Sunday, July 08, 2012

Engineering Diplomacy

Najmedin Meshkati has an article titled "Engineering Diplomacy: An Underutilized Tool in Foreign Policy" in the current issue of the new AAAS online journal, Science & Diplomacy. As a former engineer who worked a long time in foreign assistance, let me share some thoughts on the topic.

Diplomacy is based on power, and engineering is in my opinion one of the bases for U.S. power:
  • Military power: U.S. military power is based on technology more than manpower. Think of the role of aerospace engineers and electronics engineers in providing that technology.
  • Economic power: Engineers play key roles in designing, building and maintaining the infrastructure and industrial plant on which American economic power is based.
  • Soft power: Think of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who received his PhD in engineering from USC and taught engineering at a California state college. Assuming that his experience was positive in those universities, think of the good will the United States banked for the future. Indeed, American engineering education and engineering services are widely admired and provide a basis for soft power.
I would also suggest that engineering can play an important role in achieving key foreign policy goals of the United States.
  • Security: I have already mentioned the role of engineering in assuring the technological leadership that ensures the military power so important to our diplomacy. I suspect that most of our military attaches are products of the military academies, and those academies turn out a lot of officers trained in fields of engineering. Think too of President Reagan's much loved phrase, "trust but verify". Much of our capacity to verify the control of security threats is based on engineering technologies.
  • Economics: A key function for diplomats is helping to assure the competitiveness of American firms in international markets. Of course the "engineering firms" that work in infrastructure projects are much involved in international business. Perhaps more important are the many high technology firms providing U.S. exports, many of which are dependent on engineering technology. Think for example of the role of chemical engineers in the manufacture of ethical pharmaceuticals.
  • Global systems problems: Increasingly U.S. foreign policy has to be concerned with global systems problems such as global warming, sea level rise, and desertification. Engineering plays a key role in the energy sector and thus in the control of greenhouse gas emissions. It is critical to efforts to assure the people have access to potable water and that farmers have access to water for their crops. Engineering has a critical technological role in assuring that development is sustainable. Indeed, engineers have critical roles in the production and distribution of information and pharmaceuticals needed to meet the challenges of global threats to health.
  • Humanitarian assistance and the reduction of poverty: Since the Marshall Plan, a major aspect of U.S. foreign policy has been foreign aid and in the larger sense, foreign aid workers are part of our diplomatic corps. Engineers are perhaps more important in reducing risks to man from natural disasters, but they play an important role in disaster relief. They also play a key role in infrastructure development which is basic to poverty alleviation in poor countries.
While we tend to think of diplomacy in terms of diplomats from our own country meeting with diplomats from another country to which they are assigned, diplomats also meet frequently with government officials and citizens of the countries to which they are assigned. While few countries assign diplomatic duties to professional engineers, many contacts are made with engineers. For example, many governmental leaders in China were trained as engineers, and many industrial leaders in all countries have engineering training.

There is also an important and continuing role for multilateral diplomacy. Think about the role of engineers in UNESCO, of agricultural engineers in the FAO, of biomedical engineers in WHO, of communications engineers in the ITU, and of industrial engineers in UNIDO. Often delegations to meetings of these and other international organizations will include engineers from the private sector or domestic government agencies combining multilateral diplomatic functions with their engineering professional duties. As an example, think of the roles that petroleum and mining engineers must have played in the negotiations of the Law of the Seas Treaty, or of the roles of nuclear engineers in dealing with questions of nuclear safety and non-proliferation,

We can consider several forms in which engineers contribute to diplomacy:

