Dipping My Toes in International Diplomacy, or Simulating Combat Flying in a British Taxi

In late September I spoke at a warm-up meeting for the 2011 Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).  The BWC, as I understand it, is administered by the UN but is a direct agreement between the signatories, otherwise known as "States Parties".  The Review Conferences take place every five years.  The meeting was held at Wilton Park, an independent, academic branch of the British Foreign Office.  The venue was founded by Winston Churchill in 1946 as a "a forum for democracy building, post-conflict reconciliation and international dialogue".  Wilton Park is now housed at Wiston House, the initial construction of which dates back to the sixteenth century, and the style of the place certainly gives a unique air to proceedings there.  Here is a BBC story from a few years ago that provides more history.


The meeting was attended by a very interesting collection of ambassadors, diplomats, scholars, and foreign-office types from around the world.  Definitely not my usual drinking buddies.  But more on that later.  Before continuing, to be clear: I was there in a personal capacity, invited by the organizers and meeting sponsors (Wilton Park and the British and Dutch Foreign Offices), and I was in no way representing the US government.

I gave the opening talk, during which I focused on how biological technologies have advanced in the last five years, who is investing and how revenues are apportioned worldwide, and what we may see in the bioeconomy over the next five years.  Much of what I said was evidently new to the assembled crowd, which led to some interesting conversation.  Time for another pause: According to the Wilton Park Protocol, under which the meeting was held, "participants are free to use the information and views discussed in the conference, but no individual speaker or participant should be quoted", so I will do my best to tread carefully.

There are, in fact, only a couple of things I think are worth passing on in this post because they may have some impact on public policy discussions more broadly.  My personal predilection is to measure what I can about the world and then figure out where to go once I have established an understanding of where we are.  In particular, I have been trying to understand the global bioeconomy because many countries around the world are investing heavily in biological technologies in order to be dominant players in the 21st century.  Most of those technologies and related skills are explicitly dual use; that is, they can be used to create good or cause harm.  It simply makes sense to me to figure out what those countries are up to and what the consequences are before taking any action, political or otherwise.

Not everyone thinks that this procedure is the way to make public policy.  After I presented data on how various countries are investing, and on how fast their domestic skilled biotech labor pools and domestic biotech revenues are growing, this was waved away by one group with (very approximately) 'Do not tell me about revenues and economic activity: we should decide on how we want the world to be and then implement it!'  This left me somewhat at a loss for words.  I was surprised at the notion that any one of the States Parties might feel, in today's geopolitical and economic climate, that it could dictate terms to any other Party.  Particularly in a technological area that is deemed crucial for economic competitiveness and success.  More generally, I am confused by the notion that a qualitative goal in an area of policy can be set before an effort is made to understand, and to quantify if possible, the size and shape of that area.  What if proposed qualitative goals are already irrelevant, or even misguided, given the current state of the world?

Somewhat later in the meeting, I observed that the National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats -- written by the National Security Council and signed by the President -- states that garage biology is good and necessary for the political and economic security of the United States.  I then made my usual observation that garages are the source of most of the innovative technologies in the global economy.  The response to this from one group was also interesting (again, very approximately): 'This garage or DIYBio is only a problem in the US.  In our country it is illegal to do such things.'  I managed to bite my tongue at this juncture -- recalling the setting, and aided by the fact that the session chair forgot to give me a chance to respond (for which he apologized later, though I silently thanked him at the time). But what I really wanted to observe aloud was that it must be very nice to live in a country where nothing bad happens because all bad things are illegal; I will try to remember that next time I get off an airplane or train there to be greeted by paramilitary troops with their fingers on the triggers of sub-machine guns.  Fortunately for me, at this point the conversation wandered off into a very apt discussion about intent and misuse, as opposed to dual use, a characteristic that biology shares with many other technologies.

Which brings me to my second confusion, which is that while it is all very well and good to define areas of misuse, perhaps by making it 'illegal', and to define potential responses to that misuse, simply defining that misuse does little to prevent it.  That is, with biological technologies already spreading around the world at a rapid clip, and with innovation in those technologies taking place in countries that may care little about any given definition of misuse, those definitions amount to security theater of the worst kind.  I have yet to hear any proposal for biosecurity that recognizes the futility of physical prohibition or containment of using biological technologies.  Preventing access to technologies by the wrong sort of chap sounds great, but in this context it is unlikely to work, and therefore only makes it sound like we are safer rather than actually making us safer.

