Science and Technology - The end of the twentieth century

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later, accelerated two significant and already evident trends. The first was the decreased ability of the federal government to regulate the involvement of Americans in international science and technological ventures. This decline owed to further advances in communications technology, the continued globalization of manufacture and research, and an unprecedented expansion of nonprofit organizations involved in myriad aspects of foreign science policy. The second was greater international support for global treaties designed to limit technologies that threatened the natural environment.

Reduced state control over the conduct and practice of science and technology as aspects of foreign policy had several causes. One was the general relaxation of state restrictions that followed the end of the Cold War, including a reduced level of concern about the threat of nuclear annihilation (though, as the abortive spy trial of the Los Alamos physicist Wen Ho Lee in the late 1990s would attest, the federal government remained vigilant, or even overzealous, as critics charged, about prosecuting alleged violations of nuclear secrets trade). By 1990, international scientific exchanges had become so commonplace that the Department of State, which thirty years before had scrutinized each case, gave up trying to count them. Yet another was the rising influence of the biological and environmental sciences, challenging the dominance of the physical sciences as the key determinant of foreign policy in the sciences and providing nongovernmental organizations greater influence on policy decisions. In 1995 some 110,000 biological and life scientists were employed by the federal government, double the number from twelve years before. Well-funded conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Federation continued to export wilderness values and sustainable development concerns around the globe, including that for the Amazon rainforests, while more militant organizations, including Greenpeace, succeeded in stimulating public pressure to address problems with international whaling practices and the regulation of drilling platforms in international waters. No less influential were private foundations—notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which announced a $100 million commitment to international AIDS research in 2001—their undertaking reminiscent of the early twentieth century foreign health campaigns of the Rockefeller Foundation. But commercial concerns from powerful business interests also shaped State Department policies toward international science and technology, particularly as the growing commercial value of products derived from molecular biology and genetics inspired Eli Lilly, Hoffman-LaRoche, Genentech, and other large multinational firms to organize research and production facilities on a global scale.

Another factor that undermined the ability of the state to regulate international science and technological projects was the increasingly transnational character of fundamental scientific research. While the institutional structure of science remained largely national in character—since the state remained the dominant patron of scientific research—scientists found fewer barriers to participating in international collaborations than at any prior time in history. Transnational coauthorships in leading scientific nations reached 19 percent by the mid-1980s, and scientists found it easier to cross borders to conduct experiments at major foreign research facilities and to attend conferences in once off-limit cities such as Havana and Beijing. Financial exhaustion caused by the Cold War also inspired new transnational technological collaborations, including the U.S.–Russian space station, the Cassini Mission to Saturn, and the multinational Human Genome Project, the first big-science undertaking in the biological sciences. While Washington policymakers generally saw these developments as advantageous to U.S. interests, the reduction of centralized controls over technical systems occasionally disturbed security-conscious officials. During the administration of President William Jefferson Clinton, law enforcement agencies attempted to restrict the importation of foreign encryption programs, seeking to retain access to information transmitted via computers for criminal investigations and national security purposes, but technological firms successfully resisted this effort.

But the ending of the Cold War, which left the United States as the sole surviving superpower, also caused policymakers to scale back on efforts to convince other world leaders of the merits of capitalist-based science and technology. Despite calls for a new Marshall Plan to aid the democratic transformation of the former Soviet Union (which included providing ways to keep unemployed Russian nuclear technicians and bioweapons specialists from taking their skills to Iran, Libya, and other sponsors of international terrorism), the United States provided little support. Private efforts to provide such support did not succeed, despite a $100 million investment provided by the financier George Soros from 1992 to 1995. Soros argued (as American national security advisers had done throughout the Cold War) that Russian scientists were bulwarks of liberal democracy and antidotes to religious fundamentalism and mystical cults, but terminated his support when Western democracies failed to match his contributions. While citizens generally backed such measures, budget constraints did not permit policymakers to offer more than patchy responses to these problems.

The United States and other Western governments have proven more inclined to address the impact of scientific and technological developments on the global environment, seeing these threats as more immediate and more amenable to international negotiation. By the 1980s and 1990s, American leaders began playing active roles in negotiating treaties that sought to mitigate the effects of industrial and military byproducts in the environment, including efforts to maintain biodiversity, to reduce the destruction of ultraviolet-shielding stratospheric ozone, and to limit the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that heightened global warming. In certain respects these treaties resembled the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which limited the global spread of radioactive fallout. Like the much earlier Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, these also sought to employ the best scientific knowledge available to address an evident problem, and they were controversial in their day. But these late twentieth-century treaties were profoundly different from their predecessors in several ways: they posed major economic and national security questions at the highest levels of government, they involved the full-time work of large numbers of scientists and policymakers, and they addressed issues intensely familiar to citizens (by 1989, 80 percent of Americans had heard of global warming). They were also multilateral treaties rather than bilateral—as most earlier international environmental treaties had been—thus reflecting the growing influence of the United Nations as a force in international science policy. In the mid-1990s the Clinton administration, aware that a majority of Americans backed these efforts (and believing, as historian Samuel P. Hays has argued, that they reflected deep-rooted American values about the environment), explicitly declared its support for environmental diplomacy. The Clinton administration also suggested that environmental degradation could lead to political and social stress, even major instability, and thus became the first to publicly argue that water rights disputes and overfishing were as significant in foreign policy as traditional issues of ideology, commerce, and immigration.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, U.S. willingness to take part in the post–Cold War framework of international science-based treaties appeared to wane. During his first six months in office, President George W. Bush signaled his intention to take a more unilateral stance, refusing to sign the Kyoto Accord on global warming while backing away from the 1996 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and a pact designed to enforce an international ban on biological weapons (which powerful U.S. biotech groups had opposed, fearing the loss of trade secrets). In the early summer of 2001 Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld voiced willingness to "cast away" the 1972 antiballistic missile treaty, the bedrock of mutually assured destruction that had guided U.S. nuclear weapons policy throughout the Cold War era. These actions are a reminder that conservative concerns about limiting American power and the political unreliability of scientists have not faded. Yet these efforts ought not be taken as a sign of a major reorientation of the role of science and technology within U.S. foreign policy. The growth of an international framework for science and technology was largely determined by events beyond the control of the American people, who remain part of an international science and technological community more extensive than many realize. Constituencies for this system, within scientific community and within Congress and bureaucracy, are large. As with environmental values within the United States, global approaches to environmental regulation have gained favor with a significant portion of the U.S. population, and will remain a driving force in setting U.S. foreign policy.

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