Pleas for peace: urgent need for more diplomacy and science diplomacy efforts in Ukraine

IIASA

For the future of humanity, nations must make every effort to find a diplomatic road to peace in Ukraine, and the West should maintain its critical links with Russian science, according to two letters signed by the IIASA Director General.

The war in Ukraine is triggering a planet-wide crisis and threatening our existence, so we must do everything we can to find a peaceful solution, says a message from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). It calls on all nations “to put diplomacy to the service of humanity by ending the war through negotiations before the war ends all of us.”

The SDSN is a network of universities, scholars, politicians, business leaders, and faith leaders that promotes integrated approaches to sustainable development, and the message is signed by members of the SDSN Leadership Council and community, including IIASA Director General Albert van Jaarsveld and dozens of other senior academics, business leaders, and heads of non-profit organizations.

The authors echo Pope Francis in describing the invasion as “repugnant, cruel, and sacrilegious”. They point out that as well as bringing death and destruction to Ukraine, the war has already led to an international refugee crisis and food shortages. They warn that in combination with the ongoing pandemic it could cause a wave of disease, political instability, and financial hardship, especially for the poorest. Worse still, the war could lead to nuclear Armageddon, or it could bring on a more creeping catastrophe: distracting our attention from the climate emergency, delaying the international cooperation we urgently need if we are to meet the Paris goals. Somehow, all this must stop.

The answer must be more urgent diplomacy, say the authors, not military escalation. President Volodymyr Zelensky has already suggested a diplomatic solution: Ukraine remains neutral, while its territorial integrity is secured by international law. “Russia’s troops must leave Ukraine, but not to be replaced by NATO’s troops or heavy weaponry,” says the message.

Even though countries have very different attitudes to the conflict, they have a shared interest in peace. The authors therefore call on UN Member States and Leaders of the United Nations to renew their diplomatic efforts. “All nations and the United Nations must do all in their power to revive the peace talks and bring the parties to a successful and rapid agreement,” the message reads.

Beyond speaking out against the invasion, IIASA and other international scientific institutions have a particular role to play through science diplomacy. This unofficial channel is under threat, however, as many western institutions have now suspended all scientific collaboration with Russia. A second letter, published in Nature, argues that this is a mistake. Science has proven to be an effective form of diplomacy, say the authors, promoting peace and understanding while addressing urgent global problems.

The value of science diplomacy was demonstrated during the cold war. Despite clashing ideologies and military confrontation, scientific cooperation helped pave the way for advances in international relations such as the Helsinki Accords. This idea, known as Track 2 diplomacy, was embodied in IIASA, which was established to forge links between the scientific communities of the East and the West. The National Academy of Sciences Ukraine and the Russian Academy of Sciences are both IIASA members.

The letter in Nature is signed by van Jaarsveld and the presidents of the International Science Council, the SDSN, and the International Network for Government Science Advice. Like IIASA, these institutions have spent decades building bridges between nations in strife, and the authors say that abandoning their founding principles now would cause irreparable harm. “Once an institution loses its standing as a neutral broker and facilitator, it is gone forever,” the letter warns.

“IIASA and other science diplomacy bodies were created for times like this,” says van Jaarsveld. “They should be strengthened amidst this crisis to ensure they can fulfil their mandates when traditional diplomacy avenues may falter.”

Even if science diplomacy may have little impact on the immediate crisis, it keeps a channel open for the future, one way to help recover and mend relations.

International cooperation in science also remains vital for solving global problems. The letter says that collaboration should of course cease where there are any military implications. “But abandoning all ties would undermine vital and urgent research related to sustainability, as we seek solutions to shared problems such as climate change, food and water security, and public health,” says van Jaarsveld.

The authors also suggest establishing a global fund to assist science communities in distress around the globe, and highlight the need to help refugee scientists and students from Ukraine. IIASA has joined an initiative set up by the Austrian Academy of Sciences to support displaced Ukrainian researchers with short term research stays at universities and research institutes in Austria.

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