Keeping Tabs on the New Hi-Tech Warriors

12 Jun 2013, 
published in
Deutsche Welle

The Brandenburg gate as a backdrop. A reference to the John F. Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner” speech from almost exactly 50 years ago. A few warm words on the continuing relevance of the transatlantic alliance. It could be so easy for President Barack Obama to win over the German public and policymakers with his speech during his visit in Berlin next Wednesday.

But given the recent leaks about US global online surveillance activities by the National Security Agency (NSA), Obama is likely to face a much more critical audience. Evocative names such as Boundless Informant” and Prism” have a special ring for many Germans who (not least due to their own historical experience) care deeply about privacy protection.

Obama’s reassurance to Americans that the programs mainly target data flows outside the US has put European companies on the alert who fear for their business secrets. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed to confront Obama on the NSA programs next week in Berlin. She should impress on the president the fallout for the Obama administration’s ability to credibly stand for an open and free global Internet.

While she’s at it, Merkel should also raise a much broader concern with the conduct of the Obama presidency: the relentless, often reckless use of technological possibilities to achieve short-term security gains with little regard for the global costs. The NSA programs for which the US enlisted its leading digital economy companies serves as just one example of the Obama administration’s hi-tech warrior mentality. It has capitalized fully on the revolution in military technologies where the US enjoys a significant edge: offensive cyber capabilities, drones and autonomous weapons systems such as killer robots.

All these technologies offer great promise: to be more effective and often also more targeted and proportionate than conventional alternatives. Most of all, they are less risky domestically because they put fewer US lives directly on the line​.At the same time though, these technologies operate mostly outside any global framework. And until now initiating and developing such a framework has been an afterthought at best for Washington. US investment in diplomacy and global rule-making on new military technologies has been a pittance compared to the billions poured into their development. For the most part, the US has contented itself with advancing interpretations of international law that maximize US freedom to use the new technologies.

In the short-term this might seem like a plausible calculation. Why stop the party and constrain yourself when it’s so much fun capitalizing on your technological edge?
But this party will not last long. It only invites an uncontrolled global arms race in which other nations such as China are catching up fast on the technology front. And make no mistake: It is not just America’s soft power that is undermined when Washington acts as an unconstrained superpower disinterested in global rules. Washington will learn to regret the lack of a rules-based framework at the latest once other nations have caught up and can develop new arms that are capable of threatening the US itself. That’s why it is a matter of enlightened self-interest for the United States to change course before it is too late. 

German leaders should take this simple and sober message to President Obama when meeting him next week. They should not do so in the moralizing tone in which Europeans often pretend they are the better guardians of shared values. Instead, Europeans should offer their own concrete suggestions on how to develop global rules on new military technologies. For most European countries and certainly the EU as a whole this means they have to engage in some serious catch-up work on the home front since Europeans themselves have not had a real debate on the use of drones, offensive cyber capabilities or the development of autonomous weapons systems. There is a lot to talk about: What kind of confidence building and transparency measures do we need on the development, purchase and use of drones? What kind of arms control mechanisms can be established for drones? What framework do we want for the development and use of offensive cyber capabilities? Should we negotiate a global moratorium on subcontracting the business of war to the decisions of machines? We have not heard much from the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, let alone Chancellor Merkel on any of these issues. And German opposition candidate Peer Steinbrück has restricted himself to the categorical and unhelpful statement that Germany does not need armed drones.” Negotiating and implementing a global framework of rules that tackles all of these critical issues can’t be done overnight. It’s high time for Europe and the US to start the process before it is too late.