Technology can be used as both a democratizing and oppressive force.
Just a decade ago, it was popular to view technology as a democratizing force. Armed with just an internet connection or a smartphone, pro-democracy activists around the world could break through governmental information blockades, organize protests and connect with allies across continents. Years of cyberwar and misinformation have dimmed such utopian thinking.
As the head of the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue, I know technology can be a powerful force for freedom—indeed it must be, as global power dynamics are now largely shaped by the innovation arms race. For democratic values to prevail against authoritarian rivals, we must apply our enduring principles—building trust-based alliances, honoring our commitments, championing human rights and rule of law—to emerging areas like artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and quantum computing.
China and Russia are leveraging technologies toward less noble ends.
With monopolistic ruthlessness, Beijing has worked to corner critical links of the global technology supply chain—rare earth minerals used in defense systems and consumer electronics—and to steal intellectual property in order to short-cut innovation cycles. Beijing is trying to lock in these ill-gotten advantages through its Made in China 2025 program, which seeks to dominate global technology through state subsidies and anti-competitive trade practices. China also is angling to control much of the digital infrastructure of emerging economies through its Digital Silk Road initiative, in which state-owned enterprises already have invested billions of dollars in terrestrial and submarine data cables, 5G cellular networks, data storage centers and global satellite navigation systems to serve partner countries.
After building the largest surveillance apparatus in human history at home, China now wants to dominate digital networks around the world. The implications should alarm all of us – but fortunately, the United States and our allies have succeeded in thwarting Beijing’s grand ambitions before. When China jumped to an early lead in the development of 5G wireless networks, and attempted to use the position to dominate the telecom infrastructure in free countries, 60 countries representing two-thirds of the world's GDP and 200 “clean” telecommunications companies banded together to commit to using only trusted 5G vendors. This trust-based strategy served as an effective counterweight to China’s exercise of raw power.
As Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine shows, Moscow has its own imperial ambitions that are squarely at odds with American democratic values. Vladimir Putin leads Russia by deploying some of the tools he used as the Soviet Union’s spymaster and some new tools as well, such as sophisticated online disinformation campaigns and hypersonic missiles. Russia today is deploying armies of bots and sophisticated fake news distribution channels to pollute the information pipeline in ways that the architects of yesterday’s Potemkin Villages could only dream of.
The response to Russia’s invasion in Europe and its digital campaigns around the world reminds us of the value of alliances. Whether rebuilding countries after the devastation of World War II or defeating Soviet totalitarianism, American-led alliances have a proud history of promoting democracy, human rights and economic development.
When joined with our world-leading spirit of innovation, these alliances can save and better the lives of millions. In fact, they already have.
Since 2003, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief has provided life-saving medications and preventions to hundreds of millions of people around the world through a global supply chain that would make international businesses green with envy. And it did this at no cost to people receiving treatments.
In 2020, through Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry developed three COVID-19 vaccines in record time and leveraged much of the supply chain from the AIDS relief effort to make the vaccines available to the world’s most vulnerable populations.
By leading through innovation, transparency and a commitment to human rights and fair play around the world, the United States and our allies can turn back our rivals’ techno-authoritarianism. Technology can not only advance freedom, but in these fast-changing times, it must.
Bonnie Glick is the director of the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue. Glick is a former IBM executive, and she served as deputy administrator of the United States Agency for International Development from 2019 to 2020.