Collaboration and Competition: The Twofold Logic of Science Diplomacy

In: The Hague Journal of Diplomacy
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  • 1 Faculty of International Affairs, University of Le Havre-NormandieLe HavreFrance
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From an attentive reading of the practitioner-driven literature, this essay questions the reasons why the dominant discourse on science diplomacy highlights practices based on international co-operation and the pursuit of shared interests but pays little attention to practices which are inspired by a spirit of competition. It advances hypotheses related to the professional profiles of those who built the definitions and shaped this discourse, and who are scientists. It underlines the need to provide a broader definition of science diplomacy, by recognising its double nature, both collaborative and competitive.


From an attentive reading of the practitioner-driven literature, this essay questions the reasons why the dominant discourse on science diplomacy highlights practices based on international co-operation and the pursuit of shared interests but pays little attention to practices which are inspired by a spirit of competition. It advances hypotheses related to the professional profiles of those who built the definitions and shaped this discourse, and who are scientists. It underlines the need to provide a broader definition of science diplomacy, by recognising its double nature, both collaborative and competitive.

1 Introduction

This essay has its origins in a question generally not asked: Why, in the most widely used narratives on science diplomacy — that emanate from practitioners and build the ‘mainstream discourse’ — co-operation between countries and its positive transformative power over international relations are presented as the central or even sole motivation? Why does this discourse leave in the shadow practices, yet well known to those in the field, in which science and research are part of national strategies for capturing resources and exercising influence alien to the ideals of co-operation between countries? Why are unilateral quests for advantages overlooked in the commonly accepted view, whereas easily admitted for other segments of the external action of the state such as cultural diplomacy or economic diplomacy? Would science diplomacy be to that point unique?

Science diplomacy describes, at first glance, the set of actions at the intersection of science and foreign policy. Looking closer, two approaches can be distinguished. One can start from the nation state’s level. Science diplomacy is seen as a subset of the country’s foreign policy and it aims at advancing scientific needs through international science (e.g., favouring progress of knowledge, strengthening the national scientific capacity), and advancing broader (i.e., non-directly science-related) foreign policy goals (e.g., diplomatic interests, commercial interests). This ‘statist approach’ is in line with the traditional state-centred approach to diplomacy. But one can also start from the challenges that arise on a world scale, and for which the consideration of science is necessary — the COVID-19 pandemic constituting the most recent expression. In this ‘globalist approach’, science is considered critical to inform policy for addressing global challenges, and science diplomacy is seen as an engagement in the international system and in collective action. It is favoured by a diverse set of individuals and non-state institutions of the scientific community, which have in common the goals to advocate for using science to engage in problem-solving and to highlight the pursuit for common interests of humanity.

A sound understanding of science diplomacy requires us to fairly acknowledge each of these approaches, which reflect different interests and priorities. But these approaches are not mutually exclusive. Science diplomacy covers the whole spectrum, and seeks to marry two imperatives: advancing a country’s national interest and addressing common challenges. Going further, the essence of science diplomacy is to find a balance ‘between those disposed towards morality and ethics in international affairs and those who see the world in terms of power politics’,1 between the idealism of science and the realism of diplomacy, between international co-operation for the common good and competition driven by national interests. It is in the name of its national interests that a country engages in collaborative initiatives and finds advantages in international scientific co-operation, which occupies a prominent position in the dominant discourse. But it is also in the name of its national interests that it acts to gain advantages over others, in the spirit of competition. In an increasingly globalised world, state actors must agree and co-operate while having, at the same time, the will to defend and promote their national interests. This illuminates the logic of competition that can animate science diplomacy, and that this essay seeks to highlight.

This essay unfolds as follows. First, it describes the central role devoted to international scientific co-operation. Then, it provides examples of practices other than co-operative which involve the diplomatic apparatus. After that, it puts forward hypotheses for explaining why competition is under-represented in the mainstream discourse. Finally, it proposes to reframe the concept of science diplomacy by recognising its dual nature, collaborative and competitive.

2 International Scientific Co-operation Is at the Centre of the Mainstream Approach

The practitioner-driven literature has produced definitions, described historical experiences and set the conceptualisation of science diplomacy.2 Leading authors have set the pace of discussions and built a largely mediatised and apparently consensual vision of science diplomacy which underlines the benefits of international scientific co-operation, capable not only of gathering scientists across borders but also of bringing peoples together, especially when history has opposed them. This vision also highlights the importance of bringing scientific knowledge into policy-making, in particular with regard to global issues.

