Food for thought

Diplomacies in the plural

How much diplomatic power does science have? A guest article by Professor Maria Rentetzi

Issue 2 | 2023

“This is not a political issue” John Kerry, a former secretary of state and the first US special envoy for climate change, told his counterparts in China during a visit to discuss climate change in July 2023. “We’re not involved in dictating anything to anybody. And if anything, the science dictates the parameters that we all need to live by.”

As the political and diplomatic relations between the two countries have declined, the US administration has brought in climate diplomacy not only to combat global warming but also to resolve strategic issues, such as trade, surveillance and the Taiwan crisis. The weather in China, or so the US administration thought, was on Kerry’s side. During the meeting with China’s Premier Li Qiang, Kerry put on the table a report of a 52°C (125.6°F) temperature reading in China a few days earlier. The report offered compelling, scientific proof of the urgency to persuade China to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and cut down on coal plants. The Chinese reaction was immediate. Li Qiang simply questioned the source and resumed the discussion.

John Kerry is a seasoned negotiator. He was among those who negotiated agreements restricting Iran’s nuclear programme and the one who signed the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change on behalf of the US. As the Russian war in Ukraine has forced the redrawing of the global geopolitical map, national foreign science policies face novel chal­lenges: from climate change and the role of artificial intelligence to the reemergence of the nuclear threat and deadly pandemics. “Science diplomacy” is the term that, at least over the last two decades, captures the influence and decisive role of both science and technology in international affairs as well as their role in resolving international conflicts. In other words, through the use of science to address global challenges (such as climate change or the war in Ukraine) or to bring deadlocked diplomatic negotiations (such as the Iran nuclear deal) back on track, science diplo­macy figures prominently in international relations.

Simply put, science diplomacy frequently aims to influence the policy of another country in ways ­favourable to the first country by using science as a major tool. But how does this work in practice and is science really as exceptional and objective as policy advisors like to argue? Which comes down to the question: what is the diplomatic power of a temperature reading?

Despite the high expectations, Kerry returned from China empty-handed, as The New York Times reported, without having been invited to meet the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Instead, it was Henry Kissinger, the 100-year-old premier diplomat and former US secretary of state, who had the honour of meeting Xi Jinping at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing a day after Kerry’s departure. Nobody can confirm who invited or sent Kissinger to Beijing. Yet China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi referred during this visit to Kissinger as the diplomat who “made historic contributions to breaking the ice in China-US relations” more than half a century ago, playing an “irreplaceable” role in enhancing understanding between the two countries. Indeed, in 1971 Kissinger flew from Pakistan to Beijing to secretly negotiate and prepare US President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China. In his memorandum to Nixon on the day of his return to the US, Kissinger reported on a visit to a hospital where he was introduced to the ancient ­Chinese practice of acupuncture. There he witnessed three major surgical operations where the patients’ anaesthesia was induced by the application of acupuncture needles. Kissinger was astounded by this “beyond the ordinary” experience of a diplomatic envoy to a foreign country. Evidently, the acupuncture needle became one of the most important diplomatic tools, changing the history of China-US relations and impacting global international affairs. Throughout the 1970s this aspect of “communist science” fascinated the American public and paved the way for the “diplomacy of stability”, as Kissinger put it in his recent interview with The Economist.

But how is it that an acupuncture needle, a scientific instrument treated with suspicion by Western science, rather than a “robustly scientific” weather report and temperature reading was more successful in altering the course of international relations in an equally stagnated – although deeply different – diplomatic context?

The acupuncture needle, developed over 3,000 years ago as part of traditional Chinese medicine, is still considered to be alternative and complementary medicine in the US and other Western countries. It was only in the late 1990s that the US National Institutes of Health recommended the teaching of acupuncture in medical schools, partially acknowledging its scientific value. By contrast, temperature ­readings have enjoyed an unquestionable scientific status in the Western centres of science. Let us pause for a moment and turn to the lessons learnt from ­research in the humanities.

The language of science has never been universal or objective

Historians of science have long drawn attention to the fact that science is sensitive to culture and geographical location. Localities and spatial situations matter not only in terms of how scientific knowledge is produced, but also in terms of how it is made credible and how it travels. Scholars in feminist science studies have traced the ways in which specific formations of scientific knowledge have excluded women and the “other” throughout history. Science has ­never been one single thing, conceptually and methodologically, as science policy advisers and diplomats often suggest. Scientific communities vary in their styles of research and in the ways they reach scientific consensus. The example of the acupuncture needle and the temperature reading shows that the language of science has never been universal or object­ive. In addition, since the advent of nuclear weapons the connection of science to politics has become the primary and serious goal of several national policies. In short, the power of science and the trustworthiness of scientific claims “derive from the social process by which they are rigorously vetted,” as the historian of science Naomi Oreskes recently argued. And yet, as soon as science is institutionalised and standardised, it appears as a universal ‘dictating’ action, erasing its grounding in social and political processes. As a result, recent understandings of science diplomacy reflect the position of supremacy that Western science enjoys – a new kind of science colonialism. How could one ever dare to question the facts displayed on a thermometer?

Nonetheless, historical accounts of the entanglement of science and diplomacy show that what matters in successful diplomacy is that negotiations reflect a mutual respect for each other’s body of knowledge and accomplishments, including science. Especially on a day when the highest temperature at California’s Death Valley reached 53.3°C (128°F), the ­Chinese acupuncture needle ought to have equal diplomatic power to the thermometer reading of 52°C in China, if science is to address global challenges. Thus, science diplomacy has to operate in the plural; to acknowledge the plurality of scientific styles and localities and, in so doing, to show respect to all negotiating parties. —

Professor Maria Rentetzi holds the Chair in science, technology and gender studies at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. The physicist, historian of science and science studies scholar has received multiple international awards for her scholarship, including the Gutenberg-e Prize of the American Historical Association and the ERC Consolidator grant (HRP-IAEA, grant agreement no. 770548). Through her ERC project, she is currently leading the development of a new strand of research, Diplomatic Studies of Science. She led a DAAD funded International Summer School on Gender and Science in summer 2023 in Granada, Spain. Together with colleagues from the Hellenic Open University in Athens she directs an IKYDA project that explores the communication of science within the politically turbulent Cold War political context in Greece. IKYDA ist ein bilaterales Forschungsförderungsprogramm zwischen dem DAAD und der griechischen State Scholarship Foundation (I.K.Y.).