Technologies, and the policies for their development, deployment, and use are at the center of global statecraft and a key enabler for economic, political, and military power. Tech-leading countries and groupings such as China, the European Union (EU), India, Japan, South Korea, and the United States (US) seek to shape the global technological landscape to strengthen their economic competitiveness, secure their national interests, and promote their geopolitical aims. The answer, in part, has been a turn to techno-nationalist policies of reshoring manufacturing and supply chains and drives for greater self-sufficiency across a spectrum of key technology areas including semiconductors and critical minerals.
Leaders in tech-leading democracies also recognize, however, the need for better cooperation with each other to ensure that their technological future is beneficial and secure. This understanding is rooted in concerns over the China challenge and the risks associated with tech-enabled authoritarianism spreading around the world. There is also the pragmatic realization that no one country can realistically address these issues on its own given the diffusion of technology and related know-how and the complexity of key global supply chains. Finally, there is the straightforward notion that a collective approach by like-minded countries has a greater chance of success than a collection of disparate strategies.
Policymakers from the world’s tech-leading democracies are inching toward creating stronger bonds with like-minded countries bilaterally and with multiple countries such as with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, G-7, and the US–EU Trade and Technology Council. While these efforts vary in scope and countries involved, they share the fundamental premise that the current trajectory of disjointed tech policy presents major but avoidable challenges and that status quo actions are ill-suited for the nature of the global strategic competition.
While these efforts are much needed and should be welcomed, a plausible outcome of myriad uncoordinated coalitions is a splintering of technology norms, standards, and rules. Avoiding this fragmentation will require a new coordination mechanism for multilateral technology policy—an alliance of tech-leading democracies that cooperates to maximize effectiveness on matters including research and development, supply chain diversity and security, standard-setting, multilateral export controls, and countering the illiberal use of technologies. A partnership of this nature is also necessary to address current divergences in tech policy among like-minded countries and to help to prevent new ones from forming.
Three principles to underpin cooperation of tech-democracies
Thought leaders have offered numerous ideas for such an effort—a D-10, Tech-10, T-12, among others. Regardless of the exact details of the eventual grouping, three principles should underpin its creation. First, membership criteria are countries with large economies and wide-ranging capabilities in technology areas that shape the 21st-century economy. These countries must be committed to liberal democratic values, the rule of law, and human rights.
The second principle is that it should not be an exclusive club of western democracies. A tech alliance should not inadvertently disadvantage or ignore the ‘Global South’. The new grouping must have a mechanism to collaborate with other countries with smaller economies or less extensive tech capabilities, such as partners in the Indo-Pacific, Africa, and Latin America, and with other organizations, such as the OECD and the Global Partnership on AI.
Finally, how successful a state-led technology alliance is will hinge on how effectively it manages stakeholder participation. Engaging with private industry, NGOs, scientific and technical organizations, and academia is essential for informed and effective decision-making and to execute tech policy initiatives.
Where there are bold new ideas, there are critics and sceptics. Policymakers should anticipate two main critiques of the tech alliance concept. One is that it would be dominated by the US, a technological powerhouse, and will leave others subservient to American interests. European leaders, in particular, have argued for technological and digital sovereignty. While the US and its tech industry are fronts of the pack in several areas, there are also major dependencies in critical fields, including semiconductors and telecommunications. In other words, each tech alliance member has clout through its complementary knowledge and innovative capacity. Furthermore, as Rebecca Arcesati and this author have argued in the context of the EU, “the pursuit of resilience should not result in isolationism. The best way for Europe to ensure its tech independence is through collaboration with allies.”
An effective tech alliance will need to balance the national interests and shared interests of its members, a difficult but feasible proposition when one considers common values and goals for economic competitiveness. A change in mindset in what ‘sovereignty in this context means is also necessary. Ultimately, interdependencies with allies and like-minded countries should be viewed foremost as shared techno-democratic sovereignty, while those with autocratic countries such as China are fraught with economic and national security vulnerabilities that pose a direct challenge to liberal-democratic norms and values.
The other critique would be that a tech alliance would exacerbate a ‘Tech Cold War’, referring primarily to the strained US-China relationship. In less dramatic terms, this concerns a bifurcation of the tech ecosystem of China and that of the United States, as well as other tech-leading democracies. A partial divergence has already happened because leaders in both countries want it that way. American leaders are rightfully concerned about the risks associated with products from Chinese tech companies, and the Chinese Communist Party has been clear in word and deed that it seeks to be self-sufficient in a range of technology disciplines. China, like the US and its allies, also seeks greater resiliency and security in its supply chains.
A tech alliance is unlikely to worsen these dynamics, nor is it destined to result in fully decoupled ecosystems. By cooperating and harmonizing their efforts, the tech-leading democracies have considerable leverage and influence, making a more favorable dynamic plausible. The incentives and opportunity for China to establish an independent tech sphere of different standards, norms and rules that other countries can join dwindle quickly if the countries accounting for most of the world’s GDP, science and tech infrastructure, and R&D spending offer a robust alternative. Should Beijing persist, it would isolate itself and any country that chose to follow from the bulk of the global economy.
A tech alliance is the best way to ensure technological leadership by the world’s techno-democracies. This leadership will be essential to safeguarding democratic institutions, norms, and values, and be a driver for sustainable and equitable economic growth around the world. Anything short of this goal carries a major risk of a world marred by ascendant techno-authoritarianism, a direct challenge to the economic vitality, national security, and values of democratic nations across the globe. Ensuring that the future never happens should be the clarion call to the leaders of the techno-democracies.