How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
At U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s side when he negotiated a framework nuclear deal with Iranian diplomats this spring was physicist Ernest Moniz, U.S. secretary of energy. His presence spoke to the rise of “science diplomacy,” which can take the form of scientists helping diplomats, diplomats helping scientists, or scientific cooperation promoting diplomacy.
The Iran case is the most vivid recent example of the first form. The implementation of any eventual agreement will require an exquisitely designed regime of sensors and inspectors capable of flawlessly alerting the world to potential cheating. And any evidence they present will have to withstand searching critiques by scientists and engineers around the world. Moniz’s role in the talks, in other words, was not only to add to the debate with the Iranians but also to help the West design a scientifically robust monitoring system. Without him and other scientists, verification of Iran’s bad (or good) behavior would be impossible.
Scientific advice plays a similar role in crafting agreements on other global issues, ranging from weather and climate change, management of the global commons, cyber security, and even trade and public health. Indeed, the underpinning of almost every durable treaty is such expertise, something that then Secretary of State George Shultz had in mind when he said in a famous 1984 cable to all diplomatic posts: “The revolution in communications, energy, environmental sciences and other aspects of science and technology has … imparted an importance to [science and technology] considerations in foreign affairs undreamed of a generation ago.”
It is hard to overstate just how much researchers in almost every discipline need diplomats.With that in mind, since 1984 and especially in the 1990s, the U.S. State Department has created the role of science and technology adviser to the secretary; strengthened the Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and International Scientific Affairs; created interagency networks for scientific advice; and, directly and indirectly, brought scores of scientists and engineers to work into both the State Department and the Agency for International Development.
The second form of science diplomacy, which is rarely as dramatic is the first, is diplomacy for science. Here the help goes the other way. And it is hard to overstate just how much researchers in almost every discipline need diplomats.
Thousands of the world’s leading physicists and engineers, for example, would be unable to undertake high-quality research if dozens of governments had not come together to build, at a cost of nearly $5 billion, CERN’s particle accelerator in Geneva (and those scientists certainly would not have made the Nobel prize–winning discovery of the Higgs boson). Without a global compact to pool resources, assemble talent, and maintain high-level diplomatic attention over several decades, “big science” projects like this one would be simply impossible.
“Little science” also needs diplomatic help. An American seismologist studying earthquakes in China must get permits from Beijing. A British biologist collecting specimens in South America must win the approval of the appropriate countries. A biomedical team from a multinational NGO developing a new vaccine for use in Africa must gain clearance for multi-country trials. At every step of the way, good diplomatic relations between involved countries are necessary, but more broadly, good diplomats are needed to get the exchanges approved, facilitate immigration, sponsor international conferences, and grant visas for faculty and students.
The third form of science diplomacy can be thought of as science for diplomacy. Less visible, this activity serves longer-range diplomatic goals by drawing on the deepest traditions of science: the shared values of openness and integrity in the borderless drive for discovery. Even as scientists compete for funding and recognition, they can and do cooperate across countries with wildly different religions, customs, and languages. When scientists do build genuine contacts and achieve concrete results, mutual trust grows among scientific and engineering leaders. In turn, they can reassure wary political leaders of the value of close relations.
Israeli and Egyptian scientists cooperated quietly over many years on agricultural goals and health improvements.Thomas Jefferson fully understood the potential of science diplomacy: “The brotherly spirit of science unites into one family all its votaries of whatever grade, and however widely dispersed throughout the different quarters of the globe.” A review of past experiments in science diplomacy, led in the mid-1990s by Alexander Keynan at the New York Academy of Sciences with support from the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, lends credence to this claim.
For example, despite bitter disputes between their governments, Keynan found that Israeli and Egyptian scientists cooperated quietly over many years on agricultural goals and health improvements. Some argue that these projects helped to foster and then preserve a “cold peace” that persists to this day. Another classic case involves physicists from the Soviet Union and United States who held meetings throughout the Cold War, for example the legendary Pugwash talks, to explore concepts of deterrence, to outline command and control measures to avoid mistakes, and to outline concrete possibilities for nuclear arms control. Most agree that these scientific channels promoted greater understanding of the stakes among both governments. Pioneering explorations by scientists and engineers even put some cracks in the wall of isolation around North Korea. A science-based coalition led by CRDF Global and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, along with the Korea Society and Syracuse University, met in Pyongyang in 2009 and in Atlanta in 2011. As the North Korean regime started to retrench after Kim Jong Un took the reins, the engagement tapered off. But science and engineering nonetheless opened a door—one that might be reopened in the future.
Even as experts continue to debate the merits of past experiments with science diplomacy, it is worth considering what the next few years will bring, particularly in China, India, and the Arab world.To be sure, the actual results of this third form of scientific diplomacy are hotly debated. Hard-nosed realists argue that scientific exchanges are not decisive in improving ties. Such critics say that until a major political breakthrough occurs—for non-science-related reasons, such as economic or strategic needs—a diplomatic impasse will remain stubbornly in place. Indeed, confidence-building functions are neither foolproof nor panaceas. During long-ago talks about Soviet biological and chemical weapons, for instance, it became clear that data and scientific ties were no match for outright cheating and outrageous denials. That is why, commentator Fareed Zakaria said at a conference reviewing Keynan’s findings, there should be a distinction “between the scientist as an expert and the scientist as citizen.” He added that “scientists must recognize (this difference) when involving themselves in political issues.”
