No Military Solutions: Science, Technology, Diplomacy and the New Threat Set



by Daryl Copeland

Canadian Science Policy Centre
October 17, 2016

In February 2016, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences hosted a meeting that was convened by the Science and Technology Advisers to the Foreign Ministers from Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Although the observation was not new, during this meeting the importance of increasing the capacity and capability of Foreign Ministries to broach the ever increasing number of issues at the interface of science, technology and innovation was identified as urgent.

On 18-19 October 2016, a small group of about 30 international policy experts and practitioners  will gather in Laxenburg, Austria to discuss the  vital - if largely unappreciated -  relationship between science and diplomacy. The meeting is being convened by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in collaboration with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, the International Network of Government Science Advice (INGSA) and the Global Network of Science and Technology Advisors in Foreign Ministries.

The purpose of this high-level international dialogue on science-diplomacy is to explore opportunities for delivering on national foreign policy priorities by increasing the quality and quantity of science and technology advice into policy development and implementation process.

Principle objectives of the dialogue will include:

  • Highlighting areas where science and technology are impacting the work of foreign ministries

  • Sharing experiences and best practices in providing scientific advice to Ministers

  • Identifying practical issues, such as how best to engage with scientific institutions

  • Developing a global network of practitioners.

Sound boring and bureaucratic? It’s not.

In fact, the prospects for human survival may hang in the balance. That said, don’t expect to read about the Laxenburg discussions in the mainstream media.

Planet in peril

When thinking about the foremost threats and challenges facing the planet, the received wisdom suggests that we should all be afraid, very afraid, of religious extremism, political violence and terrorism. While it would be a mistake to understate these risks, the probability that most of those reading this article will be directly affected by these sorts of  events is lower than the likelihood of being hit by lightening or drowning in the bathtub. Fomenting the politics of fear certainly serves certain special interests, but the more profound threats survival lie elsewhere.

During the Cold War, ideological rivalry and geopolitical ambition on the part of the superpowers dominated the international agenda. Today, under whatever guise, it is the Global War on Terror. But consider this list of issues, which is by no means comprehensive:

  • Agriculture, food and GMOs

  • Alternative energy

  • Diminishing biodiversity

  • Climate change

  • Cyber security and surveillance

  • Desertification/soil degradation

  • Disaster preparedness/ management, emergency relief

  • Environment/ecological issues

  • Food/water insecurity

  • Genomics

  • Global commons conservation

  • Habitat destruction

  • Pandemics, infectious  disease

  • Public health

  • Population and demographics Remote control war

  • Resource scarcity

  • Species extinction

  • Urbanization

  • Waste disposal

  • Weapons of mass destruction

Unlike the machinations of ISIL, Al-Qaida, lone wolves and various insurgent groups, many elements of his new threat already impact most, if not all people on earth. And what do each of these issues have in common? All are complex, unresolved, transnational and - key point - characterized by the presence of a very significant scientific and technological (S&T) dimension.   

Two solitudes

The capability to generate, absorb and use S&T should play a crucial role in addressing the new threat set by resolving differences, reducing inequality and improving security and development prospects. With few exceptions, however, the individuals and institutions charged with the responsibility for managing global issues are unprepared and ill-equipped to deliver. The thinking of most leaders remains mired in outdated, Cold War era convictions - that security is best achieved through defence rather than by addressing human needs; that the state, not the person is the primary referent; that armed force is the ultimate arbiter in international relations.  

The world’s foreign ministries, development agencies, and indeed most multilateral organizations have not kept pace with the transformative impact of globalization. These institutions are without the scientific expertise, technological savvy, cultural predisposition or research and development (R&D) network access required to manage S&T-based issues effectively. How many diplomats are trained in science? How many scientists are found in diplomatic services? How often do diplomats and scientists meet, and, when they do, can they communicate effectively?

Scientists are for the most part an insular group, and prefer the lab to the polis. Diplomats tend to view science as dense and impenetrable, the subject that they could not wait to drop in high school. Diplomacy (stability, risk aversion, compromise) and science (change, experimentation, empiricism) are founded upon very different values, and effectively constitute two solitudes. The alienation of science and technology from the mainstream of diplomacy and international policy represents perhaps the greatest sleeper issue of our times.



