Science can be a common language and an important mechanism for calming geostrategic tensions.
The COVID-19 pandemic is amplifying preexisting tensions between the United States and China across all domains, including science and technology. This is happening even as global science and technology cooperation has become a central feature of public health and the development of vaccines and treatments. Does this new dynamic between the two powers accurately reflect a changed world, and could it presage greater tension to come?
The United States’ and China’s different political and economic models and distinct domestic and global interests create rising tensions as their soft power footprints (and increasingly hard power influences) span the globe. This places many other nations in a position not unlike that during the Cold War, when countries found themselves uneasily sitting between two elephants, the United States and the Soviet Union, pulling in different directions.
We do not know whether today’s US-China tension will settle into an uncomfortable status quo or lead to a progressive decoupling or a more rapid severance between the two economic giants. It might even develop into a more stable and constructive relationship. This creates an opportunity for science diplomacy to again help bridge the gap between two major powers with conflicting worldviews, as happened in the Cold War.
Important lessons from the science diplomacy of that era may help inform how best to respond in the current geopolitical context. Science diplomacy between 1945 and 1991 played an important role in preventing US-Soviet relations from degrading into mutual destructiveness. It led to the establishment of critical institutions and initiatives that advanced scientific understandings that underpinned critical agreements. Through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, scientists working with or without the explicit support of their governments played crucial roles in ensuring some level of civility and progress in the otherwise tense superpower relationship.
Some examples are illustrative. Prompted by a recommendation from the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), the major powers agreed on the 1957–58 International Geophysical Year that led to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, ensuring that Antarctica was a place for peaceful scientific purposes rather than for exploitative or military gain. In the 1960s Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin and US President Lyndon Johnson worked to establish the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, which focused on collaborative research between the major powers and their partners in areas that are now of increasing importance, such as the nexus of energy, water, and food. In 1985 the United States and the Soviet Union became two of the founding signatories for the Vienna convention for the protection of the ozone layer. Remarkably, collaboration between the superpowers grew even in areas that might be sensitive, such as space; the American Apollo and Soviet Soyuz spacecraft docked in orbit in 1975, and the two nations signed a joint agreement on space cooperation in 1987.