Blue Planet Studio

Want Real Security? Create Better Global Digital Rules and Norms

The longer the U.S. waits to throw its weight behind efforts to create rules for today’s digital competition, the less hope it has of retaining advantage.

There will be no effective Third Offset reasserting American leadership in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence until there is simultaneous effort on a — well, call it a Fourth Offset, to revitalize global norms and rules of the road. 

Advances in autonomous systems, information warfare, and material sciences are well on their way to transforming national security. Not only have these technologies helped the United States’ authoritarian adversaries to solidify control over their own populations, they have also expanded the ways and means through which states and non-state actors compete, blurring the lines between war and peace. Thus, any normative offset must not just address the technologies themselves, but also the competitive environment they help create. 

We already see how repressive states are taking advantage of technology. New tools for mass surveillance are helping China, Russia, and Iran — not to mention U.S. partners — to track and invasively monitor their population. Advances in autonomous and semi-autonomous weapons give a wide range of actors the means to strike in more precise, prolific, and deniable ways. Cyber attacks hold critical infrastructure and services at risk. Advances in other spheres allow friendly and unfriendly actors to shape global narratives — even to undermine the legitimacy of governments and institutions necessary for a successful defense.

As a result, U.S. planners are rethinking the roles the military should play in competition below the threshold of war. What is striking about the nature of this competition is not so much the sophistication of these new challenges, but rather the primitive state to which they reduces competition. By undermining and eroding the complex norms currently in place to manage conflict and escalation, the use of these technologies force actors to rely on blunter instruments, such as proxies and reprisals, to shape adversary behavior. Proxies are under-regulated, allowing actors to avoid cost and accountability. To deter future attacks, aggrieved parties have little choice but to engage in reprisals, which are illegal in peacetime and which tend to lead to escalation. For example, Washington’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran has led to violent exchanges between U.S. forces and Iran and its proxies. 

Another under-regulated area is automation in the military sphere. Human control is being supplemented or replaced by machine learning based on data sets that can be manipulated and polluted. Moreover, as competitors work to outdo one another, rapidly developing and deploying capabilities that depend on artificial intelligence, it is less likely they will account for their unintended consequences and safeguard against accidents. 

Cyber operations, and society’s growing dependence on technologies that use artificial intelligence to regulate their operations, present another danger. The line between civilian and military targets is less clear online, making it more difficult to protect innocent civilians from potential conflicts. We must draw clear boundaries with our partners and hold ourselves and others accountable it. 

Leaders across the Pentagon have grappled with the convergence of technology and the international order across administrations. They have promoted closer collaboration between national security efforts and the private sector to ensure U.S. technical parity, if not superiority, to make the most of the United States' nimble and innovative economy. This same emphasis is also reflected in defense budgets, which have increased spending on research and development for the purpose of national security. 

While this focus may be necessary, it is clearly insufficient. It does little good to develop and field superior technology in a space where technologically inferior actors can still exploit vulnerabilities to cause harm and disrupt civil life. What is needed is a new international order that gives states better alternatives to force. 

In this regard, America’s greatest advantage is not the example of its power, demonstrated here in a well-funded military at the bleeding edge of technology. Rather, it is the power of its example that has allowed the United States to underwrite global security for the past seven decades and that example is needed now more than ever as global competition takes a potentially chaotic turn. The ability of the United States to continue that legacy today depends on how effectively we convene our Allies and partners in developing a framework that governs the use of emerging technologies. Without one, technological competition with our adversaries will become a race to the bottom, leading to greater instability and the erosion of democratic norms at home and across the world. 

So, what can we do? 

• Address the proliferation of technologies that allow for deniability, lower the physical cost of employing violent means, and that exploit vulnerabilities that disrupt civil life. 

• Strengthen laws and institutions to hold actors who employ proxies responsible for crimes those proxies commit.

• Address the role of peacetime reprisals as a form of international law enforcement. Decrease the likelihood of their necessity by strengthening international institutions and other measures to hold violators accountable. Given that there will also be some gap between violations and accountability, establish norms that expand on non-lethal means of reprisals while limiting their scope to avoid harms to innocents.

• Prioritize non-lethal over lethal alternatives to shaping adversary behavior and where lethal force is used, demand a higher standard for success and a much lower tolerance for civilian harm. What justifies the resort to these measures is that they represent an alternative to war; therefore, actors will be morally required to take measures to avoid escalation. 

While these times are different, the United States has faced crossroads before. The country’s relative global power is less than it was in the 1950s or even the 1990s, but American leadership remains a potent, essential force. Though there is less tolerance overseas for talk of American exceptionalism and dictates from Washington, there is a case to be made for democratic exceptionalism and for convening partners and allies around shared democratic values that inform the development and application of technological systems.

The world watches us; however, it will not wait for us. If the United States does not focus on defining the terms for the ethical use of emerging technologies as well as the environment they give rise to, then the world we live in will be defined by these technologies and their unscrupulous use by autocratic governments. 

Dr. C. Anthony Pfaff is the Research Professor for the Military Profession and Ethic at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Patrick Granfield, a national-security appointee in the Obama administration, served as a speechwriter for Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.