Technology and Diplomacy in the 21st Century

Ambassador Distinguished Lecture Series at Purdue
November 10, 2021
Remarks by Bonnie Glick, Director of the Center for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue
(As Prepared)

Thank you so much for that kind introduction Dean Chiang, and congratulations on this great new lecture series. Good afternoon to all of you, whether you are here with us in person in the Krach Leadership Center or watching us online. It is an absolute pleasure to speak with you today in what is sure to be a highlight of my week at Purdue. First, I want to thank all of Purdue’s leadership, faculty, and students for the warm Midwestern welcome I receive every time I come here. Becoming part of the Center for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue is like coming home. Now, if the winter here is anything like the winters where I grew up, where I used to call home, Chicago, I am sure that I’ll quickly remember why I LEFT home!  But that remains to be seen – for now it’s simply a delight to be here amid the burst of fall colors and the buzz of activity on campus. 

I want to talk to you today about tech diplomacy. Those are two words you don’t often hear paired together. So what exactly does tech diplomacy mean and why does it have anything to do with Purdue? For America, Tech Diplomacy is a brand new approach to our foreign policy, an emerging category in the toolkits of foreign policymakers to meet and address twenty-first century challenges. Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed global threats to the United States and our allies that have come at us through an array of advanced technologies. Think about it. Cyber attacks. Strange and unexplained high-frequency targeting of American Embassy employees in countries like Cuba, Russia, and China. The use of artificial intelligence and facial recognition that has targeted opposition groups or individuals. Corruption of Internet tools that were designed to promote democracy but that, instead, have been used to turn democracy on its head through bots and disinformation. And most recently, of course, the coronavirus, a complex disease that has changed the way we work, interact, learn, travel, and live our daily lives.  And we believe the answer to addressing these threats and emerging ones we may not even know about lies in harnessing the ingenuity and innovation of technological advancements invented here in the United States and in allied countries. Twenty-first century challenges require twenty-first century solutions, and tech diplomacy is on the frontlines.

Of course, American and allied diplomats must still be lovers of languages and able to speak across cultural divides, but in the twenty-first century, those representing America and like-minded countries  abroad must also be fluent in the language of technology – microelectronics, 6G, hypersonics, AI, quantum computing, synthetic biology, semiconductors, agtech, fintech, rare earth elements, critical minerals, batteries, and so much more. Reaching such technological fluency will result in better partnering with allied countries as we strive to reconfigure our supply chains and the global supply chains. We are looking for new ways to manufacture and distribute goods around the world. We all saw what happened at the start of the COVID pandemic when there was something that was akin to “The Hunger Games”’ in the search for personally protective equipment, PPE.  It led those of us in government to start a conversation about the global supply chain in a way that hadn’t been considered before.  We started talking about the need to onshore, near shore, and allied shore production and distribution. Tech diplomacy will not replace things like arms control or trade negotiations, but it will enhance and complement the existing democratic discussions around diplomacy.  

Technology is a great tool in the foreign policymaker’s toolkit, yes, but she must use it in a critically important way, to advance freedom.  

Facial recognition is a great thing, right?  You can use it to unlock your iphone. It can be deployed to insure identity for a variety of security systems. But what about when authoritarian regimes deploy facial recognition to identify dissidents. 

AI is pretty cool, right? Artificial intelligence is used to build algorithms that can then predict what someone is going to do? That’s great and convenient when google docs helps you complete a sentence for a paper that you’re writing. But what about when information related to your search history or your mailbox (real or virtual) or your shopping history or the books you take out of the library is hijacked by an authoritarian regime to spy on you and your family and even used to detain you on charges of sedition or treason?  

These are real examples. Technology can be an enormous enabler, it can also be turned on its head and used for suppression of speech or assembly or religion. These are all freedoms that we hold dear in the United States, indeed our first amendment to the constitution guarantees them. But in dictatorships in countries like the People’s Republic of China, Venezuela, Russia, Burma, or Syria, technology is used to target individuals and groups, to curtail their basic freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion.  

Policymakers in government and senior leaders in the tech industry are aware of these types of suppression, but it’s hard to stop them. In the U.S. we have developed tools that were designed to make the world MORE democratic. Tools like the Internet were decidedly left open for anyone to access, anyone to use, and it, too, has been turned on its head and used in subversive ways.  Artificial intelligence was developed as a way to make the information on the Internet more digestible, more indexed, so that people like doctors could take advantage of all the information available on every disease on earth and develop more tailored treatment plans for patients. It was developed so that retailers could keep track of stock on hand in a store and reorder as needed to maintain customer satisfaction. It wasn’t designed to predict an individual’s planned next steps – that’s making “The Matrix” feel a little too real.  Only I have to say, “move over Neo, on many levels, the matrix is real.” In countries like China where the combination of AI, facial recognition, and ubiquitous cameras are a reality. Add to that mix the Chinese Communist Party’s hunger for data, personal data, corporate data, national security data from other countries, and you have the makings of a witch’s brew of authoritarianism. 

