Science is back at the White House; now it must be integrated into American diplomacy

Science is back at the White House; now it must be integrated into American diplomacy
© Getty Images

President BidenJoe BidenBiden nominates Mark Brzezinski to be U.S. ambassador to Poland 10 dead after overloaded van crashes in south Texas Majority of New York state Assembly support beginning process to impeach Cuomo: AP MORE underscored the importance of science to his administration by promptly nominating a White House Science Advisor and elevating the role to Cabinet status. That was an excellent start to correcting the Trump administration’s hostility to the role of science in policymaking, but Biden needs to ensure his new Secretaries at key Cabinet agencies are similarly moving to integrate science into their operations.

Nowhere is this perhaps more important than at the Department of State. Diplomacy and science may seem like strange bedfellows, but science-related issues have long been part of America’s diplomatic agenda. Arms control and non-proliferation, for example, were part of America’s 1960s Cold War foreign policy agenda, as were scientific exchanges with the Soviet bloc and non-aligned states. In 1974 Congress created State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES) in recognition of the diplomatic and economic importance of dealing globally with that set of science-related issues. 

The Biden administration has identified a number of foreign policy priorities that are science related. For example, dealing with climate change, developing early warning systems for future pandemics, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and WMD terrorism, and coming to grips with the security challenges of cyberspace — all will require persistent diplomacy that is informed by the best science the U.S. can produce.

ADVERTISEMENT

Science is not just good for identifying problems, such as the deterioration of the earth’s ozone layer, and then supporting the diplomacy to produce a solution; it can also build relationships and establish common ground for cooperation. Scientific exchanges with the Soviets during the Cold War helped prevent miscalculations by both sides. Similarly, decades of scientific exchanges with allies and developing countries helped build a network of personal and institutional relationships that strengthen America’s global soft power.

Tony Blinken, the recently confirmed Secretary of State, has direct experience with the importance of science to diplomacy; when he was Deputy Secretary of State negotiations that were deeply informed by expertise from U.S. national laboratories produced the Iran nuclear agreement.

Unfortunately, Blinken will find that State’s science capacity, which has never been robust, atrophied during the Trump administration. The OES bureau has not had a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary in over four years, and State did not name a Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State, a position created in 1999 at the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences, until late 2019, a gap of three years.

Strengthening State’s science capacity and better integrating science into the administration’s diplomacy needs to start at the top.

Blinken, like Biden, must signal that he expects science to play a key role in State’s policymaking and diplomacy. He should promptly name a new State Science Advisor and press the White House to nominate assistant secretaries for OES and other science-related bureaus, such as Energy, Arms Control and Verification, and International Security and Nonproliferation, as a first order of business.

ADVERTISEMENT

Additionally, Blinken must set an example by routinely including his Science Advisor and relevant science-related assistant secretaries in internal policy-development meetings, as well as those with senior foreign officials.

America has an unparalleled science establishment, which includes U.S. government laboratories, the private sector, and academic experts. Drawing on this expertise should be a key role of the Secretary’s Science Advisor and those others at State working on science-related diplomatic challenges. Secretary Blinken should direct his staff to promote collaboration with America’s scientific establishment and ask his Cabinet colleagues with science resources to encourage their staffs to be responsive when approached for assistance on diplomatic challenges.

Finally, Secretary Blinken should task his Science Advisor to review and suggest actions within six month of the advisor’s appointment on recommendations made in a series of reports the National Academy of Sciences has made since 1999 on strengthening the role of science in American diplomacy.

The art of diplomacy has not changed in the 21st Century; cooperation and collaboration still need to be built, agreements reached, and actions taken. But for many of the most difficult national security challenges facing the U.S. in the decades ahead, American diplomacy must marry diplomatic art with scientific knowledge to successfully build the collaboration and produce the agreements that lead to meaningful actions that are in America’s interests and promote sustainable global prosperity and stability. Secretary Blinken will leave a constructive legacy if he succeeds in fully embedding science and technology within American diplomacy.

Kenneth C. Brill is a retired career Foreign Service Officer who served as U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA in the George W. Bush administration and as a senior intelligence official in the Obama Administration. He also served as Acting Assistant Secretary for State’s OES Bureau at the end of the Clinton administration and the beginning of the Bush administration. He was founding director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (2005-2009). He was involved in international environmental issues and negotiations in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.