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About the Author

John D. Negroponte was U.S. Deputy Secretary of State (2007-9) and has served as the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Mexico, Iraq, and the United Nations.


Science and the U.S. Department of State

An Interview with John D. Negroponte

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte discusses the role of science in U.S. diplomacy, touching on the Cold War, the International Space Station, and the Montreal Protocol.

Transcript of the interview

Vaughan Turekian (Interviewer): Welcome to the Science & Diplomacy Podcast. I’m Vaughan Turekian, Editor-in-Chief of Science & Diplomacy. And today, April 24, 2012, I will be speaking with Ambassador John Negroponte. Ambassador Negroponte has served as a diplomat and a policy maker serving as ambassador to Honduras, Mexico, Iraq, and the United Nations and has also served as Deputy Secretary of State and the first ever Director for National Intelligence.

Ambassador Negroponte, I just wanted to start with an opening question regarding science and diplomacy. Norman Neureiter and I discussed in an opening editorial for our publication some important examples of science diplomacy used during the Cold War. You were deeply involved in efforts to engage the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Given the vast changes in international relations and systems between the twenty-first century and the Cold War, what lessons were learned that the U.S. can really use today to engage with countries, through science, where there’s a strained political relationship?

John Negroponte (Guest): Well, the first thing I’d like to say—both as somebody who’s been an ambassador abroad, as you mentioned, but also as a former Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, Environment, and Science when I had an opportunity to work very closely with the AAAS—is that that science and environmental issues have been an important element of our diplomacy for a long, long time. Going back to the creation of the Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and Science in the 1970s and even before that in the post World War II period, the Secretary of State had a science advisor throughout those years who helped carry out diplomacy at the nexus between science and politics. The first thing I would say about the Cold War and science is that Dwight D. Eisenhower himself—when he was president—placed a great deal of value on people-to-people relations, and that was not only through exchange of visits and student exchanges and so forth but also in the area of promoting scientific cooperation. So I think even during the Cold War and even under presidents, such as Dwight Eisenhower, academic/scientific/cultural—all of those kinds of exchanges formed an important part of our diplomacy. There were limits, of course. There were limits because there was a Cold War, and there was concern about transfer of technology. But it has always been recognized as an element in our international relations. I think probably the most important thing that one has to think about when it comes to science and diplomacy is trying to identify those areas that really are best left to simply the freedom—the complete freedom—of academic exchange, on the one hand, and those kinds of areas of scientific cooperation, which really do require government involvement. And I had a chance, as Assistant Secretary for Oceans, Environment, and Science, to work on some of those government-to-government scientific relations, and they were very, very exciting projects indeed.

Turekian: Well, thank you. And you referenced the fact that the history of science and diplomacy in the State Department goes back even to Eisenhower, and I think about the Atoms for Peace conference, which had the strong science background. How has that role of science and foreign policy changed? I think about the OES Bureau and its priorities shifting even from global issues to environmental issues to many others. How have you seen that that change, and is it is it a positive change from the scientific perspective?

Negroponte: Yeah. Well, I mean I think that frankly, there’s some of these projects just depend on the times—what are the technologies that are current; what are the areas that call for collaboration at any given moment in time or history? Just to give a couple of examples, when I was Assistant Secretary for OES, one of the big issues was trying to get international partners for the International Space Station. Mr. Beggs, who was then the Director of NASA, concluded that we probably couldn’t afford to mount this effort all by ourselves, and that we would benefit—both financially and in terms of scientific collaboration—if we could work with other countries. So he asked me at the State Department to lead the negotiating effort with Canada, the European Union, the Soviet Union, and others to build the International Space Station on a collaborative basis. And that that project worked, and it was put into effect and I think was to the great benefit of all concerned. So that’s an example of a scientific collaboration that took place because of an issue that arose at a particular time.

