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Interview with Rasmus Bertelsen, InsSciDE Leader on Power with Science Diplomacy

Leader of InsSciDE’s Work Package on Power with Science Diplomacy, Rasmus Bertelsen joins us to discuss how we should understand the concept of science diplomacy and the importance of interdisciplinarity.

Thanks for joining us, Rasmus. I would like to start by asking you about the role of science diplomacy in international relations. Would you agree that science diplomacy has increased in relevance in recent years?

It is the explicit concept that has received increased attention in the last 5-10 years, but the phenomenon is very old. One of the great things about InsSciDE is that it has a strong historical basis. Unfortunately, in political science we have little historical memory and we easily mistake a new concept for a new phenomenon. Just because we have invented a new term, it does not follow that the phenomenon is new. When Niels Bohr introduced the model of the atom, it did not mean that there were no atoms until then.

Similarly, science diplomacy is a new concept but certainly not a new phenomenon. History is full of examples of how state and other actors have used education and ‘knowledge creation research’ for foreign policy purposes and international relations agendas. We’ve had transnational elites and transnational religious, political, and academic movements since the beginning of time but we only recently classified this form of collaboration as ‘science diplomacy’.

The term ‘science diplomacy’ has been understood and defined in different ways. How would you separate these definitions? What does the term mean to you?

Some differences in understanding lie in the perception of the ‘science’ aspect of science diplomacy. If you say the word ‘scientist’, we have the idea of someone in a lab coat, and not a theologian or a historian. ‘Science’ is almost invariably tied to natural sciences and by connotation excludes social sciences and the humanities.

In contrast, the word for ‘science’ in German and the Scandinavian languages is ‘Wissenschaft’ or ‘videnskab/vitenskap/vetenskap’, which essentially translates to ‘knowledge creation’. The term is all-encompassing in these languages. I’m tempted to use the term ‘knowledge diplomacy’ instead as a more accurate portrayal of the practice as it relates to political science.

A colleague of mine – a marine scientist – runs a center for science diplomacy, and speaks of the Antarctic Treaty System of the late 1950s as the start of science diplomacy. So, in this view, science diplomacy has a short history and is limited to solving common environmental problems. This portrays science diplomacy as normative in the sense that countries come together to solve common problems, in good faith. As a political scientist, I hold a darker, anarchical view of international relations and the role of science diplomacy through the ages. International politics is a contact sport. You’re not only using kinetic force to get your way; you can be even more powerful if you can make it all the way into another person’s head, and can shape how they think through their education, knowledge and socialisation.

Is there any reason to have some reservations about this broader notion of science diplomacy?

The Scandinavian translation of science diplomacy, ‘videnskabsdiplomati’, is unproblematic. In contrast to certain common views of science diplomacy, InsSciDE embraces a historical long-term memory and it also has the crucial breadth of disciplines that would be suggested by the term ’videnskabsdiplomati’.

However, this new concept of science diplomacy can be controversial when you factor in Europe’s historical relationship with the rest of the world being often imperial and colonial. This entails many dark aspects. The role of knowledge and science, and formal and informal competence, was very significant in those imperial projects. To run colonial enterprises took a lot of knowledge: cultural, linguistic, military, societal, botanical, medical, and so on. The more you knew, the likelier you were to succeed

Why do you think we tend to understand ‘science’ in terms of natural science?

I think natural sciences and the rest of the STEM fields are almost fetishised, and presumed to hold the solutions to every problem out there. But if you look at some of today’s big challenges for the world and for Europe, the answers lie elsewhere and require broad approaches. For example, there is a kind of political dysfunction found in post-Mandate states such as Syria, Iraq, to some extent Lebanon, Jordan, and the Israel-Palestine territory. The British and the French managed to create states that have been almost continuously at war, either with neighbouring states or within themselves. So how did we manage to create such dysfunctional, predatory states and where do we look for a solution? You won’t find the answer in a test tube, but rather within strategic research in social sciences and humanities.

How might international relations theorists benefit from engaging with science diplomacy?

We can learn from the interdisciplinary approach of the ‘science diplomats’ of the past. The European archeologists of the late 1800s were part of these imperial, let’s say, ‘knowledge systems’. For example, the British Royal Navy were sailing old stones back from the Middle East, and I’ve learned that British Middle Eastern archeology was integrated with diplomacy, intelligence, military, and business. It seems popular to say that the world today is the most complex and interconnected it’s ever been, but I think we must be careful with this assumption. Also, I’m not convinced that our ‘imperial knowledge systems’ are more qualified today than a hundred years ago.

Historical figures, like Lawrence of Arabia, could be archeologists one day, spies the next, and military officers the third day. If we asked them about the decision-making process leading up to the Iraq invasion in 2003, they would likely have found the people in charge to be utterly incompetent. Competence and knowledge, which is much more than just ‘science’, is a very important interface between Europe and the rest of the world. But we have lost an aspect of integration of knowledge that used to be coupled with diplomacy.

Another example could be drawn from the conflicts in the Sahel, involving countries in the region like Mali, which eventually affect Europe through migration. Do we have a competent knowledge system to implement policies and find solutions for the problems in the region? The knowledge system needs to be holistic, and include people prepared to deal with environmental problems such as degradation of ecosystems, as well as subsequent economic, societal, and political impact. It must be broadly interdisciplinary.

If we imagine that Europe is a cell, then knowledge is the membrane to the rest of the world. The membrane serves as a point of exchange and communication with the rest of the world, and also as a point of protection. Short term and narrow thinking in terms of education and research will yield a weak membrane. Science diplomacy is integral to ensuring a strong cell membrane, which is resilient to fragmentation along disciplines or country borders, and can address international conflicts from a holistic perspective. Science diplomats need resources to think across disciplines in order to be more effective, and InsSciDE is laying the foundation for this.

You have spoken before about formal and informal education. What is the significance of ‘informal’ education?

The formal education that you get at, for instance, an institution like Cambridge, you can in principle get anywhere if you have access to the material. Informal education, however, is also very important. When I was a PhD candidate in Cambridge, I noted how much I learned from interacting with students and fellows from any discipline and all over the world.

For my PhD, I read Winston Churchill’s ‘The Story of the Malakand Field Force’, one of his first published works, which is about a short incursion involving the British Indian Army on the border of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. Churchill gives the example that a competent British political officer on the Afghan-Pakistan border would be able to move from one end of the tribal area to another, because he would understand the tribes and their practices and know under which circumstances they would keep him safe or kill him.

I think we made mistakes in Afghanistan and the Middle East because we didn’t have this informal but essential kind of knowledge, and others paid terrible prices for our mistakes. InsSciDE can help to bridge this gap: one part of what we are doing is to create a broader sense of what knowledge is.

Thanks very much for speaking with us, Rasmus.

You can find links to Rasmus’ publications by clicking here. Read more about InsSciDE’s work on Power with Science Diplomacy.