In fragile and volatile regions around the world, scientific issues constitute a critical risk to the pursuit of peace. These issues include threats such as climate change, water security, and nuclear development. While scientific hazards are increasingly forthcoming, efforts to combat global environmental distress may provide a new path to peace for nations embroiled in long-standing and unresolved disputes.
A developing diplomatic method could signal the beginning of a new era of peacemaking. Science diplomacy builds trust among nations through the work of scientists and engineers toward a common goal of preventing disasters. Early advocates, including former congressman Russ Carnahan, argue for the implementation of a systems-based and interagency approach to foreign relations. These supporters assert that developing accessible systems and promoting the coordination of foreign agencies increases international capacity to respond to calamities and improves nations’ general relations. This idea that shared responsibility or mutual understanding may develop a sense of community among the peoples of opposing nations is novel in relation to the application of science and engineering. It is not, however, unprecedented.
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union struggled for hegemony in an increasingly globalized world. From this conflict, a new type of diplomacy thrived. Cultural diplomacy, first coined in 1954 by Aline B. Louchheim, is the use of cultural exhibitions to build camaraderie. During the Cold War, this was evident in the grandiose events of the time: the World’s Fair, which became a platform for cultural exposition; the Cultural Presentations Program, which sent the University of Michigan Jazz Band to Latin America in 1965; and the Eurovision Song Contest, which allowed European countries to share the music of their culture. Cultural diplomacy has remained dependent on the exchange of art, music, and other forms of cultural representation. However, one arm of cultural diplomacy deals with the exchange of non-artistic means: science diplomacy.
Science diplomacy is a method whereby scientists exchange systems, knowledge, and ideas to solve significant scientific quandaries. When applied in regions where these issues affect the safety of citizens, science diplomacy can unite enemies in the pursuit of their mutual survival. As science diplomacy is a developing form of diplomatic engagement, its effectiveness has not been reliably measured. However, applying the basic tenets of science diplomacy to two current situations shows its potential.
The first of these test applications is the state of maritime interdependence in the Persian Gulf. This issue has been written about extensively by former Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State Najmedin Meshkati. Meshkati points to four factors which make the Gulf a candidate for the use of science diplomacy: reliance on seawater desalination for potable water, increased construction of nuclear power reactors, ongoing offshore oil and gas drilling, and the counterclockwise motion of water in the sea. As Gulf nations continue to conduct operations in the sea, they increase the risk of a major disaster, such as an oil spill or reactor explosion. The motion of water in the sea would mean that any fallout from a disaster in one country would spread to other countries. Consequently, this would affect desalination efforts, which would threaten the water supply of each nation.
In this situation, science diplomacy calls for the development of multilateral and interagency cooperation. Forming a prevention and rapid-response team among Persian Gulf nations would not only decrease the risk of a major disaster and the spread thereof, but also increase identification among the nations. Science diplomacy would allow the people of these nations, who are often at odds with one another, to work together for their mutual safety.
The second threat which could be approached with science diplomacy is climate change and its conquest over small island nations. In the South China Sea, where disputes rage over claims to the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, and other small masses, experts predict sea levels will rise 3-6 feet by the end of this century. Such a rise in sea levels would drown these small islands, displacing their growing civilian presence. For these reasons, the region is ripe for the application of science diplomacy.
Science diplomacy in the South China Sea would bring disputing nations together to fight the threat of climate change. While much of the world is already focused on this front, recent developments in the United States have signaled a departure of the nation’s leadership on the issue. China, Vietnam, and other nations involved in the South China Sea dispute could mend deepening rifts by organizing to defend their region from rising sea levels and advocating for renewed efforts by the United States.
Science diplomacy provides a new method for peacebuilding among nations. Additionally, it develops systems to protect citizens and fight environmental threats. From the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea, science diplomacy could have far-reaching, positive effects. Diplomats should adopt programs of science diplomacy to advance real progress in the world.