Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A Comment on Science, Diplomacy and the Role of International Scientific Cooperation

An important aspect of diplomacy is the peaceful negotiation of disputes. There are many disputes that concern the exploitation of resources that cross borders. Examples might be oil deposits, rivers and aquifers. Indeed, the debates over climate change might be seen as based on the resource of an unpolluted atmosphere.

It is hard to see how negotiations over the ownership and management of such resources can be successful unless the resources are mapped and their dynamics understood. Thus it seems to me that countries sharing a river can not successfully negotiate a plan for river basin management, river water quality assurance, and water allocation without a detailed understanding of the river, its watershed, and the relevant meteorology and climatology.

International scientific cooperation is then called for to establish the basic information on which such diplomatic negotiations can take place. In the case of a river shared by two or more nations, it seems likely that an appropriate knowledge base would best be constructed by scientists from the nations involved collaborating in studies of the river. Indeed, it might well be that the presence of highly respected scientists from a neutral nation might lend greated authority to the knowledge base.

There are many ways to get such cross-border scientific cooperation. The obvious one is to form a specific "border" science program or problem specific international research project. But what does one do when the nations involved are at each other's throats? Water shortages may exacerbate the international problems in the Middle East, but it is hard to get middle eastern nations to set up bilateral cooperation programs or projects.

The United States has taken the lead in setting up many such collaborations. (I was once responsible for managing a U.S. government program funding research collaboration between Israel and its Arab neighbors.) Multinational organizations can also play an important role, as UNESCO has done in catalyzing the SESAME project headquartered in Jordan.

One might ask why the multinational mechanism is important to the United States, since we generally have good relations with our neighboring countries, and there are strong scientific linkages with Mexico and with Canada. That may be less true as we look at the management of the resources in the Gulf of Mexico which we share with many nations, including Cuba.

More generally, the status of the United States as the most powerful economic and military power in the world tends to pull us into disputes that escalate anywhere in the world. The more disputes that can be settled by peaceful negotiations the better.

UNESCO is the key intergovernmental organization for the earth sciences, oceanography, hydrology and bioreserves. It has a significant cross sectoral program focusing on climate change. In all of these elements of UNESCO's natural science program it can play an important role in catalyzing research cooperation and in legitimating the results of the collaborative research it sparks.

In its cultural program it is the lead program on archaeology, and this program together with its World Heritage program can be helpful in creating the knowledge base on which diplomatic negotiations can take place. It is not only in Jerusalem that the cultural property becomes the subject of controversy so severe that it has led to violence.

UNESCO is also the lead agency for the Intergovernmental system of United Nations agencies in the social sciences. In this author's opinion it does unfortunately little in that field. Of course the International Financial Institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monitary Fund do a great deal of economic research and even catalyze research cooperation in economics, but in my opinion more needs to be done. There are many areas where shared understanding of economic issues could facilitate diplomatic negotiations.

I would suggest that the collaboration in area studies, sociology, anthropology and geography could similarly create a commonly agreed knowledge base that could facilitate diplomatic negotiations, and that UNESCO could play an important role in making such collaboration possible, were it to have the resources and a stronger mandate to do so from its governing bodies.

UNESCO was created in large measure to help build the defenses of peace in the minds of men. In the above paragraphs I have outlined a case that the sciences can help build those defenses by establishing common bases in scientific knowledge to enable diplomats to negotiate peaceful solutions to resource based conflicts. It is to the interests of the United States that UNESCO be further encouraged to work to fulfill this role in the international community.

John A Daly (The opinions expressed are those of the author. and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO.)

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