Since science diplomacy as a new terminology started to circulate some fifteen years ago, international scientific co-operation has been central in its common understanding. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) justified, in 2008, the creation of its Center for Science Diplomacy as ‘the over-arching goal of using science and scientific cooperation to promote international understanding and prosperity’.3 In the founding trilogy, two of the three facets explicitly mention co-operation: diplomacy as ‘facilitating international science cooperation (diplomacy for science)’; ‘using science cooperation to improve international relations between countries (science for diplomacy)’.4 Vaughan Turekian, a major expert in the field and former Director of AAAS, describes science diplomacy as ‘the use and application of science cooperation to help build bridges and enhance relationships between and amongst societies, with a particular interest in working in areas where there might not be other mechanisms for engagement at an official level’.5 International scientific co-operation is thus central for building positive country-to-country relationships. But it is also critical for dealing with environmental threats and other urgent global issues which challenge the international order. International collaborations are key dimensions of science diplomacy, which is consistent with the essence of diplomacy as the art of dialogue and agreement between sovereign states. Science, in itself, is presented as a factor of rapprochement of peoples. Its values of transparency, neutrality and universality are presumed to make it a widely understood and non-ideological language, explaining its positive transformative power over international relations: examples of transnational co-operation through megascience infrastructures — such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) and International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) — are frequently quoted and fuel a pleasing and almost irenic perception of science diplomacy.

Science diplomacy, however, should not be confused with international scientific co-operation, the aim of which is the advancement of knowledge: ‘they are related, yet analytically separate’.6 One reason for this mismatch is that scientific co-operation may be devoid of any diplomatic dimension: public or private research institutions from different countries can co-operate without the direct interests of states being at stake. This argument was reported early in the literature7 and seems now well understood. The practitioner-driven discourse also brought nuances by reconsidering science diplomacy from the perspective of the national interest, stating that ‘for a country to make any investment that supports science diplomacy, the actions must be seen to either directly or indirectly advance its national interest’.8 Emphasising the national interests should alert on this: co-operation might not be the alpha and omega of science diplomacy.

3 Does Competition Have Its Place in Science Diplomacy? A Few Illustrations

In the great mass of writings devoted to science diplomacy, competition rarely comes into play. In any of them, the word competition and its derivatives (e.g., competitive, competitiveness), when used — which most of the time is not the case — have an occurrence several times lower than that of the terms co-operation, collaboration and their derivatives.

But what kind of competition is it about? Competition is everywhere, and in the sphere of science to begin with, although better described in this context as ‘emulation’ to promote ‘excellence’. Competition becomes more visible when moving towards applications of science, and in particular when it comes to innovation. An illustration is provided by the current COVID-19 crisis, which offers a meaningful case study of science diplomacy. The crisis poses major questions such as the effectiveness of ecosystems of scientific advice to governments, and the capacity of countries to engage in collective action to deal with a pandemic which is global in nature. But with the ‘vaccine race’, which has also been brought to the fore, scientific challenges interweave with commercial, notoriety and power issues, and the competition specific to the world of science turns into competition between countries. Situations on which this essay focuses here are those in which the research activity in its international dimension articulates with competitive strategies of states, and which engages diplomatic resources and tools. The author provides in this section a collection of examples.

Some forms of ‘diplomacy for science’ have nothing to do with co-operation. A historical example is the poaching of ‘brains’ formed at the Soviet school, which some Western countries engaged in with the support of their embassies in the 1990s: these initiatives had no other aim than strengthening the research systems of countries that would host emigrating researchers. More generally, all the one-directional strategies of national capacity building through attraction of scientific and academic resources are competitive strategies, not co-operative ones.

Current practices provide other illustrations. Once a year, the Days of the Cooperation and Cultural Action Network bring together in Paris all counsellors and attachés involved in cultural and scientific action at French embassies. When addressing his troops, the Minister of Foreign Affairs generally starts with extolling the cardinal values of French diplomacy and emphasising the universal scope of France’s messages. He then encourages making this strong symbolic capital continue to flourish: much more than ‘Let’s co-operate more with our foreign partners’, the prime watchwords of action that are delivered are ‘Let’s be more attractive, let’s be more influential’, thus maintaining a competitive spirit among diplomatic agents in charge of academic, scientific and cultural missions in the field. Turning to the strategy in the field of the United Kingdom’s Science and Innovation Network, the author notes that, alongside with ‘collaboration and partnerships’, the road map of British science diplomats based in Paris includes objectives ‘to benefit the UK’, ‘to grow UK innovation capability’ and, in first position on the list, to ‘influence science and innovation policies of French government, industry and academia to benefit the UK’.9 Such actions should not come as a surprise if we turn to official writings dedicated to international strategies for research and to science diplomacy strategies of countries such as, among others, Japan10 and Spain,11 and of the European Union:12 official plans and road maps have no hesitation in linking their international initiatives relating to science and research to the country’s overall competitiveness.

