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David Miliband on quantum mechanics

David Miliband is a brave man.

Some media commentators believe that the UK foreign secretary is a coward — he refused to wield the knife in the (latest) failed coup against PM Gordon Brown. But anyone who thinks Miliband is lacking in courage should have seen him in action before a gathering of the worlds top scientists at the Royal Society in London last night.

Miliband gave a short lecture drawing parallels between foreign policy quantum mechanics, while at the same time admitting that he only managed a grade-D in A-level physics. Now that takes guts.

Miliband’s thesis is that foreign policy is like quantum mechanics. How so? He said that international relations today are more complex and less predictable than in previous periods – analogous to the revolution in physics at the beginning of the 20th century.

Like Newtonian mechanics, relations between states “have tended towards equilibrium and self-correction, as states sought to balance each other’s economic and military strength”.

But now it is uncertainty that is a defining feature of today’s world, mirroring quantum mechanics. “Think of the asymmetric tactics of terrorist organizations, leading not to a stable balance of opposing force, but chronic instability.”

Interdependence is another defining feature of modern international relations, Miliband said. “Again, this resembles the shift from Newtonian science modeled on discrete, independent systems, to quantum mechanics that accepts that everything is inter-connected.”

In summary: “The world is more unpredictable and more uncertain. Every action does not have an equal and opposite reaction.”

Miliband also spoke of his belief that science has a critical role to play in foreign affairs – for example in helping policymakers come to agreement where there is political conflict over issues such as arms control, counter-terrorism, climate change and cementing trust between Western and Islamic-majority nations. Quoting the 18th century writer Thomas Paine he said: “An army of principles can penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot.”

He also recognized that science and foreign policy are not the same. “The essence of scientific progress is not just transformational, but disruptive. The essence of diplomacy, however, is to maintain order. And while science is in the business of establishing the truth, it has long been perceived that diplomats are there to obscure it.”The speech went down well. Though at least one of Britain’s top physicists remarked that he wasn’t so sure about Miliband’s grip on the finer points of theoretical physics.

Miliband revealed that no fewer than 17 previous UK foreign secretaries were also Fellows of the Royal Society.

Last night’s performance was impressive in its display of rhetoric and analogy. But was it enough for the coveted FRS title?.