The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project started with a simple premise: that technology is increasingly intertwined with global affairs and that we ought to examine what that means for both. From crypto to climate, international development to defense procurement, I hope we’ve done just that.
Reflecting on the nearly 40 pieces we’ve published over the last few months, I can’t help but see a few common threads emerge: Tech industrial policy is increasingly in favor. Emerging tech is top of mind. And where China isn’t setting the pace, it isn’t far behind.
While the U.S. has made remarkable strides in meeting these challenges (see my piece on the State Department’s new cyber bureau), it still lags on perhaps the most important one: navigating the increasing fusion of geopolitics and technology. If the U.S. is to succeed in the contest for the 21st century, it needs more than new agencies or investments in infrastructure (however large they may be). Even an industrial strategy is insufficient.
What America needs is a geopolitical technology doctrine.
What do I mean by a doctrine? Well for the most part, technology policy can be seen in two ways. The first is as a new security domain. The public and private sectors have spent billions of dollars improving our cyber capabilities to both protect our civil and military networks and acquire the ability to strike our adversaries. While many of our networks are still woefully vulnerable, we generally know the challenges and are making strides to shore up our defenses.
The second follows the thesis that the future will be won by whichever country controls (and integrates into its economy) the most advanced technologies. Thus tech policy becomes a function of broader economic competition. This is the ground on which much of our current debate is held — are we on the right track on emerging tech like 5G, quantum or artificial intelligence? Are our supply chains secure? What regulatory edge can we give American tech companies? How can we work with allies to jump-start those efforts?
These two facets of technology policy are incredibly important — and well worth the attention paid to them in this series and elsewhere. Look only to Russia, which has found itself cut off from Western tech supply chains and software updates as a result of its invasion of Ukraine.
But they shortchange a significant element of tech’s role in geopolitics that I hope we’ve raised here as well. That yes, tech is an asset. But like other economic resources (ahem, the U.S. dollar), tech can also be a leverage point that gives policymakers clever ways to further broader foreign policy interests. Yet for the most part, we have not thought systematically about how to wield this power — or protect it.
Our rivals aren’t so diffident. As with many asymmetric capabilities, it’s the authoritarian regimes, unconcerned by scruples over such things as human rights or the rule of law, that have pioneered creative and effective — if odious and unethical — geopolitical tech strategies.
Early in our series, Scott Carpenter warned about the baleful trend of dictators simply shutting down the internet to deprive their citizens of information. Matthew Hedges and Ali Al-Ahmed wrote about how regimes have deployed spyware to hunt down dissidents — and how countries like Israel have exported this technology to lubricate their own diplomacy. Jessica Brandt explored how Russia and China use social media to spread disinformation that discredits the West. And Samantha Hoffman wrote about how China uses data its firms collect to acquire intelligence around the world.
Obviously these are not practices democracies should emulate, and even if they wanted to, law, custom and democratic accountability would mostly preclude it. And the U.S. and its allies can’t make tech companies arms of the state. But they do raise important questions about where technology fits in American statecraft.
For the last two decades, American tech companies have dominated the landscape with a simple strategy: growth at all costs. And the U.S. government, equating tech’s success with America’s, has let tech — especially Big Tech — do just that, essentially ceding the regulatory space until quite recently.
But the world is too sophisticated, and “growth” too blunt a tool, for that to remain the goal moving forward. Should tech supremacy be pursued for its own sake as an expression of American soft power? For economic position? As a means to best our rivals? Or because it is something that can be weaponized?
The answer can’t just be “yes” and “more.” We need a new framework that reconciles what tech can do with what it should do — and with what we as a nation need it to do.
Even if we can agree that U.S. interests are served by technological dominance, that still leaves a crucial question unanswered: How should tech be wielded geopolitically?
Western technology export controls on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine are an encouraging use of geotechnological hard power. But Washington can be even more creative; it might use an emerging technology like crypto to bolster U.S. dollar dominance, like Connor Spelliscy suggested or deploy technology to enforce treaties we value, as Thomas McInerney described.
