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  • Writer's pictureRichard Harvey

Does diplomacy matter?

A kind invitation to speak at International Webinar on Science Diplomacy, International Relations, and the Move from the Wealth of Nations to the Health of Nations. The meeting was hosted by Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) and the Embassy of Nepal in London and featured interesting addresses from H. E. Dr Durga Bahadur Subedi, Ambassador of Nepal to the United Kingdom and ·Hon. Mr. Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Nepal. Both emphasised the importance of climate change and other "action at a distance" effects. The meeting obviously was to focus on the important topic of science diplomacy which is an area I have been interested in for some years.

As I started to write my speech I pondered whether diplomacy, in particular what we would call "Track 1" diplomacy had had any sort of significant role in combatting the pandemic. ... well here is that speech


Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen. Although I am billed as the Academic Director of Admissions at the University of East Anglia (UEA), I am also the Worshipful Company of IT Professor of Information Technology at Gresham College which, founded in 1597, makes it one of the oldest educational establishments in the world.

One of my predecessors at Gresham College was that most famous of English diarists, Samuel Pepys. Pepys was alive in the time of the Great Plague of London and his diary is full of vivid and compelling accounts of that time.

In 1665 he wrote of his horror at seeing the first red crosses on the doors of houses in Drury Lane, London. The pandemic had arrived and 18 months later around 100,000 people or quarter of London’s population was dead. Although the exact cause of bubonic plague was not proven until much later, it was known at the time how it spread and the Privy Council and Aldermen decreed that incoming ships from affected areas be quarantined for 30 days; pubs in affected areas were shut to prevent transmission and residents were ordered to clean the streets outside their houses. And, as with now, there was non-compliance and people died.

So far, so depressing - history has repeated itself almost perfectly. So what are the significant differences between then and now?

The first difference is scientific. In Pepy’s day we did not fully understand the transmission mechanism of bubonic plague. This time we knew and we knew early. The mechanism for SARS-type viruses has been understood for around six years. That is a positive change, without that scientific understanding there is no hope for a cure or an inoculation. In short, scientific and engineering progress has been spectacular in that time. Not only do we have three vaccines in record time, we were mostly able to conduct our business in a safe way due to technological innovations.

The second difference is in communication. It seems that the disease had spread to London from the Netherlands where it had been appearing spasmodically for around 60 years. From Pepys day we can find concrete evidence that Diplomats were communicating about the plague long before the London plague became so serious. There are certainly records of Diplomatic dispatches from the Venetian ambassador dating from 1625. It is clear that these dispatches were covering the spread and ameliorations for the disease and they were doing so early. How does that compare with now? According to Bob Woodward in his book about the Trump Presidency, on January 28th of this year the President of the US was briefed on the likelihood of a deadly pandemic emanating from Wuhan in China. The Chinese authorities had rapidly forbidden domestic travel from Wuhan but continued to allow international travel thus encouraging the spread of the disease. Enquiries via diplomatic channels were met with either stone-walling or scientific ignorance.

On the face of it, this was surprising, the ProMED-mail alert service which is run by the International Society for Infectious Diseases had received an alert from a Chinese Physician on the 30th December 2019 nearly a month earlier. There is quite a bit of evidence now that various bits of various governments, either through inherent conservatism or through more malicious reasons, suppressed the communication for at least a couple of weeks. That did not happen in 1664 - in those days it seems we thought we were all part of the human race.

The third difference is in the nature of scientific endeavour and diplomatic engagement. In Pepy’s day many diplomats were scientifically educated. Pepys refers to people such as Sir LeoLine Jenkins (Ambassador to France but also Principal at Jesus College) or Sir Samuel Morland who made early discoveries in hydraulics, steam power and computing while simultaneously keeping competency in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and French. On the downside, he went through wives rather quickly and was also in charge of espionage for a while. Of course Scientists are still internationalists, we don’t speak Latin any more, as English is now the international language of science, but there is still a strong sense of the importance of breadth and an understanding of the broader world. It is commonplace for scientists to see themselves as members of human race first and national citizens second. Indeed, as we saw in Wuhan, scientists have risked their lives and their careers to get the word out about covid.

So what are the future roles for diplomats? I should say firstly, that as a computer scientist, I have never attended a computer science meeting, or any scientific meeting, where the attendees found it necessary to ask whether their job needs doing at all. Every meeting I attend with diplomats has that question asked! And that is because the game is up - diplomacy as we know it today is not useful. The key phrase there is “as we know it today”. I think they key problem is with State, or Track 1, diplomacy - does the UK taxpayer understand and support us having hundreds of people in Washington DC? Frankly I doubt it. But Track 2 diplomacy - that is vital and has a bright future.

History has not yet told the full story of diplomacy, especially state diplomacy, in the covid-19 outbreak. What will it say? Will it say that diplomats were quick to realise that their first loyalty was to humanity and the second to their country? Or were diplomats suppressing scientific co-operation. Or worse, did no one call them at all - diplomacy being an irrelevance in the world of covid? I hope not. I think diplomacy has a future - the world needs cultural translators - but I do think covid-19 has caused us to ask some sharp questions about governments and, hence track 1 diplomats. Frankly, when it comes to science I am not nostalgic for the time of Samuel Pepys but, when it comes to governments, and state diplomacy, I certainly am.


On reflection, maybe it is a bit brutal on diplomats but the reflection that Diplomats at virtually every meeting seem to ask themselves what their function is - that is not an exaggeration. And I do think it is a question that deserves an answer and an answer that means something to the general population because it is they that pay the bills.

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