Science and technology play a crucial role in international relations. So why aren’t diplomats talking about it?
During the 20th century, international relations revolved, variously, around geopolitical confrontation, ideological competition, territorial disputes, alliance politics, and multilateral organizations. Today, clearly delineated empires are no longer colliding, the spectre of world war and mutually assured destruction has receded, and the centre of gravity in global relations has shifted. States are still with us and remain important, but they are now only one actor among many.
In the globalization era, the most profound threats and challenges to human survival – public health, food security, alternative energy sources, to name a few – are rooted in science and driven by technology. The management of this sprawling suite of transnational issues cannot be left to governments alone; it requires not only relentless creativity and tireless collaboration, but the engagement of cross-cutting civil society networks – NGOs, business, universities, think tanks and the media.
All of this is germane to the idea of guerrilla diplomacy, which is about advancing innovation in response to a world of complex and multiple insecurities, about charting the way from where we are to where we need to be. This means finding ways to get from looking to seeing, from hearing to listening, and from diktat to dialogue.
What better place to do that than at the intersection of science, technology, and international policy?
What better means to spread the benefits of research and development, and in so doing to help bridge digital divides, than diplomacy, which privileges talking over fighting, is powered by continuous learning and can tap into the global political economy of knowledge in order to solve problems non-violently?
It all sounds just great, except that it isn’t happening. Diplomacy has been marginalized as a result of the militarization of international policy – probably the worst of our collective Cold War carry-overs. Foreign ministries are in large part without scientific expertise or technological savvy. Except for certain defence-related issues, S&T is almost completely absent from the mainstream international policy mix.
Yet a capacity to generate, absorb and use S&T plays a crucial role in international relations, not least by improving development prospects and addressing the needs of the poor. Poverty reduction contributes to development, and development is the flip side of security.
All of which leaves the world in a rather precarious and exposed position – precision munitions can’t help much with increasing crop yields; legionnaires are not very concerned with diminishing biodiversity or species extinction. Nor are international S&T issues much like the familiar suite of political, economic, and ideational differences to which diplomacy had become accustomed. Those kinds of issues are by nature highly subjective and dependent upon perception – where you stand depends in large part upon where you sit.
Scientific and technological issues, on the other hand, are different in kind, and that may help to explain why the institutions of international policy have had such difficulty cooperating with S&T organizations or otherwise accommodating those sorts of considerations. Foreign ministries and multilateral bodies are just not attuned to S&T.
But the more intractable problems are even deeper. Public and private sector interests in and perspectives on S&T are not necessarily complementary, while NGO representatives, academics, and diplomats do not always agree on the role and place of S&T in the assessment of threats to international peace and security.
So far, S&T issues have not been accorded a central place in the non-specialist discourse on development/underdevelopment, and they are almost invisible within foreign ministries.
In the 21st century, that is a problem. It will only deepen public perceptions of the irrelevance and ineffectiveness of diplomacy as an alternative to the use of force.