Technology MUST advance freedom, and at the Center for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue, we’re essential to this mission. At the Center for Tech Diplomacy, the country’s first “tech tank,” we deal with these cutting-edge diplomatic concerns of the twenty-first century in an emerging field I call Techno-Statecraft. And we chose to set up shop right here at Purdue.

So why Purdue? Not only does Purdue boast world-class technology programs across all of the colleges with an administration, faculty, and student body ready and eager to meet twenty-first-century challenges, but as I like to say, in a DC and national political environment divided by red and blue, that’s divided by east and west, Indiana is Switzerland, because you understand that technology diplomacy is too consequential to let partisanship or geography stand in the way. The university provides a neutral and independent space to cultivate relations between policymakers, industry, and the nation’s top innovators. And as students at Purdue, you have front row seats to this cutting-edge diplomatic tool that is being propelled right here on campus. Not only do you have front row seats, audience participation is encouraged! 

So now that I’ve explained the basics of tech diplomacy and although I am so excited to be here with you today in West Lafayette, I want to take you on a little field trip around the globe. Here at Purdue, you are among the country’s most creative and innovative students and will be able to take this imaginary journey with me with ease. I have no doubt about that. But first, we need to paint the backdrop of our trip.

The challenges we face if we are to make the twenty-first century the second American century are real. Malign forces across the globe feel emboldened to both assert their power abroad and increasingly to  stifle dissent at home. At this moment, Iran races toward a nuclear weapon, Russia continues age-old tricks against the sovereignty of countries in its neighborhood, Afghanistan once again becomes a home for global jihad, and of course, China not only threatens its neighbors and terrorizes its citizens through a campaign of genocide, but openly and happily challenges the liberal democratic order – taking aim at the liberties and values we so cherish and know to be inalienable.

Nonetheless, you here in the audience today know that in the United States we do not despair, we innovate. The key to the second American century lies in facilities just like the one we are gathered in today: It’s the  never-ending desire of free nations and free people to innovate, advance, rise to the occasion of new challenges, and work with our friends and allies to export this ingenuity around the world. It is institutions like Purdue – home to the new Center for Tech Diplomacy – and the people who teach at, conduct research through, and study in, which rightfully energizes and sustains us.

But technological advancement alone is not enough. It is the intersection of technological innovation and diplomacy – with an appreciation for human rights, freedom, economic growth, and democracy – that the United States and its allies should be focused on in the twenty-first century.       

There’s an old saying in America, particularly in the Midwest, that goes something like, “Good neighbors make good fences.” Well, when you really think about it, isn’t that what international relations are all about? I mean, we take it for granted but here in the United States we are so lucky to have friendly relations with our neighbors to the north and the south. We are blessed by natural geography.

It’s a luxury many countries in the world are not afforded, and this is where technology diplomacy comes into play. We believe that technology and innovation offer the critical resources necessary to foster good relations and good fences. And in some regions of the world, the Indo Pacific comes to mind, hostile actors actively threaten and intimidate their neighbors. Yes, I’m talking about the People’s Republic of China. But China’s neighbors, in examples I’ll soon illustrate, have found the antidote to such hostilities – tech diplomacy. So while not every country is blessed with good fences, they can build them, chain by chain, link by link, at the intersection of technology and diplomacy.

And that’s our specialty at the Center for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue. We know that technological innovation and national interests are inextricably linked, and we strive to build on the growing recognition that twenty-first century technology must be used to advance human freedom. In fact, critical technologies, when used correctly and employed strategically, pose an unprecedented opportunity to advance human rights and ensure security. But we also recognize that our friends and allies must play a central role in this venture, and that’s where diplomacy comes into play.

With that in mind, let’s return to the field trip I promised earlier. I hope you prepared yourselves because we’re about to embark on a journey through every corner of the globe for an up-close look at the fruits of technology diplomacy in the twenty-first century.

We’ll start in the Indo-Pacific, a region we all probably think of when technology and innovation come to mind. As you well know, countries in the Indo Pacific are not so blessed with good neighbors. But through ingenuity, innovation, and techno-statecraft, countries in the Indo-Pacific region are building good fences.

Let’s take the example of the semiconductor industry. A single semiconductor – smaller than the width of a strand of hair – depends on rare earth elements as a crucial component in its creation. And there are billions of semiconductors in devices we depend on and use every day, like smart phones. China currently dominates the global supply of rare earth elements with control of upwards of 80% of the processed elements. In recent years, coming to a head during COVID, China has imposed limits on its exports of rare earth elements. As you can imagine, these limitations drive up global prices and force other countries to exploit their own resources to supply their own or allied countries.

