Can Obama use ‘science diplomacy’ to promote peace in the Middle East?


by guest
15th June, 2009 at 9:01 am    

this is a guest post by Yasmin Khan

In a recent blog entry I alluded to the prospect of utilizing science diplomacy to help promote world peace. Following President Barack Obama’s ground-breaking speech in Cairo, it now seems that dormant rhetoric will soon be put into imminent action.

Intentions to support scientific initiatives in the Islamic world as part of Obama’s vision for promoting peaceful relations between the United States and countries with a Muslim majority were revealed, as highlighted in David Bruggeman’s recent blog entry on Science Diplomacy and the Cairo Address.

It seemed too good to be true a couple of months ago when Dr. Vaughan Turekian, Chief International Officer for AAAS and Director for the Center for Science Diplomacy, foretold in his talk at Harvard how a new era of science diplomacy might be afoot.

Turekian had defined science diplomacy as:

the use of international science cooperation with the goal of building or establishing relationships between and among societies.

Just prior to that, The Times reported that Dr Harold Varmus, Noble Laureate and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology had asserted that American diplomacy had previously undervalued the role of medicine and science in fostering friendly relations with developing nations. Varmus argued that US investment in fighting tropical infections and chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes in poor countries would transform international perceptions of the US.

When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year, no one was sure how much of what she promised would really transpire when she claimed that the new vanguard of foreign policy rests in the deployment of diplomacy as encapsulated in the phrase she helped to coin: ‘smart power’.

Smart power is a balance of hard military power with the soft power of diplomacy, development, cultural exchanges, education and science. One of the most promising of the smart power tools is science diplomacy, the practice of supporting and promoting scientific exchanges, cooperation and research between the United States and other nations, sometimes nations that have no other diplomatic relations with the United States.

A U.S. delegation was recently sent to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, where the implementation of science diplomacy has successfully proved to yield agreements to Seek Collaboration in Water, Energy, Agriculture and other Fields.

But what is most unique is Obama’s shrewd tactic to reference historical contributions made by other civilizations in order to give the present full context. This approach is both courageous and eye opening:

it was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation.

Obama has now given a new edge to science diplomacy – combining it with a sort of ‘heritage diplomacy’, he knows he can take things much further. Since then, John Esposito amongst others has also observed that by focusing on our interdependence, shared values and common interests, Obama has generated a new mindset and paradigm for U.S.-Muslim World relations. In the mean time, administration officials are working to elucidate the fuzzy spots in Obama’s science diplomacy as summarised in a recent State Department factsheet ‘A NEW BEGINNING: THE U.S. AND MUSLIM COMMUNITIES AROUND THE WORLD‘.

So what next? Obama’s speech was a watershed moment in history that raised expectations and has left us all in anticipation. We have yet to see his all pledges for action fully materialise but as Obama’s incisive words continue to reverberate, the future looks brighter.

———————–
This was first published on Prometheus, a blog run from the Centre for Science and Technology Policy Research in the University of Colorado, USA.


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  1. platinum786 — on 15th June, 2009 at 10:07 am  

    You can’t really ignore the elephant in the room though. The simple fact of the matter is the USA and the “western world” is seen as an agressor by the Muslim world and the western world sees the Muslim world as a “threat”.

    Any effort to build bridges is great, especially working together in science and research as Muslim countries are behind the world, even those with financial clout are punching below their weight.

    However the way I see it the USA needs to work towards the following;

    1. Making ammends for the Iraq war.
    2. Sorting out it’s mess in the Afghanistan.
    3. Stop supporting Israel until Israel is willing to create a Palestinian state (1967 borders).
    4. Remove all US forces deployed in Muslim countries.
    5. Stop blindly supporting arab royal families.
    6. Stop refusing the right for Iran to go nuclear.

    I’m not an expert about the rest of the world, but I like to think I know what I’m talking about when it comes to Pakistan. In this situation the US double standards are digraceful.

    Historically they’ve bullied Pakistan, and unfortunately we don’t have an Ahemdinijad to stand up to them. Pakistan is already a poor country, US sanctions are not going to hurt anyone apart from the rich elite, who also happen to be in charge. The vast majority of Pakistan would want nothing better than to cut off all ties with the USA, but we can’t because our leaders won’t and our political system is useless.

    They want us to improve relations with India, yet they ignore the Kashmir issue. Like it or not, apart from Kashmir, there is no other issue with India. All origins of bad blood between India and Pakistan are in Kashmir. For a country banging the drum of democracy all time, America seems pretty relucantant to even mention the word.

