Crafting Canada’s Techno-Diplomatic Strategy

Analysis and Commentary, Emerging Technologies, Featured

Canada is in dire need of a solid diplomatic strategy that responds to the growing nexus between emerging technologies and national security. Newly-appointed foreign minister Mélanie Joly would do well to prioritize the development of robust and forward-looking policies to tackle tech-related security concerns, as is increasingly the case in the foreign ministries of a number of countries—including key Canadian allies as well as would-be adversaries.

Concerns in this realm are well justified and wide ranging. From cyber vulnerabilities and attacks on critical infrastructure, to the growing sophistication of global surveillance tools to track human rights defenders and diaspora communities among others as well as the adoption of artificial intelligence by militaries.

As minister Joly took office, she announced a plan for “humility and audacity” in Canada’s international affairs engagements. The question is whether these qualities will guide in the development of a clear yet nimble techno-diplomatic strategy for Canada. Among key challenges in the development of such a strategy will be the need to juggle national security interests with economic and scientific ones. Simply, stronger diplomatic attention is needed to offset a more militarized approach.

Regulating the exchange of technological goods and information is one way for Canada and other middle powers to preserve their own economies and protect national security. However, overly securitized responses could slow or prevent productive scientific exchanges and cooperation that offer benefits to all involved parties and to the world at large.

The Canadian government has created a working group of representatives from universities and national security agencies on security concerns and has asked the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to take national security into consideration when partnering with foreign entities. But clearer, more robust guidelines on intellectual property and technological transfers are needed (along with adequate domestic support for research). But diplomatic efforts cannot lag and new initiatives and roles, such as a special envoy on critical and emerging technologies as the United States government announced recently, are needed.

In short, Canada needs a techno-diplomatic strategy that satisfies its own security requirements—and those of its allies—while still encouraging productive technological and scientific exchanges. This will require a modernization of Canadian diplomacy and capacity building at Global Affairs.

The basis for an effective response

Interestingly, lessons and strategies from the past will be helpful in the development of Canada’s new techno-diplomacy. Policymakers have been using techno-diplomacy to respond to difficult geopolitical circumstances for many decades. In his 1989 book Techno-Diplomacy: US-Soviet Confrontations in Science and Technology, Glenn E. Schweitzer defines techno-diplomacy as:

1: the art and practice of conducting negotiations between countries with conflicting technological interests, 2: skill in handling scientific affairs without arousing hostility, 3: ability to resolve issues on the frontiers of science and technology in the direction of peace and not war.

Rachel S. Salzman adds that “techno-diplomacy is also the ability to cooperate on science and technology even when political relations are extremely difficult.”  She explains that effective techno-diplomacy is the result of “good cooperation [that] comes from both sides finding the work to be scientifically and professionally beneficial.”

Techno-diplomacy is not intended to mend political relations, but to ensure that scientific and technological exchanges continue. Even when there are political dividends to be had, a successful engagement will be driven by scientific objectives.

Crafting an effective strategy: Exchange information

An effective techno-diplomatic strategy for Canada will address national security concerns and seek to maintain diplomatic relations while meeting as many of the needs of the scientific, research, and tech-development communities as possible.

The process of creating such a strategy must include consultations with Canadian scientists and researchers to understand how they engage with their counterparts in different countries and the types of technologies that are being developed.

This process can reveal interactions that, while posing potential security risks, also promise significant scientific and technological benefits for Canadian companies and consumers. With such detailed data, the Canadian government will be better able to create policies that protect  without prohibiting useful engagement. Here having a special bureau in Global Affairs Canada, to address emerging tech issues, such as the US is planning to develop in its State Department, is necessary. This will require devoting more resources to Global Affairs to build capacity and develop this bureau.

Early exchanges between government and research communities could also make the research community more aware of particular problems in various countries—for example, human rights abuses. With this information, researchers will be better able to ensure that their projects are not in any way implicated or involved with the breaking of international law. Researchers can also become advocates and proponents for the value that protecting human rights brings to all human endeavours, including the scientific and technological.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

A techno-diplomatic strategy should be built on existing diplomatic practices. It begins first by working with likeminded states in multilateral fora to facilitate scientific exchanges. Ultimately, an effective techno-diplomacy will necessitate working with more adversarial countries, here diplomatic skills should be used to focus on possibilities for cooperation and diplomatic engagement.

In such a context, Canada will be able to observe how other countries engage with more adversarial actors in multilateral forums. Of course, being seen as a member of particular blocs and alliances could encourage policies that restrict scientific exchanges with other actors. When possible, Canada should seek to maintain a balance between security concerns and scientific cooperation.

Some restrictions necessary

A Canadian techno-diplomatic strategy must ensure that Canadian government departments and companies consider carefully which technologies should be allowed in security-sensitive situations and locations.

The news that Canada had selected the company that submitted the lowest bid, Chinese company Nuctech, over a Canadian company to provide and maintain security X-rays in Canadian embassies raised concerns in Canada and the United States because it was feared that China could use this equipment for espionage. The Nuctech deal, which was ultimately rejected because of security concerns, prompted a discussion of the need for closer scrutiny of technologies adopted by government agencies.

It is also the case that Canadian technology companies must consider the types of components and subsystems that they acquire from foreign companies. Or indeed, that they export to some countries. Such use could threaten customers at home and abroad.

Thus, a techno-diplomatic strategy does not mean that science always trumps security. It means that certain considerations are given priority. In this case, security would have a high priority. Included under this umbrella would be robust cybersecurity practices and due consideration of concerns that technologies could be used to violate human rights.

Protecting intellectual property

Finally, Canada needs a techno-diplomatic strategy that offers Canadian tech companies and university researchers clear guidance on how to protect intellectual property when engaging with international partners and on how to respond to security concerns that particular research could provoke.

International funding likely means that researchers and funders share the intellectual property. Only some universities have specific policies to ensure that intellectual property rights remain with the researcher. Government, universities and individual researchers must cooperate to ensure that individual funding agreements do not open the door to misuse of the developing technology.

For example, it was recently revealed that Huawei, in partnership with  NSERC, was funding computer and electrical engineering research at Canadian universities. Critics noted that Canadian researchers are providing advanced technology to a company that has raised national-security concerns in allied countries.

However, a researcher whose work is funded by Huawei defended the partnership, stating that Huawei is one of the few companies with the “critical mass” to provide the level of support needed. Without Huawei’s support, many projects would end—or never start. This, it is clear to see that establishing appropriate guidelines will not be a simple exercise.

A value added strategy

By determining its own national priorities and technological goals, Canada will be better equipped to respond to growing global technological competition, with other middle powers and with the superpowers—whether adversaries or allies.

Diplomacy will be key in this global competition and if the Global Affairs department remains under-resourced Canada’s national security, economy and scientific community will all be impacted. It remains to be seen whether the Canadian government will be audacious enough to to recognize this reality at home.

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