Though the term science diplomacy is relatively recent and has lately received growing attention, the connection between the pursuits of science and politics has a long history. The past provides numerous examples of institutions and individuals aware of the chances and opportunities generated by this combination of fields, including those who took advantage of their fame, expertise, and networks to bring both worlds closer together. Particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, inspired by the postulates of the Enlightenment and a new understanding of the sciences and their role in society, a growing number of people practiced science diplomacy avant la lettre. Well known is the important role of the Royal Society in this context, as one of the oldest academies of science, as well as the efforts of eminent personalities like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.1
Another science diplomat of this era was the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), mostly known for the scientific expedition he carried out in the Spanish possessions in the New World from 1799 to 1804. The itinerary comprised today’s countries of Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Mexico, followed by a brief visit to the United States before returning home to Europe. This expedition was exceptional in that Humboldt undertook it fairly independently at a time when scholars mostly carried out their scientific pursuits as part of a larger exploration voyage, financed and directed by political interests. He obtained an extremely generous authorization by the Spanish Empire for the personal voyage and covered the costs himself, meaning that he was able to follow his private scientific agenda, which he defined very broadly: to study, measure and understand the world, and every component of it with their complex interdependencies.2
Yet, while Humboldt became famous for the vast body of knowledge he created on the natural world and the societies living in them, he was also criticized for the way he navigated the complex connection between science and politics, in his position as an independent explorer. The close ties that he maintained with the world of politics, and his nearness to many political leaders, led to a broad array of misinterpretations.
Humboldt is portrayed by turns as a mere pinball among competing political interests, an active agent willing to provide his knowledge to the strategic benefit of one nation, or an opportunist who would do anything for his own benefit. Yet he was none of those things. Interestingly, most of these critical voices have focused—and still do—on his connections to the Spanish Empire on one side, and the United States on the other; while some saw in him the ideological leader of the independence movement in Spanish America, others took him as being yet another colonial explorer. Some interpretations consider him a tool for the Spanish Empire, yet others criticize him for providing information to the young United States.3 These contradictory attributions tend to be based on both a lack of knowledge of the historic and political context and of the nature of Humboldt’s relationship with both political powers.
In response to these incorrect interpretations, Humboldt’s skillful navigation between the worlds of politics and science requires a more thorough analysis. He was far from having a passive role between the political powers of his time, nor did he solely aim to further his own agenda, scientific or otherwise, by connecting it with these strategic interests. Instead, aware of the benefit of being at the intersection of science and politics, Humboldt sought to combine these perspectives. Over his lifetime, he found multiple ways to address the challenges of his time by strengthening the ties between both worlds. Even less well known is the fact that he undertook those efforts mainly in connection to the Prussian Court—and not in alliance with the Spanish crown or the U.S. cabinet, as depicted by critics. Having grown up in a wealthy aristocratic family, with close connections to the Prussian Court, Humboldt was used to socializing in those elite circles. Already as a young man he was entrusted with diplomatic missions and, after his return from the New World, the Prussian Court was eager to strengthen this connection on account of his growing international fame and excellent relationships with the highest scholarly and political circles in Washington, London, and particularly Paris.4 Humboldt immediately received official honors and was provided with a monthly salary. Over the next decades, the scholar-turned-diplomat lent his intellectual fame and cosmopolitan glamour to the Court. Some of the missions – including his role at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818 and his travels with Friedrich Wilhelm III to the Congress of Verona in 1822, part of the series of international conferences initiated with the Congress of Vienna – were in the imminent political interests of the Court while others concerned broader strategic goals, and Humboldt undertook all of them diligently, though generally not without an eye to their benefits for his own pursuits.
An Early Advocate of Science Diplomacy
Humboldt was in a position to make things happen—to initiate projects by connecting people, ideas, and funds; to establish contacts with publishers to promote publications by himself and others; to forge and harness ties to politicians and policymakers for the success of his expeditions; and even to facilitate the creation of scientific institutions. This is where he was at his best: as a catalyst for developments and an inspiration or model for others, doing what we today call science diplomacy. Humboldt created synergy between both worlds, using connections to politics to further scientific projects, and vice versa, making use of diplomatic relationships to channel information or promoting scientific projects beyond national interests.
