Can science diplomacy with non-liberal countries be justified?

Yesterday’s enemies can be today’s friends

Olga Krasnyak

International relations, Science and technology | The World

23 September 2019

Policymakers and academics of liberal democracies have much to consider when deciding whether or not to engage in science diplomacy with non-liberal states, Olga Krasnyak writes.

Science diplomacy is multifaceted. It paints a rather idealistic picture of international scientific cooperation while encouraging various forces to join and coordinate to address systemic global challenges.

Interest in the area is growing and its future is looking bright. The World Academy of Sciences is now even offering a Science Diplomacy course, which is designed to engage forward-thinking and worldly potential future leaders.

Diplomacy of this sort, which stems from the nexus between traditional diplomacy and shared scientific knowledge – or, rather, scientific awareness – is perceived to be a sophisticated tool to skillfully navigate politics, avoid conflict, and deepen scientific collaboration on a global level.

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These intentions, however, are not currently reflected in the real world. In truth, states operate on their own accord – they may or may not decide to utilise science diplomacy.

The world’s most powerful organisations – nation-states – are unlikely to disappear any time soon. Each one has its own objectives in advancing foreign policy goals, securing national interests, and caring for its citizens in the best ways possible.

Science diplomacy can be better understood in the context of the multiple factors that impact a nation-state’s international stance. This includes its political systems and values, foreign policy, diplomacy tactics, intelligence, and capital. Each component involves a separate agenda, structure, methodology, and set of goals that may not align well with those of others.

Science diplomacy supports foreign policy in promoting national interests, improving interstate relations, and addressing global challenges. Without advanced sciences, a state would not only be missing science diplomacy from its strategies, but it would also be more vulnerable to the influences of more powerful and scientifically advanced countries.

Internally, states might also struggle because of conflicts between their science diplomacy and their intelligence-related agendas in their attempts to balance national security with promoting free and open scientific exchanges and collaboration. What’s more problematic, however, are differences in science diplomacy and political systems amongst countries.

Differing socio-political models raise the question: can states with adversarial intentions and contrasting political systems pursue science diplomacy initiatives together? Is science diplomacy between countries with conflicting interests desirable or should it be avoided?

There are more than just purely theoretical incentives to finding a consensus around these questions – answers may have an actual impact on existing and potential academic exchanges and policies.

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This is especially the case for emerging scientific countries that are still recognised as being authoritarian or ruled by non-liberal political elites.

Just a few years ago, for example, the US experienced some success in its exchanges with Cuba in marine science and tropical diseases as well as with Iran in medical and health science. The risk, nevertheless, exists that any progress made with adversarial countries may stall or be abandoned due to political volatility.

Similarly, as emerging scientific powers, Brazil and Turkey are currently embracing science diplomacy programs and initiatives, but are also criticised for their nationalist politics.

The academic community seems to be undecided about engaging with such countries. On one hand, promoting interstate dialogue and fostering scientific cooperation is perceived as the cornerstone of science diplomacy. In this sense, there is no reason to avoid cooperation with any country, no matter its political beliefs.

On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that science diplomacy may empower non-liberal regimes. This could present tremendous dangers.

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Should countries refrain from collaborating with non-liberal countries and wait for them to eventually change their ways? Or should they accept non-democratic countries as full-fledged international partners and work with them to benefit the world? The choice will always be difficult.

In considering such matters, one must understand that, like human relationships, relations between countries can be hard to predict. Yesterday’s enemies can be today’s friends.

It should also be acknowledged that particular individuals can’t be held responsible for the politics and policies of an entire country – especially when things are volatile. When making decisions or picking sides, policymakers and academics should consider their counterparts equally and with dignity.

Science diplomacy is an enormously powerful tool, not only when trying to promote national interests and enable international scientific cooperation, but also in bringing people together for the betterment of the world.

The universality of science and the value of academic freedom will eventually outweigh international political constraints. While the former is rather constant, the latter is quite changeable. This is why science diplomacy is imperative in facilitating robust international dialogue.

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