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By Richard Fontaine

Imagine it is October 1973. Henry Kissinger convenes the National Security Council to discuss U.S. responses to possible Soviet military action in the Middle East. As the discussion kicks off, a participant suggests raising the military readiness level to DefCon III. The principals look on, dumbstruck. “DefCon?” one asks. “Something to do with nuclear weapons, I think,” says another. “Don’t the missileers handle that?” Another said he could not engage in the discussion because he has never really understood how a nuclear weapon works. A third said he did not either, but his grandkids seem to spend all their time focused on nukes. The NSC decides to ask the technicians what to do.

A ridiculous counterfactual, of course. Nuclear weapons were central to superpower rivalry during the Cold War, and fluency with the concepts behind them was a sine qua non of policymaking in that era. Policymakers need not have been technical experts, but they had to understand the role nuclear arms played in U.S. and Soviet foreign policy. (Nixon did order a move to DefCon III during the Yom Kippur War.[1])

All analogies are flawed, and this one is particularly crude.[2] Today, however, as one discerns a growing but still insufficient focus on the role of technology in foreign policy, there are faint echoes. Technology has already emerged as a central domain of international competition, and national security policy is belatedly catching up. While it does, other countries are on the march, with deep implications for American interests and values.

China, for instance, was once dismissed as a tech imitator, not an innovator. No more. It has pulled ahead of the United States in facial and voice recognition, 5G technology, digital payments, quantum communications, central bank digital currency, and the commercial drone market.[3] Beijing’s Digital Silk Road remains active as does its attempted dominance of technical standards setting. Autocracies like Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela are weaponizing technology and employing it for illiberal ends—to surveil their populations, spread propaganda and disinformation, and restrict free speech. Autocracies and private actors are using technology to sow division in democracies, undermine elections and trust in institutions, and steal information and intellectual property abroad.[4]

For too long, U.S. approaches to technological questions have been ad hoc, poorly coordinated with like-minded countries, and left to technology experts to sort out. Given the high and rising stakes, however, this will no longer do. The countries that shape the use of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, biotechnology, and next-generation telecommunications will have an economic, military, and political advantage for decades to come. In today’s competitive global environment, technology is too important to be left to the technologists.


State of the Art

Conservatives of different stripes have focused in recent years on the roles played by “Big Tech” in American political and everyday life. They debate the possible censorship or downgrading of particular perspectives, the effect of omnipresent devices on American children, and the concentration of market power in a small number of very large firms. These debates will continue. But the internationalists among them should discern, in technology’s emergence as a primary vector of geopolitical competition, the need for American leadership.

Consider one aspect of this competition: the use of technologies by autocrats to better surveil and control populations. Chinese authorities have used big data tools to detect departures from “normal” behavior among Muslims in Xinjiang—and then to identify each supposed deviant for further state attention. Officials have collected DNA samples from ethnic Uighurs and studied whether they can use DNA to create images of people’s faces. Moscow has installed thousands of cameras with facial-recognition technology, and it can match faces of interest to photos from passport databases, police files, and even VK, the country’s most popular social media platform. Venezuela developed a “fatherland card,” equipped with smart chips, that is necessary to access government services. According to Human Rights Watch, the card may capture voting history, and the data the system generates is stored by Chinese company ZTE.[5]

Then there are the attacks on democracies abroad. Cyberattacks on campaigns and related election infrastructure are by now well-known. Over the past few years, however, the use of technology by autocracies has grown more sophisticated. Russia’s Internet Research Agency, for instance, reportedly used microtargeting during the 2016 U.S. presidential race, harvesting Facebook data to craft specific messages for individual voters based in part on race, ethnicity, and identity. Since then, Moscow has used bots and other means of amplifying far-left and far-right groups in the United States, hoping to sow division. And governments are learning from one another: the October 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, for example, prompted a surge in social media messaging from pro-regime Saudi bots.

More attacks are on the way. The rise of deepfakes nearly indistinguishable from genuine audio, photos, or video will allow autocracies to better spread disinformation. AI-driven applications will allow authoritarians to analyze patterns in a population’s online activity, identify those most susceptible to a particular message and target them more precisely with propaganda. The next generation of natural language processing tools will become more sophisticated as advances in machine learning accelerate. Applied by the wrong regime, they can be combined with other data to assess an individual’s trustworthiness, patriotism, and likelihood of dissenting.


Democracies, Unite

The United States and democracy-inclined populations retain key advantages in a world riven by high-tech illiberalism and other tech dangers. First is the development of countermeasures at home and abroad. During demonstrations in 2019, for example, protesters in Hong Kong relied on the Reddit-like website LIHKG to communicate with fellow dissidents. They used the crowdsourced web-mapping service to avoid police and even the dating app Tinder to recruit new pro-democracy activists. Russian opposition members developed a “protest navigator” on Telegram and bots that identify police locations during marches. Services like Bridgefy, which employs Bluetooth and mesh networks, can link devices without using the internet, getting around a government shutdown. Deepfake detection tools can help spot disinformation, and data pollution techniques can frustrate autocratic attempts to profile potential dissidents. In this cat-and-mouse game, both the U.S. government and the private sector will need to remain on the leading edge of innovation.[6]

The second advantage resides in the rising attention tech issues have received in U.S. national security policy. Congress is considering a number of bills that would spend billions to fund technology research and development (R&D), reshoring efforts for semiconductor production, and de-risking tech supply chains. The current administration established a deputy national security advisor for cybersecurity and emerging technology, and the State Department is launching a technology bureau of its own. The Department of Commerce is pushing for technology cooperation among like-minded countries. The U.S. government has catching up to do—and challenges remain in working with the private sector—but it is moving in the right direction.

