The science of world affairs

What has science to do with international diplomacy? As it turns out, quite possibly a great deal. Daryl Copeland explains.

A few weeks ago in Oslo, in the company of about 40 others invited from around the world, I attended an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development "experts" meeting, sponsored by the Norwegian and German ministries of education and research, on the subject of "science, technology, innovation, and global challenges".

The workshop was predicated upon the shared realisation that if international policy and decision-makers cannot be convinced that a radical course correction is needed, then, in the not-too-distant future, the planet may reach a tipping point beyond which recovery will be difficult, if not impossible. Think climate change, diminishing biodiversity, food insecurity, resource scarcity, pandemic disease, and so forth.

So, as a group, we were talking about the principal threats imperilling life on the planet. Not your standard bit of bureaucratic process.

Earlier this week, I was en route to the University of Otago, in Dunedin, to speak at a conference entitled "Science Diplomacy: New Day or False Dawn?"

mong many other speakers at this conference will be Murray McCully, the foreign affairs minister of New Zealand; Vaughn Turekian, the head of the science-diplomacy unit at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science; and Dr Jeffery Boutwell, the executive director of the US-based Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

Two global gatherings in two months on science, technology, diplomacy, and international policy: Is it possible that something's happening here, even if what it is ain't exactly clear?

Maybe. I certainly hope so.

Here's why (let me try and connect the dots): Guerrilla Diplomacy's central argument, in its most highly distilled form, is that if development has, in large part, become the new security in the age of globalisation, then diplomacy must displace defence at the centre of international policy.

In this formulation, diplomacy - which is all about privileging talking over fighting (using non-violent political communication rather than armed force) to resolve international disputes - would be placed front and centre in international relations.

Traditional diplomacy involves the representatives of states transacting the business of government among themselves. By way of contrast, public diplomacy (PD) involves envoys using dialogue, advocacy, and public relations to engage directly with foreign communities in order to influence their governments. PD has become a critical component of statecraft - not just in industrialised countries - and it looms large in the current literature on diplomatic studies.

Science diplomacy (SD) is a crucial, if underutilised, component within the PD constellation, and represents a significant source of soft power - that potent form of influence that is based on attraction, and that harnesses national influence, reputation, and brand. Science diplomacy is significant, not only in its capacity to address many of Earth's most urgent challenges, but also because it is an effective emissary of important values, such as evidence-based learning, openness, and sharing.

The use of science to advance diplomatic ends is distinct from international scientific co-operation by virtue of its connection to government interests and objectives.

Co-operation in the enterprise of international science is typically a win-win proposition. For instance, by pulling together to find ways to produce clean water, improve hygiene, or develop disease-resistant crops, all co-operating nations reap the rewards.

Science diplomacy might produce similar outcomes, but the results could just as easily be asymmetrical - particularly if there are negotiations involved. Arms control and non-proliferation talks during the Cold War, and a whole constellation of international scientific programmes and exchanges undertaken during the second half of the last century, immediately come to mind.

It must be stressed that not all science diplomacy is devoted to the achievement of specific ends. Covert collaboration involving, variously, Pakistan, Iran, China, North Korea, and Libya on nuclear-explosive and missile-propulsion technologies is an illustrative case in point.

But let's get back to the basics - to the idea of science itself. In a contested and competitive world of voodoo economics, bundled derivatives, radical politics, and religious extremism, science proceeds from the assumption that misery is not fated - that because all events are caused, all problems can eventually be solved.

At its best, science might be seen to represent the closest thing we have to universality, and perhaps even truth.

In the roiling realm of international relations, it merits considerably more attention than it has recently been accorded.

It may be that the conference in Dunedin, like the meeting in Oslo, will break new ground. I certainly hope that is the case. There is much to be done, and the clock is ticking. Fast.

Daryl Copeland is an analyst, author and educator specialising in diplomacy, international policy, global issues and public management. He will be speaking at the 2011 University of Otago Foreign Policy School (June 24-26).


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