    Why does the world, particularly America refuse to pressure India and Pakistan to allow the Kashmiri people the right to vote on their future as stated in UN resolution 47 in 1948.

    The leadership of Pakistan is willing to ignore the issue, as they ignore all our other issues, but the people aren’t.

    The simple fact of the matter is, Barack Obama is a smooth operator. As of yet he has not done anything which of any substance, he’s just been about the spin. He knows he can get support from most of the leaders in Muslim countries, as the countries have no true reflective democratic model. He’s willing to work with that to better US interests and right now, the US interest is a better image in the Muslim world.

  2. Dave Cole — on 15th June, 2009 at 11:43 am  
  3. damon — on 15th June, 2009 at 2:07 pm  

    I’ve read what platinum786 has said above a couple of times.
    And I’m still a bit ‘outside the loop’.

    For example: ”Sorting out it’s mess in the Afghanistan”.
    That alone is a huge question deserving of months and month’s discussion away from today’s everyday concerns.

    4. Remove all US forces deployed in Muslim countries.
    That seems somewhat far-fetced, does it not?

  4. platinum786 — on 15th June, 2009 at 2:21 pm  

    Do you mean you don’t understand what I’ve written?

    If so, let me try to explain. What I’m saying is, to me Barack Obama appears to be a lot of talk, a lot of the right rhetoric, but none of the substance.

    I feel the biggest problem with US-Muslim relations is that the USA is seen as a military agressor by the populations of the muslim states, but an ally by the leaders. Ths difference just goes to show how out of touch the leadership class is in the Muslim world and how thin the US relations with the Muslim world are.

    11 of the 911 hijackers were Saudi’s, yet Saudi Arabia is an ally of the USA. Whilst there is such a disparity between the interests of the people and the interests of the leaders in Muslim states the USA cannot have real relations with Muslim states, the relationship will only be as strong as the dictator they back.

    I appreciate my bullet points were brief, they are by no means meant to be solutions, rather they point towards the type of issues that need to be looked at, in order to help regain trust the with Muslim world.

    I specified with an issue very close to my heart. As someone of Kashmiri descent, i find it extremely patronising, that the Obama regime is pressuring Pakistan to have friendly and normal relations with India, when the crux of all our bad feeling, is the Kashmir issue.

    The UN has stated the people of Kashmir have a right to decide their own future, yet the USA, someone who is the most powerful ally of both India and Pakistan, does not put pressure on both of these states to create the conditions required to hold an election and decide the future of Kashmir.

    What this means in the context of US-Muslim relations is this;

    The Pakistani leadership will do as it’s told, as the leaders have strong interests in keeping cordial relations with America (aid to be plundered and all that), the leadership also knows that the democratic and political system is far too weak to bring up the Kashmir issue (or any issue that affects the average Pakistani), hence the leader can do what he likes.

    To the population (which forms 10% of the Muslim world) this looks like the USA pressuring Pakistan to abandon the Kashmir issue, to serve America’s best interests.

    The status quo will get America what it wants in the Muslim world, it’s goals will be achieved, but it will not get it the relationship with the Muslim world it wants or says it wants.

  5. damon — on 15th June, 2009 at 2:45 pm  

    ”I appreciate my bullet points were brief, they are by no means meant to be solutions, rather they point towards the type of issues that need to be looked at, in order to help regain trust the with Muslim world.”
    I’d love to agree.
    But I think goography is the hardest stumbling block for a wider peace solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

    Science by Obama? To be honest, I haven’t heard too much about it.
    Obama has to get tough with the Israelis is what I think.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judea_and_Samaria_Area
    Judea and Samaria?
    ”Just say no”.

  6. Imran Khan — on 15th June, 2009 at 4:04 pm  

    Science Diplomacy is one area, cultural diplomacy is another.

    The biggest single cause of any form of extremism is because people feel they are not being listened to and that issue needs to be addressed.

    The Muslim world is in need of a science kickstart and also a wider education kickstart so it is a good idea. But then the USA cannot decide what science the Muslim world can and cannot have. If this relationship is to bring about ME peace then the same scientific sharing made available to Israel needs to be available to the Muslim world.

    The benefit of this arrangement I can personally see is that in many areas Jewish Scientists are leaders and thus this policy can also be used as a vehicle to combat distrust and antisemitism so it has wider benefits.

    I think this idea has merit and can help foster better relations but it shouldn’t be limited and shouldn’t be based on rhetoric.

