Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


US Technology Diplomacy

Posted on | December 31, 2021 | No Comments

Edited Remarks to the Global Technology Diplomacy Forum 2021. Hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea. November 30, 2021, 13:30 (KST)

Ladies and Gentlemen, Ambassador Min,

I’d like to cover three areas today as I talk about US technology diplomacy. First, I want to talk about America’s domestic renewal and how it relates to its international diplomatic agenda. Americans across the political spectrum recognize that the US needs to change. However, they differ on the causes and the solutions. Then I will address some of the major US institutions managing technology diplomacy, including the private sector.

The State Department has the prerogative for taking diplomatic leadership. Still, the increasing centrality of technology has not only disrupted State’s mission objectives but has also brought other departments and agencies into the mix. Lastly, I want to end with some comments on “norms” in multilateral technology diplomacy. The “securitization” of cyber technology – state actors involved in cyberattacks, and the tensions they are creating with tech companies, is of particular concern.

So, America is rediscovering itself, undergoing domestic renewal, and once again sorting out its friends and enemies around the world. As is the rest of the world, we are experiencing dramatic technological change, pressured by the pandemic, climate pollution, decentralized finance, and changes in the global media ecosystem. I could add to this list, but I think you get the point.

America is divided. It was rocked by the MAGA movement, otherwise known as Make America Great Again. President Trump stressed border security, carbon utilization, and tax cuts while alienating many traditional international allies. He withdrew from many international forums, including the Paris Climate Accords, the World Health Organization, UNESCO, the Human Rights Council, and the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

Now the US is embarking on the Build Back Better plan. Instead of focusing on tax cuts for the more affluent, it focuses on money to end the pandemic, building US infrastructure, and creating the conditions for families to return to work. It allocated $3.1 trillion in spending on top of some $5 trillion in 2020 for domestic spending, raising concerns about excess demand in light of global reductions in the supply of goods and services.

The primary goal of both administrations has been to get through this pandemic. Recent spending has shifted to infrastructure, mainly roads and bridges, mass transit, renewable energy, and even broadband. It is, in a sense, a “smart new deal,” literally a grand experiment, if phase 3 is passed that will support parents going back to work and address climate concerns. A new influence is called MMT or modern monetary theory. Rather than the pained austerity theory that hampered the Obama administration’s attempts to recover from the Great Recession, MMT delinks deficits from borrowing and taxes. It encourages government spending where appropriate while cautioning against the real risks of inflation.

So, the US is looking inwards. But it recognizes international threats and opportunities. I am not in any way a speaker for the Biden administration, but let me echo some concerns here today and start by recognizing the multiple branches and institutions with international reach that influence mediations regarding science and technology.

The actors involved in US diplomacy are many. The Departments of Agriculture, Homeland Security, Defense, Treasury, even the Federal Reserve Bank all have some roles in international diplomacy. However, the Departments of Commerce and State are most relevant to today’s topic, as is the trade negotiation representative of the executive office.

Since diplomacy starts with the President, let me first draw attention to the United States Trade Representative (USTR), a Cabinet-level position currently headed by Katherine Tai, an attorney fluent in Mandarin. Tai is the President’s principal trade advisor, negotiator, and spokesperson on trade issues and develops and coordinates U.S. trade policy, in consultation with other federal agencies and Congress. Her nomination was confirmed in the Senate without dissent, which is indicative of the Biden’s administration concerns about China.

Remember that Biden was still Vice-President in 2015 when the Made in China 2025 Report was released that simultaneously angered and struck fear in American industry. It created a backlash in American politics, including implementing the failed tariffs on Chinese goods. The event is reminiscent of Japan’s Fifth Generation AI project in the early 1980s. Luckily, the fear of Japanese AI led to investments in supercomputers and networking and ultimately the Internet thanks to the “Atari Democrats,” a group that included Al Gore and Gary Hart.

The Department of Commerce is also critical. “Commerce” includes the International Trade Administration (ITA) and the NTIA. The latter includes the Office of International Affairs (OIA) that advises the US President on international telecommunications and information policy issues. The OIA plays an important role in the formulation of international information and communications technology (ICT) policies including ICANN and DNS issues. Domestically, the NTIA is in charge of the $65 billion in spending for broadband development that was designated in the 2021 infrastructure bill.

Secretary of Commerce

Commerce is engaged in technology and patent protection to help American businesses maintain their edge over global competitors. Secretary Gina Rimando is particularly interested these days in legislation that will allow her to entice foreign companies to the US to reduce supply chain worries. She was very pleased recently, when Samsung announced a $17 billion dollar investment in a semiconductor fabrication site in Texas. The site is, by the way, about 30 kilometers from my home in northern Austin.

Secretary Rimando is confident that “Commerce has tools to level the global playing field.” Major concerns include ensuring access to foreign markets, enforcing export controls, protecting intellectual property (IP), and being an advocate for American business. Commerce is awaiting final passage of the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) that will allocate $10 billion to the Dept of Commerce to invest in regional tech hubs across the US.