Stability/balancing power

Change/unleashing power



Risk aversion

Risk tolerance



Argument (tact, discretion, persuasion, influence)

Facts and data

Negotiation and compromise

Trial and error





If decision-makers are to grapple with the daunting range of “wicked,” S&T-based challenges which today imperil the planet, diplomacy, informed by science and empowered by technology, will have to displace defence as the international policy instrument of choice. Lasting peace and prosperity - not to mention the prospect of achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals - will otherwise remain elusive.

What the world needs now

Science diplomacy  (SD), a transformative tool of soft power which combines knowledge-based, technologically-enabled  problem-solving with international political agency,  is under-utilized but essential. The universal, non-political language of science has proven invaluable in keeping channels of international communication open when conventional venues are strained or blocked. In face of the negative attributes of globalization - including polarization and the tendency to socialize of costs while privatizing benefits - SD alone offers the prospect of engaging shared interests to overcome political constraints and enlarge international cooperation.  Notwithstanding conventional convictions and the present spike in the incidence of armed conflict, there are no military solutions to the world’s most pressing problems - a warming world is not susceptible to air strikes. Security is much more than a martial art; it  is rooted in broadly-based development. Bridging digital divides and responding to the needs of the poor must accordingly become priorities for both diplomacy and international policy.

Unfortunately, they are not.

The situation is not entirely bleak. Science diplomacy has produced a rich legacy of arms control and environmental agreements, including the recent pact to control HFCs. Some specialized agencies (UN, EU) and governments (US, UK, Switzerland, Spain, Japan and NZ) have demonstrated a number of best practices in SD. New Zealand’s Chief Science Advisor, Peter Gluckman, has worked tirelessly to establish an International Network of Government Science Advice (INGSA). Vaughan Turekian, the Science and Technology Advisor at the US State Department, has launched a raft of innovative initiatives. The SESAME Synchrotron project in Jordan is co-managed by a group of countries not known for their habits of cooperation - Palestine, Israel, Turkey and Cyprus, among others. Iran is no longer pursuing nuclear weapons development, and Syria’s chemical weapons program has been wound down. Still, these examples represent the exceptions rather than the rule. However admirable, even taken together these examples are not nearly enough to change the big picture.

Oh, Canada...

The Canadian case is especially worrisome. The past decade has been extremely  difficult for Canadian advocates of science and diplomacy. Since the much heralded election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government  a year ago,  scientists and diplomats have been unmuzzled and commitments made to evidence-based policy and decision making, yet little progress has been achieved in the appointment of a national science advisor (a position cut by the Conservatives in 2008), despite reference to that objective as the top priority in Science Minister Kirsty Duncan’s Mandate Letter. The sole division at Global Affairs Canada (GAC) remains situated on the trade side of the department and is without policy development capacity. There has been no suggestion that science advisors will be deployed to GAC to provide much needed specialized expertise, or to the House of Commons to assist legislators and offer guidance in assessing the quality of evidence.

Canada was a founding member of IIASA in 1972, and although it left the organization for financial reasons in 1996 will be participating in next week’s session in Laxenburg. Whether or not this will catalyze the Trudeau government into undertaking the necessary, and long overdue remedial  measures remains to be seen. To date, their international performance has been mixed.

The continuing militarization of international policy - think the failed interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya - has proven ruinous. It is long past time that science diplomacy, and international S&T more generally became the preoccupation of both foreign ministries and international organizations, with priorities and resources reallocated accordingly.

Perhaps next week’s meeting in Laxenburg will produce concrete recommendations to advance that end.

Former diplomat Daryl Copeland is an educator, analyst and consultant; the author of Guerrilla Diplomacy; a research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, a policy fellow at the University of Montreal’s Centre for International Studies (CERIUM), and Visiting Professor at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna . Follow him on Twitter @GuerrillaDiplo. He will be chairing a panel on Mechanisms for Delivering Science Advice in Foreign Ministries”at IIASA headquarters in Laxenburg on 0ctober 19.



  Image: CSPC

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