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Biden Must Repair—and Reinvigorate—Tech Diplomacy

by | Nov 25, 2020 | New, News

Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.

— John D. Rockefeller

The Biden-Harris administration has officially named Antony Blinken as its pick for secretary of state. In kind with other nominees announced in the past few days, Blinken is an experienced civil servant and foreign policy hand, having served as deputy secretary of state from 2015 to 2017 and as deputy national security adviser to President Obama before that. He brings a wealth of expertise to the table.

Nominations like Blinken’s corroborate the Biden-Harris administration’s expected hard pivot back to multilateralism and alliance-building, much needed after four years of zero-sum foreign policy and nationalist chest-thumping. Any diplomatic reinvigoration, though, must focus on tech as well—many of the world’s technology problems will not be solved unilaterally or through military means, and certainly not by Silicon Valley internet giants. There are several ways a Biden-Harris administration could make this renewed US tech diplomacy, and by extension tech policy leadership, a reality.

The Trump administration did no favors with respect to the diplomats responsible for digital issues; it cut the State Department’s overall budget, minimized the importance of its technology work, and pulled the rug out from underneath those working in areas like free internet access and 5G supply chain policy. In an ideal case, a new administration will not merely aim to “reset to 2016” but, rather, completely reorient to address this damage and give diplomacy an even more concerted push. To do this, the State Department writ large, and specifically its technology work, will need more funding.

But beyond the necessity of more diplomatic resources, the “optimal” path forward is not as clear. The administration will have to decide how exactly to situate cyber in the US diplomatic apparatus—given its entanglement with human rights and counterterrorism, free speech and modern trade, capacity-building and national security. In 2011, the Obama White House set up the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues to centralize the department’s technology work. Trump officials effectively lowered the office’s importance, and John Bolton, in what was widely seen as a power-consolidation move, eliminated the White House cyber coordinator position in May 2018 right after he landed as national security adviser. In response to these changes, the final report of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission recommends that Congress create a Senate-confirmed role of national cyber director and an assistant secretary position in the State Department to head a new Bureau of Cyberspace and Emerging Technologies.

As for how the US organizes its diplomatic tools internally, the administration will have many paths available. It’s possible the president-elect will restore the White House cyber coordinator, though having the position be Senate-confirmed may be undesirable from an executive branch perspective. Pressing for a much bigger diplomacy budget would also have great value in the digital sphere—for better addressing issues like supply chain security and 5G, and for building coalitions on digital trade (like the one that 15 Asia-Pacific nations just signed)—but that, too, is no guarantee in light of a years-long decline in State Department funding. Ultimately, appointments below the secretary level at State will shape how US diplomats use their available resources to work on tech.

The strategy the US will take on digital engagement internationally could also go a number of different ways. Lately, a lot of attention has been paid to the idea that democracies should band together to battle technologically infused authoritarianism; it was certainly a theme at the Halifax Security Forum this past weekend, where Senator Chris Coons said, “If we are going to make it as a world community of democracies, this is an absolutely pivotal year.” In the last year alone, several tech-specific diplomatic initiatives have emerged, like the Global Partnership on AI (GPAI), launched by the OECD, which all G7 countries plus India, South Korea, Singapore, Slovenia, and the EU have already signed onto. There is also the D10 alliance formed by the United Kingdom to pursue, alongside other democratic nations, 5G alternatives to Chinese telecom Huawei. Not to mention, of course, a history of bilateral and multilateral engagements on which the US can double down.

If the US fully reengages on digital issues, policymakers will have to decide how these kinds of coalitions could or should be formed going forward. For instance, should they explicitly include or exclude certain countries? Russia and China are not members of the Global Partnership on AI, and China is deliberately not a part of the D10. Many countries did not make the GPAI or D10 list, despite presumably agreeing with their objectives. The administration’s list of choices goes on: whether to handle 5G challenges discretely or widen the diplomatic lens to include supply chain security and internet governance more broadly; whether to center entire partnerships on “AI,” a bucket that in fact encompasses many applications; whether to enable diplomats to speak candidly about the harms of largely unregulated Silicon Valley titans; and which countries to work with most on specific policies.

There’s also debate about whether democracy-versus-authoritarianism is the best paradigm for drawing up tech diplomacy—if it alienates countries that could sway the internet’s future direction, or if it puts US policymakers in an awkward position. Some have suggested that an open-versus-closed paradigm is a better way to approach coalition-building on technology issues. All the while, such conversations focus implicitly, if not explicitly, on China—which by all indications will remain in headlines in the US.

Biden repeatedly discussed China during the campaign, threatening new economic sanctions in July if he was elected and criticizing Trump’s disastrous “trade war” with Beijing. Indeed, US diplomatic positioning here—including on tech—will be critical in the next year alone, but also in a larger strategic picture. The Chinese government’s influence on artificial intelligence norm-setting, the future of the internet, and supply chain security poses risks to countries around the world. Fortunately, there will soon be a real process behind the White House’s decisions in these areas, rather than the utter mess that molded the Trump administration’s positioning.

Relegating technology to the margins of foreign policy is no longer an option, which means the Biden-Harris administration has important agendas to set on international technology engagement. The first place to start is the State Department, where better-resourced personnel could have an even greater impact—on internet freedom, supply chain security, cyber-enabled trade secret theft, and myriad other topics. Yet with technology so entangled in trade, human rights, democracy, and other strategic issues for the US, these decisions on digital diplomacy will in many ways run up to the White House and span the bureaucratic apparatus too. How this engagement unfolds is slightly easier to predict with Blinken’s nomination as secretary of state. But with many details still to be ironed out, what’s clear is that the United States needs to reinvigorate its tech diplomacy now more than ever.

WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here, and see our submission guidelines here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.

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