Strategic Foreign-Policy Leadership for a New Era of Tech Geopolitics

Technology Policy Global Challenges

Strategic Foreign-Policy Leadership for a New Era of Tech Geopolitics

Posted on: 25th March 2022
Melanie Garson
Cyber Lead, Internet Policy Unit

This article highlights the central role of tech in global security and prosperity, and draws on our full report, A Leaders’ Guide to Building a Tech-Forward Foreign Policy

From the moment Russia invaded Ukraine, the internet has been a parallel battleground in the conflict. Maintaining access to infrastructure and defending the integrity of the information it carries has been integral to supporting Ukraine’s defence and to the attempts to provide objective information to the Russian people.

Multinational tech companies have stepped in to actively defend, bolster and prevent the misuse of the internet ecosystem, including: Microsoft’s early detection and patching of malware in Ukraine’s digital infrastructure; Elon Musk’s rapid response to Ukraine’s request for a Starlink connection to ensure access to communication; YouTube and Meta preventing Russia benefiting from ad revenues from their sites; and Twitter creating a privacy-protected version of its site to bypass Russian censorship.

The crisis in Ukraine brings into sharp focus the ongoing battle for the future of the internet. Over the past decade, each layer of the internet ecosystem has become a new arena for geopolitical competition, where diverging visions of freedom, openness and interoperability are contested. The technologies that were designed to bring us together have been tearing us apart.1Alexander Stubb – Former Finnish prime minister, Brand Finance Conference, 15 March 2022 This competition has placed a new set of actors – multinational tech companies – centre stage, sometimes working with nation-states, sometimes struggling against them.

Witnessing these tensions play out in real-time, two key lessons emerge:

  1. There is a critical need for a permanent coordination and cooperation mechanism to ensure uninterrupted and safe internet access for everyone, everywhere.
  2. Nation states that are able to successfully coordinate across the expanded set of geopolitical internet actors can unexpectedly tip the balance of power, even against the largest adversary.

In our report last autumn, The Open Internet on the Brink: A Model to Save Its Future, we set out a new paradigm to help mitigate the potential global implications of unchecked state misuse of the internet, and address the lack of coordination to protect stable and trusted internet access. This model provides a multi-layered solution for a robust and resilient internet architecture – one that is reinforced to withstand even unforeseen challenges.

At its core this includes:

  1. A Digital Infrastructure and Defence Alliance (DIDA) in which D10 countries establish a novel coalition to cooperate on collective internet security, supply chains, regulatory coordination and cyber-policy coordination.
  2. “Strategic Geopolitical Status” for tech companies. The UN should build a new contract with global tech to provide tech companies that have global geopolitical influence with Permanent Observer status.
  3. A Multi-Stakeholder Panel on Internet Policy. This body would draw together civil society, key organisations and industry to oversee the health and wellbeing of the internet ecosystem.
  4. Tech-forward foreign-policy strategies implemented by tech diplomats who are able to break down the silos between tech and foreign policy.

This paradigm places the preservation of the world’s most powerful resource at the heart of foreign policy – as US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said at the first US-Spain Cybersecurity Seminar on 7 March 2022: “For anyone who may have been sceptical that cyber and tech issues are not major foreign-policy issues for the 21st century, we need only to look at Ukraine and Russia right now.”

Countries that are able to incorporate tech into their diplomatic agenda will have unique access to new models of collaboration and cooperation – such as the proposed DIDA – that will not only protect them in times of crisis, but also allow them to punch above their weight on the international stage. They will have a greater role in influencing the norms and mechanisms of digital governance, and an enhanced reputation that can be leveraged as a competitive advantage.

However, for most countries a tech-forward foreign policy will require a significant shift in operating model to one that integrates economic security, national security, foreign policy and tech together. For many countries, this prospect may seem too complex or difficult to align with current digital-innovation strategies.

Our new report sets out a guide to building a tech-forward foreign policy, taking policymakers through a step-by-step process of choices and considerations to help define and implement a sound tech-diplomacy vision.

Both the UK Cyber Policy 2022 and the new US Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy – with its plans for a special envoy for critical emerging technologies and a network of offices – are creating new spaces to connect with partners on global tech issues.

There is an opportunity for smaller states and emerging economies to develop their own tech-forward foreign policy and get the structure right to deliver it. Those that do so can seize leadership roles in these new bilateral and multilateral tech initiatives. Their voices will be heard across all the key institutions of internet and digital governance.

Keeping a free and open internet is a crucial challenge for the world’s security and prosperity. To achieve it, we will need countries around the world to step up their foreign policy. This guide shows leaders how to start.

Download the French language version of this article here.

Lead Image: Getty Images

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