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Global Challenges under Multipolarity: #SciDipNet2021

The S4D4C Final Networking Meeting (#SciDipNet2021), held online in March 2021, convened over 120 speakers from almost 30 countries in discussions of science diplomacy from theoretical, practical and pedagogical angles. The week-long conference cultivated a lively online atmosphere of networking, learning and debate and pendulated between showcasing S4D4C project results and external panel discussions.

Among the external panels was InsSciDE’s session Addressing Global Challenges Under Multipolarity: Science Diplomacy and Strategy , held on Tuesday 16 March. InsSciDE was a contributing stakeholder in the event, with members participating in sessions throughout the week and InsSciDE’s Coordinator Pascal Griset joining in the climax announcement of the new EU Science Diplomacy Alliance.

In the main InsSciDE panel, Rasmus Bertelsen moderated a discussion between historian Laurence Badel, strategist Björn Fägersten and economist and former French Science Counsellor Pierre-Bruno Ruffini which zoomed in on the structural conditions dictating what ‘European science diplomacy’ could or should look like.

Bertelsen (The Arctic University) opened the session with a reference to the relative power transition occurring ‘from the West to the Rest’ led by Asia and suggested that a multipolar world order is key to combatting global challenges. Today’s global existential threats – biosafety, nuclear arms control, the climate crisis, etc. – cannot be thoroughly neutralized in a bipolar world order consisting of the economic leaders, the US and China. How might science diplomacy facilitate this shift in power, so that comparative influence is wielded by players like the EU, India and Russia?

Fägersten (The Swedish Institute of International Affairs) argued that science diplomacy is often depicted in a somewhat ‘romantic’ light when it should be viewed as a tool of statecraft and discussed with ‘less fairy dust and more realpolitik’.

A common notion is that science diplomacy functions above party politics, with science being a ‘neutral’ medium and its partnership with diplomacy relatively benign. But science is intrinsically intertwined with power through factors related to its funding, use and production. The UK, for instance, plots science as an explicit power vector in its new foreign policy LINK.

Science diplomacy has become more conflictual in recent decades. While previously the practice was generally linked to a need for technical expertise in addressing global challenges, today, geoeconomics are at the forefront of science, technology and innovation policies. Part of the shift may be attributable to a lack of the regime convergence that was anticipated by Western powers with the rise of globalization. Countries did not, as it turn out, become more ‘Western’ and the interdependence that accompanied globalization did not simply make the world safer, rather it was weaponized.

Fägersten defines the term strategy as an understanding of interests and the pursuit of these interests with the specific tools at one’s disposal. He explains that an EU science diplomacy strategy must be grounded in an understanding of power dynamics and geopolitical interests. Comparing Russia’s Sputnik 5 vaccine to its namesake rocket illustrates how the competitive climate in technology has shifted, from centering on two superpowers to including several major actors at the forefront of innovation.

Badel (Sorbonne Université) explained that in order to develop European science diplomacy, we must first understand the evolution and state of European diplomacy. She referred to her new book on European diplomacy over the last two centuries to demonstrate how deciphering common diplomatic interests and practices increased in complexity as the EU expanded from the original 6 to today’s 27 member states.

She noted that the Maastricht Treaty had little impact on the way member states conducted their foreign affairs, while the Treaty of Lisbon, which gave the EU international legal personality and established the EEAS, was a significant unifying force. Nonetheless, European diplomacy entails a great variety of practices, diverging across topics such as staff training, the role of women, and the culture and language of negotiation or networking. These differing approaches to diplomacy, as well as tensions between the European level and member state aims and interests, pose a particular challenge to arriving at a ‘shared Science Diplomacy for Europe’.

Ruffini (University of Le Havre-Normandie) offered a close-up view of the culture and processes behind the EU’s global network of science counsellors, which can be placed in the general category of embassy science attachés. The EU science counsellors are expatriate or local staff operating at EU delegations in 12 locations across the world. Each of the countries of location are generally linked to the EU by bilateral agreement on S&T cooperation and a strategic partnership agreement with the goals giving greater coherence to the mutual relationship in a wide range of areas and to place it in a long-term perspective.

Drawing on a series of interviews conducted in his InsSciDE research, Ruffini observed that there is no predefined strategy of the network, but rather it evolves with changes in both geopolitics and in scientific power. The primary task of the counsellors is to promote the EU’s framework research programme. The network also enhances coordination among member states’ own science attachés or counsellors, fulfilling a similar function in the field as that of SFIC LINK within Europe. Ruffini also highlighted that several of the counsellors interviewed did not define themselves as ‘science diplomats’, displaying a reluctance to accept this wording despite their role at the interface of science and diplomacy.

Fägersten then outlined five overarching EU foreign policy goals that might underlie a European science diplomacy strategy.

  1. Functioning rules-based order among states.
    The role of science diplomacy is limited in this context but may be able to add trust or support verification measures such as intelligence sharing.
  2. Global challenges.
    The convergence of science and diplomacy is essential for a coordinated, knowledge-based approach.
  3. ‘Resilient neighborhood’.
    A consistent theme in the EU, ensuring that member states can rise to challenges and recover from adversity could be facilitated through science diplomacy in several ways.
  4. Security and well-being of Europeans.
    Science, technology and innovation are closely linked to ensuring Europe is ‘protected’, ranging in topics from cyber security and biosafety to nuclear cooperation.
  5. Strategic autonomy.
    The EU’s growing ambition to be an independent actor in international relations has manifested in STI-based initiatives such as the European Defense Fund (2017) and the space programmes Copernicus (2014) and Galileo (2016).

In the final portion of the panel, audience questions prompted discussion of how the EU’s rich diversity is both a strength and a challenge in pursuing a common science diplomacy strategy. The conversation also expanded beyond an EU geopolitical perspective to consider the interests of global communities and agendas of the Global South in framing science diplomacy history as well as future.

Published 13 April 2021