Diplomatic Studies of Science: The Nuclear Diplomacies Workshop in Japan and Greece

by Maria Rentetzi, National Technical University of Athens

From November 9 to 11, 2018 around twenty historians of science and technology accompanied by a few international studies scholars met in SOKENDAI, Japan to discuss what nuclear science has to do with diplomacy.


Nuclear Diplomacies Workshop, group photo in front of the Shonan Village Center, Hayama, Kanagawa, 11.11.2018. Photo courtesy Nozomi Mizushima

Nuclear Diplomacies Workshop, group photo in front of the Shonan Village Center, Hayama, Kanagawa, 11.11.2018.
Photo courtesy Nozomi Mizushima


Located at the heart of Miura Peninsula in Kanagawa Prefecture, an hour away from Tokyo, SOKENDAI, is a unique university as it exclusively provides graduate programs and exceptional research facilities for its faculty members. Our colleague Kenji Ito, who has made SOKENDAI his home for the last decade, generously accepted my invitation to co-organize a two stage workshop, meeting first in Japan during November 2018 and consequently in Athens, Greece in May 2019. Our aim was to bring together scholars working on the history of nuclear sciences and the role of international organizations in shaping nuclear diplomacy with diplomatic historians and political scientists focusing on the ways nuclear scientists and engineers have contributed, and, continue to do so, in international negotiations.

Our objective was first and foremost to investigate the notion of nuclear diplomacy/ies and explore its various aspects including diplomacy concerning nuclear energy production as well as the circulation of related knowledge and materials. Although international collaborations for scientists have long been a constitutive and natural part of their work, even in periods of intense political upheavals, to diplomats and policy makers the institutional link between science and diplomacy has been fairly new. Science diplomacy has indeed evolved to become a catchy term of increasing importance that has caught the attention of both scientists and politicians at the highest level. On 15 July 2008 Alan I. Leshner, Chief Executive Officer of the AAAS, announced the Center for Science Diplomacy during a Congressional testimony on international science cooperation. At the time, the AAAS envisioned science as a diplomatic tool that ought to contribute to foreign policy. A year later the AAAS joined forces with the Royal Society of Science to organize a two-day meeting on “New frontiers in science diplomacy,” regarded since as the foundation of science diplomacy.

The list of attendees, a group of 200 delegates including government ministers, scientists, diplomats, policymakers, business leaders, and journalists from twenty countries, is a concrete example of the instrumental role science and scientific cooperation has been called upon to play. Sharing the traditional interpretation that science is universal, i.e., both transnational and above politics, attendees agreed that science has an important role to play in international affairs. In a subsequent publication science diplomacy was described through three types of activities: 1. science informs issues of diplomatic concern (science in diplomacy); 2. diplomacy facilitates international scientific cooperation (diplomacy for science) and 3. science functions as a last resort diplomatic tool (science for diplomacy). Presenting the conference’s report a year later to the Academy’s General Assembly, David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, argued that “We have to think how science and diplomacy can work together. Scientific progress can achieve breakthroughs that diplomacy simply cannot match” (Roy MacLeod. “The Royal Society and the Commonwealth: Old Friendships, New Frontiers” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London Vol. 64, Supplement 1: The Royal Society and Science in 20th Century, 22-23 April 2010 (20 September 2010), pp. 137-149).

Obviously, what lay behind the intense interest of national governments in science is its use as an avenue for diversifying international dialogue and solving problems that resist traditional diplomatic avenues. Scientists’ supposed impartiality, arising from their commitment to being objective and unbiased, can open doors and unravel Gordian knots that diplomats’ negotiating skills often cannot. This instrumental model of understanding science diplomacy, implies that science is valued as a means to an end in an unequal relation to diplomacy, which is a desirable end to itself.

But while scientists, diplomats, and politicians struggle to find efficient ways to use science as a new diplomatic instrument to overcome the limitations of political, economic, and cultural diplomacy, historians, philosophers, and Science and Technology Studies scholars remain awkwardly silent when it comes to the fact that scientific knowledge and expertise have been long intertwined with diplomacy. Only recently, by espousing the lessons of international and diplomatic history, historians of science shifted their focus to the ways science has been key to diplomatic negotiations.


Fig. 1. The instrumental model of science diplomacy values science as a means to an end, a foreign policy handy tool.Fig. 1. The instrumental model of science diplomacy values science as a means to an end, a foreign policy handy tool.


Being a historian of science who studies the history of the International Atomic Energy Agency and its radiation protection projects and policies, I share the ambitious goal to reshape the historiography of postwar science by using a new analytical tool: that of science diplomacy. Despite several historical accounts of science diplomacy well before World War II, a fundamental assumption seems to underlie recent perspectives on the term. “Science diplomacy really got its start in the modern era after World War II over the issue of nuclear weapons” according to William Colglazier, editor-in-chief of Science & Diplomacy (Colglazier, William. “Science Diplomacy and Future Worlds,” Science & Diplomacy, September 2018, 7(3), http://www.sciencediplomacy.org/editorial/2018/science-diplomacyand-future-worlds). Science diplomacy is presented as primarily nuclear diplomacy. It is indeed hard to ignore the impact of the Cold War on both science and diplomacy, the American hegemony over European science, or the ways US funding agencies politicized science by awarding grants based on political affiliations (John Krige. American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006)). Historians have written volumes on Cold War science being preoccupied with state-centered activities. Political scientists have analyzed international affairs as the sum of activities of nations as they try to advance their position in the global geopolitical order. What unifies these various studies is the nation as the basic unit of analysis and the view of science as facilitator in diplomatic affairs and promoter of national interests.

