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Why Both Sides of the Atlantic Should Come Together on Tech

By Lauren M. Speranza and Joanna van der Merwe, this article was originally published on the Defense One platform, on 30 September 2021.


Insufficient coordination on investment priorities, integration, and governance has created space for Chinese and Russian gains.

The dust-up between the United States and France over the AUKUS deal is a critical reminder of the need to elevate transatlantic cooperation on defense technology over national interests. Otherwise, the Euro-Atlantic community risks losing its technological superiority to Russia and China, jeopardizing the democratic system that underpins the use of technology, and repeating mistakes of the past.  

For years, U.S.-European cooperation on defense technology has been hindered by divergences on core issues, such as intellectual property and data sharing, defense industrial-base regulations, and economic interests. While Euro-Atlantic nations have recognized the urgent need to band together to compete with Russia and China on defense technology, power politics and national interest have tended to take precedence. As with the AUKUS agreement and France’s furious response, even when defense tech deals meet a practical capability need, the fallout from the lack of coordination among allies can exacerbate divides that China and Russia are all too eager to exploit. 

At the heart of these debates are questions about strategic autonomy—in this case, whether Europe should seek to maintain “sovereignty” and leadership in various technological areas, in part to lessen reliance on the United States. Similarly, there are concerns over U.S. willingness to cooperate with allies and partners only when it serves its political and economic interests. 

But the need for transatlantic cooperation on defense tech has never been more urgent. Insufficient coordination on tech investment priorities, integration, and governance has weakened the transatlantic alliance’s technological edge, creating space for Chinese and Russian gains. Instead of racing toward tech sovereignty and self-interest, the U.S. and Europe should be forging a collective approach to defense tech that can outweigh China and Russia.  

At risk is not only the technological superiority of the West, but the democratic system that underpins defense technologies. As authoritarian states like China and Russia catch up and even plough ahead in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, 5G, hypersonics, and quantum science, they are increasingly positioned to set the terms of use. Both states have demonstrated intent to use their technological prowess to disrupt the Western-led liberal world order in their favor. The result is an existential struggle between democracy and authoritarianism that is increasingly playing out in the technological domain. Here, the United States’ and Europe’s interests, values, and prosperity are profoundly intertwined. Rather than quarrel over individual defense tech deals, allies must cooperate to develop a shared political and legal framework around the development and use of emerging defense technologies.  

With all of this at stake, the United States and Europe cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past. Earlier efforts to bridge these divides have included the 2007 Trade and Economic Council, which faded into irrelevance, as well as the short-lived, inconclusive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. More recent initiatives, such as the U.S.-EU Technology and Trade Council, the Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic, and the NATO Innovation Fund must not suffer the same fate. The inaugural meeting of the TTC on Sept. 30 is a crucial opportunity for progress. Drawing on previous lessons and harnessing political will of new governments across the Atlantic, policymakers must work together to align tech investments, improve standardization and interoperability, recruit tech talent, enhance industry engagement, boost supply chain resilience, and use multilateral institutions like NATO and the EU with a new level of sincerity and commitment.  

The transatlantic partnership was built largely in a non-tech centric era. But, as tech comes to the forefront of transatlantic security debates, the alliance must adapt, as it has to many other security challenges over the years. It is time for policymakers set aside divergent national interests for the common benefit of the transatlantic community. Short term sacrifices in economic gain and political pride will go a long way in preserving long-term success on strategic technological issues.  

The U.S. and Europe must work in lockstep to strengthen their collective technological edge over Russia and China and ensure a democratic technological domain. The future of our alliance, and the free world it defends, depend on it.  

Saturday, 2 October, 2021 - 01:00