Can science change international relations?

Science diplomacy and the UK-Russia relationship

Olga Krasnyak

International relations, Science and technology | The World

29 January 2018

Countries should not overlook the potential for science diplomacy to foster healthy interstate relations, Olga Krasnyak writes.

In his insightful talk on Policy Forum Pod, philosopher Peter Singer spoke about what a truly ethical foreign policy might look like. Of course, what is seen as ‘ethical’ varies enormously for different nations at different times. Yet that shouldn’t prevent us from searching for a common moral ground upon which to build healthy interstate relations.

Diplomats have a unique role to play in this search. It is often diplomacy which defines how a nation-state engages with the world, and an emerging list of global challenges requires the extended role of diplomacy and its branches. These challenges, as Peter Singer highlights, include climate change, the risk of great power conflict, nuclear threats, and global poverty.

Countries will invariably disagree over how to resolve such challenges and who should bear the costs of doing so. Yet what most governments can agree on is that technological innovation has the potential to address many common problems facing the world. This makes science, or more specifically science diplomacy, a tool of statecraft which is particularly well suited to strengthening interstate relations.

The United Kingdom is leading the way when it comes to science diplomacy. In 2014, the UK Government launched the Newton Fund, a series of investments in research with emerging scientific powers now totalling more than £700 million.

More on this: The collaboration challenge

As the then-Foreign Office Minister for Science Hugo Swire explained, the Fund is beneficial for the UK for several reasons. First, the country’s network of embassies overseas can be used by British scientists looking to build international partnerships. Second, this network can mobilise and coordinate international scientific action on specific cross-border issues that are of strategic significance to the UK. Third, Britain’s scientific prowess is a huge part of the British brand be promoted worldwide.

Although Russia is not a country under the Newton Fund, the country does collaborate closely with the Fund’s delivery partners, the British Council and the Royal Society. This UK-Russia relationship is illustrative of the power of science diplomacy.

The Year of Science and Education 2017 was a key year in normalising relations between London and Moscow, as it helped establish and consolidate scientific cooperation between the two nations. It was due to the direct involvement and organisation of the British embassy in Russia and its various High Commissions that the agenda of 2017 proceeded so smoothly and productively.

One of the reasons for Britain’s effectiveness in science diplomacy is its high number of embassies and consulates abroad. In 2017, the Lowy Institute’s Global Diplomacy Index ranked the UK seventh in the world, with a network of 225 total diplomatic posts.

In Russia, the UK is represented by the three permanent posts of the embassy in Moscow and the two consulates-general in Saint Petersburg and Ekaterinburg. The British diplomatic posts to Russia represent the UK in its various relations, including continuous support for world-class science and innovation collaboration. Embassies and consulates themselves are tools that strengthen relations between the two countries.

More on this: Supporting innovation in an age of disruption

A large number of academic conferences, seminars, workshops, lectures, and educational projects took place elsewhere in Russia in 2017. The number of events and universities involved is impressive.

To name a few, there were: the science diplomacy roundtable co-hosted by the Royal Society in the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (a top university for would-be diplomats); a visit by Robin Grimes, Chief Scientific Adviser of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to Novosibirsk to look at the city’s nuclear and catalysis institutes; the UK-Russia Healthcare & Life Sciences Forum at the Sechenov University (the oldest medical school in Russia); the announcement that the UK’s Antimicrobial Resistance Centre and Russia’s Skolkovo Innovation Centre would join forces against antimicrobial resistance and superbugs; the British Council education course for young researchers in Arkhangelsk; and many more. There was even a ‘Future Science’ train launched in Moscow metro to demonstrate the extent of science cooperation between the two countries.

British science diplomacy in Russia is a long-term project. It’s not only a pure promotion of British science and the UK national brand but also has an enormous effect on mutually beneficial scientific cooperation. Despite a struggling economy and political constraints, Russia still maintains a leading position in mathematics, theoretical physics, chemistry, and space sciences.

More on this: Bridging the gap between science and policy

Not all countries can follow the UK-Russia example in science diplomacy, and other nations will likely find that using similar tools and methods do not necessarily lead to the same results.

However, the universality of science should be promoted elsewhere. Science and scientific education have a real potential to decrease tensions between nations, to promote peaceful coexistence, to find ways to improve people’s lives, and, most fundamentally, to bring the world closer to resolving those problems that humanity is capable of solving.

While some scientific advances create problems, others help find solutions. Diplomats have an important role to play in making the latter more common than the former.

The example set by the UK in its science diplomacy with Russia might be considered by other nations around the region, including Australia. Although Australia’s overseas diplomatic network was ranked just 28th in the world in 2017, the country could slowly look to change its trade and business foreign policy profile to a more academic profile – one that aims to solve environmental and global challenges in the same way as the UK, the US, France, Germany, and Italy. To be fair, chapter six of Australia’s 2017 foreign policy White Paper emphasised global cooperation, but the document didn’t make cooperation an overall priority.

From gaining power and influence to strengthening bilateral and multilateral relations based on shared understanding of the universality of science, the potential of science diplomacy should not be overlooked.

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