So what did China’s neighbors do? They used technology diplomacy to ensure that they and their allies retained access to rare earth elements used in semiconductor manufacturing. Japan and Vietnam partnered a little over ten years ago to launch a joint research center in Hanoi to improve extraction and processing of rare earth elements. In addition to this action by the Japanese government, Japanese companies made moves to mine rare earth mineral deposits in countries across Asia and the Indo Pacific, including Kazakhstan, India, and Australia. This is an instructive example of tech diplomacy, with both the free market and government recognizing Japan’s economic dependence on certain rare earth elements, collaborating with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region to gain access to these elements, and establishing a sturdy fence to solve a twenty-first century challenge. And the story continues, into Taiwan, where Taiwan demonstrates its values as a democratic nation and its innovation as one of the world’s major manufacturers of semiconductors. Taiwan lives and breathes techno-statecraft every day, even in the face of the increasingly threatening moves to counter it by the People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese Communist Party. 

Elsewhere in the Indo Pacific, tech diplomacy is playing out through the manufacture of batteries. Now when many of us think of batteries we envision the AA or AAA batteries found in small electronic devices. Though those are a little bigger than the semiconductors we’re so reliant on, I’m actually thinking of the enormous batteries that power electric vehicles or store energy generated through alternative power sources like wind or solar. Indeed, I love driving into West Lafayette and passing by massive wind farms and solar farms! All that clean energy is stored in massive batteries. Thailand and Indonesia are building battery production facilities, providing materials to large manufacturers in the region. Then Indo-Pacific companies like the Korean company Hyundai are utilizing tech diplomacy in the region to build new plants in Indonesia and Vietnam, as well investing in an R&D production site in Singapore. Up and down the Indo Pacific, tech diplomacy is instrumental in erecting solid fences to counter a bad neighbor. 

Now let’s move to the Middle East, where the three countries making headlines for brokering peace over the past year – Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain – have placed technology at the center of their diplomatic strategy toward each other. Israel, of course, is the start-up nation, known for bringing water to the desert (while recycling or reusing upwards of 85 percent of it), engineering the personal navigator Waze, and boasting over 6,000 active startups in a country the size of New Jersey. The start-up nation is partnering with UAE, which now calls itself the scale up nation and leader among Arab nations in digital transformation and smart cities, which provides a leading market for the export of Israeli technologies in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the UAE can pivot to deep tech – Israeli specialities – such as cybersecurity, AI, and blockchain with the help of the start-up nation. And then there’s Bahrain, which has begun to call itself the pilot nation, which is partnering with an Israeli water company to find innovative solutions to the country’s water shortage or with fintech companies as Bahrain is a financial center of the Arab world. In the Middle East, water conservation and innovation, green technologies, digital transformation, and deep tech are driving peace in the region. That’s technology diplomacy in action. The UAE, Bahrain, and Israel are constructing fences in the region – paving the way for other neighbors to tag along. Other recent signatories to peace agreements include Morocco and Sudan. Morocco, too, is looking at technology through the lens of entrepreneurship and turning to Israel to share some of its innovation in tech entrepreneurship. Sudan has hit a snag. We’re all watching closely to see what happens as a result of the recent military coup d’etat in that country. Stay tuned and share your thoughts and prayers with the people of Sudan. 

Next, let’s look at Africa, where financial technology, or “fintech,” innovations are propelling growth and development across the continent. Growing investments in cellular and internet structures throughout Africa, driven by companies such as Finnish Nokia and Swedish Ericsson, provide opportunities for emerging digital payment platforms, banking, insurance, and lending services. Look at M-Pesa, launched in Kenya in the early 2000s, which connects people previously cut out of the financial system with access to money and banking at the touch of a finger. In fact, M-Pesa reached 50 million active users across Africa in 2021, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Egypt to Ghana to Tanzania, innovations in technology are driving development and connectedness, making tech diplomacy all the more relevant to the region. 

Also in Africa, innovations in green and renewable energy aim to meet the continent’s vast energy needs –  pioneered through tech diplomacy – like the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Group, a Japanese company, partner’s with the local Kenyan utility company KenGen to provide steam turbines for geothermal power plants in the country.

Lastly, let’s return to our own hemisphere, where countries throughout Latin America have recognized the essential role that technology plays in twenty-first century diplomacy. In 2020, Colombia created the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation which has prioritized strengthening relations in these fields with its neighbors Brazil, Panama, and Peru. Meanwhile, Colombian technology companies such as Rappi, a delivery app providing fintech services, are increasing investments and diversifying operations in Brazil. There’s an example of tech diplomacy enabling good neighbors to make good fences – literally. 

So let’s recap what we just witnessed on this around the world trip. From renewable energy in Africa to fintech in Latin America to technology sharing propelling peace in the Middle East, and the backbone of it all, semiconductor manufacturing in the Indo Pacific, technology stands at the cutting edge of diplomacy in the twenty-first century. All across the world, hostile neighbors are being countered through the utilization of Techno Statecraft. 

In real time, we are witnessing a transformation in the art of diplomacy as country by country, chain by chain, good fences come up around the globe – all because they’ve chosen to bring technology into play. Because, as we Americans say, “Good neighbors make good fences,” and in the twenty-first century, neighborly relations are forged through tech diplomacy.  

Now we’re back in Indiana is where the real excitement begins. Thank you so much for your attention today. I know that I’m the one thing standing between you all and pizza, so don’t kill me, but maybe we can first take some questions.