Diplomats are slowly making use of advances in science and technology. It’s about time.
Public Diplomacy is the … projection in the international arena of the values and ideas of the public … The aim of the practice of public diplomacy is not to convince but to communicate, not to declare but to listen. Public diplomacy seeks to build a sphere in which diverse voices can be heard in spite of their various origins, distinct values, and often contradictory interests.
Among the almost infinite variety of subjects for this kind of conversation, science (because of its universality, inclusivity, and relevance to almost everything) and technology (because of its power and ubiquity) represent one area that is particularly well-suited to international ventilation.
For these reasons, among others, scientific exchanges were prolific during the Cold War. Although not necessarily considered an element of public diplomacy at the time, international S&T programming nonetheless played a prominent role in both the American and Soviet camps.
In those days, wide-ranging ideological, strategic, and geopolitical competition provided the context, both directly and through third parties whose allegiance was being sought. One of the sources of continuing Russian influence in places such as India, Syria, and Iran, for instance, stems from the scientific training received in the Soviet Union by a generation of students.
In the era of globalization, however, the world has become flatter, and the institutional memory of those Cold War activities is fading fast. Now, markets rule, and much of the scientific research and technological development has been either moved out of government, or is focused on defence-related objectives.
None of that, of course, makes S&T any less relevant. But it does make it harder to understand why so little is said about it outside of a few specialized and somewhat isolated circles.
Although many of the most pressing issues facing humanity are based in science and propelled by technology, with critical implications for development and security, most governments have not made significant efforts to ramp up the level of scientific and technological interchange globally.
At a session I attended recently on “The Foreign Ministry of the Future,” senior officials spoke at some length about matters related to the creation of an international platform for the efficient delivery of common services to federal government departments, about the need to transform various aspects of the bureaucratic process, and about a number of human resource initiatives.
It never came up.
In fact, there wasn’t a single reference to either diplomacy or foreign policy, which one might otherwise think would have to be germane to such a discussion. Nor did the acute shortage of resources, which is presently wreaking havoc upon operations at home and abroad, attract any commentary. All of which is quite surprising.
One dimension of S&T that might have come up is the application of information and communications technology (ICTs) and the use of the new media. After a slow start, this new technology is now being adopted by the diplomatic community, particular in the U.S. and the UK. Ambassadors and foreign ministers are blogging, the web is being used interactively for outreach and public diplomacy, officers in the field are being issued mobile communications devices like BlackBerries, and personnel departments are experimenting with telework and distance learning.
These sorts of developments, and the revolution in S&T more generally, are likely to figure centrally in the future of diplomacy.
In my view, it can’t happen too soon.