In The Media

Science and the limits of gunpoint diplomacy  

by Daryl Copeland

August 10, 2014

When it comes to Western attempts at armed intervention, the record of recent years – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya – speaks convincingly for itself.

Unprecedented gains by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq have drawn the U.S. military back into the fray and have been accompanied by horrendous civilian carnage. The country is politically fractured and the state failing.

A controversial election in Afghanistan, with a highly contested outcome, has been followed by a putative deal on cobbling together a “unity” government. Meanwhile, another instance of “green on blue” insider killings has underscored the parlous prospects facing this “graveyard of empires” following NATO’s withdrawal.

Enough? Not quite.

Although not covered nearly as prominently as developments in Iraq or Afghanistan, recent weeks have brought dissolution, civil war and generalized regression in Libya.

What to make of these events? Above all, it appears that costly Western experiments with the attempted imposition of military solutions in the face of complex, multi-dimensional civil conflicts have served mainly to make matters worse.

The latest example of this form of “blowback” is Libya, which is by all accounts in uncharted waters and descending into chaos. For the Libyan people, who until recently enjoyed Africa’s highest standing on the UN’s Human Development Index, this outcome represents an unmitigated disaster, with no end in sight.

Could such a catastrophe have been avoided?

Almost certainly.

Have decision-makers and opinion-leaders learned from their mistakes? Not likely. The burden of evidence from the misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq was already clear at the time of the Libyan intervention, yet those lessons were ignored. Little wonder that the victory celebrations rung hollow.

If this all seems too discouraging, brace yourself. The larger picture is even more troubling.

Given the recent spike in the incidence and intensity of armed conflict globally, and with events in Gaza and Russia/Ukraine adding to editorial pre-occupations this summer, it is easy to lose a sense of perspective. Daily headlines notwithstanding, in the globalization era not only has the longer-term trend been towards a decline in organized violence world-wide, but many of the most profound challenges which imperil the planet and afflict us all are immune to military solutions. Climate change, public health, food security and resource scarcity, to name a few of these “wicked” problems, are rooted in science and driven by technology. Moreover, underdevelopment and human insecurity, far more than religious extremism or political violence, represent fundamental threats to world order.

In this context, it follows that the capability to generate, absorb and use science and technology (S&T) should play a crucial role in resolving differences, reducing inequality and improving security and development prospects. Addressing the needs of the poor, sustaining broadly-based development and bridging digital divides must in consequence become a pre-occupation of both diplomacy and international policy.

Bottom line? As a response to the negative attributes of globalization, especially the tendency to polarize at all levels, socializing costs while privatizing benefits, tools such as science diplomacy are indispensable.

In order to size-up these alternative approaches and explore the remedial possibilities, decision-makers, opinion leaders and senior officials should be able to demonstrate an informed awareness of the key questions and issues at play. To act strategically, they must be both cognizant of the dynamic inter-relationships among principal actors – states, multilateral agencies, international NGOs – and able to identify the alternatives to the use of armed force.

Herein lies the disconnect. Critical consciousness of these imperatives on the part of political leaders - in Canada and elsewhere – is almost nowhere to be seen.

Although scientific and technological capacity is essential to reducing poverty and encouraging development, and development is a precondition to security, S&T capability is largely alien to, and almost invisible within most institutions of global governance. Foreign ministries, development agencies, and indeed most multilateral organizations are without the scientific expertise, technological savvy, cultural pre-disposition or research and development (R&D) network access required to manage S&T-based issues effectively. If this is to change, diplomacy and development will have to displace defence as the international policy instruments of choice, with structural obstacles overcome and resources re-allocated accordingly.

Absent deliberate action to address the underlying causes of underdevelopment and insecurity, the future is grim. Lasting peace and prosperity will remain elusive, whereas more Libyas – and Iraqs, and Afghanistans – are a near certainty.

We can surely do better than to reach, again, for the gun. There is an alternative way forward.

Former diplomat Daryl Copeland is an educator, analyst and consultant, the author of Guerrilla Diplomacy and a Research Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.  Follow him on Twitter @GuerrillaDiplo.

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