Alexander von Humboldt as an Early Advocate of Science Diplomacy

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My name is Sandra Rebok. I am a historian and began my career with my research on Alexander von Humboldt almost 30 years ago. My long experience in Humboldtian scholarship started as a student in Paris; from there I followed Humboldt’s path to Madrid, while drawing my attention to his ties to Spain. This research then took me to many of the places Humboldt himself visited on his American expedition (1799-1804), from the Canary Islands to Washington and Philadelphia, where he ended his five-year expedition, and where the focus of my work now turned to his connection to the young republic of the United States, and its third President, Thomas Jefferson, in particular. During all these years I have been fascinated by Humboldt’s thoughtful, balanced, and knowledgeable analysis of the different worlds he experienced, even if this included a critical eye, based on both his own observations and the readings of the work of others. It is his ability to describe the causes and consequences of the situations he observed in a rather scientific manner, beyond dogmata or the ideological currents of his time, and to foresee future developments, along with recommendations know how to promote or else mitigate them. Currently, I continue my research in California—the place where Humboldt never actually happened to set foot on, although he expressed this desire to do so from the very beginning of his expedition.

Today, however, our approaches to Humboldt do not seem to always follow his own example—they sometimes relate more to what we want to see in the famous Prussian. A rather delicate topic where this can be observed is Humboldt’s nearness to political circles, which has indeed led to an array of criticism and misinterpretations: while some saw him as ideological leader of the independence movement in Spanish America, others took him as being yet another colonial explorer; while some interpretations saw in him an agent for the Spanish Crown, others criticize him for acting as a spy for Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet. If we like to better understand the ways he navigated through the rough seas of diplomacy and strategy though, it might be helpful to look at it through the lenses of science diplomacy, a concept that recently is getting much attention: Humboldt knew that he needed to go beyond discussions within scholarly circles, if he sought to turn his science into applicable knowledge and connect with the needs of society. To this aim he had to reach out to the political power and further scientific and technological progress through a skillful connection of both worlds. And vice versa, Humboldt needed to be willing to advance diplomatic objectives through the universal world of science. In doing so he served as a science adviser for foreign policy objectives to the Prussian crown, he actively established contact with politicians to facilitate international scientific cooperation and create large-scale science projects. In other words, Humboldt was in a position to passionately make things happen, by connecting people, ideas, and nations.

With his outstanding social skills, Humboldt was indeed the ideal science diplomat: he was frequently described as extremely charismatic, a blessed character with great charm. He tended to be at the center of all social gatherings he attended, where he entertained other guests with his wealth of knowledge and his farsighted analysis. This is where he was at his best: as a catalyst for developments, as a source of inspiration or model to follow for others, and in a position that connected the concerns of different worlds. This is a point where he can serve as a source of inspiration for us today.