Technology is the new frontier of international relations. The interaction is bi-directional: technology is defining diplomatic matters while diplomacy is also influencing the development and deployment of technology.
Take semiconductors as an example. This is a technology that forms the foundation of digital economy, national security, and productivity in almost all industries. Global supply chain in the semiconductor industry is shaping U.S. foreign policy. Conversely, America’s diplomatic effort has been redefining the supply chain.
Tech diplomacy is different from science diplomacy, which became a key pillar for the U.S. and other countries since World War II. Scientists participated in treaty negotiations, engaged in bilateral summits and served as attachés at embassies. Primary topics included nuclear proliferation, super-collider construction, human space exploration and environmental science.
In this decade, new topics have taken center stage in foreign policy: chips, 6G, AI, autonomy, digital health and advanced manufacturing. How we craft foreign policy and how we develop these critical technologies are intertwined. It is time for a clear mission, enduring strategies and effective actions on tech diplomacy.
The foremost premise of American tech diplomacy is that technology must advance freedom. Technological advancements do not necessarily reflect values of a democratic society or contribute to human rights. Quite the contrary, they are increasingly abused to suppress liberty around the world and to lock in the Orwellian “1984” with digital authoritarianism.
Tech diplomacy needs to keep scoring crucial wins for democracies, free enterprises and fair markets throughout the globe. It also needs to engage the private sector, here in the U.S. and in partners and allies, much more actively than science diplomacy typically did. Most critically, it needs a talent pipeline, both within the career foreign service and outside, to build the capacity for policymaking that benefit from those essential engineering details of the corresponding technology.
During my tenure as the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State in 2020, I witnessed the bipartisan and rapidly growing appreciation of this emergent need for engaging the tech sector and engineers with domain expertise and for leading with likeminded nations, each with its technology strength. While working on specific policy priorities, we also institutionalized capacity building and policy coordination for tech diplomacy, such as creating Regional Technology Officer positions as a pathway for career foreign service officers, launching a department-wide working group on tech diplomacy and initiating discourses such as the Global Chief Technology Officers Roundtable series. As I serve on federal advisory committees currently, it is clear that tech diplomacy has become one of the few nonpartisan, enduring policies in the country.
Upon returning to academia last December as dean of Purdue’s Engineering College, now the largest ever ranked top five in the U.S., I believed it was necessary to found the Center for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue (CTDP). Launched this month, it is a thought leader in the “civilian track” to advance tech diplomacy for the U.S. Establishing a robust tech diplomacy agenda that focuses on democracy, human rights and lasting prosperity, along with convening partners in the public and private sectors, will assure the U.S. can protect its national interests while strengthening global leadership.
Back to those microelectronic chips and their manufacturing in advanced fabrication facilities. A combination of factors, including the surging post-pandemic demand and complexity of the supply chain, has left American businesses scrambling for the chips they use in cars, medical devices, phones and more. The dearth of semiconductors has, in turn, triggered policymakers in the country to encourage on-shoring or re-shoring the key production steps and to introduce R&D investment legislation.
Products like semiconductors are just one aspect of tech diplomacy. International supply chains run on five bi-directional lanes: products, data, financial assets, ideas and patents, and human talent. All five dimensions are key to ensuring economic prosperity, as well as national security, among free societies.
Like other pillars of diplomacy, tech diplomacy helps determine how international organizations, private companies and national governments interact. Aided by the insight of engineers who deeply understand emerging technologies’ capabilities, limitations, effects and needs, a U.S.-led tech diplomacy agenda can usher in international standards and coalitions that advance freedom, safeguard democracy, sustain industry vibrancy and protect human rights. Institutions like CTDP will be a leading voice in these fast-moving discussions and will provide training of domain knowledge to American diplomats. As a nation, we must make sure our foreign policy agenda proactively keeps pace with the velocity of technology development, rather than reactively responds to its international implications.
The era of tech diplomacy has arrived. Let’s prepare the U.S. for all the intersections between technology and diplomacy in the rest of this century.