Speaker Pelosi recently agreed with Majority Leader Schumer to conference to reconcile the Act. But in light of the supply chain shocks, particularly in semiconductors, several other bills might be included. The “Chip Act” has proposed another $52 billion to help develop the semiconductor industry manufacture on US soil. It was passed by the Senate but held up a bit by the House as it pushed through BBBII, the Bi-partisan infrastructure act.

Another relevant bill that might be connected is the Facilitating American-Built Semiconductors Act (FABS). As part of the USICA, it would double the number of “fabs” from 9 to 18. Fabs are enormous multi-billion dollar facilities needed to fabricate or manufacture advanced chips. Currently, Taiwan’s TSMC is the world leader, but Samsung is nearly as potent.

As mentioned earlier, Samsung is investing in Austin, Texas, while TSMC is building new facilities in Phoenix, Arizona. Intel is also building there, as the former world innovator and leader looks to regain stature. But the number of fabs throughout Asia could grow to over 50 in the upcoming decade. As a result, total investment in the US should be in the range of $500 billion to regain a significant presence in the global production of chips and ensure supplies for domestic use, including the automobile industry.

Anthony Blinken is our current Secretary of State and has had a busy year consolidating international coalitions that were pulled apart during the last administration. Blinken presented the Biden administration’s vision of a strategic approach to shaping the rules for technology and science policy in several forums this year. He recognizes that US diplomacy needs to “shape the strategic tech landscape, not just react to it.” He has recently taken an interest in Artificial Intelligence (AI), citing important work reported in the OECD 2019 Recommendations on AI. He stressed the importance of AI that respects human rights and democratic values.

He has also been working on the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, US) Framework for Technology, in which they committed to integrating human rights and democratic values into the ways “technology is designed, developed, governed, and used,” particularly in wireless 5G and beyond.

You can see here what he calls “pillars” representing the State Dept’s science and technology priorities.

    Build US capacity and expertise in global health, cyber security, climate and emerging technologies through multilateral diplomacy;

    Ensure leadership in technology leadership by encouraging more initiative and more innovation;

    Protect the Internet and US analytical capabilities;

    Set standards and norms for emerging technologies;

    Make technology work for democracy;

    Develop cooperative relationships by “friend-shoring” and “near-shoring” to help secure and resilient supply chains;

    Protect “innovative ecosystems” and talent “pipelines.”

Let me start to conclude by bringing to your attention cybersecurity and the private sector. The Department of State is paying increasing attention to computer and network security threats and weaknesses. But tensions are emerging between nation-states that increasingly see technology as a security issue and tech companies that feel the pressure from customers for additional protection and support.

Microsoft called for a “Digital Geneva Convention” in February 2017 to protect citizens and companies from cyber attacks. The proposal was not warmly received. But they followed up after the May 2017 WannaCry ransomware cyberattacks by gathering broad corporate support with the Cybersecurity Tech Accord.

These companies want governments to protect their customers and not cajole them into attacking innocent people or companies. They also want to empower developers to build more resilient ICT systems. They see value in developing strategic partnerships across many sectors of society to achieve their objectives.

CTA signatories agree to commitments in four key areas:

    Stronger defense against cyberattacks by pledging to protect all customers globally regardless of the motivation for attacks online;

    No offense by choosing to not help governments or other actors launch cyberattacks against innocent civilians or enterprises and protecting against the tampering or exploitation of products and services through every stage of technology development, design, and distribution;

    Empowering developers and the people and businesses that use their technology by helping them build and improve capacity for protecting themselves; and

    Building upon existing relationships and taking collective action together to establish new formal and informal partnerships with industry, civil society, and security researchers.

The goals of the Cybersecurity Tech Accord are to improve technical collaboration, coordinate vulnerability disclosures, and share information about threats. Most of all it is to minimize the introduction of malicious code into the Internet and other aspects of cyberspace. Microsoft suggested five important “norms” that should inform international discussions of cybersecurity:

    Risk reduction;
    Proportionality, and;

Norms are common in multilateralism as they are used to work out approaches to common concerns. Norms are better seen as processes and not goals. It is not so much a matter of norm acceptance but a a struggle over precise meanings, eventually favoring the member states’ prerogative.

Norms are not treaties that need to be ratified by the Senate nor alliances like NATO, whose Article 5 provides that if a NATO Ally is the victim of an armed attack, it is an attack on all members. They are not specific agreements like those achieved at the WTO meetings in 1996 and 1997 that gave us a truly World Wide Web. While norms do not have the force of law, they still can have weight. Norms can provide positive guidance. For example, the ITU called for an end to facial recognition technologies. You may have noticed Facebook stopped using it. Conversely, norms can also result in some states being labeled “bad actors.” Consequently, sanctions can be applied.

Technological strength is now recognized as a prime determinant of economic, political, and military power. The U.S. is rebuilding its industrial strength and returning wealth to its citizens. This transformation will require working with key international partners to encourage investment and innovation while protecting the Internet and needed supply chains, as well as critical intellectual property. A significant challenge will be to make technology work for democracy while safeguarding personal data.


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Undergraduate Director at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, where he keeps his US home. Most of his career was spent on the faculty of New York University. His first faculty position was at Victoria University in New Zealand and he also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii where he obtained his Ph.D.


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