Digital diplomacy: The geo-politics of ‘tech’ and emerging technologies

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Emerging technologies increasingly impact sovereign decisions and expands the range of players who can influence political action, with corporations and empowered individuals exerting greater influence[1].

This is probably best illustrated the recent acquisition of Twitter by a single individual! Today’s technology companies are different from previous incarnations of large corporations (which were also able to influence economics and societies) in that their products, services and platforms are more global, pervasive, influential and consequently thrust the tech sector into the centre of both national and foreign policy issues.

The nature of conflict is also changing, with the risk of conflict (both traditional and emerging) increasing, due to diverging interests among major powers, increasing instability, and the spread of lethal, disruptive technologies, with increasingly sophisticated cyberweapons, artificial intelligence and robotic systems having the ability to target a country’s critical infrastructure.

Emerging technologies, platforms and eco-systems have the potential to solve national and global problems, and importantly, the potential to reimagine the distribution of power across economies and across societies. They also, however, come with potential risks, including the capacity to reshape world orders and to disrupt global stability. They also pose ever-evolving national security risks and have become the source of tension across nations.[2]

Emerging Tech & ‘Tech Giants’

Simultaneously, tech giants have exploded in value over the last few years with for example Apple’s market capitalisation of $2.1 trillion larger than the GDPs of many countries. This market capital, which can translate into significant influence, is actively turning into political capital with tech companies pushing back against proposed legislation.

Nation-states are responding. In 2014 the United Kingdom created a position in office of the Prime Minister to address law enforcement technology issues and also to serve as special envoy to US technology companies. In 2018 the Danish government appointed a tech ambassador responsible for connecting the Danish government with tech companies around the world, arguing that “these companies have become a type of new nation and we need to confront that”.[3]  In 2020 the United States published its national Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technologies[4] and designated a new Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy which will focus on “on international cyberspace security, international digital policy and digital freedom, aspects of foreign policy that have become critical in recent years”[5].

Digital Diplomacy

Historically, international law has been capable of governing technologies that have transnational effects impacting nation-state interests from the laws of the sea – mare librum and mare clausum (circa 1600) all the way through to the telegraph, telephony and broadcast technologies, nuclear proliferation and even outer space. Emerging technologies pose several challenges to diplomacy in that they deal with multiple domains, have diverse applications, and potentially impact numerous policy issues.

So in this context Digital Diplomacy then refers to the negotiations about digital policy issues that take place within and between nation-states and in multiple global institutions and forums.  It addresses the changes in the political, social, and economic environment in which diplomacy is conducted. It exists at the intersection of emerging technologies and diplomacy. And it will become increasingly important in a world where more and more economic, social and political activity revolves around issues of technology.

Whilst the philosophy of open standards, a simple architecture, and a global design, all aided by the benefits of the ‘network effect’ has made Cyberspace an important tool for the freedom of expression, it can be argued that some of the obstacles to reaching common ground on how to regulate Cyberspace and emerging technologies stems from different ideological attitudes towards openness, which is increasingly under threat. Nation states often disagree about whether the free flow of information in cyberspace is primarily a “good” that is worth protecting or if it is mainly a threat that must be curbed.

In Africa

The current global, digitally-enabled era is already the fastest period of innovation in history, with new technologies emerging and existing technologies advancing rapidly. However, developing countries are almost always adopters of technological advancements emerging from developed countries. This uneven pace of technological adoption may further widen the existing technological divide between developed and developing countries. There is a need to strengthen the power of developing countries to affect their developmental aspirations and ensure their meaningful participation in international relations and international policy making. In a meeting “2021: The emergence of digital foreign policy”, the Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union, Mr Houlin Zhao states[6]:

Broadband is as critical as health, clean water, electricity, and other infrastructure. Countries need to collaborate on these issues, to develop global ICT strategies that stimulate more innovation and investment in ICTs, and especially infrastructure investments. This also requires ministers responsible for different sectors of the economy to come together under a whole-of-government approach.

Various initiatives across the African Continent relate to the issues of Digital Diplomacy inter alia:

–        The African Union’s Agenda 2063[7], which aspires for a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development, emphasises good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law.

–        The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), which is a ‘blueprint for attaining inclusive and sustainable development across the continent over the next 50 years and aims to boost intra-African trade by providing a comprehensive and mutually beneficial trade agreement among the member states’.

–        Policy and Regulatory Initiative for Digital Africa (PRIDA) and Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) which emphasises ICT infrastructure and aims to foster universally accessible and affordable ICT access across the continent and to create a more harmonised and enabling legal and regulatory framework for the use of ICTs.

In order to assess the impact of these rapidly evolving technologies requires a broad overview, an understanding of these technologies, and an understanding of the relationships between specific technologies and policy and societal issues. There is a risk of policy makers may not have sufficient time to fully comprehend emerging technology applications, and the possible economic and societal implications of their policies.

The LINK Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand has developed a Short Course and a Master Class titled ‘African Digital Diplomacy’ which addresses the geo-politics of emerging technology and intersections of emerging tech and diplomacy, with a focus on the African continent. The program will be launched in the first quarter of 2023. For further details, please see the LINK Centre website African Digital Diplomacy Master Class (first quarter of 2023) – Wits University or contact Kiru Pillay [email protected] or Nokhanyo Yolwa [email protected]

[1] Of the world’s 10 largest companies by market capitalisation, six are technology companies.

[2] https://www.sciencediplomacy.org/editorial/2022/emerging-technologies-and-science-diplomacy

[3] Tools and Weapons: The promise and perils of the digital age.

[4] Executive Office of the President of the United States, “Critical and Emerging Technologies List Update,” February 2022, www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/02-2022-Critical-and-Emerging-Technologies-List-Update.pdf; The White House, “National Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technologies,” October 2020, https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/National-Strategy-for-CET.pdf.

[5] https://www.state.gov/dipnote-u-s-department-of-state-official-blog/a-commitment-to-modernizing-american-diplomacy/#:~:text=The%20Bureau%20of%20Cyberspace%20and%20Digital%20Policy%20will%20focus%20on,become%20critical%20in%20recent%20years.

[6] https://www.itu.int/en/myitu/News/2021/03/02/09/56/Digital-foreign-policy-new-decade-Houlin-Zhao

[7] https://www.un.org/en/africa/osaa/pdf/au/agenda2063.pdf