplomacy Renaissance – Part II

Science diplomacy  (SD), a specialized sub-set of public diplomacy, is a transformative tool of soft power which combines the political agency of diplomacy with the evidence-based, technologically-enabled problem-solving methodology of science. Unique among non-violent international policy options, SD can play a key role in advancing the cause of peace and prosperity, security and development in an increasingly unstable world. In face of the negative attributes of globalizationSD  offers the prospect of engaging shared interests to overcome political constraints and enlarge international cooperation. The universal, non-ideological language of science is especially valuable when regular channels of political and diplomatic communication are strained or unavailable, for instance during periods of protracted international tension. In the rising heteropolis – a work in progress in which the vectors of power and influence are characterized more by difference than by similarity – SD is under-utilized and under-valued, but nonetheless essential.

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 new threat set comprised of S&T-driven transnational issues.  No amount of spending on defence will resolve the challenges of food and water insecurity, environmental collapse, drought, desertification or soil degradation, habitat destruction or environmental collapse. Indeed, it will almost certainly intensify them. Security is much more than a martial art; it is rooted in broadly-based, long term, human-centred and sustainable development. The search for innovative approaches to treating the security/development nexus should become the priority of both diplomacy and international policy, and SD offers a promising way in.

But, here’s the rub.  If SD is what the world needs now, and is indispensible in addressing global issues which are immune to the application of armed force, why are most international institutions so ill-equipped to deliver? Why is SD so marginalized and obscure?

The answer would appear to reside somewhere within a sprawling group of inter-related obstacles, constraints, and impediments which together stand in the way of a SD renaissance. These include:

  1. A transformed operating environment. Since the heyday of SD during the Cold War – when American and Soviet scientists kept talking even during times of great geopolitical stress – everything has changed. Power is shifting from the North Atlantic to the Asia Pacific and the era of state-centricity has ended with the emergence of a multiplicity of new actors in an increasingly heteropolar Although intensified globalization has dramatically increased connectivity and convergence, paradoxically it has also accelerated fragmentation and heightened the sensation of difference. Navigation is hazardous and difficult in this new whirled order. It is as if all of our old verities and assumptions have been placed in a blender which is set on high and running non-stop.


  1. Image problems. Science and diplomacy each struggle with mixed popular perceptions. In the public imagination, science is widely seen as dense and impenetrable, something that most people could not wait to drop in high school. This orientation has been exacerbated in recent years by the growing skepticism regarding the social value of science, evidence, knowledge and statistics, and the inclination to rely on beliefs, convictions, emotion and falsehoods rather than empirical evidence as the basis for policy formulation and political decision-making. Brexit, the Trump ascendancy, climate change denial, anti-vaccine movement, the explosive growth of “fake news”, and the invention of “alternative facts” all support this observation. For its part, diplomacy is often associated with weakness, waste, and appeasement, with caving in to power, and with dithering dandies hopelessly lost in a haze of irrelevance somewhere between protocol and alcohol. Think Chamberlain in Munich. This “double whammy” has impeded the promotion of SD and underscored the desperate need for a new narrative.


  1. Institutional crises. A raft of substantial problems have exacerbated the branding debacle sketched above. International organizations, and all three elements of the diplomatic ecosystem (foreign ministry, foreign service, and diplomatic business model) have failed to keep pace with the demands of globalization. Radical reform is required. For their part, scientists are generally loathe to leave the lab and enter the political/policy realm, and they tend to communicate amongst themselves in an esoteric language which outsiders cannot easily apprehend. This combination has proven debilitating.



  1. Solitary confinement. Science and diplomacy effectively constitute two solitudes, floating worlds which rarely intersect. The principal elements of the underlying cultural, communications and values divide are summarized below.


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


Little wonder that scientists and diplomats feel alienated from each other. Scientists excel at defining problems and performing objective assessment, but are less adept at proposing workable solutions. Diplomats are able to craft compromises and resolve differences, but are subjectively inclined, unschooled in science and often have trouble understanding scientific terms, methods and rationale.

  1. Cold War carry-overs. Outdated convictions – that security is best achieved through defence rather than by addressing human needs; that the state, not the human person is the primary referent; that armed force is the ultimate arbiter in international relations – continue to command the attention of many Western leaders. This psychological baggage consists of: a binary world view (then Communist World vs. Free World; now “with us or with the terrorists”); characterization of threat as universal and undifferentiated (then “The Red Menace”; now Islamists, insurgents and rogue/failed states); and the militarization of the international policy response (then containment, deterrence, Mutually Assured Destruction; now, the Global War on Terror). The prevalence of old-think is not without its purposes, but precludes meaningful reform.


  1. Special interest dominance. Deeply entrenched defence-related networks occupy a dominant place – and commanding political space –  in major capitals. These influential interests are served by persistence of Global War on Terror, under whatever guise, and the related perpetuation of politics of fear. When thinking about the foremost risks facing the planet, the received wisdom suggests that people everywhere should all be afraid, very afraid, of religious extremism, political violence and terrorism. While it would be a mistake to understate these threats, the probability for most people of being directly affected by such events is considerably lower than the likelihood of being hit by lightening or drowning in the bathtub. Certain quarters  benefit from permanent public anxiety and the militarization of international policy, but the tax-paying public are not among them.


  1. Misallocation of international policy resources. The priority status accorded defence spending has crowded out much less costly, but more cost-effective investments in diplomacy and development. Consider Trump’s intention to increase the already bloated US defence budget – larger than the next seven countries combined – by $56B at the expense of spending on diplomacy, multilateralism, aid and the environment. Chronic under-funding has weakened institutional and human resource capacity and undercut the delivery of SD both multilaterally and in foreign ministries. In particular, the severe skills, knowledge and management deficits have proven debilitating. Canada, it must be added, faces a singularly enormous challenge in rebuilding its science infrastructure after the “decade of darkness” imposed by the previous Harper government.