These few examples are certainly not a demonstration. But they should draw attention to situations of unilateral and competitive science-related foreign policy actions. It is part of the missions of diplomatic apparatus — at least those of the most developed countries — to implement the national policy of attractiveness of scientific talent, to favour the access of national researchers to international research infrastructures and networks and, more generally, to work for the country’s influence by promoting abroad its scientific and technological assets. These are strategies driven by the will of taking advantage over others — and this is the very spirit of competition. It is trivial to say that such competitive initiatives are guided by the pursuit of the national interest but it is also surprising to note how low the dominant discourse speaks the language of competition.

4 Why Is Competition Under-represented in the Mainstream Discourse on Science Diplomacy?

The dominant literature on science diplomacy stands out from that on economic diplomacy, which always understands itself as defending the interests and positions of national exporters and investors in the global competition13 — but true, competition rules the market economy and is a central category of economic theory. When it comes to cultural diplomacy, it is fairly easily recognised that the national culture can be a policy tool for exerting attraction and influence. Would there be any singularity of science in its relation to diplomacy? Could diplomacy, when it comes to ‘science’ diplomacy, escape the grip of competition? The author answered this question with a negative in the previous section. But why is the dominant discourse not inclined to recognise competition in science diplomacy? He advances here a hypothesis: he assumes that the reasons could be found in the personal backgrounds and profiles of those who lead the practitioner literature.

Most of the writings and conceptualisations that inspire the science diplomacy community come from authors who have accomplished first a career in research before turning to the practice of science diplomacy through the exercise of responsibilities in the administration of research, in science advice to the government or in diplomacy. This is particularly the case for the leading authors who produced the definitions and taxonomies mentioned in the first section of this essay. Comparatively, contributions of career diplomats to the practitioners’ literature were marginal. The author of this essay hypothesises that this dominant authorship generates a cultural bias; that is, an approach inherent to the habits of mind and modes of thinking specific to the epistemic community of scientists. Scientists — and even more those of the natural sciences — have a more universalist than national vision; they feel more concerned with common interests than with particular interests. They have a belief in science as a source of progress and transfer this conviction to the geopolitical field: scientific co-operation across borders can improve international relations, and fair scientific advice to decision-makers can favour a better consideration of common interests. The author assumes that this idealist and universalist mindset pushes them to favour what unites, rather than what opposes, and to envision the collaborative uses of science rather than those which are more directly linked to the competing interests of states.

A second set of questions follows. What is understood by ‘science’ when it comes to science diplomacy? In the literature, the answer is somewhat vague. Does ‘science’ include technology, and even innovation? Science historians and science studies specialists generally consider that separating science from technology is irrelevant, as science and technology interact in the production of knowledge. Most scientific discoveries generate technical progress, and in reverse the use of technologies is essential for producing basic scientific knowledge in fields such as nuclear physics, astronomy and genetic engineering, to mention just a few. Would it be more explicit to speak of ‘techno-science’, or even of ‘science-technology-innovation’ (STI) rather than just ‘science’? How could this impact the understanding of science diplomacy? Expressions such as ‘science and technology diplomacy’ or ‘techno-diplomacy’14 are rarely used. This would not matter that much if everyone understood that in ‘science diplomacy’, ‘science’ is not limited to academic knowledge and basic research but encompasses technology. But do all those who write about science diplomacy have this in mind? ‘Science diplomacy’ is an easier wording to handle than ‘science and technology (S&T) diplomacy’ but it involves the risk of considering technological issues as peripheral. This would be unfortunate, keeping in mind that is through its technological dimension that science exerts its main influence on international political and diplomatic relations.15 Competition is increasingly present when moving downstream the STI continuum, when reaching the sphere of the applications of science into technology and, even more, into innovations in the market sphere. Certainly, including innovation under the umbrella of science diplomacy would open a royal road to the full recognition of issues of competition — and, incidentally, raise the question of the intersection between science diplomacy and economic diplomacy. But can we go that far? This conceptual question, which is addressed in the essay by Pascal Griset in this forum, is part of an emerging literature on ‘innovation diplomacy’.16 Be that as it may, scientists and innovators are different figures by their state of mind and their social role. Scientists feel more concerned and comfortable with the upstream side of the STI continuum, and this could be another reason why competitive aspects are downplayed in the discourse on science diplomacy.

