In This Issue
Systems Challenges on a Global Scale
June 1, 2005 Volume 35 Issue 2

Engineering, Foreign Policy, and Global Challenges (editorial)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: George Bugliarello

Historically, many engineering advances have precipitated major changes in interactions between nations and have influenced the conduct and direction of foreign policy. The opening of the Suez and Panama canals had significant geopolitical impacts. The Berlin-to-Baghdad railroad influenced the strategies of the Allies in World War I, and the Trans-Siberian railroad enhanced the presence and power of Russia in Asia. Technologies for extracting and using oil have affected political balances throughout the world, starting with the decision of the British Admiralty before World War I to switch from coal to oil, which radically changed relations with the Middle East.

Information technology and the Internet have weakened the ability of central governments to maintain control of the flow of information across borders. Telecommunications have changed diplomacy, making it possible for governments at home to direct the actions of diplomats in distant countries in real time, who, until then, by necessity, had acted much more autonomously. With instant communications, governments no longer have time to deal with crises before the media arouse public awareness. Sputnik and subsequent developments in space challenged the concept of national sovereignty in space. Advances in military technology constantly challenge existing political balances. In addition, many engineering organizations - private companies, as well as societies, such as the American Society of Civil Engineering and the World Federation of Engineering Organizations - are working internationally.

The synergy of engineering and science, business, finance, and politics has changed the world. Even though engineering is an indispensable element of that synergy, it is rarely considered an instrument of foreign policy and international relations. In this context, it is sobering to review some of the challenges facing engineering and NAE, beginning with the necessity of keeping track of technological engineering developments throughout the world, as no nation has a monopoly on creativity, inventiveness, and technological skills.

The establishment of a dialogue with engineers and scientists from countries that are critical to the stability of the world, regardless of the vagaries of the political climate - what might be called scientific and engineering diplomacy - presents an even bigger challenge. Examples include the Pugwash conferences that maintained contacts between American and Russian engineers and scientists during the Cold War, recent meetings between American and Iranian engineers and scientists, under the auspices of the National Academies, the visit in January of this year by NAE member Sig Hecker to North Korea, and a growing number of interactions between NAE and other countries, including China, Germany, Japan, and Mexico.

An urgent challenge is reducing a global, "corrosive set of imbalances" (a term coined in a different context by Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board) between the affluent and the poor. Desperate deficiencies in food, housing, health, jobs, and infrastructure that keep almost one-third of humankind in abject poverty call for massive engineering involvement. Engineers Without Borders and the Gates Foundation, which funds capacity-building for health care in Africa, are examples of efforts to reduce these imbalances and fight poverty. But far more must be done.

Far more also remains to be done to address the related challenges to world sustainability, such as global warming, increases in carbon dioxide emissions, the predicted rise in sea levels, over-fishing, over-consumption, and the disappearance of species. Sustainability will require not only working defensively, but also creating imaginative new projects, like environmentally benign infrastructural systems in homes and cars and water-efficient desert agriculture. Sustainability and combating poverty are the foundations of a stable civil society, and they require the crossing of boundaries and the pooling of crucial human resources - particularly engineers.

A difficult international issue of immediate concern to nearly all of the U.S. engineering community is the migration of engineering jobs abroad. How can the United States continue to pursue the advantages of global economic efficiency - the more than zero-sum game - without the loss of key engineering skills and technological capabilities, particularly in the manufacturing sector?

Although engineering is only one instrument for addressing global challenges and international relations, it is a crucial one. The engineering community must participate actively in policy discussions and planning, and may even sometimes provide a technological fix that cuts through the Gordian knot of seemingly unresolvable social or political impasses. Engineers must not be afraid to go where angels fear to tread, when necessary.

Scientists have acted boldly in pursuing genetics, molecular biology, and the green revolution. Economists and political scientists have done so with the market economy and the globalization of trade. Engineers have done so, too, in creating the indispensable bases for civilized living, from clean water to telecommunications and transportation systems. All of these developments at one time challenged dogmas and undermined the status quo.

The global challenges facing our nation and the world today will require even greater commitment and courage from engineers, new visions of the possible, and the championing of new global agendas. The papers in this issue address the issues of engineering and American diplomacy (Neureiter), Japanese-American collaborative efforts to counter terrorism (Branscomb), the nuclear crisis in North Korea (Hecker), and engineering for the developing world (Amadei).

About the Author:George Bugliarello is President Emeritus and University Professor at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, New York, and foreign secretary of NAE.