Balkan Countries Must Get Serious on Science Diplomacy

The big powers have long understood the need to unite scientific know-how with diplomacy both to deal with common problems and raise their international profiles – when will the Balkan states do likewise?

“To remain relevant and competitive, we need to engage more in science diplomacy and global scientific collaboration,” Carlos Moedas told a conference on “a new start for Europe”, in Brussels in 2015.

Moedas, then European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, was a strong advocate for European leadership in addressing global challenges through enabling partnerships between regions and countries, going beyond mere support for collaborative projects.

It seemed that the EU had finally grasped the importance of officially embedding science diplomacy within European policies and was recognizing its contribution to the EU’s international goals.

The participants at the Brussels 2015 conference probably little realised how prophetic Moeda’s advice about the importance of science diplomacy would soon be.

Only five years later, the whole world was struck by a coronavirus pandemic – and countries were desperately struggling to secure vaccines for their populations.

Unfortunately, the EU did not understand the vaccine race and opted for a “no urgency” attitude. The UK, on the other hand, put a venture capitalist specializing in biosciences in charge of its vaccine program.

The situation in Western Balkans was even worse, “caught in a vaccine no man’s land”, as some have put it, and fighting to secure Russian and Chinese jabs through diplomatic relations.

The EU’s general lagging in the vaccine race and the apparent failure of COVAX program lead to the conclusion that diplomacy was of paramount importance in the whole situation.

Multilateral initiatives, but also bilateral negotiations, would have benefited from sound scientific advice and brokerage, which could have resulted in a much more efficient handling of the problem. That is where science diplomacy enters the picture.

In a nutshell, science diplomacy is the “use of scientific interactions among nations to address the common problems facing humanity and to build constructive, knowledge-based international partnerships”, as Britain’s Royal Society defined it in 2010.

In practice, science diplomacy does not only promote and enable international scientific cooperation but also strengthens a country’s image in global arena, besides helping countries to solve issues that they wouldn’t be able to resolve on their own.

America and France have taken the lead

Thus, science diplomacy serves the needs of the global community as a whole, but it also contributes to countries’ particular interests.

Some countries understood this long ago. In the 1950s, for example, the US Department of State established a Science Adviser’s Office, with a mission to “elevate science and technology in foreign policy for America’s security and prosperity”.

In 2009, President Barack Obama announced that the US would support scientific development in Muslim-majority countries and appoint science attachés in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

This diplomatic style on the part of the US helps to “soften the assertive and militarized aspects of American foreign policy … and might even reduce the rhetoric of exceptionalism and superiority” as explained by Olga Krasnyak.

Other major countries have adopted similar strategies. France intensified its science diplomacy activities some years ago. Since 2010 it has had an Ambassador Delegate for science, technology and innovation. By 2012, a report by the French Foreign Ministry stated, its scientific-diplomatic network consisted of 255 advisers and science attachés.

Japan appointed its first scientific adviser to the minister of foreign affairs in 2015, and has intensified its multilateral and bilateral scientific cooperation.

Meanwhile, within its Belt and Road initiative, China has established a University Alliance of the Silk Road whose goal is to “build collaborative platforms in higher education and foster regional openness and synergies”.

Having this in mind, the importance of science diplomacy seems self-evident. Turning to its concrete results in practice, leaving aside UNESCO, EUROMED, the International Space Station, and various policies and initiatives on climate change or food safety, here are a couple of examples.

One is the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications, or SESAME, a laboratory established under the auspices of UNESCO in 2002 in Jordan, the only country that has maintained diplomatic relations with all its founding countries: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, and Turkey.

SESAME exemplifies the twofold dimension of science diplomacy – “diplomacy for science”, represented by diplomatic negotiations in order to facilitate scientific cooperation, and “science for diplomacy”, represented by the use of scientific achievements for the betterment of international relations and mutual understanding.

Another example, especially important today, was the so-called vaccine diplomacy during the Cold War. This was a secret joint initiative by the US and Soviet Union to develop vaccines, thanks to which smallpox was eradicated, and polio significantly decreased.

In 1956, the two governments enabled American and Soviet virologists to work together on a polio vaccine. For this to succeed, scientists from both sides had to convince their diplomatic representatives to disregard their ideological differences, at least temporarily.

In 1958 Viktor Zhdanov, a Soviet virologist and deputy health minister, advocated the eradication of smallpox and supervised production of the vaccine; between 1962 and 1968 the USSR provided 450 million doses of vaccine, while the US provided financial support.

Pandemic has revealed importance of collaboration

While these concern large-scale scientific projects led by the world’s great powers, they also provide a reminder of the necessity of science diplomacy for smaller countries as well.

By intensifying their science diplomacy activities, smaller countries can participate in larger endeavours, which they cannot finance themselves, and so receive double gain: a share in the benefits of the research results, and building their image in the international community. These positive effects of science diplomacy seem of great significance for the Balkan region for at least two reasons.

First, it has historically been known for various political and military conflicts whose echoes unfortunately haven’t disappeared. The modest size of the Balkan countries and their economies also calls for an intense regional cooperation, and strong support by the European Union and other partners.

Facilities like CERN, SESAME, or ISS have shown how diplomacy and science can go hand in hand in advancing better mutual understanding and closer ties with the goal of improving social, political, and cultural relations between peoples.

More collaborative projects, like SEEIIST, the South East European Institute for Sustainable Technologies, started by Montenegro, which would include research in humanities and social sciences as well, could over the long haul contribute to those goals.

Second, the coronavirus pandemic and the shortage of vaccines in many Balkan countries have shown the paramount importance of international cooperation and solidarity.

Prompt negotiations with vaccine producers and good relationships with countries having large quantities of vaccines have proved a key element in the process. In Montenegro, the tardiness and idleness of the previous government in securing sufficient quantities of vaccines on time resulted in a considerable delay to the start of vaccination, which it turns out could be remedied only by intense official and scientific diplomacy.

In fact, the first smaller portion of vaccines to reach Montenegro was donated by Serbia, while the first larger quantities are expected to come from Russia, resulting from bilateral negotiations facilitated by Professor Sergej Boljevic, a Montenegrin scientist working in Moscow. The role of Professor Boljevic in the process was precisely that of a science diplomat, although he was not officially appointed as such.

Weak countries must rely more on soft power

These examples alone make a case for a larger involvement of science diplomacy in Balkan countries’ foreign policy strategies. The lack of more appropriate examples, unfortunately, proves also that this kind of diplomacy is still not fully understood in the region.

Appointing scientific advisers to the cabinet or deploying science attachés to key countries would improve government decision making, strengthen bilateral and multilateral relations and broker beneficial agreements, in addition to building a country’s reputation.

Lacking in military or economic strength, such small countries must heavily rely on soft power, best exercised by people with background in academia or culture, in order to achieve their goals and increase their international visibility.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown how both domestic and foreign policies cannot rely only on the partisan politics or unilateral understanding of national interests, as we could see in Europe at the pandemic outbreak in 2020; the initial absence of coordination within EU is testimony that Moeda’s vision from 2015 needs even more concrete support to be transformed from theory into practice.

Timely and informed responses by governments and multilateral organizations were of essence in the past year, and it is likely that pluralistic approaches to decision-making will continue to be the only efficient way of dealing with various local and global challenges.

Science diplomacy, although present for decades in some form, is an emerging aspect of international relations that will prove to be a decisive tool in a future world struggling with different kinds of social, economic, and health issues. The “big players” have understood that; what about us?

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