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Biden’s Plan to Cooperate With Europe on Tech

The United States urgently wants to persuade its allies to turn away from digital autonomy.

An illustration picture taken in London on December 18, 2020 shows the logos of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft displayed on a mobile phone with an EU flag displayed in the background.
An illustration picture taken in London on December 18, 2020 shows the logos of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft displayed on a mobile phone with an EU flag displayed in the background. JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

In the 1960s, mainframe computers, aeronautics, space, nuclear research, and semiconductors occupied the front lines of geopolitics. Powers in Europe were wracked by the thought of suffering a “technological gap” with the United States. Authoritarian leaders accused the United States of trying to use technological power as a vehicle for domination, even as authoritarian tech was on the rise in new domains and attracting support across the global south. European leaders called for a new European technological community to emancipate Europeans from U.S. tech dependence. At the same time, some Europeans pushed U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration to establish a U.S.-European committee to close ranks on technological cooperation.

Today, the tech race has again become a key dimension of power and ideological competition, with artificial intelligence, chips, digital platforms, data flows, 5/6G, cloud and edge computing, the Internet of Things, blockchain, biotech, and quantum technologies at the forefront. This week, as U.S. President Joe Biden made his first trip to Europe for the G-7, NATO, and U.S.-European Union summits, his administration must find a way to work with the EU—despite their differences—to recast how the world’s two most important democratic tech powers approach digital governance.

In the 1960s, mainframe computers, aeronautics, space, nuclear research, and semiconductors occupied the front lines of geopolitics. Powers in Europe were wracked by the thought of suffering a “technological gap” with the United States. Authoritarian leaders accused the United States of trying to use technological power as a vehicle for domination, even as authoritarian tech was on the rise in new domains and attracting support across the global south. European leaders called for a new European technological community to emancipate Europeans from U.S. tech dependence. At the same time, some Europeans pushed U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration to establish a U.S.-European committee to close ranks on technological cooperation.

Today, the tech race has again become a key dimension of power and ideological competition, with artificial intelligence, chips, digital platforms, data flows, 5/6G, cloud and edge computing, the Internet of Things, blockchain, biotech, and quantum technologies at the forefront. This week, as U.S. President Joe Biden made his first trip to Europe for the G-7, NATO, and U.S.-European Union summits, his administration must find a way to work with the EU—despite their differences—to recast how the world’s two most important democratic tech powers approach digital governance.

Biden came to Europe with a clear sense of the geopolitics of technology—the logic of great-power competition and, in particular, the struggle between democratic and authoritarian technology. This April’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence Threat Assessment called China “the top threat to US technological competitiveness” and noted that the Chinese government has a global campaign to “promote new international norms for technology and human rights, emphasizing state sovereignty and political stability over individual rights.” The consensus is so broad that even the Senate made the rare bipartisan move to pass a $250 billion U.S. Innovation and Competition Act by 68 votes to 32.

But the logic of great-power competition and its technological valences have not gained universal traction beyond U.S. shores. An oft-cited 2019 EU document appeared to indicate a level of acceptance by recognizing China as a “strategic rival,” but, in truth, European states still wince at the bellicose language of great-power conflict. In fact, the prevailing grand strategy in the EU, however aspirational, remains the language of “strategic autonomy.” Along with its corollary “digital sovereignty,” strategic autonomy possesses an almost irresistible allure for a Europe traumatized by former U.S. President Donald Trump’s bullying, Big Tech’s market dominance in Europe, and the overarching sense that the continent is too dependent on external actors for key technologies.

Framing the technological U.S.-China rivalry in terms of great-power competition leaves Europe wondering what role it has to play. Increasingly, Europe has been drawn to the notion that it must present an independent third way between Washington and Beijing.

This prospect is alluring for three reasons. First, it restores a sense of geopolitical agency to Europe, elevating the EU and its members to a position coequal with the United States and China. Second, it provides an easy basis for Europe’s own strategic ambiguity. There is a tension across Europe about what “digital sovereignty” even means. Is it an ordo-liberal concept rooted in the notion of an open, democratic European tech space; dynamic competition that prevents market dominance; high levels of regulation; and the preservation of fundamental rights like informational self-determination and consumer choice? Or is it a form of techno-Gaullism aimed at walling off Europe to create a market to foster indigenous European tech champions unthreatened by outside competition?

Finally, while the notion has a “plague on both your houses” equivalence to it, the concept is most immediately directed toward the United States. After all—at its basest level—“digital sovereignty” implies emancipation from Big Tech and data sharing, just as “strategic autonomy” implies emancipation from the security assurances offered by NATO, nuclear sharing, and U.S.-made military equipment.

But this might be a moment of change. At the U.S.-EU Summit, the two sides agreed to launch a new Trade and Technology Council with the aim of shaping the global tech order at its heart. It two sides indicate a new reset of the relationship focused on democratic technology. Here are three places to start.

First, the United States and the EU should work to establish democratic autonomy when it comes to critical and emerging disruptive technologies. This could be accomplished by both deepening the trans-Atlantic tech marketplace and creating greater conditions for market access for critical technology and data. The trans-Atlantic partners should also support democracies’ supply chain resilience and restrict authoritarian states’ access to strategic technology by establishing a Coordinating Committee for Democratic Autonomy, a modern, updated version of the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls. This effort would ideally include criteria and information-sharing dashboards on dual-use export controls and trustworthy vendors of critical technology, investment screening, and research protection. The EU and NATO could jointly head the committee and include docking mechanisms for the accession of partner countries like Japan, Australia, and South Korea.

Second, the two sides should foster strategic interdependence focused, in part, on technological industrial policy. Launching an interdependent trans-Atlantic ecosystem for high-end semiconductor production, with a concentrated effort to develop chip production capabilities in Europe, would be a strong first step. The foundational elements of Europe’s innovative industrial base—design and production aspects of robotics, autonomous vehicles, and manufacturing—should be a central focus. Technological collaboration in next-generation chip production and subsequent strengthened trans-Atlantic trust are especially critical in a post-coronavirus pandemic world with diminished confidence in strategic supply chains.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Biden administration must come to the table as an active partner in a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rewrite the internet’s rules—the EU’s drafting of a new digital rulebook. Everything including content moderation, market power of online platforms, artificial intelligence, data governance, and cloud computing is on the table. The Digital Services Act, Digital Markets Act, Data Governance Act, and new AI regulation combined mark a turning point in global digital governance. By working with the commission on the digital rulebook, the Biden administration has the chance to establish a hidden G-2 on tech regulation together with the EU. A critical signal in this effort would be reestablishing a durable personal data corridor between the United States and the EU by completing a durable Privacy Shield 2.0, a rework of the framework that allowed the free flow of personal data between Europe and the United States before it was struck down by Europe’s courts in 2020.

To succeed, the United States and the EU must deepen their shared alliance structures that tie democratic rules for algorithms and supply chains with access to markets, money, and minds as incentives to abide by a rules-based digital order. Leading an effort to create a nested tech alliance network based around the trans-Atlantic relationship, the G-7, NATO, the OECD, and the broader democratic space would best position the two sides to master this new digital era.

Tyson Barker is Director of the Technology and Global Affairs program at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

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