Others were more environmental in nature. When acid rain was a big issue with Canada, and, of course, again we were looking for scientifically based solutions to dealing with that problem. And eventually rather than having a treaty or an international agreement with Canada on the subject, we resolved the problem through domestic legislation, which put more restrictions on SO2 emissions by coal fired power plants in the Ohio Valley. But nonetheless, in the buildup, in the lead-up to that very positive outcome, there was a lot of scientific exchange between American and Canadian scientists. So basically, whenever there are these kinds of problems that arise, whether they’re environmental or of another nature, but where there’s some kind of a scientific base, it then becomes important for scientists from both countries to start talking to each other and maybe help form the basis for some kind of solution.

The one other milestone negotiation I would mention for you, as an example of great international scientific collaboration, was the Montreal Protocol for the Protection of the Stratospheric Ozone Layer, which we signed in 1987, and where initially building on experiments that had been successfully conducted by two noted scientists, Rowland and Medina, [editors note: referring to Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina]we came to the conclusion that chlorofluorocarbons that are used in refrigerants and air conditioners and so forth were destroying the stratospheric ozone layer, and something had to be done to find a way to curb and eventually eliminate their use. And there was skepticism about the science—both here in Washington and around the world—and it was our scientists, scientists from NOAA and from NASA, who together with a small diplomatic team from the State Department went around to countries like Russia, Japan, and Western Europe to explain the science as we understood it. And over time we won over adherence to our point of view, and this ultimately was—this scientific common scientific understanding—was what ultimately made it possible to negotiate the Montreal Protocol, which I think to this day stands as probably the single most successful international agreement to curb greenhouse gases that has ever been negotiated. We’re hoping for more, but they haven’t come yet.

Turekian: Right. No, that’s absolutely right. It’s an amazing testament to the link between science and diplomacy.

Negroponte: And my deputy in the Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and Science was Richard Benedick, who was the negotiator for this issue and did a fantastic job and has even written a book (if you haven’t looked at it I commend it to you), which is called Ozone Diplomacy.

Turekian: He’s a well-known figure in many of these interfaces. And you mentioned Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina and also Crutzen winning, you know, showing the science. They also won the Nobel Prize—the first environmental chemists to win a Nobel Prize for chemistry, which is, they were just…

Negroponte: Right. So there you go.

Turekian: So it actually gets me to my final question here, which is about some of the movements of science and its applications in the State Department. Under Secretary Hormats describes in one of his articles the movement of and the role of science at state now being more focused on the innovation agenda and the example of the OES Bureau moving into the economic affairs, the under secretary. Is this a positive trend or does it does it benefit or limit the use of science in addressing many of these global challenges you’ve mentioned previously but also the use of science in more of a “softer” diplomacy or soft power?

Negroponte: Well, look, you know, the bureaucratic organizational charts are never going to tell you the whole story. I welcome the shift in the sense that I think that Mr. Hormats, who happens to be a very good friend of mine, is going to put a lot of the horsepower and heft behind the work of the bureau, and I think that it helps relate some of these environmental issues to other work that the department is doing. But I don’t think that alters the essential substance of these scientific and environmental negotiations. And there’s always going to be a need for people who have the kind of interest in and enthusiasm to do negotiations that have a real scientific basis. Today, it may have more to do with perhaps medical innovation, particularly in the area of genetic engineering and that kind of thing or maybe also in areas relating to cyber technology. So technologies, you know, evolve and so the subject matter can shift slightly from time to time. But I think the core definition of that work is going to be similar. And certainly the environmental agenda is far from over when you think about climate change and all the myriad issues connected with that. I do think that perhaps one trend in the bureau over the past 20 or so years has been to move a bit more from the strictly scientific type of negotiations to ones, to areas with a greater deal of environmental emphasis. And I think that really started in the Clinton Administration and then with a great emphasis on the Kyoto Protocol and environmental and global environmental issues that that stem from that.

Turekian: Well, I really appreciate your time and the time you’ve taken to go over this. You’ve seen these issues of science and foreign policy at really the ground level as Assistant Secretary, in the field as an ambassador, and as Deputy Secretary you’ve been overarching the role of it in all the different parts of the State Department and U.S. Foreign Policy. So Ambassador Negroponte, thank you so much for spending the time with us, and we really appreciate your expertise.

Negroponte: Thank you.