Perhaps admitting the above in print here means my future as a diplomat is limited.  Oh well.  And with that I must curtail any further description of the discussions. 

While I can comment on only a small fraction of what was said at the meeting, I can relate a few other anecdotes from the trip.  The Wilton Park experience lives up to one's expectations: formal dinners, preceded by cocktails; a formal group photo in which you might find yourself standing next to an ambassador; nightly excursions to the bar, during which discussions continue amidst libations.  I have never been much of a scotch drinker, but one must, after all, be adaptable.  Particularly when, upon learning of this educational deficiency, an Ambassador takes you aside and does the buying.  "Young man, you should really give this a try."  I could be a convert.

The most memorable bit of the trip, however, was what happened the next afternoon, upon the close of the meeting.  Just after a rather large English lunch (can you say, "foreshadowing"?),  the American delegation shanghaied me for the ride back to London.  This ride took place in one of those tall, European passenger vans.  The ones that look somewhat unstable and that one might expect to sway considerably going around corners.  There were seven seats in the van.  One up front with the driver, three in the back facing forward, and three more facing backward.  I believe everyone in the van ate approximately the same, large English lunch.

Facing forward were three officials from the US State Department (hereafter State 1, State 2, and State 3).  Facing backward were myself, (following the naming convention) White House 1, and Defense 1, who is a PhD who spent an earlier life jumping out of helicopters with bullets flying.

The trip began slightly ominously, because I was originally seated facing forward, and State 1, who was last into the van and thus got a seat facing backward, politely asked to switch with me because she was prone to motion-sickness.  How could I refuse?  I had been motion-sick exactly once in my life, and never at sea, and that one time only because my lovely wife was sitting next to me on the airplane and led the way.  But I digress.

The taxi set off, and I was surprised to be included in conversations about potential diplomatic breakthroughs with various attendees at the meeting.  We had a jolly good time as the taxi driver wound his way through the English countryside, eschewing the nearby straight-as-an-arrow motorway for as many narrow, winding country lanes as possible.  This being England, the driving is on the left side of the country lane.  This being England, those country lanes intersect at roundabouts, wherein a taxi making a right turn involves first throwing passengers through a hard left to get into the roundabout, slamming the wheel over and accelerating hard to the right for 270 degrees around the circumference, followed by a short hard left to get onto the next country lane.  And repeat.  This particular driver evidently set about finding as many roundabouts as he could.  And then seemed to traverse some of them several times.  Just for kicks.  To my inner ear.

Where was I?

Ah, yes; diplomatic breakthroughs, discussions of how much various countries are investing in biotech, and what the medium- to long-term consequences are for the physical and economic security of the US.

And then another roundabout.  Whereupon State 1 suddenly -- for reasons I simply cannot fathom -- changes the subject and the following conversation ensues:

State 1: "Are you fellows feeling alright?

Myself, White House 1, and Defense 1: "Oh, fine."

State 1: "You are all looking a bit green."  Pause.  "Smint?  They help settle the stomach."

Me: "Nah, I'm fine."

White House 1 and Defense 1 (hereafter to be thought of as "The Sensible Ones"): "Sure."

<intervening roundabout>

State 1: "Smint?"

Me: "Uh, sure."

State 2: To the driver: "Can we get some windows open, please?"

White House 1: "I have a bag, just in case."

Me: <breathe in, breathe out> <breathe in, breathe out>  Out loud: "Um, no thanks."

Me, out loud, in a half-hearted attempt at humor: "It's a giant shopping bag: You prepared for this?"  To myself: Put the fucking bag away White House -- are you nuts?!?  Six people, confined space, big lunch: If one of us goes, we all go.  Don't even give anyone the option!

State 1: "So about country X..."  Pause.  "Are you sure you guys are alright?"

Defense 1: Enthusiastically: "This is just like flying in the back of a helicopter!"  With even more gusto: "I'm ready to go into combat!"

White House 1: Remember his own days in uniform: "Um, I was just thinking that."

Me: <breathe in, breath out>

State 1: "Smint?"

Somehow, just about then, or quite possibly many hours later, we arrived in central London.  At least some of us talked about business for at least part of that taxi ride.  The bag remained empty.

I'm headed to Geneva for the next BWC event, the Meeting of States Parties from 6-10 December.  There I will be speaking along with Andrew Hessel and Drew Endy in a session on "Synthetic Biology: Building a Secure Future".  I don't know if there will be any more late night scotch on this trip, but I certainly hope to avoid more taxi rides that simulate riding a helicopter into combat.