Technology and diplomacy

Somewhere tucked away in the labyrinthine files of the US State Department are these: * Analyses of the feeding habits of scallops on the Georges Bank fishing grounds off New England.

* The chemical composition of effluents from sewers in Tijuana, Mexico.

* The pH (acidic) balance of just about every lake in eastern Canada.

Such scientific tidbits may not seem the normal fodder for those entrusted with carrying out United States diplomacy around the world. But increasingly they are becoming so.

Each is a part of some dispute or discussion between the US and another country: The scallop studies are part of a 36-foot-high pile of support material presented in the recently resolved World Court tussle between the US and Canada over jurisdiction in the Gulf of Maine.

The sewage data are part of ongoing US-Mexican attempts to resolve pollution problems in San Diego from overflowing Tijuana sewers. The pH balance is part of the US-Canadian brouhaha over acid rain.

Each is a reminder that science and technology, too, play roles in international disputes and diplomacy.

Increasingly so.

Already they pervade such highly charged debates as nuclear arms control, population concerns, and world food problems.

On the horizon is a whole new set of global issues that may be stirred up as a result of emerging new technologies.

This prospect is prompting some anxious reexamination on the part of the US scientific and diplomatic communities to find ways of coping with the impact of the new frontiers on foreign affairs.

''The impact of technology on foreign policy is growing impressively and in ways we are only beginning to see at this point,'' says Winston Lord, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Evidence of the need to confront the problem has been surfacing on several fronts. This spring, for instance, a symposium on the impact of new frontiers on foreign affairs was sponsored by the council and the National Academy of Sciences. It drew more than 200 people from several parts of government as well as from business and academia.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz recently sent a cable to US diplomatic posts aimed at infusing science and technology more deeply into the management of US diplomatic efforts. ''Foreign policy decisions in today's high-technology world are driven by science and technology,'' he said.

Such a phenomenon isn't new to 1984. The need to close the gap between public policy and advancing science and technology has been a recurring theme at least since World War II.

But today the explosion in the amount of knowledge coming out of labs, coupled with a more-global economy, is injecting fresh urgency into the issue. The scientific dimension touches on more international disputes, frames more of the relations between nations.

Many of these areas are well known. Confrontation crackles around issues such as acid rain, the human rights of scientists, fishing jurisdictions, and nuclear energy. Negotiations proceed on the oceans, space, the environment, and international scientific cooperation.

New technologies will pose entirely new problems. Consider the area of biotechnology alone. Genetically engineered crops may help feed millions in the third world, turning some agriculture-poor nations of Africa and Asia into food producers. But will the US and other agricultural exporting countries, many already burdened with surpluses, be willing to pass along their know-how to countries that might eventually compete with them in world markets? Might the third world become a testing ground for humanly engineered bacteria banned elsewhere?

The State Department, in particular, is being forced to adapt itself to the growing influence science and technology are exerting on foreign affairs. It's an old problem. As far back as 1967, then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk noted in an address: ''We in foreign affairs must be more willing to dip into the waters of science.'' Twice in the 1970s the State Department undertook studies examining the links between science and public policy. Relatively little became of them, department officials say.

But this time around, they assert, the need is urgent enough that changes will be made. It's high time, many outside the department argue. ''You need a general sensitivity and some general knowledge among all Foreign Service people on technical matters,'' asserts Justin Bloom, a former science counselor with the US embassy in Tokyo, who now runs his own technology consulting firm. ''More and more there is a technological context to everything we do.''

Indeed, some critics fault the State Department for not putting more science officers in foreign diplomatic posts, for not grounding general diplomats better in scientific and technical areas, and for not boosting the status of the science officers within the agency. ''Qualitatively, political and economic officers are on top,'' writes Rodney Nichols, executive vice-president of Rockefeller University, in a recent issue of Science magazine. ''Science officers, where available, are on tap.''

He added in an interview, ''It's not the case that every Foreign Service officer ought to be an expert in science and technology, but every Foreign Service officer should know something about it.''

Others would like to see more interchange between people in public life and scientists in general, as well as a more coherent approach to science and technology in foreign affairs among all agencies involved in international science.

Changes are under way. For the past 14 months, an internal group at the State Department has been looking at ways to better incorporate science and technology considerations into the management of foreign policy. An ''action'' plan has been drawn up that, among other things, seeks to make science-diplomacy a more enticing career within the department.

More effort, for example, will be put into recruiting university students in these areas. Education and training is another thrust. Mid-level Foreign Service officers, for example, who come back for periodic training sessions at the Foreign Service Institute will soon find several new courses in these areas.

There is also a push to get more officers in foreign bureaus. Some 32 science attaches and counselors, out of approximately 4,000 full-time Foreign Service officers, now serve abroad. Science enthusiasts within the department optimistically hope to see those numbers doubled in the next few years.

Outside sources call the department progress ''glacial.'' State Department officials themselves concede it could be three to five years before much of the action plan is implemented, but they feel confident the changes will be made.

Regardless of whether a ''new breed'' of diplomat emerges, it seems certain that science and technology will continue to pose new challenges at all levels of Washington's foreign policymaking apparatus in the future.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.