Success through science diplomacy

Using science to get ahead in world politics

Olga Krasnyak

Government and governance, International relations, Science and technology | Australia, Asia, East Asia, The World

22 January 2019

To strengthen its global and regional influence, Australia should focus on science diplomacy within the Korean peninsula, Olga Krasnyak writes.

Science diplomacy is not a tool limited to major powers. Middle powers, too, can go beyond simple military and economic strategies, and use their scientific prowess when asserting their position amongst their peers.

In my recent monograph, I analysed past and present examples of science diplomacy practised by major powers, while identifying important structural elements and projecting their future implications. In many cases, middle and smaller powers don’t play a crucial part in these initiatives; they are involved from the sidelines and sometimes even put at a disadvantage.

Some middle powers, however, are capable of initiating and pursuing their own science diplomacy strategies. Spain is a leading expert in such matters and has already made it a primary strategy of its foreign policy.

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Australia – one of the most advanced middle powers – also has all the necessary instruments to implement a science diplomacy strategy. It boasts a well-developed scientific cohort as well as an effective education system and an experienced diplomatic corps. The Lowy Institute’s global diplomacy index 2017 ranks Australia 28th out of 60 countries – a good effort considering its demography, geography, and geopolitical stances.

One area where Australia has the potential to use science diplomacy is to build its influence over the Korean peninsula.

Though economically and technologically advanced, South Korea outsources its R&D primarily to its chaebols – large industrial conglomerates. Ultimately, such decisions deter its scientific influence from spreading throughout the world. Traditional competition between major North Asian powers hasn’t helped either. This gives Australia the opportunity to form a partnership with South Korea through specific scientific collaboration.

South Korea wishes to increase its international influence but has had trouble moving past K-pop and electronic digital devices. As a result, it has undertaken research projects in the Arctic, the Antarctic, and the Southern Ocean. And just as matters involving the Arctic might be of concern to the Arctic Five, matters involving the Southern Continent and Ocean should be of interest to Australia.

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South Korea currently maintains two scientific stations in the Antarctic but results have been embarrassingly scant. Research and scientific publications measure a country’s activity and success in their respective research regions, but poor results have so far only negatively impacted South Korea’s international clout and ability to – for instance – build coalitions, lobby special interests, and influence other members of the Antarctic Treaty.

This gives Australian researchers the chance to mentor and guide their Korean counterparts towards achieving better research outcomes concerning the relevant theoretical and natural sciences.

Long-term scientific collaboration will help Australia stretch its scientific influence not only over South Korea, but over other emerging scientific powers in the Indo-Pacific as well. Without a doubt, scientific collaboration with other middle and smaller powers falls under science diplomacy – it requires diplomatic assistance and ultimately promotes Australia’s foreign policy agenda.

Scientific engagement with North Korea is also a possibility. Other countries – though very few in number – have already begun to engage with the country. New Zealand birdwatchers, French archaeologists, and British and American volcanologists are all tremendous examples of how collaboration in non-political spheres can help improve and establish bilateral relations.

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Building a scientific relationship with North Korea will definitely prove difficult – especially considering Australia’s political and economic limitations – but there’s certainly still a chance. Maritime and ocean preservation policies, forest policies, and climatology are only a few examples of what might help open the door. Such attempts must be accompanied, however, with strategic and direct diplomatic efforts.

‘Science diplomats’ are a relatively new concept and are currently being pioneered by the AAAS’ Center for Science Diplomacy. Australia might join the club of educators to form ties between scientists, diplomats, and politicians, but more importantly to enhance its public policy mechanisms. Educational programs for training science diplomats are still scarce – Australia has a shot at becoming a leader in the field for the Indo-Pacific.

Using digital and public diplomacy, as well as broader educational campaigns, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) may well wish to implement training programs for science diplomats. Such efforts could help deepen their understanding of both science diplomacy as a concept and of the country’s foreign diplomacy agendas.

Just as Russia has done for decades, Australia should also consider training North Korean science students and interns. Moreover, South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs may well have it in their interest to consider similar diplomatic training as well.

Australia has a great opportunity to build its profile as a middle power throughout and beyond the region. It is up to DFAT to re-orientate its current trade profile in a more scientific direction.

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