But America is most effective when it plays to its strengths, building upon alliances, networks and the rule of law. That might entail using technology as a tool to expand democracy, per Vera Zakem; stepping in, as Australia did, to build a cable to Pacific islands in lieu of China; or working with Apple and Google to protect dissidents. The U.S. should also take lessons from Ukraine’s creative information campaign against Russia to deploy in future conflicts.
Rather than fruitlessly trying to dictate outcomes, a better strategy would be to encode liberal values in emerging technologies. China has recognized that growing its tech sector is not enough if it doesn’t also set the rules of the road. That’s why it has become very successful at dominating the global fora that set new technology standards. And it’s not just a question of writing rules that benefit Chinese companies (i.e., Huawei in 5G); if authoritarian regimes are able to encode their repressive values in the rules and norms around critical emerging technology like AI, autonomous weapons or biotechnology, it could pose a serious threat to freedom and human rights everywhere. The U.S. and its allies must do the hard work to push back by attending to the patient, technical diplomacy that they have too often overlooked.
Above all, a proper geopolitical tech doctrine would, like all good strategic concepts, recognize limits. The U.S. is no longer Colossus bestriding the world, and it would be folly to think it can impose its will, even on its allies. Americans can’t achieve internet freedom just by wishing it so — and should accept that not every country’s internet needs to be identical for a free and open internet to succeed. If Apple, with a single policy decision, can cut Facebook’s market capitalization by a quarter, there’s no reason why (democratic) governments shouldn’t be able to have reasonably different regulatory regimes in their own jurisdictions.
Americans (and American tech companies) have grown used to having it all. But as technological supremacy becomes increasingly central to geopolitics, tech policy will no longer be made in a vacuum. Politics is the art of making choices, and Silicon Valley doesn’t have to like all of Washington’s. Perhaps, from Washington’s point of view, the global ambitions of American tech firms are no longer tenable if they clash with our values and interests.
What might that mean? Western tech firms have just shown that they can choose sides, voluntarily leaving Russia to either show solidarity with Ukraine or to not violate their principles by censoring their content. Meta and Elon Musk are now heroes in Ukraine; the former for permitting users to call for the death of Putin and Russians; the latter for deploying his StarLink platform to ensure Ukraine stays online.
But harder trade-offs beckon: Should Apple and Tesla give up their Chinese factories? Should America force Chinese tech firms like TikTok from its shores? Having set the precedent in Russia, these are realistic scenarios that Washington might consider — and that Silicon Valley must plan for.
Zooming out, what happens when American tech priorities conflict with broader diplomatic agendas? Should the U.S. government ally with Brussels on antitrust, or stand up on behalf of U.S. tech companies? What happens when the interests of the tech sector conflict with stability in Taiwan or progress on climate change? These are essential questions that are as yet unanswered.
Meanwhile, national security planners must consider that we are once again in an era of great power war. The Ukraine conflict has surprised many with its conventionality — but it has also proven a testing ground for new tech like drones. We are also seeing a war play out in a fully online society for the first time — don’t discount the immense soft power Ukraine has yielded through social media. Would Western support be so strong without Kiev’s polished online presence (or propaganda, as one might call it)?
A year ago, I asked how tech factored into U.S. foreign policy. America is surely in a better place than it was then. Technology is rightly taking center stage in its foreign affairs and national security agendas.
But if the U.S. is to maintain its leading global role – much less avoid falling behind its rivals — it must do more than foster innovation and develop new capabilities with little more justification than “for innovation’s sake.” It must develop a doctrine that comprehensively considers how all aspects of technological statecraft — cyber, antitrust, regulatory, supply chains, basic science, standards, not to mention the role of tech companies themselves — can best serve U.S. foreign policy objectives. Failing to do so doesn’t just risk strategic muddle, but wasting perhaps America’s greatest assets: its entrepreneurial and scientific excellence. Nothing less than American power, prestige and prosperity are at stake.