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Tech diplomacy could help solve global challenges

Published on 10 July 2023

As we firmly step into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, disruptive technologies such as generative artificial intelligence promise not only to bring us the potential of Industry 4.0 but also permeate and disrupt every aspect of our lives.

Traditional forms of diplomacy are no longer adequately equipped to handle the new, complex, and multilevel challenges of our times. Diplomacy is being revamped and digitalised by the growing power and global influence of the tech industry.

Enters tech diplomacy, an emerging and growing practice at the intersection of technology and international relations. It has been recently touted as an essential field in international relations and diplomacy to address some of the pressing global challenges of our time. From climate change to the digital divide and cybersecurity, tech diplomacy offers a novel way to negotiate, cooperate, and solve problems by engaging with non-state actors.

Let’s try to make sense of the role of tech diplomacy and understand why it is needed in many ways to bring together nations, regional and international organisations, tech companies, and civil society, to find common ground and overcome some of the critical challenges that humanity is facing.

What is tech diplomacy?

Tech diplomacy, or techplomacy as it was first coined by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2017, is generally understood as the use of diplomacy and professional diplomats to build relationships and engage with the tech industry in order to address socio-technological issues, to promote global collaboration with the sector, and to shape the global technology landscape for the benefit of citizens of a nation or region. In practice, it consists of tech-focused dialogues and negotiations as well as tools used to promote initiatives and cooperation between governments, big tech, civil society, and other relevant stakeholders. This includes a variety of activities, including attracting investment from and fostering partnerships with global tech companies, connecting start-up ecosystems with investment opportunities, joint R&D and capacity building programmes, cross-border cooperation to enhance cybersecurity, etc.

Tech diplomacy recognises the profound impact of technology on our societies, economies, and global security, and seeks to leverage this impact for good. The aim is to promote mutual interests, forge relationships to bridge any regulatory gaps, and advocate for sound policies that address ethics, privacy, social impact and human rights concerns, all within a trustworthy and responsible use of technology. As such, tech envoys also have to reconcile the different pace in decision-making processes between the tech world and the government realm.

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Why should we care?

Naturally, nations strive to secure their technological development and respond to democratic or security threats that may result from their citizens’ increasing dependence on tech platforms. In this context, tech diplomacy’s role is to translate, leverage, and regulate emerging technologies as disruptive and diverse AI and machine learning, blockchain, nanotech or quantum computing, while increasing mutual understanding of the global challenges they raise. Major issues range from data protection and sovereignty, the digital divide, ethics and human rights, and overall national security.

Global challenges

Securing international cooperation and big tech involvement means more opportunities to reach the ambitious UN 2030 Agenda and the sustainable development goals (SDGs). One major challenge for humanity is climate change. Together with innovative and clean energy alternatives offered by the tech sector, tech diplomats can kick-start collaborative efforts to drive the transition to renewable energies, foster international agreements and investments in green tech, share best practices, and help put together open data platforms to facilitate climate modelling. This will empower governments to make informed policies which will, in turn, help reduce their carbon footprint.

Cybersecurity is another global challenge that merits tech diplomat’s attention. Cybercriminals know no borders, making it crucial for nations to work together with global tech companies, international and regional security agencies, civil society, and technical organisations that make the internet work such as Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). By elaborating and sharing common frameworks, standards, regulations, and response protocols, they can keep us safe from growing cross-border cyber threats. Through information gathering and sharing, joint exercises, best practices and capacity building programmes, tech diplomacy can help build relationships and trust between multiple stakeholders across the globe, flag bad individual and state-sponsored actors, and preserve global essential infrastructure such as the internet domain system.

Digital divide

In our increasingly digitised world, internet connectivity is a fundamental human right that underpins socioeconomic growth. The digital divide widens existing inequalities by depriving underserved communities of access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunities. Tech diplomacy can facilitate technology transfers and investments, promote infrastructure development and affordable connectivity in underdeveloped regions, as well as digital skills and literacy. Through sound regulation and the empowerment of nations, businesses, civil society, and ultimately individuals, it can accelerate innovation and global collaboration to help close the gap and ensure equitable access to the benefits that technology brings. Through partnership with tech companies, developed countries can also provide resources, capacity building and technical assistance to the Global South, empowering them to leverage technology to leapfrog and address their socioeconomic development gaps, ushering a more equitable, decent, and prosperous world.

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Ethical and human rights issues

The pace of technological innovation and its implementation is hard to keep up with, so tech diplomacy needs to work toward establishing ethical and human rights guidelines and principles for emerging technologies. Concepts such as human-centred by design (HCD), explainable, and trustworthy AI, gene editing, human augmentation, and autonomous weapons all require international cooperation to ensure responsible and accountable development and implementation. Through constant dialogues, bilateral and multilateral agreements, as well as shared values and processes, tech diplomacy may prevent the misuse of emerging technologies while maximising their benefits for humanity.

Global platforms for regulation

Protecting citizens with comprehensive and global regulation is a priority to promote the ethical, responsible, human-centred, and trustworthy use of technology. The EU’s regulatory framework often inspires other regions of the world. This is known as the Brussels Effect. The Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA) –  the EU new legislation package designed to protect user’s fundamental rights and prevent monopoly power – will be complemented soon by the long anticipated EU AI Act. In San Francisco, Gerard De Graaf, EU’s senior envoy for digital, is tasked with unpacking these landmark regulations to the Bay Area tech ecosystem.

Tech diplomacy is also about finding common ground with like-minded countries to address new challenges posed by emerging technologies such as AI, big data, the internet of things (IoT), blockchain, augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR), or the metaverse. Whether through legally binding instruments or self-regulation with guidelines, principles, norms, and standards, or a mix of both, it is possible to construct global governance frameworks and international regulatory bodies. A first step would to be create intergovernmental mechanisms based on the model of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In the case of AI, tech diplomats can start building on the existing Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (GPAI) and expand it through multistakeholder consultations.  

In essence, these platforms provide a neutral space for dialogue, coordination, and formulation of global policies on tech-related issues. Through a combination of bilateral, multilateral, and multistakeholder negotiation and consensus building, tech diplomats can marshal the collective expertise and resources of member states, international organisations, big tech, and civil society to address shared concerns.

The way forward

In today’s globally interconnected world, major technology companies have a growing footprint and a deciding influence on the quality of our lives. For governments and regional organisations, finding a way to engage meaningfully with them to address some of the global challenges is not just the smart way, but the best approach to build long-term fruitful relationships and partnerships.

Tech diplomats who understand international relations and technology and speak both languages are in the best position to initiate and nurture the type of dialogue that will lead to faster, better and cheaper solutions for some of our global challenges. This is indeed a unique opportunity to mobilise innovation capabilities and technology for good, for the collective benefit of all humanity.

As nations and regions of the world navigate an increasingly complex and uncertain future, building some form of tech diplomacy capabilities as part of an overall strategy within their diplomatic service or through cross-country and interagency cooperation is not just nice-to-have but a requirement. Only through global and multistakeholder cooperation can we harness the potential of emerging technologies while minimising their inherent risks to unlock a safer and prosperous world for future generations.

Mr Mouloud Khelif is a digital strategy, governance, and policy advisor and consultant based in Geneva, Switzerland, working both in the private and public sectors as well as in academia. After earning an Advanced Diploma in Internet Governance, he recently completed Diplo’s new Tech Diplomacy online course.  

Browse through our alumni blog posts at Diplo Alumni Blog.

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