The TechCrunch Global Politics Project began with a simple premise: that technology and global affairs are becoming increasingly linked, and that we should investigate what this implies for both. I hope we’ve accomplished this across the board, from crypto to climate, international development to defense procurement. I can’t help but notice a few similar threads across the over 40 stories we’ve published in the previous several months: Technological industrial policy is becoming more popular. Emerging technology is a hot topic right now. And when China isn’t setting the standard, it’s close behind.
While the United States has made significant progress in addressing these issues (see my post on the State Department’s new cyber division), it still trails behind on probably the most crucial one: handling the growing confluence of geopolitics and technology. More than new agencies or infrastructure investments are required for the United States to flourish in the twenty-first century (however large they may be). Even a strong industrial strategy isn’t enough. A geopolitical technology doctrine is what America requires.
What exactly do I mean when I say “doctrine”? Technology policy may be seen in two ways, for the most part. The first is in the form of a brand-new security domain. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested by the public and commercial sectors to improve our cyber capabilities, both to defend our civil and military networks and to obtain the capacity to strike our opponents. While many of our networks are still extremely susceptible, we are typically aware of the issues and are working to strengthen our defenses. The second is based on the idea that whatever country has control of (and integrates into its economy) the most sophisticated technology would win the future. As a result, technology policy is influenced by larger economic competitiveness.
Much of our current debate revolves around whether we’re on the right route with upcoming technologies like 5G, quantum, or artificial intelligence. Is the security of our supply networks assured? What kind of regulatory advantage can we provide American tech firms? How can we collaborate with allies to get such endeavors off the ground? These two aspects of technology policy are critically significant, and they ought to be discussed in this series and elsewhere. Consider Russia, which, as a result of its invasion of Ukraine, has been shut off from Western IT supply chains and software upgrades.
However, they overlook a crucial aspect of technology’s influence in geopolitics, which I believe we’ve discussed here as well. Yes, technology is a benefit. But, like other economic resources (cough, the US dollar), technology may be used as a tool by authorities to further larger foreign policy objectives. Yet, for the most part, we haven’t considered how to use — or safeguard — this power in a methodical way. Our competitors aren’t so hesitant. Authoritarian regimes, like many other asymmetric powers, have pioneered ingenious and successful — if repugnant and unethical — geopolitical tech methods, indifferent about human rights or the rule of law.
Scott Carpenter warned early in our series about the pernicious habit of tyrants just shutting down the internet to deprive their people of knowledge. Matthew Hedges and Ali Al-Ahmed write about how dictatorships use spyware to track out dissidents, and how nations like Israel sell this technology to lubricate their own diplomacy. Jessica Brandt investigated how Russia and China utilize social media to undermine the West by spreading falsehoods. Samantha Hoffman writes on China’s use of data collected by its companies to gather intelligence throughout the world. These are clearly not actions that democracies should replicate, and even if they did, law, culture, and democratic accountability would mostly prevent them from doing so.
And the US and its allies can’t turn IT businesses into state-owned enterprises. They do, however, raise crucial considerations about the role of technology in American foreign policy. American tech corporations have dominated the scene for the last two decades with a single strategy: expansion at any costs. And, linking tech’s success with America’s, the US government has allowed tech — particularly Big Tech — to do exactly that, basically relinquishing regulatory space until recently.
But the world is too complex, and “growth” is too crude a tool, for it to continue to be the objective in the future. Should American soft power be cultivated for the sake of achieving technological supremacy? For the sake of your financial situation? As a method of outsmarting our competitors? Or is it because it has the potential to be weaponized? There can’t just be a “yes” and a “more” answer. We need a new paradigm that balances what technology can accomplish with what it should do — and what we as a country require of it.