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News
12 January 2010

Science and diplomacy

Science and diplomacy are closer than we think, argues David Miliband, UK foreign secretary, at the IAP General Assembly taking place at The Royal Society in London. TWAS editor Daniel Schaffer is reporting.

Science and diplomacy"The essence of scientific progress is not just transformational but disruptive – the focus is on great inventions and scientific breakthroughs," says David Miliband, foreign secretary for UK.

"The essence of diplomacy," conversely, "is to maintain order."

Miliband made his remarks in a plenary address give at the InterAcademy Panel (IAP) General Assembly and International Conference on Biodiversity held at The Royal Society in London. The event also marks the inaugural event for The Royal Society's 350th anniversary, which will be celebrated this year.

Miliband also noted that the world of international relations is experiencing a revolution that could be likened in its impact to the revolution that took place in global science when quantum mechanics replaced Newtonian physics as the organizing framework for global scientific thought. International relations, he claimed, "is experiencing its own quantum shift".

Diplomacy, Miliband observed, has long been premised on the idea of a 'balance of power'. It was a world in which the international system "tended toward equilibrium and self-correction as states sought to balance each other's economic and military strengths" in ways that followed the principles that framed Newtonian mechanics.

In contrast, "a defining feature of our world today is the tendency toward uncertainty", mirroring the world of quantum mechanics. Miliband pointed to the complex feedbacks that are driving climate change and the asymmetric tactics of terrorist organizations. Both are fuelling chronic uncertainty and instability across the global in dramatically different ways.

In contrast to the world of diplomacy in the 19th and 20th centuries, which was dominated by nation-states, Miliband noted that international relations today involve many players, including nongovernmental organizations, multinational corporations , the media and social networks, all of which "constrain and shape the preferences and actions of states". He suggested that this shift was akin "to the move from Newtonian mechanics, predicated on globes in orbit around each other, to the world of quantum mechanics that sees a more subtle and complex interplay of different forces."

This led Miliband to cite another emerging feature of international relations in the 21st century: interdependence. This, he said, resembles the "shift in Newtonian science, modelled on discrete independent systems, to quantum mechanics that accepts that everything is interconnected."

At a time of dramatic change, Miliband maintained that the world of international relations needs the world of science to help it address the most critical issues that we face.

"Scientific progress", he contended, "can achieve breakthroughs that diplomacy cannot match", whether the issue is commercially viable carbon capture and storage systems to mitigate climate change, or the genetic improvement of crops to alleviate the spectre of hunger and poverty.

Science, he also observed, "can help forge consensus where there is political division." He cited the historic role of science in helping to create the verification regimes that made nuclear arms agreements possible during the Cold War, and the building of CERN in the 1950s that helped to build bridges among European nations following World War II. Miliband suggested that science could help "break down barriers of the 21st century, particularly those between Western and Muslim-majority countries."

In addition, Miliband noted that science has the power to "shift debates and catalyse political action." Such shifts, he noted, will be needed if we are to successfully address global environmental issues like climate change and biodiversity loss. In particular, scientific collaboration will be essential to better understand the risks and solutions related to the coming age of resource scarcity. "Mobilizing action and preventing new tensions from arising" will depend in part on these efforts.

But having science support diplomacy is only one side of the equation, according to Miliband. On the other side of the equation, diplomacy can – and should – support science. This is true in the financing of large scientific projects that are too expensive for any one nation to fund. For example, the Human Genome Project, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor and the Large Hadron Collider represent large-scale, multi-billion projects that require international collaboration and financing. On a smaller scale, diplomacy also plays a crucial role in the exchange of scientists and the profusion of ideas through visa regulations and intellectual property rights agreements.

All of this means that "politics and science need to come closer together – not for politics to smother science, but instead to be informed by its potential."

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