It’s well known that Trump was no fan of international cooperation, including when it came to tech diplomacy. Now, we’re getting a better look at how Biden is picking up the pieces left by his predecessor.
Earlier this month, the Biden administration released its long-awaited national security strategy, after delays due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On top of providing a guidepost for government agencies, the document, published roughly once every four years, has long served as a way for administrations to lay out their vision for the world and for U.S. foreign policy engagement in it.
From discussion of the climate emergency to inflation, the latest edition of the security strategy covers a lot of ground. One of the most significant components is in the tech policy realm: an emphasis on using diplomacy to navigate digital challenges. Namely, this means partnering with allies to combat and collectively provide alternatives to Chinese and Russian influence on technology and the internet. This approach isn’t necessarily surprising, but coming off the Trump administration’s direct attack on tech diplomacy, it’s a significant pivot that puts the U.S. back on a better path.
The U.S. has been internationally engaged on tech issues for decades. Toward the end of the George W. Bush administration, the government began formalizing a group of cyber diplomats and analysts in the State Department to bolster its global tech leadership. In an increasingly digital world, their mission was straightforward (albeit challenging): make sure that technology was a core part of U.S. engagement with other countries. For example, in the wake of 2007 Russian cyberattacks on Estonia, this meant pushing international conversations on countries’ hacking activities. The Obama White House continued this expansion of tech-focused diplomacy, conducting a Cyberspace Policy Review at the beginning of the administration, establishing the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues in 2011 at the State Department, and writing the country’s first International Strategy for Cyberspace. Highlighting the internet’s power to impact economies and politics worldwide, the strategy envisioned “a future for cyberspace that is open, interoperable, secure, and reliable,” which translated into the so-called American internet freedom agenda of promoting the web as an enabler of liberation.
This progress took a major step back in January 2017, when Donald Trump came into office and almost immediately took aim at U.S. diplomacy. The Trump administration repeatedly slashed the State Department budget, bashed the notion of cooperation with longstanding allies, undercut employee morale, and prompted numerous career diplomats to resign. For all the Bush and Obama administrations’ work, tech-focused diplomacy was hit hard: Trump White House officials routinely pulled the rug out from under cyber diplomats who remained in their posts. For example, the then-president contradicted intelligence community and bipartisan Congressional findings on Russian election interference. When diplomats tried to wage a more measured cybersecurity awareness campaign against Chinese telecom Huawei, the White House made it about Trump’s political chest-thumping against China and undermined diplomatic efforts to get other countries on board. In November 2019, Russia, for the first time ever, successfully passed a United Nations resolution to create a new cybercrime treaty—where Russia’s idea of “crime” includes journalism and anti-regime speech—after free-and-open internet supporters, the U.S. included, failed to build the diplomatic bloc to shoot it down.
Given that tumult, the new national security strategy’s renewed focus on diplomacy is significant. Building coalitions of countries to “enhance our collective influence” and “solve shared challenges,” the strategy states, is a central part of shaping “the rules of the road for technology, cybersecurity, and trade and economics.” Whether in Europe or the Indo-Pacific, the document says, the U.S. places “a premium on growing the connective tissue—on technology, trade, and security—between our democratic allies and partners” to mutually reinforce their goals.
The wheels of this pivot are already in motion: In April, the State Department launched a new Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy, tasked with addressing national security, economic, and rights issues associated with digital technologies and policy; in September, Nathaniel Fick was sworn in as the inaugural U.S. ambassador at large for cyberspace and digital policy, the bureau’s new head. Parts of its job is helping countries build out cyber defense capabilities, which the U.S. government has been busy doing in Ukraine. The U.S. and EU have also launched a Tech Trade Council to work on everything from privacy to supply chains. Most recently, U.S. officials worked for months with allies and partners to get Doreen Bogdan-Martin elected to the International Telecommunication Union, the U.N.’s tech agency, over the Russian candidate Rashid Ismailov. While the ITU is an obscure agency with a minimal role in governing the internet, Beijing and Moscow have pushed for years to make the ITU have more control—precisely because, as a U.N. agency, it would encourage the kind of top-down, government-led internet influence they so desire. Bogdan-Martin’s victory, supported by a months-long U.S. diplomatic campaign around the world, helped forestall that outcome.
The Biden White House has many challenges ahead; bolstering tech diplomacy, especially after years of damage to U.S. tech credibility, is no easy feat. Even if the Putin regime has lost favor with some countries, the Chinese government continues its push to undermine the global internet. For many countries, authoritarian narratives of “sovereignty” online are more and more compelling, as a host of privacy, cybersecurity, and disinformation threats make a sympathetic case for greater state control of the web. At the ITU, Bogdan-Martin’s victory is a brief sigh of relief for many supporters of a global and open internet—yet a tough road lies ahead, because Beijing and Moscow will not stop trying to influence the organization.
The national security strategy also mentions the dangerous exploitation of Americans’ data and the threats posed by commercial spyware and surveillance technologies. (It lacks specifics as to what exactly should be done about those threats.) Such a call-out is similarly laudable, but many U.S. companies have facilitated exactly the kind of harms the strategy criticizes—from using invasive, racist, and sexist facial recognition algorithms, to packaging Americans’ data and selling it on the open market. If the U.S. is going to send cyber diplomats around the world to talk about “techno-democracy,” as the White House would have it, bolstering US credibility means reining in those harms at home, too.
So, yes, the road forward for global tech engagement is a rocky one—but at least the new national security strategy is sending the U.S. in a better direction.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.