Then there are the diplomatic opportunities. There are today a number of “techno-democracies” (countries with top technology sectors, advanced economies, and a commitment to liberal democracy) that in combination exceed the economic weight and geopolitical heft even of China and Russia combined. So far, these leading states have acted mostly independently, but that is starting to change. Last year, the Group of Seven (G7) leaders issued a joint statement that addressed issues like artificial intelligence and standards-setting, and the members went on to pledge a “values-driven digital ecosystem.” The United States and European Union established a Trade and Technology Council, with the aim to “write the rules of the road for the economy of the 21st century.” The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has launched a civil-military Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic and established a NATO Innovation Fund, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) established a Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group to coordinate approaches to technology policy.

This momentum is largely positive, but there remains a long way to go. As the initial dispute over Huawei demonstrated, disjointed responses to technological threats risk isolating democracies without having built consensus. Across the Atlantic, the United States and Europe prioritize the common values of free speech and privacy differently. The establishment of numerous new technology councils and working groups is similarly a positive sign, but their proliferation also risks creating a patchwork of uncoordinated mechanisms.

Partly as a result, several proposals have emerged for an alliance of techno-democracies – a T12 or other informal groupings of states that would harmonize their approaches to technology.[7] Here, governments could update one another on the security of supply chains, particularly in critical sectors such as semiconductors, where China aims to dramatically reduce the portion of the market currently controlled by American, Dutch, and Japanese firms. They could conduct audits of supply chains that cross international boundaries, especially those that include Chinese-made components or software. Members could compare their assessments of the risks of China’s 5G technology and promote a transition to Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN), which relies on open interfaces—and would allow multiple vendors to supply the market. They could also regulate the use of blockchain to ensure the integrity of supply chains in sectors like defense manufacturing and medical equipment and to harmonize approaches to digital currencies.

These constitute just a fraction of the issues in which the United States should take a leadership role. Washington should join like-minded democracies to examine advances in quantum computing, investigate AI safety, and share strategies for preventing the theft of intellectual property. It should seek a dominant role in setting standards for the use of emerging technologies like facial recognition software, including its proper role in the criminal justice system and the protocols that should govern data collection. Where capital markets allocate insufficient resources to innovation necessary for national security, Washington could explore funding for R&D in areas like quantum computing, cybersecurity, 3-D printing, potentially unbreakable encryption methods based on quantum mechanics, and microscopic sensing technology. It should also pursue a digital trade agreement in the Indo-Pacific, where the U.S. lack of trade policy amounts to a strategic-level weakness.

* * *

Defining conservative internationalism can be dicey, and there is no one agreed-upon definition. Yet there are principles most adherents embrace, most of the time, including a strong national defense, solid alliances, free trade and a generally open international economic system, a bias in favor of democracy and human rights, and a belief in American exceptionalism and the necessary role of U.S. global leadership. This approach to U.S. foreign policy has been under clear domestic pressure in recent years.

It is under even more stress outside American borders. Doubts about American leadership have risen while the number of democracies has declined. Questions about U.S. willingness to defend its values and even its interests abound, and every aspect of technology today is contested.

As a result, as in so many domains, American leadership in technology is required to build the world we seek—more secure, increasingly prosperous, freer, and one in which individual rights have priority over the state, rather than the other way around. That world will not arrive on its own, nor pursuant to the aims of other great powers, nor as the bequest of friendly allies working entirely on their own. Here, the United States really is the indispensable superpower.

Optimism and ambition should be the watchwords. The United States possesses everything it needs to lead and outcompete adversaries in this ever more important area of global competition. Time to get on with it.


[1] The Soviets stayed out of the war. Precisely why remains a matter of debate among policymakers and historians.

[2] For the case against a dogmatic application of historical analogies, see: Richard Fontaine and Vance Serchuk, “Pick Your Prism,” POLITICO (POLITICO Magazine, November 28, 2014),

[3] Sections of this essay draw on: Jared Cohen and Richard Fontaine, "Uniting the Techno-Democracies," Foreign Affairs, October 13, 2020.

[4] Portions of this essay also draw on: Richard Fontaine and Kara Frederick, “The Autocrat's New Tool Kit,” The Wall Street Journal (Dow Jones & Company, March 15, 2019),

[5] Fontaine and Frederick, “The Autocrat’s New Tool Kit.”

[6] Richard Fontaine and Kara Frederick, “Democracy's Digital Defenses,” The Wall Street Journal (Dow Jones & Company, May 8, 2021),

[7] Cohen and Fontaine, “Uniting the Techno-Democracies,” and Martijn Rasser, et. al., Common Code: An Alliance Framework for Democratic Technology Policy, Center for a New American Security, October 21, 2020: