From Brussels to Beijing, diplomats are increasingly focused on winning the battle to establish the standards and norms governing emerging technologies. New structures for Whitehall departments may be a step in the right direction for the UK.
Regulatory diplomacy, an old idea, is enjoying a renaissance. Aligning economic regulation across Europe was the idea which the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community judged necessary to prevent future wars on the continent. The goals of regulatory diplomats today remain the same: to create economic communities of interest which embed an underlying set of values. But with a new geopolitical twist.
The EU – US Trade and Technology Council is the most salient effort to create governance structures and rules which establish a Western paradigm over emerging technology. Most international standard-setting bodies and related multilateral organisations were once viewed as apolitical, but no longer. China’s Standards 2035 Plan, published last year, declared an intention of dominating the next generation of technologies in AI, quantum, the Internet of Things, 5G and 6G, by setting their standards. That strategy has proved successful in many areas. Huawei holds patents for the largest number of standards which underpin global 5G technology.
The UK government’s 2021 Integrated Review of UK foreign and defence policy acknowledged a need to adopt a more front-footed diplomatic posture towards the digital economy and emerging tech. The UK’s international posture on these issues has often looked fragmented between competing and overlapping government departments. The creation of a combined business and trade department, alongside a department for Science and Technology offers the opportunity to take a more holistic and effective view.
Some of the key areas in which the UK could benefit from a more coherent regulatory diplomatic focus include:
- Artificial intelligence: the government could better leverage the world-leading innovation driven by UK-based companies to help set the terms of the debate in international organisations, from UNESCO to the OECD and the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence.
- Quantum technology: As on AI, there is an opportunity for the UK to frame the debate on ethics in relation to the future use of quantum. Given the acute defence and security risks in relation to this technology area, the UK might lead a NATO or five eyes approach.
- Fusion energy : the UK is the first country to have published a framework on how to safely regulate fusion and could take advantage of its strong reputation within the International Atomic Energy Agency, International Energy Agency and Euratom, as well as the G20, to push for robust guardrails.
Outside the European Union, the UK has the opportunity and incentive to take a global lead in these debates. But doing so will require a shift in mindset, skills and cross-government cooperation. New departments will help, but maintaining a long-term political focus on these issues remains the crucial ingredient.