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The Soft Power of Science Cooperation

bridges vol. 18, July 2008 / OpEds & Commentaries

by Norman Neureiter

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Norman P. Neureiter

International scientific and technical cooperation have the potential to be one of America's most powerful and effective soft-power instruments for a constructive foreign policy. A recent public opinion poll in Muslim countries found that although US foreign policy and cultural values were not highly regarded, US achievements in science and technology earned the highest respect and admiration.  Dialogue among scientists can often contribute to the resolution of issues that elude politicians.
 
Therefore support for international scientific and technical cooperation must be a vital element in the formulation and execution of foreign policy. It is essential to keep repeating that message and reminding policy makers of this critical link between science and international relations.  In the cacophonous world of policy making, without a constant reminder, that capricious razor in the foreign affairs area - called "responsible budgeting" - can so easily fall on science as it often has in the past. 
 


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Of course, this thought is not new. Some of this cooperation is going on today.  But as an active instrument of foreign policy, it is under-utilized, under-funded, and too often treated as only an afterthought in the national diplomatic toolbox. We need alternatives to a foreign policy that one cartoonist depicted as three pit bulls lunging forward with jaws wide and fangs bared, restrained only by a thin leash in the hands of the US president.    

Let's recall for a moment the great contributions of the US-Soviet scientist dialogues that began at a place in Nova Scotia called Pugwash and eventually led to the nuclear test ban treaties, the arms limitation talks, etc. I still remember standing on the edge of a diplomatic reception at Spaso House in Moscow, together with former US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) president Phil Handler, and talking quietly with Andrei Sacharov - the developer of the Soviet hydrogen bomb - who also became the Soviets' most famous dissident. And the Academies' CISAC committee continues its superb work of engagement today with countries where there remain threats of conflict or misunderstanding. I have also been able to participate in several NAS activities in Iran, where Glenn Schweitzer, the director at the NAS' Office of Central Europe and Eurasian Affairs, has built a remarkable network of personal and professional relationships and exchanges over the past eight years - despite the atmosphere of sanctions, restrictions, and extreme official hostility between the US and Iran.  

One major barrier to using science cooperation in US foreign policy today is that there is no science agency that can readily fund science for foreign policy reasons - the projects have to be justified in terms of their benefit to US science. In principle, money could be given to State, but the committees on the Hill don't think of funding science through the State Department, though there are some examples such as the cooperative threat reduction activities. But more typically, new international science cooperation agreements, even those initiated as a presidential deliverable on a state visit, often languish for lack of sustainable funding after a flurry of forced activity at the start.  

During the Carter administration, we came close to it:  Political scientist Eugene Skolnikoff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who worked half-time at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) during the Carter administration, once told me that at that time OSTP developed a proposal to establish a new government institution expressly for the purpose of funding S&T cooperations with other countries. The Office of Management and Budget, the House and the Senate authorization committees, and the House Appropriations Committee approved a $10 million first-year budget. But in the end, a small but determined opposition in the Senate killed the bill, and a grand idea died.

What I am saying is that we are depriving ourselves of one of our potentially most effective instruments of engagement, and we ought not to do that. Even Secretary of Defense Gates is asking Congress for more support for the soft-power instruments of global diplomacy. He understands that we need something other than bombs, bullets, and boots on the ground to stabilize a complex world.  

One of the nation's greatest foreign policy challenges today is our relationship with the Muslim world.  The polls mentioned earlier clearly showed that US science and technology are held in high esteem in the Muslim world, even though America's overall popularity in that world is low and our policies often suspect.  I see this situation as one crying out for constructive engagement - an opportunity to use cooperation in science and technology as a mutually beneficial link to that world.  

There are other opportunities as well.  If the present talks with North Korea eventually lead to denuclearization, S&T cooperation will certainly be a part of the adjustment process - probably initially in the form of redirection of former weapons scientists.  Can the present modest scientific exchanges with Iran grow into real cooperation and the beginning of a better overall relationship between Iran and the US?  It is by no means clear whether that will happen, but I believe it is worthwhile to continue these exchanges, if for no other reason than the useful communication they provide between the two countries - something that has been very rare since Iran's 1979 revolution.  As changes occur inside Cuba, it would make sense to see if we can find some basis for cooperating with them, for instance, in the biomedical area where Cuba has made significant advances on its own. 

I hope that these opportunities, and others, will be part of the pre-election debates about America's future international posture, giving full consideration to S&T cooperation as an effective soft power instrument of a constructive US foreign policy.   

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The author, Norman Neureiter, has been the director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy since May 2004.




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