Rebooting Science Diplomacy in the Context of COVID-19

Science can be a common language and an important mechanism for calming geostrategic tensions.

Originally published on Issues in Science and Technology


The COVID-19 pandemic is amplifying preexisting tensions between the United States and China across all domains, including science and technology. This is happening even as global science and technology cooperation has become a central feature of public health and the development of vaccines and treatments. Does this new dynamic between the two powers accurately reflect a changed world, and could it presage greater tension to come?

The United States’ and China’s different political and economic models and distinct domestic and global interests create rising tensions as their soft power footprints (and increasingly hard power influences) span the globe. This places many other nations in a position not unlike that during the Cold War, when countries found themselves uneasily sitting between two elephants, the United States and the Soviet Union, pulling in different directions.

We do not know whether today’s US-China tension will settle into an uncomfortable status quo or lead to a progressive decoupling or a more rapid severance between the two economic giants. It might even develop into a more stable and constructive relationship. This creates an opportunity for science diplomacy to again help bridge the gap between two major powers with conflicting worldviews, as happened in the Cold War.

Important lessons from the science diplomacy of that era may help inform how best to respond in the current geopolitical context. Science diplomacy between 1945 and 1991 played an important role in preventing US-Soviet relations from degrading into mutual destructiveness. It led to the establishment of critical institutions and initiatives that advanced scientific understandings that underpinned critical agreements. Through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, scientists working with or without the explicit support of their governments played crucial roles in ensuring some level of civility and progress in the otherwise tense superpower relationship.

Some examples are illustrative. Prompted by a recommendation from the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), the major powers agreed on the 1957–58 International Geophysical Year that led to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, ensuring that Antarctica was a place for peaceful scientific purposes rather than for exploitative or military gain. In the 1960s Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin and US President Lyndon Johnson worked to establish the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, which focused on collaborative research between the major powers and their partners in areas that are now of increasing importance, such as the nexus of energy, water, and food. In 1985 the United States and the Soviet Union became two of the founding signatories for the Vienna convention for the protection of the ozone layer. Remarkably, collaboration between the superpowers grew even in areas that might be sensitive, such as space; the American Apollo and Soviet Soyuz spacecraft docked in orbit in 1975, and the two nations signed a joint agreement on space cooperation in 1987.

Scientists working with or without the explicit support of their governments played crucial roles in ensuring some level of civility and progress in the otherwise tense superpower relationship.

A critical lesson learned during this era was that science focused on fundamental questions and global processes could help in maintaining connections and building understanding, even in the face of growing political and security tensions. In this context, institutions including academies of science, international organizations such as ICSU, and United Nations technical organizations provided important conduits for collaboration.

The role of science in diplomacy became more widespread following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Science diplomacy played a constructive role in approaching global issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, sustainable development, and global health. These are areas where international science flourishes, and the value of this cooperation is plain to see. But they are also areas where science diplomacy translated into policy in the forms of conventions, treaties, and agreements—most notably with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which provided space for developing international cooperation around climate science even as the politics of climate policy were more difficult to address. Other agreements—such as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and numerous lower-profile partnerships—provided ways to engage science well before broader international policy regimes around thorny global issues could be adequately addressed.

Such is the backdrop to the growing and serious US-China rivalry. The rising health, economic, and societal impacts of COVID-19, and accusations about responsibility for them, have greatly fuelled mutual suspicion and antagonism. Yet the world is looking for a sense of equilibrium between the great powers. Countries such as Australia and New Zealand find themselves increasingly stretched between their trading dependency with China and their historical, security, and political ties with the United States. Smaller nations that rely heavily on the multilateral rules-based order through the World Trade Organization and for technical help though bodies such as the World Health Organization fear that the US-China tension is undermining core elements of this system.

Rising superpowers, rising tensions

China has moved rapidly to the leading edge in many domains of science. It has invested heavily in building advanced research infrastructures and a skilled technical workforce. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students, research fellows, and scholars have studied in the West. China is now the second largest source of scientific papers after the United States, and an increasing number involve international coauthorship—with more than 40% having US-based coauthors. Thus there is the latent base for extended East-West cooperation.

But China’s ascendance as a superpower is not without concerns about integrity. There is ongoing wariness about scientific espionage in potentially commercially important areas, including intellectual property management and technology transfer. At the same time, law enforcement agencies in the United States and other Western economies are suspicious of Chinese theft of cutting-edge research and technology. All contribute to a sense within many Western policy circles that some forms of scientific misconduct are endemic in China.

The rising health, economic, and societal impacts of COVID-19, and accusations about responsibility for them, have greatly fuelled mutual suspicion and antagonism.