  7. justforfun — on 15th June, 2009 at 4:38 pm  

    “But what is most unique is Obama’s shrewd tactic to reference historical contributions made by other civilizations in order to give the present full context.

    pardon? Sounds like patronizing guff to me. Tactics or spin. I think there is a difference. Its a short term benefit to Obama but it will come back to haunt him.

    The case for spreading science around the world should be made in ethical and in economic terms, and based on the future challenges the world faces, not as a sop to ‘ancestor worship’. Because it just opens it all up … Who’s ancestors were the cleverest and contributed most to the present? Once one has a case for one’s ancestors scientific brilliance, one agitates for more money and science, over others who are perhaps more deserving but whose ancestors achievements have been grubbed out by waves of history.

    I’m not sure more ‘science’ is needed. The Muslim world is not lacking in brilliant scientists and engineers – they are all in the USA having deservedly won scholarships etc to first class universities – but they have chosen not to return to the ME as they will just be shot or dissappeared or live lives under the thumb of dictators. What the ME needs is more Liberal Arts graduates – but that treads on too many cultural toes. Science without the Liberal Arts will be like a toddler running around the house with a loaded Uzi. So either the toddler is disarmed, and just left with a water pistol – or the toddler grows up and then learns how to handle an Uzi in an adult way ( if that is actually possible).

    justforfun

    PS – is ‘Sesame’ for real – who thought up that name – a word from Ali Baba and the Forty thieves – a bit puerile don’t you think.

  8. fug — on 15th June, 2009 at 11:11 pm  

    its simply an extension of full spectrum dominance on the front of knowing, epistemicide.

    been going on for years.

  9. Yasmin Khan — on 17th June, 2009 at 7:19 pm  

    Imran makes an interesting point by distinguishing cultural diplomacy from science diplomacy. One of the points I was trying to get across is that Obama appears to be seizing opportunities to address multiple issues in the Middle East through the use of ‘smart power’. This new approach in American Foreign policy is more likely to benefit Asia and the Middle East (unlike the failed tactic of ‘transformational diplomacy’ as attempted by the previous US government) because it opens up much more room to facilitate and sustain international collaboration with science and innovation initiatives.

  10. justforfun — on 18th June, 2009 at 10:57 am  

    Yasmin – Is Smart power really new or is ‘Smart’ power as coined by Hilary Clinton just a new name for the type of diplomacy the USA engaged in before GW.

    As fug would put it – ‘full spectrum dominance’ of the world stage – offering cultural exchange by educating the world – think of all the scholarships etc that the best students from around the world have taken to study in the US and the countless cultural exchanges. Think of all the Universities also funded and created throughout the ME. I’m out of touch but if one googles “American University ( capital city )” – and insert the capital city of any ME country and there is a good chance of getting a good education there.

    How many times have we read that its ‘western culture’ that has to be resisted not its technology. Must of the Middle East is tooled up with technology and people who understand how to use it. Its just state directed to serve the state not the people.

    I just can’t see what is different now.

    In fact I am saying perhaps it is actually worse. Lets think it through.

    Cultural exchange is all about understanding others and perhaps seeing things through their eyes and perhaps this might lead to co-operation for mutual benefit.

    Science exchange is not like this – science in its pure reduced form is independent of culture. Anyone can do science with enough thought and application – the answers are out there waiting to be found by anyone. The flow of information is far better now than even 15 years ago. There are few physical constraints any more.

    So lets be honest – what we are really talking about is ‘gifting knowledge’ at a national level – because at the human level the ME already has plenty of people who understand science and can do science and engineering at the level required to achieve national progress in terms of agriculture, health, telecommunications etc.

    The simple fact is these bright people has left the ME and are in Europe and the US because they prefer it there. Why?. Yasmin – I was at university literally up the road from your work – and in the 80s it was stuffed full of people from the ME all gaining firsts and all staying on in the UK. So why have they all stayed? – probably a mix of financial, security, lack of government interference, lack of nepotism & cronyism in their careers and perhaps god forbid they actually are more at comfortable in their thoughts and cultural freedoms in a western society. By creating opportunities back home would they return? – probably not. Its not the West stopping them returning.

    So until there is a a change in the cultures in the ME, what is the point of ‘planting’ science in a soil that is not conducive to it. Anyone can plant a tomato plant, its getting it to grow and produce fruit thats the difficult bit.

    So if it makes people in the ME feel better because they are being ‘gifted’ science perhaps they ought to ask themselves why they are not actually able to do it themselves without needing charity. They have the money and the brains.

    I’ll leave out the military arm of ‘smart’ power.

    justforfun

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