  • Engineering diplomatic infrastructure: Diplomats depend on an infrastructure which assures not only communication with the home country and access to information relevant to their duties, but also the security of their persons and their premises. Note, however, that with the elaboration of the global information infrastructure it is increasingly possible to conduct diplomacy via that infrastructure. More people abroad can access the websites of the U.S. government than could ever meet with an American diplomat. Obviously engineers must be considered in the development and maintenance of this infrastructure.
  • Engineering advice to diplomats: The diplomatic corps has tracks for consolar officers, economic officers, management officers, political officers, and public diplomacy officers (this last group work often in cultural fields). While the U.S. State Department does recruit people with engineering background, few of their officers in these roles have full qualifications as professional engineers. In consequence, it is often important that diplomats have access to professional engineers to obtain specific detailed advice needed for to fully understand and achieve their diplomatic objectives.
  • Engineering as part of the content of diplomacy: I can easily see situations in which professional engineers can themselves play a role in diplomacy. Think of Engineers Without Borders. Indeed, consider the long borders of the United States with Mexico and Canada; how many disputes along these borders can be and have been avoided by cross-border engineering collaboration to engineer appropriate infrastructure solutions, and in how many other borders can engineers catalyze similar solutions. 
  • Diplomacy for engineering. While much of the discussion above has focused on how engineers can help diplomats or take part in diplomacy, it is also the case that diplomacy has a role to play in helping engineers do their work. For example, think of diplomats working to assure that the civil engineering firms in their own country have equitable access to engineering contracts in other countries. Think of the role of diplomats in smoothing the path for engineers involved in cross national projects such as cross national road systems (e.g. the Pan American Highway system), air traffic control systems, and waterways (e.g. the St. Lawrence Seaway).
I would suggest that few people in the general population, and indeed not all diplomats recognize the wide range of situations in which engineers can be and should be involved in diplomacy.


Anonymous said...

The State Department does have professional engineers. One of the main groups of these engineers is in the Office of Building Operations which employs almost a 1000 people. These engineers/architects are responsible for the design/construction/maintenance of buildings around the world.

John Daly said...

Thank you. These engineers are of course important in what I have termed engineering diplomatic infrastructure.

I would suppose that there are few engineers in the Department who are expert in the design of industrial chemical processes, irrigation systems, aircraft, computers, or other topics of concern to diplomats.

Even when these skills are available within the State Department it is not certain that they will be applied everywhere they would be useful. How often do public diplomacy officers seek professional engineers in State to help with public diplomacy?

Moreover, there is a role for disinterested outside professional advice even when there is professional expertise within the Department. I suspect that the Office of Building Operations itself calls upon consulting engineers to complement its internal engineering staff.

Michael Posey said...

Hi John,

I am a professional civil engineer who has worked for the last two years for USAID posted in Afghanistan as part of the civilian surge effort to stabilize the country. Before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq there were precious few engineers of any kind in USAID, however with the huge reconstruction programs and the difficulties that have gone with implementing them there has been a modest build up of an in house staff of engineering professionals. They still are a tiny minority of the overall agency and the value that we add is still very poorly understood. I fear with looming deep budget cuts in foreign spending that these newly hired staff will be some of the first to go unless a strong justification can be made to keep them. Good to see articles like this which helps to explain their value.

Thanks for posting it,


Bijan R. said...

As a current graduate engineering student, I believe engineers should play a bigger role in forming policies as well. However, I also believe that engineering programs do not encourage their students to take on such responsibilities--especialy at the undergraduate level. This mentality must also be promoted at various professional societies in different industries.
As technology advances and systems become more intricate and sophisticated, decision making will require expertise in the given field. Engineers can use their know-how, paired with their solution oriented state of mind, to make more sensible decisions for optimal results.

John Daly said...

Hi Michael,

I had an MSEE and worked as an engineer for a number of years before I joined USAID. I worked at USAID for a couple of decades but not doing engineering. As I recall, at one time the number of engineers working as engineers in the Agency was down to one or two.

I did a study in Uganda about five or six years ago. At the time there were only 500 professional engineers in the whole country of some 25 million people. That is part of the reason that their electrical system worked so poorly, their telecommunications system was weak, their roads were poorly maintained, many of their (lake) ports were no longer operational and several of their railroads were no longer operating. I don't suppose there were engineers working in the health sector, few working on irrigation systems, none working in radio and television broadcasting, no likelihood of domestic development of processing industries needing chemical engineers, etc.

We have been trying to get UNESCO to put some effort into supporting engineering education and capacity building but U.S. influence there is decreasing and they have little money.

The basic point is that engineers are fundamental not only to industrial development, but even to effective agricultural and rural development, but that few donor agencies are staffed to help build engineering capacity.

Anonymous said...

I am an experienced research engineer working for the OPCW (Organization for Prevention of Chemical Weapons) which is the technical secretariat for the Chemical Weapons Convention (the most successful treaty ever created). There are about 100 chemical engineers working here, some as inspectors, others as advisors. See