COVID-19 has amplified concerns, as accusations flow about the availability and accuracy of Chinese data on the origin and impact of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease. But there are also concerns about the veracity of some of the US data. Leading Western scientific journals have retracted suspicious results regarding the treatment of COVID-19; the choice of drugs has been politicized. There are disagreements about the accuracy of COVID-19 death counts promulgated by the White House versus those from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, the Trump administration’s withdrawal of funding from WHO has increased international concerns about the politicization of the pandemic and the breakdown of the international technical agencies that were designed to address global challenges.

As the United States moves its focus away from the international stage and toward an “America First” policy, China has filled that space with a greater presence in the various bodies of the United Nations and an increasing range of multinational partnerships. Science has become a critical component of Chinese efforts to expand influence over international policies and relationships. One example is the Belt and Road Initiative, which while designed to build greater economic ties across Eurasia and Africa has also established a significant scientific and technological component, including its own international scientific organization. The initiative refers often to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which reinforces a perception that China’s foreign policy goals are well-aligned with globally agreed upon measures.

Within the COVID-19 crisis, science has shown a remarkable willingness to work across national and organizational boundaries. Similar to how diverse stakeholders came together in the West Africa Ebola outbreak of 2014–16, academic organizations, philanthropy, and the private sector have worked across country borders to develop broader science understandings of the COVID-19 challenge and approaches to solving it. WHO has launched the Solidarity trial, which involves investigators in over 35 countries, as well as a technology access pool to share information and data. The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is working with a US-based nongovernmental organization to help advise the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on the use and effectiveness of nonpharmaceutical interventions. But unlike earlier health challenges, COVID-19 is also being used within official government engagements to exacerbate tensions. Competition is underway to not only frame blame for the pandemic but to develop countermeasures domestically.

Science can use its tools of informal diplomacy to try to reduce tensions. This will require global scientific organizations and individual scientists to recognize that their contribution to society is more than just building knowledge; it also involves building relationships and reducing tensions. This is truer today than at any time since the end of the Cold War 30 years ago. We need both formal and informal science diplomacy to play their role in navigating the rocky path ahead.

Increasing and using science diplomacy will not be easy given the broad suspicions on both sides and the growing awareness of the coupling between scientific and economic competition between the two major powers. The tensions between the United States and China are distinct from those between the United States and the Soviet Union through most of the second half of the twentieth century. Societies, including the scientific community, are much more intertwined today at all levels. At the same time, the breakdown of many post-World War II institutions, and the growing trend toward nationalism and isolationism in the West, leaves a major gap in the infrastructure that would be needed to support technical discussions on global issues.

Unlike earlier health challenges, COVID-19 is also being used within official government engagements to exacerbate tensions.

But there are some opportunities. Both China and the United States are active in a number of multilateral scientific organizations, such as the International Science Council (ISC), which succeeded ICSU in 2018 and has been looking at ways to adapt to the new realities. Working through ISC to develop principles for science cooperation and conduct could provide an important framework for developing a set of norms and standards that could be applied to science writ large. It would also build an early foundation for broader technical discussions among scientists.

After the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, countries with very different political views rapidly agreed on a Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident—signed even while the Cold War raged. Could the scientific community define the basis of a similar convention to alert the global community to an emerging disease from a novel organism that jumped from an animal into humans? Such an agreement could provide for the time-critical sharing of biosamples and data.

The ISC and its members have the expertise and nonpartisan basis to develop the scientific criteria for such a convention. And given that both US and Chinese commentators have made allegations regarding the origins of the COVID-19 virus in the other’s military research, it may be time to address the lack of a scientific support system for the Biological Weapons Convention. This lack of support, 45 years after the convention came into force, is in marked distinction to that related to chemical weapons.

Recall the lessons from the Cold War. One is the need to focus on areas and topics of mutual interest and concern, such as space, cutting-edge energy projects, and global health. Another is to focus on building institutional links, either by taking advantage of existing institutions of science or, when opportunities arise, creating new ones. In this endeavor, nongovernmental or quasigovernmental organizations are particularly important. But shared interest between the Americans and Soviets around technically based global challenges such as Antarctica and the loss of the ozone layer also provided an important means to overcome political mistrust to work toward common, science-based solutions. Perhaps the United States and China, joined by allies on both sides, could develop new projects and facilities to explore and understand the physics and biology of the oceans—which, while often involving critical strategic and economic interests, is an arena where scientists can work together outside traditional political venues to develop better understandings.

Whatever the area of focus, both sides of the Pacific need to recognize that the status quo is not sustainable. New systems and new approaches will be critical for advancing the science while leaving open important communication avenues for diplomacy.

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