Countries Should Cooperate on International Research Initiatives

Leo Rassieur

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        The 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics were remarkable, and not just in the world of athletics. North and South Korea competed under a unified flag, and the sister of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un made an unusually cordial visit to the South Korean city where the games were held. Two months later in April, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in shook hands and discussed the future of the Korean Peninsula over dinner in South Korea. There is a reason that the venues of future Olympic Games are announced with such prestige; the Games are a strategic diplomatic move to erase old hostilities between the competing nations.

        This is what nations have succeeded in doing throughout history: find something perhaps unconventional to bond over, whether it was ping-pong between the U.S. and Communist China in the 1970s or a joint American-Cuban baseball series in the late ‘90s. Our universal passion for the things that make us human — sports, arts and science — have forged relationships between peoples in a way that conventional and big stick diplomacy never could. In 2018, many now believe that the next great opportunity for America is the Cancer Moonshot project.

        Cancer Moonshot, or Cancer Breakthroughs 2020, is a U.S.-led international effort launched in 2016 to find an effective treatment for cancer. The program was prompted by the death of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau due to brain cancer, and although diplomatic motivations have indeed been a factor, the medical results of the initiative are notable as well. In its thus far three years of implementation, Cancer Moonshot has created renewed interest in scientific partnership across the globe, and an increased dedication to cancer treatment for organizations like the U.S.-China Collaborative Biomedical Research Program.

        Of course, the concept of curing cancer, which would imply a cure for hundreds of disparate diseases, was never a realistic goal to begin with — even taking into account advancements in immunotherapy. Instead, research collaboration between nations can often bridge gaps and forge bonds that cannot be accomplished economically or diplomatically. When the public and government-funded scientists have a keen interest in the success of these joint research missions, the likelihood of sudden conflict between two nations declines dramatically. In essence, Cancer Moonshot has the potential to channel the scientific vigor of the Space Race with the Soviets in a manner much more productive for international stability.

        We live in an era where many the U.S.’ greatest hegemonic adversaries are deceptive and constantly evolving, as compared to the bluntly antagonistic Soviet Union we observed in the Cold War. Perhaps it is inevitable that China’s need for regional stability and the Americans’ habit of meddling in foreign affairs will breed conflict between the two in years to come, but policymakers can take steps now to reduce the scale of such conflict. The hope is that we see barbarous press releases rather than economic warfare or the threat of a nuclear missile launch. So while cancer, Chinese steel output and the South China Sea might appear to be disjoint concerns, the reality is that they are all inextricably connected for the core personalities —  Trump and Xi — that will craft the future of the two nations.

        This is particularly the case because many of the nationalist and authoritarian leaders of the 21st century make policy decisions on the basis of wins and losses. Trump might feel more comfortable approving Russian sanctions if he can first secure an impressive joint research initiative with China, despite the two countries representing entirely different sets of issues for Washington. The basis for this is simple: since any action, whether domestic or foreign, can cause a shift in approval ratings, nothing is an isolated issue for politicians hoping to be reelected or at minimum not face mass demonstrations.

        As a consequence, the possibilities that Silicon Valley creates for eager policymakers on Capitol Hill have dramatic impacts on U.S. foreign policy. Increased advocacy for scientific research will, more likely than not, result in stronger diplomatic relations with many of our least warm allies. In the remainder of 2018, we can expect to see the science-skeptical Trump Administration alienate more allies while the pro-green energy stances of Xi and Macron will help to expand their spheres of influence. The unfortunate natural conclusion of this is harsher U.S. domestic and foreign policy and a downward spiral toward isolationism, but perhaps a reaffirmation of the importance of science in government can undo this prophecy. The world is waiting for us to join them — best not to keep them waiting.

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