Missiles at Sunset
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Playing with Fire: Science, Diplomacy, and Human Survival

nuclear disarmament COVID-19 climate change cybersecurity Americas Europe South and Central Asia Sub-Saharan Africa
https://doi.org/10.1126/scidip.adi4098

Science and technology have opened new intellectual horizons, put information and entertainment at our fingertips, lifted millions of people out of poverty, and cured innumerable diseases. But science and technology do not act in a vacuum. Instead, they are interwoven with politics, economics, business, law, and popular psychology, with many global crises rooted in our failure to manage this dynamic tapestry of world affairs.

Of these crises, the most acute and dangerous are pandemics, climate change, and nuclear war. But science and technology are central to many other global issues, from poverty and hunger to migration and techno-authoritarianism and disinformation.

Science and technology do not act in a vacuum. Instead, they are interwoven with politics, economics, business, law, and popular psychology, with many global crises rooted in our failure to manage this dynamic tapestry of world affairs.

In all these issues, science and technology do not act alone. Gene drives, mRNA vaccines, autonomous weapons, hypersonic missiles, artificial intelligence, geoengineering—all exert their effects on world affairs through interactions with their broader context. This interaction also works in the other direction: the broader context affects which scientific fields are explored, which technologies are developed, and which innovations take hold.

Thus, science and technology have global impacts and need to be more effectively integrated into foreign policy. They are taking the world into unexplored territory and can easily get out of hand. They can be managed, but the time to do so is growing short.

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Global Warming: Science and Technology are Not Enough

The COVID-19 pandemic gave us a crash course on how advances in science and technology can be undermined by developments in other areas. The scientific community responded to the pandemic with extraordinary speed. As soon as epidemiologists learned that people could spread the disease before showing symptoms, they recommended social distancing. In only a year—about a tenth of the usual time—scientists around the globe developed effective vaccines, several based on cutting-edge mRNA technology.

Policymakers also responded with remarkable speed: in the U.S., the government committed to purchasing large quantities of promising vaccines, whether or not they passed final tests of effectiveness and safety. This saved time by encouraging manufacturers to scale up production while vaccines were still being tested, even if some turned out to be ineffective. This innovative combination of science, technology, and policy saved millions of lives, but economic, political, and social obstacles also squandered critical time, costing millions of other lives and trillions of dollars.

The international response to climate change has been similarly insufficient, due in part to the tensions between science and technology and their broader context. There was once reason to hope that the international effort to reverse the damage to the ozone layer would be a template for similarly successful efforts to mitigate and adapt to global warming. The international community has taken many steps along the same lines. It acknowledged the seriousness of the climate problem and built a system that encourages action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, including provisions for learning from experience and increased scientific understanding.

But climate change is much more challenging than the threat to the ozone layer. The economic and political stakes and the scope of the required changes are vastly greater. The scientific and policy issues are more complicated and harder to explain to the public. Vested commercial and political interests have obstructed effective action through lobbying and disinformation, which scientists are ill equipped to combat.

Time is running short. The world has very few years to carry out far-reaching changes that would have been much easier and cheaper to execute had they been put in place decades ago.

Nuclear Arms Control

The risks of pandemics and even climate disruption pale before those of nuclear war.1 There has not been nuclear war in more than seventy-five years, and the number of nuclear weapons has substantially decreased from the approximately 30,000 that the United States and the USSR maintained at the height of the Cold War. But there is little left of the nuclear arms control and non-proliferation regimes that were put together over more than thirty years. Hundreds of missiles in the United States and in Russia are still ready to be launched on warning of an incoming attack.

The recent threats to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war remind us that accidental or intentional escalation to nuclear war is still possible. The Ukraine conflict has just seen the gross irresponsibility of the militarization of a civilian nuclear power plant.2 To make matters still more dangerous, many countries are developing hypersonic missiles that would give a target country only five minutes or so to respond to a warning of an attack, and hence would greatly increase the risk of accidental nuclear war—a perfect example of our failure to control the march of technology.

Challenges of the Information Age

Issues of arms control also extend to cybersecurity. Cyberwarfare can quickly get out of control, since a cyberattack on critical infrastructure can set off a counterattack only a fraction of a second later. We urgently need to develop a technically and politically sound regime to prevent accidental cyberwar, install speed breaks on actions and reactions to cyberattack, and discourage attacks on sites of political leadership, nuclear command-and-control centers, hospitals and other key civilian infrastructure.

