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Foreign Service officers at AAAS explore issues of science, environment and health
Twenty-eight years ago, when Anthony "Bud" Rock joined the U.S. State Department, diplomats at every level viewed their mission through the lens of the Cold War. But with the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the war on terror, Rock says, the environment, science, technology and health have become some of the most critical issues of our time.
That was the message delivered to about 20 mid-career U.S. Foreign Service officers recently in an intensive five-day seminar organized by AAAS's International Office and the State Department's Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, where Rock serves as the principal deputy assistant secretary. And it was underscoredsometimes pointedlyby a series of speakers and in interviews outside the conference.
"We are recognizing that issues of environment, science and technology are issues that address economic stability and the welfare of people around the world," Rock said in an interview. "In the absence of that kind of stability, you address areas of discontent, you address regions of the world that are under stress, that frankly lose their sensitivity to the needs of their own people and become hotbeds of criminal behavior and, ultimately, of terrorism. So it is in our national security interest to work toward stable regions and stable countries worldwide. And dealing with the environment, science, technology and health are all components that lead to that."
Most of the Foreign Service officers who attended the session have been assigned to Environment, Science, Technology and Health posts in embassies and diplomatic stations worldwide; there are 163 posts in the Foreign Service that deal with ESTH issues, 60 of which are dedicated solely to those issues. In the course of a week, the Foreign Service officers at the seminar were briefed on issues ranging from wetland preservation to space exploration, with many issues among the most high-profile controversies of our time: climate change; trade and the environment; population; illegal logging and biotechnology. A similar session will be held in September.
Among those speaking at the seminar from 28 June-2 July was George Atkinson, science adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell. In an interview, Atkinson said that with developments in science and technology "accelerating at a dizzying rate," Foreign Service officers have an increasingly complex job of educating and aiding foreign governments and their people while trying to learn from them as well.
"Much of our science is beginning to challenge the basic tenets of our society and our institutions, even our ethical assumptions," he said. "We have a general society which over the same period of time has not necessarily been well-informed of how science works. So there's an increasingly large gap between what the average citizen knows about science and the advances made by the sciences. The ESTH officer … [has] to be in the front lines of these conversations. They not only represent the U.S. position, but they should be alert to new directions in the countries in which they serve. There are countries that make the decision how to strike the balance between opportunity and vulnerability, and it might be helpful for us to understand how the country makes that choice."
Some recent news reports have indicated that issues of environment and science are more contentious globally than they have been in the pastissues like the Kyoto Protocol for reducing greenhouse gases, arctic oil exploration and genetically modified food. And in many cases, Atkinson said, an ESTH officer in a diplomatic post has to deal with those tensions.
"Certainly people's awareness and concern about environmental issues have continued to escalate," he said. "And they appear in the political, social and scientific arenas. So a Foreign Service Officer, for that reason alone, would certainly be challenged more and more in their portfolios to answer questions and pay more attention to those issues."
Rock suggests, however, that news stories which focus on the conflicts convey an incomplete picture.
"I don't think anybody disagrees on the goals we're trying to achieve in terms of a safer, cleaner, healthier world," he said. "Some of our strongest cooperation, some of our strongest international activities, are not U.N.-mandated activities, but they are voluntary, they started as voluntarily initiatives. Our protection of endangered species, our coral reef initiatives, our Arctic Council activitiesprograms of that sort actually began as voluntary initiatives among interested countries and those who are willing to commit. And those end up being some of our strongest programs.
"In areas where we have had sensitivityclimate change, for examplewhile we are not parties to the Kyoto Protocol, we remain parties to the U.N. Convention [on Climate Change] and we have signed a dozen or more bilateral agreements for scientific collaboration in climate change with the countries that emit 80 percent of the greenhouse gases worldwide. So we are very active on those fronts and we're active in a variety of different mechanisms to achieve the end…
"In fact, we have a record of environmental management in the United States that is not well-appreciated in the international community. And we need to spend a little bit more time in our public diplomacy insuring that people understand that. It's the toughest job for the ES&T officer, frankly, to convey our hopes and aspirations for the international community for environmental management and resource management and to convey…at the same time that the United States is taking on its responsibility in these areas."
Rock suggests another role for ESTH officers: helping to encourage and guide foreign nations to implement the agreements they've signed on the environment and other issues.
Shere Abbott, AAAS's chief international officer, reminded the Foreign Service officers that the scientific community has long been concerned about the role of science at the State Department. “One of the reasons we are most interested in teaching this course is our commitment to help strengthen science at State,” she said after the seminar. “As our nation seeks to balance seemingly but not necessarily competing interestsbetween environment and trade, between national security and research, and between innovation and meeting human needsthe scientific community needs to work more vigorously with the diplomatic community and assure that S&T considerations are effectively integrated into the formulation of US foreign policy.”
Edward W. Lempinen
19 July 2004