A State Department for the Digital Age

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Carl Sagan was right. The renowned American scientist once warned that “we have arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science and technology.” A case in point: the State Department’s ongoing review of whether to keep cyber security and emerging technology policy in the hands of the undersecretary for arms control and international security, where former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put both portfolios in January 2021.

It makes some sense for arms controllers to lead on security threats in cyberspace. Deterrence is an important element of cyber security, and those who work on arms control would be familiar with deterrence. But developing and executing emerging technology policy requires a different set of skills. AI, the Internet of Things, and 5G, to name only a few emerging technologies, hold vast economic, military, and political potential. Their impact goes far beyond security, the traditional focus of arms control. It is multidimensional and so policy approaches should be too. These technologies lie at the heart of Sino-American rivalry, U.S. innovation and economic leadership, and the future of the global order. They are driving tectonic shifts that will test American diplomacy in ways unseen since the Cold War.



Congress agrees that a security-dominated approach to technology issues is insufficient. However, its proposals to improve Foggy Bottom’s policymaking apparatus do not go far enough. The State Department could address both problems — where to put emerging technologies and how to fix technology policymaking overall — by consolidating technology issues under a new undersecretary position. Doing so would ensure equal attention to economic, security, and political interests, improve coordination and integration of policy, and elevate the stature of cyber diplomacy and technology issues. This move would be consistent with the recommendations of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. Ultimately, consolidating technology policy at the State Department would also help to build the skills and expertise that the department needs to lead foreign policy in the digital age.

Geopolitical and Geoeconomic Implications of Emerging Technologies

Emerging technologies are redefining what it means to be prosperous, secure, and powerful. Every country wants to acquire them and use them to expand or project power and influence, causing friction among nations and provoking anxiety, jealousy, fear, and rage. To lead at this new frontier is to gain a geostrategic advantage for the next century. China is devoting massive resources to that race. Emerging technologies are effectively driving two big shifts: the technological revolution and the rise of China as a strategic competitor to the United States.

But this is no rerun of the era of U.S.-Soviet rivalry. It is more complex. The unprecedented speed and scope of technological advances today are disrupting the pecking order within and among nations and hastening the decline of the existing global order. Cyberspace is now as critical an arena for diplomacy and conflict as the physical world. China, furthermore, is not the Soviet Union. The world’s second largest economy is an engine of global growth and has integrated into the international economic order while playing by its own rules. The U.S. and Chinese economies are also deeply interdependent, raising the costs of conflict and complacency. For all the foregoing reasons, competition with China should be a key consideration in deciding where to place emerging technology policy. This competition is not primarily a weapons race but a race for economic and technological supremacy, and a political contest between two dueling systems. 

State Department Responses to the Emerging Technology Challenge

Until Pompeo established the bureau for cyberspace security and emerging technologies in January 2021, no single office or bureau was in charge of emerging technology policy at the State Department. The bureau has not been stood up, awaiting the outcome of an internal review. Pompeo sought to merge two offices with responsibilities for coordinating diplomatic responses to the security aspects of emerging technologies and effectively create a stronger, more unified, security voice. One office was already under the undersecretary for arms control and international security, the other was not. Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, took the opposite approach: He wanted to place the latter office under the undersecretary for economic affairs in 2017, part of his effort to eliminate special envoy positions, but critics argued that security issues would get short shrift.

Pompeo’s arrangement has operated informally since 2018. He notified Congress of his intent to formalize it in June 2019. But then-House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel blocked the formation of the bureau because it would focus too narrowly on cyber security and fail to elevate economic and political interests. However, that was Pompeo’s point — to address “the security challenges presented by rapid developments in emerging technologies.”

Emerging technology policy was thus not really a stand-alone effort after all, but an adjunct of cyberspace security. Two General Accountability Office investigations during Pompeo’s tenure confirmed that arms control specialists were focusing solely on security to the detriment of economic and political interests. While State Department officials maintained that coordination with other parts of the bureaucracy was taking place, and there is no reason to doubt that assertion, the General Accountability Office was unable to confirm it. Furthermore, in public statements at the time U.S. officials made clear that their focus was on security challenges.

But emerging technology policy requires equal consideration of the economic and political challenges that these technologies present in the hands of competitors and adversaries. AI, for instance, could give autocrats greater capacity to manipulate public opinion, destabilize democracies, and monitor their citizens. It makes as much sense for arms control specialists to formulate and drive the required policy responses as it does to ask democracy experts to address the strategic stability questions raised by hypersonic missiles (another emerging technology).

Economic interests fare no better. The last administration reached into its security policy toolkit to regulate “the availability of things” in response to China’s unfair practices in the technology race with United States, risking American innovation leadership and economic competitiveness. While some may argue that the administration was responding to the perceived loss of U.S. competitiveness resulting from China’s predatory trade practices, U.S. industry, at the center of the storm, certainly did not see it that way. American technology companies pushed back hard against the worst of these policies on the grounds that they would not only harm their interests but also the U.S. economy, and so undercut the very goals that the administration was trying to achieve.

The strategic risks of a security-dominated approach are even broader. Restrictive U.S. policies and China’s responses to them also turned the dial of Sino-American relations decisively towards confrontation. A warier, more critical approach to Beijing is warranted, but Washington has to walk a fine line to keep the complicated mix of rivalry and mutual interests in the relationship from spilling over or prompting hedging by other states.

