Science as Diplomacy, nothing new


Healthcare is a big deal these days. In the US costs are soaring, arguably Obama’s legacy rests on his controversial law the Affordable Care Act, and Republicans have risked shutting down the government over the law. So, it’s no surprise when it’s in the news for other reasons. According to The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the group that publishes the prestigious journal Science, healthcare is now starting to impact diplomacy. Researchers from several different countries are creating novel ways to introduce addicts in both China and the US to the other’s style of medicine. In the US traditional Chinese methods are being experimented within clinics. While in China “western” medicine is being introduced in a very specific manner to address the same issues.

There are several organizations beyond the one I linked to above that deal with cross-cultural issues using either science, engineering, or healthcare. Organizations like Doctor’s Without Boarders work in many different parts of the world to bring care to those in need. These are volunteers that are doing good deeds to bring care to those that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.

A similar organization is Engineer’s Without Boarders, which improves local conditions of a village or community through technology. For example, one of my friends I met Austin (now teaching at Harvard) would regularly visit a community in Mexico to install different solar panel arrays. This allowed them to have clean drinking water, power for mobile devices, cooking, and heating.

All of these activities help develop good will from one country to another. In fact, foreign exchange students that fully engage with their classmates are also great diplomats. I know that while I was abroad in Europe my friends decided that they would want to visit the US because I introduced them to what people in the US could be like rather than what they’d heard on the TV.

Interestingly, science and engineering have been used for diplomatic reasons for a very long time. I find the most interesting to be the period after World War II. Science played a huge part in rebuilding nearly all of western Europe as well as Japan. Why did we do that? Because we felt having Germany and Japan as allies against the Soviet Union was more important than kicking an enemy while they were down.

The German’s had invented the V2 rocket, which the US wanted to use for our own rockets as well as for nobler purposes. To gain the technical competence to build the rockets we decided to recruit as many Germans scientists as possible and bring them to the US. These were Nazi’s and some of them were likely war criminals, however because we needed them for the Cold War we decided to take advantage of them.

The trade wasn’t simply one way though. The US government encouraged companies to open their doors to European companies. This allowed our allies to rebuild their economy. In fact, the US business leaders like Deming to Japan, which eventually enabled Toyota to best the US automakers with techniques they turned down. These interactions dramatically changed how Europe and Japan evolved over the next few decades.

Diplomacy using science isn’t anything new. It was influential through the Marshall Plan after WWII and will continue to influence the rest of the world. It could be argued that our patent system enables the US prescription drug consumer to subsidize all other economies for their prescription drug use. This is an accidental type of diplomacy that is make the lives better for billions around the world.

I hope that in the future we will continue to influence the world through science and technology support. However, it is best if we help develop the technologies with locals rather than handing them a finished product. As the book Shock of the Old argues in many contexts the newest technology isn’t the best, the best technology is what does the job well enough that the people using the technology can understand and keep running.

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