Science, the driving force behind so much in the modern world, has rarely figured as a tool for forging and advancing relations among nations. But this has begun to change. Last June, President Obama laid out a blueprint for a “new beginning” with the Muslim-majority countries in a major speech at Cairo University. The President expressed optimism about creating strong, enduring ties rooted in common interests and mutual respect. In particular, he called for scientific and educational collaborations that could both cement those ties and serve as engines of social, economic and political progress.
The President’s initiative must be followed with an action plan, and the United States is in a good position to do so. Much of America’s global influence is based on its leadership in science and technology, and so the United States would do well to integrate the “soft” power of American science into its diplomacy.
My own experience as a product of both the East and the West has taught me how formidable the “soft” power and transformative cultural potential of science can be. As a young man growing up in Egypt, I did my undergraduate work in Alexandria, a city steeped in the history and culture of science and a cosmopolitan center in a Muslim-majority nation. Its population was ethnically and religiously diverse, with Muslims and Christian Copts, as well as Arabs, Greeks, Italians and others living peacefully side by side. Women made up nearly half of my class at the University of Alexandria; indeed, my senior research adviser was a woman. Religious Egyptians of all denominations enthusiastically embraced arts, literature, theater and music. I cannot recall a single incident of terrorism by religious fanatics. It was this soft power, these values and this culture, embedded in and supported by strong educational and media systems that, far more than weapons and political hegemony, constituted Egypt’s chief export to the rest of the Arab world and the source of its leadership throughout the region.
In today’s world, America’s soft power is commonly thought to reside in the global popularity of Hollywood movies, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Starbucks. But the facts tell a different story. In a recent poll involving 43 countries, 79 percent of those surveyed said that what they most admire about the United States is its leadership in science and technology. The artifacts of the American entertainment industry came in a distant second. What I, as a young foreign student in the 1970s, found most dynamic, exciting and impressive about the United States is what much of the world continues to value most about America today: its open intellectual culture, its great universities, its capacity for discovery and innovation.
I felt the full force of this soft power when I came to the United States in 1969 to begin graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. I discovered how science is truly a universal language, one that forges new connections among individuals and opens the mind to ideas that go far beyond the classroom. My education in America instilled in me greater appreciation for the value of scholarly discourse and the use of the scientific method in dealing with complex issues. It sowed, then nurtured, new seeds of political and cultural tolerance.
But perhaps most significant was that I came to appreciate the extent to which science embodies the core values of what the American Founders called “the rights of man” as set forth in the U.S. Constitution: freedom of thought and speech, which are essential to creative advancement in the sciences; and the commitment to equality of opportunity, because scientific achievement is blind to ethnicity, race or cultural background.
By harnessing the soft power of science in the service of diplomacy, America can demonstrate its desire to bring the best of its culture and heritage to bear on building better and broader relations with the Muslim world and beyond. In January, as America’s first Science Envoy to the Middle East, I embarked on a diplomatic tour that took me to Egypt, Turkey and Qatar. I met with officials from all levels of government and the educational system in these countries, as well as with economists, industrialists, writers, publishers and media representatives. What I learned during these visits was cause for some alarm, but also for considerable optimism.
The alarming aspect comes from the fact that education in many Muslim-majority countries now seriously lags behind international standards. Deficiencies in education, together with widespread economic hardship and the lack of job opportunities for young people, are sources of frustration and despair in many Muslim societies. They are rooted largely in poor governance and growing corruption, compounded by overpopulation and by movement away from the enlightened education I was fortunate enough to enjoy in Egypt in the 1960s.
Yet there are many positive signs as well. Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia, Turkey and Qatar are making significant strides in education and in technical and economic development. Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco and Indonesia are examples of countries still rich with youthful talents. Nor is this transfer of wealth and learning flowing exclusively from the West to the East. Today there are many Muslims in the West who have excelled in all fields of endeavor, from science, technology and business to arts and the media. These accomplishments and the values they represent can help the Muslim world recover its venerable heritage as a leader in science by complementing local efforts and aspirations. Ultimately, of course, Muslims themselves must be responsible for their own destinies, but Muslim countries possess a wealth of human and natural resources that must not be wasted. Partnerships between America and other Western countries with Muslim-majority societies can help to tap these reservoirs to build modern, prosperous and creative nations.
It is certainly in the best interests of the United States to foster relations with moderate majorities who today often find themselves locked in struggle with minorities of fanatics. Looking ahead, it is therefore of some importance that the majority of people whom I met during my weeks in the Middle East believes in the sincerity of President Obama’s intentions and welcomes the prospect of enhanced scientific and educational partnerships with the United States. Yet some expressed skepticism. “Mr. Obama made a fine speech in Cairo”, one high-ranking official said to me. “But will the political climate in the United States, and particularly the U.S. Congress, allow him to follow through on his promises?”
I believe it is important to overcome this skepticism with action. America has the power to bring about genuine change through science diplomacy, to utilize the enormous soft power reserves of its scientific community to establish lasting influence and mutual benefits in an interconnected world. We should begin by stressing three points that will enhance the prospects for success.
First, the United States needs to define a coherent and comprehensive policy for pursuing science diplomacy with Muslim-majority countries. As things stand today, despite there being a science and technology adviser to the Secretary of State, U.S. efforts in this area remain fragmented, underfunded and thus less than the sum of their parts. The assets of the U.S. government in this regard are considerable, residing, for example, within the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, as well as in the Departments of Education, Interior, Agriculture and State. We need to bring these assets into concert. In this regard, too, foreign aid distribution needs to be revisited.
Second, the focus of a better-integrated effort should be on improving education and fostering the scientific and technological infrastructure that will bring about genuine economic gains and social and political progress. One way to build human capital in science, for example, would be for the United States to encourage and support the creation of relatively simple earth science labs in elementary schools, along with the teacher training necessary to stimulate curiosity about workings of nature. For older students, however, I propose a new program, “Reformation of Education and Development”, whose acronym, READ, would have special significance for Muslims, as it is the first word of the Quran.
Through the READ program, the United States would support the establishment of centers of excellence in science and technology that can serve as educational hubs for talented high school and university students throughout the region. During my recent trip, I encountered widespread enthusiasm for this idea as well as pledges of support from wealthy Arab nations. Such centers would play a critical role in instilling regional pride and creating the institutional basis for forward-looking, knowledge-based economies. They would serve as tangible evidence of America’s commitment to partnership and would help promote peace and stability throughout this part of the world.
Third, these efforts must complement, not replace, U.S. efforts to promote human rights and democratic governance in the Muslim world. The United States must also continue to pursue a just and secure two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and work toward freeing the Middle East from nuclear proliferation. These efforts, which should run parallel with READ, would go far toward creating goodwill, catalyzing progress and redirecting the region’s energies into new, constructive and mutually beneficial channels. Focusing on the benefits to majorities will reduce the risks from dangerous minorities and the ravages of terrorism.
The soft power of science has the potential to reshape global diplomacy. If the vision that President Obama set forth in Cairo can be realized, history may one day record that speech as ushering in a period of transformative change. Americans like to say that actions speak louder than words, and action is what we need now.