That is true, but it doesn’t mean that scientific diplomacy—in this third form—is not valuable. And the advice of scientists to diplomats remains indispensable.
Even as experts continue to debate the merits of past experiments with science diplomacy, it is worth considering what the next few years will bring, particularly in China, India, and the Arab world.
Even as China and India challenge U.S. economic and political dominance, the countries can be brought together by mutually beneficial cooperation. China’s investment in science and technology has been rising by double digits every year for a long time now. Such spending now accounts for roughly 2 percent of Chinese GDP (and growing) compared to U.S. investment of about 2.8 percent of GDP (and static). Yet Beijing has been restricting freedoms in the entire intellectual community, which makes it harder for Chinese research leaders—and gifted younger scientists—to hold open discussions with Western counterparts. Eventually, such restrictions will increase dissent and hurt China’s economy. Wise science diplomacy, including joint research on the genetics of seed to enhance the productivity and yields of food crops, could be a future focus for U.S.-Chinese collaboration.
India, meanwhile, has a wealth of talent in IT, satellites, and biotech. Yet the country invests less than one percent of GDP in science and technology, and it underperforms world averages in publications, patents, and funding per scientist. It must also build a stronger educational system at all levels. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s evident desire for more contact with (and investment by) the West will foster increased scientific cooperation, particularly on developing civilian nuclear energy, increasing supplies of safe water, and conducting frontier research in fields such as astrophysics, all drawing on Indian talent.
To be sure, there are problems in both cases. Some worry, with ample justification, about China’s theft of intellectual property. And so, to make cooperation successful, U.S. diplomats must place a renewed focus on drastically reducing theft and espionage. And in India, unhappy relations with Pakistan may continue to poison attractive opportunities. East and South Asia need advances in energy, water, and public health. Attacking such goals impels working together.
More broadly, observers might fear that scientific cooperation with China, India, or both, could erode the United States’ competitive advantages. This is an old and false dichotomy, one that has often hindered even modest steps in science diplomacy. Collaboration will increase economic opportunities for all, and it need not be a giveaway. The United States must shape research projects serving clearly mutual interests in, for example, nanotechnology, immunology, and neuroscience—taking extreme care to protect intellectual property among participants while sharing data in ongoing studies. Because China and India both want continued modernization and development, they will almost certainly welcome all forms of science diplomacy on those terms. Meanwhile, the United States must sustain ample funding and nimble innovation policies at home—something it has had a hard time doing in recent years. If the United States wants to stay competitive in the long term, it should integrate vigorous, consistent investment in science and technology at home with more contact, not less, abroad.
An even more formidable but highly desirable goal for science diplomacy is to make progress in the Arab world. Representing nearly 400 million people, the 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa have sometimes resisted the reality that modern science and technology can spark needed economic growth, help improve living conditions, and open pathways to long-term stability. At the moment, the prospects for science diplomacy are poor—some would say dismal—but the challenges are not insurmountable.
One reason for the long odds was identified by Arab scholars in the UN’s 2002 Arab Development Report, in which the writers found “deeply rooted shortcomings in Arab institutional structures: deficits related to freedom, empowerment of women, and knowledge. They constitute weighty constraints on human capability.” A follow-up report in 2009 ruefully repeated the initial analysis, saying that there had been “no tangible progress with respect to freedom of thought and of expression.”
Nurturing even embryonic scientific cooperation now will help lay the groundwork for greater development down the road.
Yet the situation is not hopeless. There have been some promising signs. The first was the effort by the late Pakistani Nobel Prize–winning physicist Abdus Salam to connect local scientists with Western, Middle Eastern, Asian, and Latin American colleagues. Salam launched the highly successful International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste. Similar efforts led to the SESAME synchrotron research facility in Jordan. Here, almost incredibly, Israeli scientists collaborate daily with colleagues from neighboring countries that do not generally associate with Israel, including Iran and the Palestinian Authority. The United States should help fund the initiatives. They embody the Jeffersonian ideal of one global scientific community.
An even more ambitious and long overdue campaign was advanced in late 2014 by Ismail Serageldin, former Director of the Library at Alexandria. In a lengthy analysis, he wrote: “The radical reform of our educational systems is the bedrock of any attempt to correct the cultural framework of Egypt and other Arab societies to establish pluralism as a core value, to promote rationalism, and to change the … discourse of the nation.” One of his specific recommendations is to conduct “massive translation programs of the enormous amount of scientific material available in English.” This is a project—not so costly in the grand scheme of things—that the United States should encourage as a way to bring the Arab and Western scientific communities closer together.
Of course, U.S.-led scientific, engineering, and medical communities alone cannot tackle Serageldin’s bold objectives. And the rise of radical Islamist extremism makes his goals much more difficult today than they would have been a generation, or even a decade, ago. Yet nurturing even embryonic scientific cooperation now will help lay the groundwork for greater development down the road.
Like the philosopher Edmund Burke, most diplomats and technical professionals recognize that “the public interest requires doing today those things that men of intelligence and good will would wish, five or ten years hence, had been done.” This is the core of science diplomacy. Advice from the science and technology community is, as the saying goes, always “on tap, not on top.” But perhaps that shouldn’t always be the case. Governments may minimize or ignore science diplomacy. To thrive, however, diplomacy and science need each other.