By Professor of Diplomacy at the British School of Leadership and Management, Glasgow Caledonian University London campus, Nabil Ayad

When diplomacy started to take its form in the sixteenth century, the ideal skills and knowledge of an ambassador at that time were as follows: trained in theology; well-versed in Aristotle and Plato; expert in mathematics, physics and civil law; able to speak and write Latin, Greek, Spanish, French and German; and preferably a taste for poetry.  Diplomats were mainly involved in practising matrimonial diplomacy, looking for husbands and wives for members of royal families and the nobility.

Over the centuries, diplomacy has survived as a concept and an institution. The main question is: how has diplomacy and the role of diplomats changed? Today, diplomats reflect on the methods of the past, while applying increased knowledge, enlightened attitudes, technological advances and modernised transportation systems. But with increased information and better communication have come immense challenges in an increasingly complex world.

Diplomats have become managers of globalisation. Issues they must deal with include: disarmament and arms regulation; crime and drug abuse; human rights protection; climate change prevention; promoting sustainable development; conflict prevention; development cooperation; peace-keeping, peace-making and peace enforcement; protecting foreign investments; the movement of refugees on a mass scale and the fight against international terrorism.

Is there a way through science and diplomacy  for example, to improve the natural environment, to halt pandemic diseases, to reverse habitat destruction and highly destructive weather patterns, and to improve food production?  While Science and Technology have the potential to pilot the inhabitants of our earth to prosperity, in many cases today, countries use their most gifted scientists to develop more powerful weapons of conflict and destruction.  Diplomats are of vital importance at this time;  they can remove themselves from the day-to-day issues that plague politicians and see an international vision for a sustainable earth.

Human Migration

Human migration is a pressing issue that has been receiving a lot of attention. People risk their lives to escape poverty and war, and conditions caused by climate change.  International media constantly shows images of thousands of human beings attempting to migrate from areas which are beset with military conflicts, famine, drought, poverty and the illegal drug trade.  Although large numbers of migrants are refugees fleeing war, others are fleeing unlivable conditions in their homelands.  Underlying causes include climate change, diminishing biodiversity, environmental collapse, habitat destruction, urbanisation, waste disposal and scarcity of food and other resources.

Daryl Copeland recently concluded: “What do each of these issues have in common? All are complex, unresolved, transnational and – key point – characterised by the presence of a very significant scientific and technological dimension.” This has led to a very clear dichotomy in Western governments between those frightened by this influx and looking to ban a further flow of people; and those who want to successfully integrate the newcomers. Interventions by diplomats with knowledge of the dangers to human life and health could help all to come to better decisions especially in alleviating fears in the host countries, and establishing plans for medical care, sanitation and food.

Global Health

Pandemics have been spreading due to overcrowding and global travel.  For example, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) arose in Saudi Arabiain 2012, but extended to many countries, including the United Statesand South Korea. Slums of the new, rapidly growing megacities are breeding grounds for disease. Diplomats can consult with those with specialised knowledge to offer advice and assistance to governments about how to prevent, identify and contain potential pandemic diseases, as well as how to deal with infectious diseases before they gain a foothold and spread across borders.

Water Resources

The shortage of clean water, for drinking or sanitation, is a critical consequence of overpopulation and climate change.  In many parts of the world, as annual temperatures rise and the soil becomes more arid, much of the available water is used for irrigation for crops. For the most part, the shortage is most evident in North Africa and the Middle East. One result is mass migration in search of water and arable land.  In addition, while parts of the earth are growing more arid, other parts experience catastrophic flooding, which can lead to contamination with sewage and chemicals and other health emergencies.    Diplomats can work with medical specialists to provide advice on how to offer short-term care to those most impacted by flooding, as well as long-term assistance with advice on how to avoid health problems.

Food Supply

An increasing world population, decreasing amounts of arable land and negative practices by the food industry mean the globe’s food supply is in danger. Writing in The Guardian, Oliver Milman points out that nearly 33 per cent of the world’s adequate or high-quality food-producing land has been lost at a rate that far outstrips the pace of natural processes to replace diminished soil.  Diplomats are needed to help formulate guidelines that will lead to a sustainable and healthy food supply for regional and global organisations.

There is also a major problem with meat containing antibiotics.  Meat often comes from large factory farms. Antibiotics are usually administered daily to farm animals to support growth or to prevent common illness. When humans eat this meat, they can become immune to antibiotic treatment. In her article, Taking Antibiotics off the Menu, Lauren Compere wrote: “Since they were first discovered in 1928 antibiotics have… saved millions of lives around the world. Unfortunately, less than 100 years on, we are on the verge of what the World Health Organisation has called a ‘post-antibiotic era’ – due to the misuse and overuse of these important drugs in humans and in livestock.” So, timely advice, appropriate knowledge and skilful negotiations led by diplomats could help to make the food supply safer.

Climate Change

The damage to the environment by climate change has had major consequences. The health of the population is impacted since food supply, water, air and weather are all greatly influenced by climate change.   People in developing countries are more exposed to health risks, but climate change poses significant threats to health worldwide. Diplomats with medical and scientific knowledge can work with all those who are attempting to make the problems associated with climate change better understood by politicians and community leaders.


Diplomats need to develop channels to communicate with governments to discuss actions that can lead to solutions.   In Chapter One ofScience Diplomacy: New Day or False Dawn, the authors point out: “In this new environment where shared challenges – such as food security, water availability, health management – require strong interactions between the science and technical communities across borders, science has taken on a role of greater importance in the international system.” They go on to say: “scientific collaborations among nations are necessary to tackle increasingly common challenges.” Many are recognising and discussing the vital importance of bringing the knowledge and experience of the diplomatic community to these discussions.

Recent events reveal that governments are becoming aware of the strong link between science and diplomacy:

• Foreign Ministries in countries including Japan, the UK and New Zealand have appointed science advisors to Ministers of Foreign Affairs.  Science diplomacy has become a discipline recognised by governments

• Governments have adopted technology in the management of the state and statecraft, which means that diplomats have to work with all the tools and understand the security issues of a digital state

• Discussion surrounding nuclear proliferation is a major trend in diplomacy for science

• The question of developing nuclear reactors for peaceful purposes has again been brought to the diplomatic agenda

• Training diplomats in the field of science diplomacy is emerging

• The number of conferences about science and diplomacy held around the world reveal that there is a heightened interest in this issue

Diplomatic Training

In September 2019, I will be offering a course entitled “The Digital Nation State: Strategies and Implementation” at Glasgow Caledonian University London Campus, which examines the positive and negative influence of technology on diplomacy and science.

Today, the dominating concept in modern diplomatic practice is not what is best but what is next, hence diplomats must be ready to deal with the rate of change that is now exponential in the spread of computing and digital communication. Diplomats must adapt to the technological challenges in a rapidly changing international environment.



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