Secretary of State Rex Tillerson waits to deliver an address at the Wilson Center in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson waits to deliver an address at the Wilson Center in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017. Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP

As AI and Cyber Race Ahead, the State Department Is Falling Behind

Technology is reshaping the global order. America’s diplomats need to start thinking ahead.

There has been considerable interest in the direction of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ongoing “reimagining” of the State Department, but for all the conversations about the future of American diplomacy, what has been underaddressed is how our oldest Cabinet agency is preparing to deal with the new, but foreseeable, diplomatic challenges presented by emerging technology.

While at the Department, I joined the effort to establish a Coordinator for Cyber Issues reporting directly to the Secretary, because no single bureau was able to represent all of the interests that the U.S. has in the cyber domain, including economic, military, intelligence, and freedom of expression-related issues. In 2011, the United States became the first country to assign a senior diplomat the task of focusing on cyber issues; allies and competitors alike have since set up similar positions, thus moving the international community forward – albeit in fits and starts – in developing norms and standards. Creating an office to focus on international cyber policy was a clear example of senior State Department officials anticipating where our interconnected world was headed and allocating resources to meet the challenge in a truly strategic, long-term manner.

Secretary Tillerson eliminated the Coordinator for Cyber Issues position earlier this year, but Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, along with 15 other representatives, have co-sponsored the Cyber Diplomacy Act of 2017 to re-establish it and require the Secretary of State to develop an international strategy for cyberspace. While it is encouraging to see a coordinated push by Congress to ensure the U.S. can fully pursue its national interests in the cyber domain, this move would merely allow us to get back to the former status quo.

Meanwhile, technological innovation in other realms continues at a furious pace. China is spending billions of dollars to surpass the United States as the world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030, with an eye towards improving its economy and matching our military prowess. Russian President Vladimir Putin believes the country with the best AI “will become the ruler of the world,” and Moscow recently made clear that it opposes international efforts to ban lethal autonomous weapons.

Yet there is little evidence that the State Department is focused on how such developments may shape America’s place in the world. Certainly, the department has legal and political-military experts on preventing the development of inhumane weapons, and they are participating in the international discussions about the security ramifications of autonomous weapons. But the Department’s lack of foresight and senior-level attention to the issue is troubling, especially considering the absolute sprint underway around the world to develop artificial intelligence and other society-changing technologies, and the priority placed upon it by other U.S. agencies.  The U.S. government should be using its full diplomatic toolbox to ensure that the development of these technologies by countries around the world is in line with America’s interests and values. 

The Secretary’s ambitious 'reimagining' of State provides the opportunity to make U.S. leadership in emerging technology diplomacy a hallmark of his legacy.

There are two steps that the U.S. government should take to prepare for the future: First, Congress should consider broadening Chairman Royce’s cyber bill to include emerging technology beyond cyber by creating a Coordinator (or Ambassador) for Emerging Technology reporting directly to the Secretary. They should also work with appropriators to ensure the Department is resourced appropriately to exercise both interagency and global leadership on this issue.

Second, the State Department should develop a cadre of diplomats who are experts in the sometime byzantine ways of multilateral diplomacy, sufficiently proficient in emerging technology, and equipped with the vision to shape the international community’s use of cyber tools and emerging technology to best advance U.S. interests. This will require the recruitment of both experienced diplomats with expertise in multilateral diplomacy as well as technology experts who want to get out of the lab and into the policy community.

Secretary Tillerson, like previous secretaries, is rightly focused on immediate, urgent threats to the United States and the international order the United States has painstakingly helped to build. Today, that means dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program and an increasingly assertive China, instability in the Persian Gulf, the fight against ISIS, and a disturbingly aggressive Kremlin. These challenges are all the more reason that at the same time, he needs a senior official and expert staff to prepare for the (barely) over-the-horizon technological innovations that stand to change our world. The Secretary’s ambitious “reimagining” of State provides the opportunity to make U.S. leadership in emerging technology diplomacy a hallmark of his legacy.