This article is part of the series — Tech in the New Decade.
Most nation states have only had limited or fleeting influence on what will become one of the most important strategic and foreign policy issues of the coming decades — emerging and critical technologies. As a handful of larger nation states jostle and elbow one another for influence and control in this space — primarily of course, the United States and China — it is too often forgotten that most countries are technology takers, not technology makers. Few of us are actually building the technologies we are so quickly adopting, and even fewer are setting the rules and norms that govern this technology.
This unusual policy environment has led to complacency. Most ‘technology taking’ states have been slower to keep up their policy resourcing, and hence policymaking and national strategies. For most, this is only now starting to change, but it is changing quickly.
Few of us are actually building the technologies we are so quickly adopting, and even fewer are setting the rules and norms that govern this technology.
Despite these changes, global public discussions remain dominated by the views of the United States, China and to a lesser extent Europe. The rest of the world is struggling to be heard on key issues from data privacy to smart city and surveillance technologies to the biases being baked into machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies that are now, often unknowingly, an increasingly integrated part of our lives. We know where Washington, Beijing and Brussels stand on such issues, but what about Jakarta, New Delhi, or Tokyo?
International diplomacy has thus far built itself around a strict template comprising of foreign embassies, reams of diplomatic cables, multilateral organisations and structured official-to-official interactions. It is a small, closed and very selective system that is highly attuned to policy challenges that can be solved in the small circle of government and multilateral officials, and it has worked fairly well for hundreds of years.
We know where Washington, Beijing and Brussels stand on such issues, but what about Jakarta, New Delhi, or Tokyo?
The same template will not hold up for the technological future we are entering. Developments in technology and cyberspace are not waiting around for committees to meet at the United Nations. Every day, the CEOs of major technology and Internet companies in Silicon Valley and China are making decisions with global implications that governments everywhere are scrambling to keep up with.
That does not mean nation states will not want seats at multilateral institutions. Nation states remain king when it comes to international rulemaking. These seats will always hold value and lobbying for them will continue. But when it comes to fast moving issues, the slower moving and slower acting nature of most multilateral institutions, as important as they may be across a range of topics, makes them far less suited to the world of fast-paced technological developments.
These non-traditional groupings will be most effective if they can get all these players to the table.
Instead, what we are starting to see — and what we will see more of in the years to come — are the establishment of influential minilateral forums and nontraditional groupings. These will fill a global policy vacuum, enable deeper, nuanced debates, and help public discourse and debate spread beyond the US, China, and Europe circle.
Government and multilateral officials will still play key roles in these groupings and dialogues, but they will not always be hosting or leading them. Instead of first track — the state-to-state style of diplomacy that governments are most comfortable with — these forums will largely be 1.5 track. Governments set the rules, industry makes the technology and civil society seeks to analyse both and hold them accountable. These non-traditional groupings will be most effective if they can get all these players to the table. Examples of this will include forums like technology networks formed by Quad partners
in the Indo-Pacific, leading conferences held by smaller nation states
on critical technology issues and global dialogues that give civil society and industry a voice, as well as government.
There will be a lot of advantages to this less traditional policy approach: These groups will be nimbler and should be able to respond to emerging issues more quickly. Importantly, if crafted well, they could become the home to new ideas and to the creative and strategic thinking to both take advantage of the opportunities and to collaboratively solve the complex challenges posed by new technologies.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.