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Uniting the Techno-Democracies

3 27 6
13.10.2020

At the outset of the digital age, democracies seemed ascendant. The United States and like-minded countries were at the cutting edge of technological development. Policymakers were pointing to the inherently liberalizing effect of the Internet, which seemed a threat to dictators everywhere. The United States’ technological advantage made its military more potent, its economy more prosperous, and its democracy, at least in theory, more vibrant.

Since then, autocratic states have caught up. China is at the forefront, no longer a mere rising power in technology and now an American peer. In multiple areas—including facial and voice recognition, 5G technology, digital payments, quantum communications, and the commercial drone market—it has surpassed the United States. Leaders in Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Venezuela, and elsewhere are increasingly using technology for illiberal ends, following China’s example. And despite the United States’ remaining advantage in some technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and semiconductor production, it has fallen behind China in formulating an overall strategy for their use.

Almost in parallel, the United States and its allies have stepped away from their tradition of collaboration. Instead of working together on issues of common interest, they have been pulled apart by diverging national interests and have responded incoherently to autocratic states’ co-optation of new technologies. Although officials in most democratic capitals now acknowledge the profound ways in which new technologies are shaping the world, they remain strangely disconnected from one another when it comes to managing them. Coordination, when it occurs, is sporadic, reactive, and ad hoc.

The liberal democracies are running out of time to get their act together: whoever shapes the use of emerging technologies such as AI, quantum computing, biotechnology, and next-generation telecommunications will have an economic, military, and political advantage for decades to come. But the world’s advanced democracies have something the autocracies don’t: a long history of multilateral cooperation for the benefit of all.

Because the issues are so diverse, what’s needed now is not more piecemeal solutions but an overarching forum in which like-minded countries can come together to hammer out joint responses. This new grouping of leading “techno-democracies”—call it the T-12, given the logical list of members—would help democracies regain the initiative in global technology competition. It would allow them to promote their preferred norms and values around the use of emerging technologies and preserve their competitive advantage in key areas. Above all, it would help coordinate a unified response to a chief threat to the global order.

Washington has struggled to develop a coherent vision to guide its global technological role, but many autocracies have not. China, in particular, has recognized that the existing rules of the international order were largely written in a predigital age and that it has an opportunity to write fresh ones. Already, Beijing is pursuing this goal by quickly building top-notch capabilities and deploying them throughout the global market, especially in areas where the U.S. presence is weak or virtually nonexistent. In Zimbabwe, for instance, the Chinese AI company CloudWalk is helping develop a national facial recognition system, giving the local government a powerful new tool for political control.

But forward-looking efforts such as these are not solely unilateral. China, Russia, and other autocracies are already coordinating around a self-interested global vision. They are shaping standards for the use of new technologies in exclusive groups such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, whose members have agreed to collaborate on information security, robotics, and e-commerce, among other areas. They also work through global forums such as the International Telecommunication Union, where some of the same countries have supported international standards that facilitate unaccountable surveillance. Unlike many liberal democracies, quite a few autocracies have realized that technology, including the power to innovate, set norms for its use, and shape the institutions that decide how it will be employed, is not simply a niche functional issue buried in a crowded foreign policy agenda; it is a central element of modern geopolitical competition.

The United States, on the other hand, has been mostly reactive. China’s rapid progress in 5G, AI, and quantum communications has stumped multiple U.S. administrations. Washington has no easy answer to China’s so-called Digital Silk Road, an array of technological infrastructure projects to accompany the construction projects of its Belt and Road Initiative, nor does it have an answer to the country’s campaign to establish a digital currency. The United States and its allies have consistently struggled to define the rules of engagement around cyberattacks and have responded inadequately to the use of technologies by autocracies to oppress their people. U.S. officials often complain about Beijing’s dominance in technical standard setting and allies’ deferential attitude toward Chinese infrastructure. But they have had a difficult time changing the nature of the game.

This is a multinational failure. Liberal democracies around the world simply do not work together on many of the issues that should unite them. Their responses to autocracies’ abuse of technology tend to be fragmented. National interests diverge, disagreements among states arise, and nothing gets done. Within countries, paralysis often occurs as domestic authorities clash with their national security counterparts over how to deal with election meddling, disinformation, and hacking. Instead of pursuing broad collaboration, the liberal democracies have come up with a patchwork of discrete responses: Canada and France’s collaboration on an expert panel tasked with monitoring developments in AI policy, for example, or NATO’s pursuit of a cyber-deterrence doctrine.

The dispute over the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei’s 5G capabilities is perhaps the best example of democracies’ inconsistent response. Following Australia’s initial lead, the United States took a........

© Foreign Affairs


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