A Brave New World: Telescopes and Science Diplomacy

On October 7, 2014, construction on the behemoth Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) began. Marked by a traditional Hawaiian blessing ceremony, the event signaled the inclusion of the giant telescope into an elite family of high-powered astronomy bases on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The five-country collaboration is but one of many telescope projects bringing together private organizations, governments, and educational institutions from across the globe in the name of science.

The TMT mega project began as the nonprofit TMT Observatory Corporation in June 2003, founded by a trio of Canadian and American universities. Their goal to push the frontiers of astronomy research with technology necessitated the construction of physical premises, which in turn required a larger network of international partners. Before long, Japan had joined as a participating institution, and China and India as observers.

The TMT Observatory Corporation is the latest project in a developing arena of international cooperation, one that is emerging as a soft power alternative to classic military and economic pressure. Its name: science diplomacy.

Undoubtedly, the international nature of these large-scale scientific endeavours is not unprecedented. In fact, the five-country TMT project joins a legion of other international collaborations on Mauna Kea itself. The mountain holds thirteen other telescopes that stand as a testament to the collaboration of scientists and their various worldwide institutions . The Gemini Northern Telescope (GNT), which started in 1999, is the product of a six-country partnership between the United States, Canada, Chile, Australia, Brazil, and Argentina. While science diplomacy is certainly not new, in the post-Cold War era it has taken on an entirely new power—one that has the potential to create common ground between otherwise conflicting countries.

Science Diplomacy

Although science diplomacy was officially defined and recognized as a strategic diplomatic tactic in 2010, the spirit of science diplomacy has nevertheless underscored much of the international scientific collaboration of the last century. Perhaps the first, and most notable, instance of science diplomacy was the creation of the International Council for Scientific Unions (ICSU), now known as the International Council for Science (ICS). The Council’s goal of pursuing science for the benefit of society was underscored by its mobilization of international resources and expertise. Its guiding principles included interaction between scientists across all disciplines and from all countries, “regardless of race, citizenship, language, political stance, or gender”. National divides, once thought of as insurmountable barriers in the Cold War era, seemed much more manageable among a gathered group of white coats in a lab.

The TMT is one of many modern examples of scientific diplomacy, a strategy that has been lauded as being the most relevant and promising in this modern age. While traditional multilateral avenues of communication, including military diplomacy, remain integral to states’ approaches to foreign policy, the combination of international science has proven to be an appealing alternative.

As governments speak of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power, scientific collaboration has emerged as the leading option in states’ pursuit of the latter. In the wake of the protracted War on Terror led by the US in the Middle East, politicians and citizens alike have sharply criticized American foreign policy, citing the need to shift from a myopic view of world engagement involving only gold and guns. In a Washington Post article from December 2007, respected political scientist Joseph Nye and former deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage spoke out in favor of this diversification of foreign policy, stating:

“In a changing world, the United States should become a smarter power by once again investing in the global good—by providing things that people and governments want but cannot attain without U.S. leadership. By complementing U.S. military and economic strength with greater investments in soft power, Washington can build the framework to tackle tough global challenges. We call this smart power.”

In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the first three Science Envoys—independent scientists who would travel as private citizens, and eventually  share their personal insights and experiences with the White House and the larger scientific community. Notably, the 2009 initiative by the White House was aimed at bolstering science and technology collaboration with Muslim communities around the world, at a time when foreign relations with the Middle East were anything but peaceable.

It is no surprise that science diplomacy is widely practiced by states. Its relatively noncontroversial nature, which stems from the fact that individuals, not states, are the primary actors, means that US-China, US-Middle East, and various other international collaborations are able to continue despite the existence of more aggressive and volatile interactions in other areas of the relationship.

Telescopes for Peace?

Science diplomacy has a definite and lasting stake in 21st century foreign policy. The Center for Science Diplomacy defines it as “the overarching goal of using science to build bridges between countries and to promote scientific cooperation as an essential element of foreign policy.” The hope that science bolsters foreign relations as a contributory arm of a state’s ‘soft’ power is a prevalent one. To date, US Science Envoys have visited 19 countries, with plans to pursue even more extensive engagements in the coming decade. However, these individual foreign connections are often difficult to evaluate in the context of foreign diplomacy.Despite the numerous scientific missions already in place globally, the question remains: how much does global scientific collaboration really help foreign relations?

Quite frankly, not much.

When we look at a state’s main concerns—national security, economic security, military strength, private enterprise—the leverage of combined scientific research pales in comparison. Because diplomacy is, and will remain, a multifaceted and inherently complex operation, scientific collaboration can only do so much to foster goodwill, and even then, only among individuals or specific institutions. Effective science diplomacy at work is fractured and highly specialized.

The ongoing territorial and political antagonism between Taiwan and China highlights the tension between international scientific endeavors and practical diplomacy. Chinese and Taiwanese scientists converge on an annual basis to promote cooperation and research development, yet sovereignty issues persist. Any amity resulting from science collaboration seems to be confined to the lab.

The view that science diplomacy will pave the way for more peaceable global relations is naive. Today’s foreign relations are still dominated by military and economic concerns. State defense and economic power dictate foreign policy decisions, and there is little sign that this trend will change anytime soon.

Nevertheless, science diplomacy and international collaboration still have real merit. While scientific diplomacy may not change the course of a country’s foreign policy, it nonetheless provides an additional avenue for engagement between countries and their citizens. States are, after all, more than legal documents and governments. At their core, they are composed of individuals who, we hope, possess some desire for mutual understanding and a peaceable existence.

While science diplomacy remains just another tool in states’ foreign policy arsenal, the actual scientific outcomes, or promised outcomes, that these collaborations are meant to produce, are much more noteworthy. The TMT project, for example, could shed light on the areas of dark matter, supermassive black holes, and galactic formation—research made possible by the pooled resources of several countries. In these nuclei of international scientific expertise, scientists are making breakthroughs on especially problematic scientific conundrums and global environmental issues, which may not be strictly relevant to individual states’ political decisions, but are surely inherently valuable for every inhabitant of this earth, regardless of citizenship.

Gargantuan telescopes may not be the answer to critical international issues, but increased collaboration and communication, even on an individual level, may indicate steady, albeit slow, progress toward a  consciousness of commonality.

And that recognition can mean the difference between enmity and amity.

The image featured in this article is taken from the TMT photo gallery. The original image can be found here.

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