Finally, those who authored the usual definitions and who feed the narratives are actors of science diplomacy. They promote science diplomacy as a strategy for positive transformation of international relations. They advocate for the improvement of public policies through scientific advice, and for the progress of international collaborations. These generous objectives inspire a large community of opinion leaders, influencers, actors and even activists, who need an understanding of science diplomacy that matches best the cause which is important to them. Fuelled by frequent references to the ‘universal values of science’, this normative construction leads to attributing the science diplomacy label to actions which are inspired by the noble motives of co-operation and the common good, thus leaving aside those triggered by more trivial motives of seeking competitive advantage or exercising influence.

5 Refocusing the Debate: Collaboration and Competition in Science Diplomacy

The duality of collaboration and competition is a common reading grid of social interactions. Various areas, including modern science17 and public diplomacy,18 have used it. Looking at the history of international scientific and technical relations, the essay by Olga Krasnyak in this forum shows the subtle mixture of competition and co-operation that was present in academic and technical exchanges between the United States and the USSR during the Cold War. But the collaboration-competition axis as such has been little used in the writings on science diplomacy. An exception, however, came from a major piece of the early scholarly literature, which explicitly underlined the ‘strong tension between cooperation and competition’ by noting that ‘S&T have gained an important and ever-increasing role in the competitive quarrel for market shares, power, and influence’.19 This vision was reaffirmed more recently by the identification of ‘strategies to tap into competitive innovation markets worldwide’ as one of the drivers of science diplomacy, allowing it to affirm that ‘science diplomacy is embedded in logics of global collaboration and competition’.20 The author shares this point of view, and believes that there is a need to refocus discussions on science diplomacy around the articulation between collaboration and competition in strategies of states. A step in this direction leads us to question the perimeter generally recognised for science diplomacy, and to reframe it as follows. On issues which have a scientific and research dimension, countries must agree and co-operate in an increasingly globalised world. But at the same time, triggered by the will to defend and promote the national interests, they engage in unilateral and competitive actions. The author acknowledges the dual nature, collaborative and competitive, of science diplomacy:

  • Collaborative science diplomacy brings to the forefront the need and the will of countries to agree among themselves and find common ground. It covers situations where countries need to work together on a bilateral or multilateral basis to conduct or support scientific research programs, manage research infrastructures and engage in collective action to tackle global challenges. They share goals and resources in view of mutual benefits: collaborative science diplomacy is a positive sum game.21

  • Competitive science diplomacy relates to the scientific aspects of attractiveness, access and ability to exert influence; in its extreme form, it refers to situations where scientific resources gained by one country are lost for the others (brain drain and brain gain), resulting in a zero-sum game made of one-way relationships in which ‘every country for itself’ dominates.

This schematic representation, however, should be considered carefully. Some of the practices do not easily fall into either of these two categories which are not mutually exclusive. Collaborative opportunities can exist in the competitive field of technology and innovation, and competitive challenges are at work in the production of scientific knowledge. In science diplomacy, tensions and trade-offs exist between scientific co-operation and the search for competitive advantages and, in many cases, collaboration and competition are intertwined.

6 Conclusion

Science diplomacy is commonly understood as a set of policy tools having the power to positively transform international relations and to enhance the international order. In this mainstream understanding, the collaborative dimension has traditionally occupied the whole field. The view developed in this essay is that this vision is a partial one. There exist practices of science diplomacy looking to take advantage over others and which are inspired by a spirit of competition. In addition to supporting international scientific collaborations, diplomats and diplomatic apparatuses engage in policies aimed at attracting foreign talent and accessing scientific resources at the international level, or exerting influence through scientific assets and research programs. A conceptual implication is that competition should be considered a necessary category of analysis of science diplomacy, thus leading to a reappraisal of the perimeter covered by its practices. Science diplomacy is shaped by the adverse winds of collaboration and competition between countries. Shedding light on the less publicised of its practices, this essay has intended to advance the concept of science diplomacy by recognising its double nature, both collaborative and competitive.


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Pierre-Bruno Ruffini

is a Professor at the Faculty of International Affairs at the University of Le Havre-Normandie in France, and a member of Équipe D’Économie — Le Havre Normandie (EDEHN). He is a former Counsellor for Science and Technology at Embassies of France in Russia and Italy. He acts as expert in the ongoing European research project ‘Inventing a Shared Science Diplomacy for Europe’ (InsSciDE — H2020).


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