A key element of the new interest in science diplomacy has been the effort, particularly by the US administration, to improve relations with the countries of the Middle East and the Muslim world.
These efforts to use scientific agreements as a central strategy in so-called “soft diplomacy” were highlighted in a speech delivered in Cairo last year by newly elected President Barack Obama who promised a new era of cooperation with the region.
The optimism of that speech has since faded, partly because follow-up is still awaited. But many remain sympathetic to the idea that building a strong scientific and technological base in the region would not only increase the economic strength of Muslim countries, but also have broader cultural and political implications.
One of the strongest protagonists of this view is Pakistani-born Princess Sumaya of Jordan, who plays an highly active role as president of the country’s Royal Scientific Society based in Amman.
In an address to the Wilton Park meeting on science diplomacy that was both thoughtful and passionate, she presented a vision of how promoting science and technology — a task that she admitted benefitted from external support — could bring both peace and prosperity to the region.
Princess Sumaya used her speech to make vigorous criticism of the way, too often in the Muslim world, scientific leaders had a tendency to focus their efforts on building and controlling their own power bases, rather than seeing their role as part of a global scientific community.
“We Arabs have a demon within us who calls for the biggest and the brightest, a demon that appeals to us to build an edifice that will put the neighbours in the shade,” she said. “Unfortunately, we do little to work together.”
Multilateralism was not a great strength in the Arab world; indeed it was hardly a reality. But it was important for countries in the region to learn to collaborate on science and technology, just as European countries had done to boost their technological innovation.
“Our resource-rich countries must work with talent-rich, but resource-poor, economies for the benefit of all,” Princess Sumaya said. “Spreading opportunities across the Arab world will stem our debilitating brain-drain and help to create a sustainable and productive environment for all our populations.”
A similar plea had come on the previous day from Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), who described how the members of his organisation were committed to promoting science and technology to enhance the well-being of the Muslim world.
Keen to challenge the idea that the transfer of scientific knowledge was primarily a West-to-East affair, he pointed out that, in the seventeenth century, the English scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon had acknowledged that many key inventions – such as printing, gunpowder and the compass – had come from the Muslim world.
Ihsanoglu, a historian of science by profession, complained that Islamic contributions to science and knowledge were in danger of being overlooked as a result of campaigns of “Islamophobia” that sought to demonise the principles and values of Islamic culture.
At the same time he reminded participants that, although science diplomacy had proved to be useful in forging partnerships in fields such as education and agriculture, they should not forget that its ultimate aim – like that of more conventional forms of diplomacy – was to further a country’s interests and wider political goals.
Princess Sumaya issued a similar warning in slightly more colourful terms. “Soft power is a desirable tool for diplomacy, considering the other options available to all sides, but achieving one’s goals through co-option and attraction is only truly sustainable if we all want similar, sustainable outcomes.
“The design and exercise of soft power by the West is, to a large extent, predetermined by cultural values, political institutions and even the demands of the electoral cycle,” she stressed. “If clear, universal goals are not agreed upon, then soft power too can seem antagonistic, to be dismissed by opposing ideologues as the velvet glove of international relations.”