Nuclear Diplomacies Workshop, group photo in front of the Shonan Village Center, Hayama, Kanagawa, 11.11.2018.
Photo courtesy Nozomi Mizushima

The Nuclear Diplomacies workshop aimed to move focus from these narratives and bring front and center the fact that postwar science has been characterized by the growing presence of scientific and technical experts in diplomatic affairs, the central role of international diplomatic organizations such as the IAEA in settling scientific issues, the political cooperation among nations as a precondition for any scientific collaboration, and the involvement of diplomats in resolving scientific controversies. To understand the complexity of these issues we put state conflicts and bilateral negotiations in the background. Instead, we bring forward four intertwined issues:

  1. the key role of international diplomatic organizations in shaping both science and diplomacy,
  2. the multilateral and multinational character of international science affairs,
  3. the material culture of science diplomacy, and
  4. the transnational flow of scientific knowledge and expertise initiated and facilitated by international organizations.

I argue that there has been indeed a single most significant event for science diplomacy that occurred with the development of the United Nations system of specialized agencies and organizations. It was the moment that science was from the outset perceived as part of a complex collective arrangement, a comprehensive global agreement for the promotion of social and economic conditions that could ensure peace and prosperity right after the devastation of World War II. The entanglement of the political to the epistemic that proved inextricable after the end of the war, led to the understanding of science as constitutive of diplomacy. Science was no longer perceived as an instrument in the hands of state ambassadors but as a constitutive element of the UN’s identity. Eager to safeguard their territories, the colonial powers that joined the UN felt obliged “…to promote constructive measures of development, to encourage research, and to cooperate with one another and, when and where appropriate, with specialized international bodies with a view to the practical achievement of the social, economic, and scientific purposes set forth in this Article.” In short, the “declaration regarding non-self-governing territories,” article 73 of the UN Charter, made clear that encouraging research and supporting scientific collaborations were basic pillars for the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories ( Charter of the United Nations, Chapter XI — Declaration regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories, article 73, http://legal.un.org/repertory/art73.shtml). Without doubt, the shift from national to multinational diplomacy went hand in hand with the assumption that international affairs cut across national borders and geopolitical order is shaped by complex networks of shared interests that go beyond national concerns. In this respect science diplomacy was understood as a complex multinational and multifaceted activity, an integral part of the new international order that required the involvement of the UN international organizations on a highly interdisciplinary basis.

Fig. 1. The instrumental model of science diplomacy values science as a means to an end, a foreign policy handy tool.

After all, as historians of science we are accountable for the stories we tell. While we are after the global circulation of expertise, materials, techniques, people, instruments, technologies, and ideas bridging scientific disciplines, we also want to turn history into lessons for the contemporary actors in the field. In this perspective the diplomatic studies the Nuclear Diplomacies workshop suggests, reject the programmatic separation between science and diplomacy and the instrumental use of science in diplomatic practice as it has been suggested by diplomats and government officials. Being not only a mode of knowledge but also a human cultural practice that masters and explains both natural phenomena and social matters, science is inextricable from the context of diplomatic negotiations that shapes it. Thus the rich Science and Technology Studies literature on the co-construction of science and technology could find a fertile soil in analyzing science diplomacy.

Diplomatic studies of science raise the question of how science and diplomacy make sense to each other and highlight a significant feature of scientific activity to be investigated in specific diplomatic settings where science arises as their constituent practice. The power of postwar history in this case is to expose the complexities of a tangled relationship between two intrinsically valued practices-the scientific and the diplomatic—in which the accomplishment of scientific work continually involves the articulation of what diplomatic multinational and multilateral negotiations consist of, while, at the same time, the art of diplomacy gets concretely embedded in the epistemic aspect of this work. How is this done? How has science diplomacy been performed, by whom, and where? What counts as science diplomacy and who counts as a science diplomat? These are the pressing questions diplomatic studies of science are challenged to address, bringing an emphasis to the importance of international diplomatic organizations within the UN system in writing postwar history; exposing the significance of the material world and of scientific objects in diplomatic practices; accounting for the diversity of locations that have served as sites of science diplomacy.

The Nuclear Diplomacies workshop was not ambitious only in reshaping post war history of science by exploring the shift from an instrumental model of science diplomacy to a co-constructive relation of two mutually shaped domains, that of post war science and diplomacy. We were unashamed to claim that we can influence the publishing culture in our field, as well. The editors of History and Technology accepted our invitation to act as editorial sponsors, that is to provide on-site support and guidance on how we could sharpen our arguments, care about young scholars, and discuss one to one on how ideas become published words, challenge the safety of traditional narratives and expose their own standpoint in the issues at hand. We were fortunate to have with us Amy Slaton, one of the editors and Jesse Smith, deputy editor of History and Technology. For three days they generously offered ideas, comments, and suggestions as “on site editors” as if they were on-site engineers who spend their days on the construction site making sure that their dwellings will be long lasting. In addition, Casimiro Vizzini, expert on science diplomacy from UNESCO’s Division of Science Policy and Capacity Building, joined us and offered a valuable institutional perspective to our vivid discussions. The meeting was sponsored by SOKENDAI University, partially supported by InsSciDE, an EU Horizon 2020 funded project, and was endorsed by the National Technical University of Athens, UNESCO, and the international journal History and Technology. The full program of the Nuclear Diplomacies Workshop can be found here https://nucleardiplomacies.weebly.com/

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Professor Maria Rentetzi, the former science diplomacy adviser to the alternate minister of foreign affairs in Greece, leads the work package on security and science diplomacy of a European project entitled InsSciDE and is the principal investigator of a 2 million euro grant (ERC Consolidator) on the history of radiation diplomacy and the IAEA. http://mariarentetzi.weebly.com/