The UN’s Role in the New Diplomacy

As a new form of international diplomacy develops to deal with a number of emerging issues in which science and technology play a central role, the United Nations (UN) risks being relegated to the sidelines. The influence and effectiveness of diplomats and international civil servants will increasingly depend on the extent to which they can mobilize scientific and technical expertise in their work. This need not require the UN to acquire extensive in-house scientific competence, but the organization–especially the office of the secretary general–must learn to tap advisory services to identify, mobilize, and use the best available expertise.

Although a large number of UN agencies, programs, and treaties rely on scientific and technological expertise for their work, they are not designed to receive systematic science advice as a key component of effective performance. In most cases, science is used in the UN to support special interests and political agendas that do not necessarily advance the goals of the organization. But this should not come as a surprise. The UN was founded and grew to prominence in the era of the Cold War, when much of diplomacy was devoted to dealing with threats arising from external aggression. Today, attention is turning to issues such as infectious diseases, environmental degradation, electronic crimes, weapons of mass destruction, and the impacts of new technologies, which in the past would have been the concern of individual nations but have now grown to international stature. The UN’s capacity to deal with these questions must also grow.

What is notable about the UN is that it includes organizations that cater to a wide range of jurisdictions but not to the growing community of science advisors. Even agencies such as the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have done little to provide a platform for the world’s science advisors. Specialized agencies such as UNESCO, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, and the UN Industrial Development Organization relate to the UN secretary general’s office through a bureaucratic hierarchy that is not responsive to timeliness. They are generally accountable to their governing bodies and are heavily influenced by the interests of activist states.

Even UN programs that deal with science-based issues such as the environment have yet to place knowledge at the core of their operations. They have failed to take into account the long-term implications of scientific advancement for their operations. Much of the attention in these programs is devoted to territorial aggrandizement and not to the role of knowledge in global governance. They are vestiges of Cold War institutional structures.

In effect, national bodies that provide scientific advice do not have a clear focal point in the UN system. But as scientific and technological issues start to dominate global affairs, ways will need to be found to provide a forum for global consensus building on scientific issues, and the UN’s ability to convene states and other actors makes it a good candidate for the task. Such a forum will not be a substitute for the activities carried out under the various specialized agencies of the UN, but it will support the work of national academies as well as other science advisory bodies.

Making room for science

Innovations in global governance are likely to occur on the margins of the UN system, especially in forums that allow for creative participation of the scientific community and civil society. Forums that assume that states are the only actors will hold onto their traditional roles but will contribute less to the emerging diplomatic scene. Treaties that provide space for the participation of nonstate knowledge-based actors have been able to rally the input of the scientific and technological community to the benefit of their goals. The UN needs to review its rules and procedures to enable it to draw more readily from the world’s fund of scientific and technological knowledge. This requires a clear recognition of the role of nonstate knowledge-based actors in general and scientific associations and organizations in particular.

This also suggests that international organizations that do not build their capacity to take advantage of these developments will cease to be important actors in international diplomacy. The power to rally political support around specific issues might shift from UN organizations to technical bodies that are linked into the various expert communities. Organizations that are linked by new communications technologies will increase in influence. Such organizations will engage in virtual diplomacy and will bypass the traditional structures used by UN agencies. The campaign to ban landmines, for example, relied heavily on Internet communication. Environmental groups have also turned to the Internet and the Web as tools for advocacy.

Knowledge-based organizations are forming a wide range of alliances with the media and play an important role in influencing public opinion as well as diplomacy. A number of international negotiations on issues such as biosafety and persistent organic pollutants have benefited from such alliances. The media itself is undergoing significant transformation, especially through the use of new communications technology. Knowledge-based institutions are better equipped to use the expanding global information infrastructure to influence diplomacy.

Modern international diplomacy is selecting for agencies that base their operations on making rules, setting standards, and collecting technical data. Knowledge-based regimes are gaining in strength and contributing more to the normative work of the UN. In the environmental field, new institutions are emerging that focus their work on harmonizing criteria and indicators, especially for use in programs that certify sustainable use of resources as in the case of forests and fisheries. Voluntary standards such as those set by the International Standards Organization are also gaining in currency.

These trends suggest an increase in opportunities for the scientific and technical community to play a larger role in international affairs. But scientists will not function under the auspices of the UN unless the organization makes it easier for them to engage in its activities. The first step the UN must take is for the secretary general to establish an office responsible for mobilizing such advice. This should not be a symbolic gesture but a serious step toward genuine reform in the functioning of the UN. It is not the size or complexity of the UN that is the problem; its weakness lies in how it uses scientific and technical knowledge. The secretary general must now turn his reform efforts to re-equipping the agency with the ability to adapt to the needs of the post-Cold War world.

The scientific community may need to explore ways in which it can contribute more effectively to international discussions. This can be achieved through the active participation of the Inter-Academy Panel and the Inter-Academy Council (, established by over 80 national academies from around the world. These bodies need to forge closer partnership with the UN. The creation of a scientific and technical advisory office under the UN secretary general and of a coordinated platform for international science advice would play an important role in meeting the diplomatic challenges of the new century.

Cite this Article

Juma, Calestous. “The UN’s Role in the New Diplomacy.” Issues in Science and Technology 17, no. 1 (Fall 2000).

Vol. XVII, No. 1, Fall 2000