A security-dominated approach to emerging technologies is simply too blunt and too narrow. Arms control specialists, with their focus on security, unquestionably have a critical role to play on such issues as seeking a global prohibition against AI-enabled systems deciding when to deploy nuclear weapons. But leading the State Department on emerging technology policy requires perspective on a diversity of vital U.S. interests that go well beyond security.

Technology Policy at the State Department: Too Many Cooks

Moving oversight of the emerging technologies portfolio to the deputy secretary of state for management and resources, who has broad responsibilities for policy and management, would be a good start. But it would still not address the bigger organizational challenges that rightly concern Congress. Lawmakers want the department to fix the coordination problems that limit its effectiveness on technology issues, elevate cyber diplomacy as a foreign policy priority, and ensure equal focus on economic, security, and political concerns. Congress also seeks a separate China strategy, given the decisive role of technology competition in Sino-American rivalry.

Yet, for all that lawmakers get right about what ails the State Department organizationally, not a single congressional proposal tackles the fundamental problem: the department’s balkanized technology policy landscape, which stretches across more than a dozen regional and functional bureaus. Five undersecretaries divide oversight of this policy sprawl: political affairs, arms control, economic affairs, civilian security, and public affairs. None are technology experts. Each has a mandate, a budget, and bureaucratic turf to protect. Lawmakers are merely tinkering at the margins, proposing the consolidation of some functions or adding new layers of bureaucracy to solve a coordination and integration problem that starts on the ground floor, not inside the boardroom.

Without changes at the State Department, a security-focused approach will dominate emerging technology policy. This critical area of foreign policy will resemble an arms control agreement: a maze of constraints, hurdles, and walls. U.S. economic competitiveness will also be at risk because traditional arms control thinking tends to be “prohibitory and regulatory,” so in interagency policy deliberations the State Department will be inclined to support burdensome and expensive new layers of restrictions on business in the interest of security. Of course, it will be important to take security considerations into account when thinking about economic and technology policy toward China. But it should not be the only consideration. Absent important bureaucratic changes, other priorities like promoting internet freedom and international cyber stability will suffer from the absence of high-level attention. Furthermore, while counterpart agencies like the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security build the deep bench of expertise necessary to adapt to an era of geostrategic competition rooted in technology, the State Department will fall further behind in this area — where its leadership is essential to America’s well-being and success.

Consolidate Technology Policy Functions

Solutions are not simple, but they are obvious. First, the State Department should create a new undersecretary position and bring all technology issues under it, as the congressionally established National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence recommends. The undersecretary should have broad expertise in technology and its applications. Consolidation will improve coordination and rapid decision-making when trade-offs are required, while developing a cadre of tech-savvy cyber diplomats. The department’s large country desks provide proof of concept. They build deep and practical country expertise because they are multidisciplinary. Information is routinely shared among desk officers handling diverse portfolios — political, economic, and security. Political and economic considerations factor seamlessly into security policy, and vice versa. This integrated, coordinated approach makes country desks formidable policy players. They are well-rounded and respected for their knowledge and advocacy of reliably well-coordinated initiatives and positions, road-tested across competing U.S. interests. That is the model to emulate.

Second, the State Department should discuss its organizational plans with counterpart agencies — including the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Commerce, Treasury, Justice, and Energy — something the last administration, according to the Government Accountability Office, did not do. The National Security Council should lead this discussion and specifically address whether federal agencies are handling emerging technology policy with the kind of comprehensive focus it requires, and not merely as an adjunct of cyber security.

Third, the new undersecretary should report to the third-ranking official in the department, the deputy secretary for management and resources, a position Congress should mandate that every administration fill. Undersecretaries usually report to the secretary of state, but the reality is that they do not all get equal attention. This alternative structure would ensure consistent, high-level involvement. It would give cyber diplomats the stature to go toe-to-toe with counterparts, both in the U.S. policymaking process and in foreign governments, who would see them as influential representatives of a powerful part of the State Department.

Organize for the Present, With a Clear View of the Future

America faces a tidal wave of challenges wrought by unprecedented and ubiquitous advances in emerging technologies and the rise of China as an anti-democratic economic superpower. The State Department has a leading role to play in addressing both challenges. Consolidating all technology issues under a single undersecretary would significantly strengthen the department’s hand in the interagency policymaking process. The department is better positioned than its interagency counterparts to articulate a national emerging technology policy that accounts for the full range of U.S. national interests, not just those related to security. Multidimensionality is the State Department’s core comparative advantage. Consolidation would reinforce it. No other agency has the mandate, the expertise, and the credibility to compel consideration of that vital perspective. Without it, the United States risks undermining its complex geostrategic interests with over-securitized responses to rivalry with China and the related, evolving challenges presented by the most rapid technological change ever experienced in human history.

The State Department’s technology policy apparatus was built for an era that no longer exists. This moment calls urgently for a bold reorganization. The past is never a good place to live.



Ferial Ara Saeed is CEO of Telegraph Strategies LLC, a risk management firm providing clients strategic guidance and analysis of political and economic trends. A former senior American diplomat with expertise on North Asia and the Middle East, she served as deputy U.S. coordinator for information and communications technology policy at the State Department, on the country desks for China, Japan, and Korea, and she advised both the undersecretary of state for economic and business affairs and the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

Image: State Department (Photo by Ron Przysucha)

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