Arms control for cyberwarfare faces both geopolitical and technical obstacles. Detecting violations of any arms limitation agreement is difficult and identifying the source of a cyberattack could be slow and uncertain. The US is said to be superior to its potential adversaries in cyber, but is also more dependent on it and hence more vulnerable to cyber-attack. Cyber also raises the ethical question of whether autonomous weapons should be allowed to kill without any human intervention in the decision process.

The Techno-Authoritarian Challenge

The internet was originally constructed to promote freedom of speech, information, and innovation. These are basic values in democracies but are security threats to authoritarian governments. Early Internet enthusiasts predicted that authoritarian governments would find it technically impossible to block information on democracy, freedom of religion, and protests while still allowing in other, non-political information. This illusion did not last. Authoritarian countries have transformed the Internet and social media into tools for the control of information and comprehensive surveillance. The resulting techno-authoritarian system can be used to suppress political opponents and control oppressed minorities.

The Chinese government is promoting this system to like-minded countries as an alternative to Western ideas of democracy and freedom. We are well on the way to a “splinternet”—a global network that is half free and half controlled by repressive governments. The governments of Russia, China, and other countries are also using communications technologies to undermine democracies and alliances, influencing elections and spreading disinformation.

Ethics and Equity

Other new technologies raise additional ethical issues. Geoengineering and gene drives for humans, for example, have great potential value for environment and health and could be put into practice by private companies, researchers, or even wealthy individuals. We are still far from consensus as to whether the potential benefits of these technologies outweigh the risks, both known and unknown, of even small-scale implementation. Once these technologies are developed to the point of plausible efficacy, there will be pressure to use them as political tools and business opportunities.

Another ethical quandary is that most innovative new products are first marketed to consumers willing to pay more for the latest and the best, and gradually make their way down to cheaper products that everyone can afford. But some requirements of low-income people—a malaria vaccine or a flyproof latrine, for example, require specific innovations for which there is no “Cadillac.” For such innovations, public-spirited intervention by a government or a non-profit organization is typically necessary. Happily, the first effective malaria vaccine, the product of thirty years of research, has been approved by the World Health Organization and is being rolled out across Africa with the support of industry and non-profit financing organizations.

Lessons

Science and technology are ubiquitous in international affairs, interwoven with politics, economics, business, law, and culture. Allowed to flourish, science and technology promise us longer, richer, healthier, more rewarding lives. But left to themselves, science and technology leave important human problems and ethical issues unaddressed. The multilateral regimes for addressing global problems have been allowed to decline, falling behind advances in science and technology.

In particular, the arms control and disarmament regimes that protect us from nuclear war need strengthening and updating. They will require collaborative research and frank discussions involving hostile and distrustful governments, militaries, and researchers. These issues were challenging enough during the Cold War. They will be all the more difficult today.

We need more science and technology to better understand the climate, how diseases spread, and the likely impact of gene drives and geoengineering. We also need policies, institutions, and private initiatives that address important ethical issues and guide scientific research and technological change in responsible directions.

These examples show the need to strengthen and update international regimes to circumvent geopolitical conflict and deal with global problems, and the value of having scientists and non-scientists work together across national boundaries and geopolitical divides on these difficult, multidisciplinary issues. These are major challenges for science diplomacy. The fire has started, and without urgent action there might not be time to put it out.

 

Disclaimer

This perspective is based on Weiss' lecture to the Kimball-Smith Series on science, technology, ethics, and global affairs at Yale University, January 2023.

 

Endnotes

  1. Many hundreds of millions of lives were saved by the actions of a Soviet military officer, the late Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who realized in 1983 that the signal he had received of a US missile attack was a false alarm and did not set in motion a strategic counterattack that would have led to all-out nuclear war. See Sewell Chan, “Stanislav Petrov, Soviet Officer Who Helped Avert Nuclear War, Is Dead at 77,” New York Times, September 18, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/18/world/europe/stanislav-petrov-nuclear...
  2. Since the Russian occupation of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, it has been used as an army base and a shield against enemy attack. The security of water and equipment essential for cooling nuclear material has been compromised. Buildings and areas close to the reactors have been mined, shelled and fired upon dozens of times, and used as a base for rocket launching. See Amy J. Nelson and Chinon Norteman, “What to do about the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant,” Brookings Institution, March 23, 2023, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2023/03/23/what-to-do-ab... James Waterhouse, “Zaporizhzhia nuclear workers: We're kept at gunpoint by Russians,” BBC, August 11, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-62509638
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