The head of the State Department’s Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy said that a more prominent U.S. focus on tech policy necessitates greater international engagement.
Foreign diplomacy centered around cyberspace and technology is critical for ensuring global U.S leadership and countering adversarial nations, the State Department’s cyber ambassador said during an event hosted by the German Marshall Fund on Thursday.
Nathaniel Fick, the U.S. ambassador at large for cyberspace and digital policy, said that it must be a priority for the U.S. government “to strengthen American foreign policy on technology topics,” particularly as these issues take on more of a leading role in international affairs.
“Fundamentally, that means sustaining American advantage and likeminded advantage in areas where we have strong technology leads,” he added. “It means recapturing our leads in the places where we've lost them. And it means closing off pathways to advantage for adversaries and competitors.”
Fick heads State’s Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy, which the department launched in April 2022 as part of an effort to “address the national security challenges, economic opportunities and implications for U.S. values associated with cyberspace, digital technologies and digital policy.” The Senate unanimously confirmed Fick to head State’s cyberspace bureau in September.
Fick said that successful efforts to promote U.S. voices on tech-related international bodies—such as last September’s election of U.S. candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin as the Secretary-General of the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union over a Russian opponent—help provide a needed counterweight to adversarial nations and are emblematic “of a re-engagement by the United States, and hopefully a turning of the tide.”
“Nature abhors a vacuum, and others fill the void when we leave and move those bodies in directions that are ultimately very fundamentally at odds with the technology future that I think we all want to see,” Fick added.
He said this type of enhanced engagement on the world stage also entails strengthening partnerships between the government and private sector companies—efforts that have significantly increased over the past year, due in large part to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Fick said these public-private partnerships have proven to be particularly effective when it comes to supporting State’s goal of “ensuring that Russia's invasion of Ukraine results in a strategic defeat for Russia.”
“People have wondered why Russian cyber attacks seem not to have been effective or as effective in Ukraine, or in Europe,” Fick said. “One of the reasons is that Microsoft and others were able to push updates at scale, in near real time, based on collaboration with the U.S. intelligence community that allowed them to blunt these attacks. It's not that the attacks weren't happening—it's that they weren't being effective.”
In addition to more effectively promoting the United States’ tech and cyber interests globally and bolstering American allies in support of shared diplomatic interests, Fick said it was also important for officials to engage with unaligned or “middle countries,” particularly on issues of internet governance.
“It should not be all anti-Russia or anti-China, because there are many middle ground states around the world,” Fick said, noting that the U.S. must work to “couch all of our policies—first and foremost—in affirmative, positive, attractive, compelling terms, telling a very real story about the good things that technology can bring in our future.”
Domestic policy issues related to technology and cybersecurity have also begun to play a more prominent role in foreign affairs. Fick referenced President Joe Biden’s Jan. 11 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that called, in part, for the U.S. to enact federal data privacy protections, and added that “it will strengthen our foreign policy, it will strengthen our trade policy [and] it will help us build bigger, stronger alliances.”
As the U.S. attempts to position itself as the leading regulatory voice on technology and cybersecurity policies—an issue that congressional lawmakers have cited as important for combatting China’s growing global influence—the role of digital policy-oriented officials, like Fick, has become more prominent in foreign affairs.
“One of the uncomfortable realities of diplomacy is that sometimes your country's domestic policies don't necessarily strengthen your foreign policy,” Fick said, noting that privacy and tech issues are a constant “topic of discussion with our European counterparts.”
U.S. allies, for instance, have taken issue with some of the provisions included in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act—or IRA—which some European officials view as being too protectionist when it comes to providing subsidies and tax breaks to American companies and manufacturers. And the U.S. is still engaging with international allies to come to an agreement on export controls designed to limit China’s access to advanced semiconductors and related equipment.
Fick admitted that some of the IRA’s provisions “provoked a negative reaction in Europe,” but said that U.S. officials are continuing to negotiate with the European counterparts to smooth over any areas of disagreement.
“I've been at the table at the [U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council] to help figure out the path, and I'm confident we will figure out the path, because so much is riding on it,” he said, adding that there is “a lot of constructive goodwill on both sides to get there” and “an overriding geopolitical imperative to figure it out.”
He said U.S. officials are following a “classic whole-of-government approach” when it comes to engaging with their European counterparts on issues related to the IRA and export controls, noting that at the last U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council ministerial meeting in December, “the U.S. trade representative, the Secretary of Commerce and the Secretary of State were quite literally shoulder to shoulder at a small table.”
“I would extend that image, that metaphor, all the way through the way these policies are being devised and implemented,” Fick added.