Given that Humboldt’s nearness to political power gave rise to the most critical comments, it is helpful to look at his pursuits through the lens of science diplomacy in order to better understand his strategy. Humboldt knew that he needed to see beyond scholarly circles if he sought to turn his science into applicable knowledge and connect it meaningfully with the needs of society. He did not want to work in the service of politics, but he understood the benefit of being at the intersection of the two fields so as to create synergies between different interests. Over the years, he found multiple ways to bridge both worlds through the sciences—the epitome of our contemporary understanding of the term science diplomacy. For this purpose, he had to reach out to the politicians, diplomats, policymakers and practitioners of his time and establish ties between them and scholarly circles, finding diplomatic contacts to facilitate international scientific cooperation and undertake large-scale science projects. Conversely, he had to be willing to advance diplomatic objectives through the world of science.
And he was successful in his mission: individuals and officials provided him with all kinds of information—including some that could be considered confidential. Moreover, information tended to gain value when it was passed through Humboldt: it was considered more reliable when it was associated with him. Favors were carried out more quickly and more thoroughly when his name was connected to them. More people were willing to act at his request. Institutions and even nations were eager to take part in his ambitious projects for the modernization of the sciences. It was a privilege to be part of his global empire of knowledge, which over the years—with his prestige still growing—would become ever more influential.
With his outstanding social skills, Humboldt was the ideal science diplomat: he was frequently described as extremely charismatic, a blessed character with great charm. He tended to be at the center of all social gatherings he attended, where he entertained the other guests with his wealth of knowledge, his farsighted analysis, and the way he drew connections between people, ideas and nations. These skills also garnered attention to the goals that he pursued and the matters he furthered.
In short, the Prussian had much to offer: his international and highly influential networks, a growing body of latest state-of-the-art knowledge, and his cosmopolitan and apparently very persuasive personality. In his deep conviction about what he understood as his mission in life, Humboldt turned his personal assets—his private funds, his broad expertise, and his powerful connections—into a resource for the public good, for the advancement of knowledge, and for the political goals aligned with his values. He developed what we today would call a vision for the “needs of the market,” an ability to look beyond a present situation and to recognize potential future developments. The combination of these attributes, along with his profound understanding of the connections between science and politics in our world—their causes as well as their consequences—formed the basis on which both his scholarly fame and his diplomatic success were built.
This article forms part of the larger argument developed in the author’s forthcoming monograph Humboldt’s Empire of Knowledge: From the Royal Spanish Court to the White House (University of California Press, 2024), which analyzes Humboldt’s interweaving of the worlds of science and politics.
- Martyn Poliakoff, “The Royal Society, the Foreign Secretary, and International Relations,” Science & Diplomacy 4, no. 1 (March 2015), http://www.sciencediplomacy.org/letter-field/2015/royal-society-foreign-secretary-and-international-relations.
- Miguel Ángel Puig-Samper and Sandra Rebok, Sentir y medir: Alejandro de Humboldt en España (Aranjuez: Doce Calles, 2007).
- Sandra Rebok, Jefferson and Humboldt: A Transatlantic Friendship of the Enlightenment (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014); Sandra Rebok, “Humboldt as Intelligence Agent? Circulating Scientific Knowledge, and Strategic Secrets, in Washington,” in The Influence and Legacy of Alexander von Humboldt in the Americas, eds. Maria Fernanda Valencia Suarez and Carolina Depetris (Mérida: Mexico CEPHCIS-UNAM, 2022), 33–51.
- Ulrich Päßler, Ein “Diplomat aus den Wäldern des Orinoko”: Alexander von Humboldt als Mittler zwischen Preussen und Frankreich (Stuttgart, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2009), 167; Laura Péaud, “Die diplomatischen Berichte Alexander von Humboldts aus Paris zwischen 1835 und 1847,” in “Mein zweites Vaterland”: Alexander von Humboldt und Frankreich, eds. David Blankenstein, Ulrike Leitner, Ulrich Päßler, and Benedicte Savoy (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2015), 15–31; Bärbel Holtz, “Alexander von Humboldt als Kammerherr zweier Könige auch frankophiler Mentor am preußischen Hof?” In “Mein zweites Vaterland”: Alexander von Humboldt und Frankreich, eds. David Blankenstein, Ulrike Leitner, Ulrich Päßler, and Benedicte Savoy (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2015), 43–49.