A New Diplomatic Strategy Emerges as Artificial Intelligence Grows

The new U.S. approach to cyberthreats comes as early optimism about a “global internet” connecting the world has been shattered.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken standing at a lectern in front of blue background with the words “RSA Conference 2024” on it.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken at the RSA Conference in San Francisco on Monday. He has described an increasingly zero-sum competition, in which countries will be forced to choose between signing up for a Western-dominated “stack” of technologies or a Chinese-dominated one.Credit…Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

David E. Sanger

By David E. Sanger

David E. Sanger has reported on a range of national security issues, including the use of cyber as a weapon of national power, for four decades.

American and Chinese diplomats plan to meet later this month to begin what amounts to the first, tentative arms control talks over the use of artificial intelligence.

A year in the making, the talks in Geneva are an attempt to find some common ground on how A.I. will be used and in which situations it could be banned — for example, in the command and control of each country’s nuclear arsenals.

The fact that Beijing agreed to the discussion at all was something of a surprise, since it has refused any discussion of limiting the size of nuclear arsenals themselves.

But for the Biden administration, the conversation represents the first serious foray into a new realm of diplomacy, which Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke about on Monday in a speech in San Francisco at the RSA Conference, Silicon Valley’s annual convention on both the technology and the politics of securing cyberspace.

Image

The Biden administration’s strategy goes beyond the rules of managing cyberconflict and focuses on American efforts to assure control over physical technologies like undersea cables, which connect countries, companies and individual users to cloud services.Credit…Yuri Gripas for The New York Times

“It’s true that ‘move fast and break things’ is literally the exact opposite of what we try to do at the State Department,” Mr. Blinken told the thousands of cyberexperts, coders and entrepreneurs, a reference to the Silicon Valley mantra about technological disruption.

But it is that disruption — from a quickening pace of sophisticated cyberattacks, to the vulnerability of undersea cables, to the battle for control of the internet and the influence operations it enables — that has driven agencies across the government to design strategies for dealing with emerging technology threats.

The Biden White House issued a national strategy for dealing with cyber. The Pentagon has written one focused on deterring attacks. The Department of Homeland Security homed in on resilience. But the last formal State Department strategy for diplomatic engagement on the topic was written a dozen years ago, in President Barack Obama’s first term.

Ransomware was not yet a scourge, and the technology behind Chat GPT was still years away. While cyberattacks were well underway — including some launched by U.S. intelligence agencies — they had not become a daily staple of geopolitical competition.

But the new strategy comes at a time when the early optimism about a “global internet” connecting the world has been shattered. What is left is what Nathaniel C. Fick, the State Department’s first ambassador for cyberspace and digital policy, who is expected to play a key role in the discussions with China, refers to as a “fragmented system” that is unlikely to ever be sewn back together.

“Just about everyone is willing to acknowledge that technology is an important element of foreign policy, but I would argue that tech is not just part of the game — it’s increasingly the entire game,” Mr. Fick said in an interview.

“Think about it — asymmetric advantage in the war in Ukraine, global competition with China on key technologies, the ability of Israel and its allies to intercept Iranian aerial attacks. All tech,” he said. “The international order will be defined by whose metaphorical operating system dominates.”

Mr. Fick’s strategy, written with Adam Segal, a Council on Foreign Relations expert on cyber whom Mr. Fick brought into the State Department’s new cyber and digital bureau to help write the strategy, focuses on the concept of “digital solidarity” with allies and partner states that have a common view of the rules that should govern technology and information flows.

“We have to hang together with allies and partners, truly investing in digital solidarity, or we’ll get picked apart by those who have a very different view of tech’s role in the world,” Mr. Fick said, a clear reference to the growing partnership of Russia and China.

As a result, the strategy goes beyond the rules of managing cyberconflict and focuses on American efforts to assure control over physical technologies like undersea cables, which connect countries, companies and individual users to cloud services.

Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, has been seeking to dominate the laying of cables across the Pacific and, increasingly, around the world. But Mr. Fick maintains that American, Japanese and European firms still dominate the market, and that “this remains one area where we can compete vigorously.”

Mr. Blinken, in his speech, made clear that part of the diplomacy he envisions involves persuading nations not to rely on undersea cables, data storage or cloud computing supplies from Chinese suppliers, or other states in China’s technological orbit. He describes an increasingly zero-sum competition, in which countries will be forced to choose between signing up for a Western-dominated “stack” of technologies or a Chinese-dominated one.

“In these arenas, the United States currently leads the world, but providers from authoritarian states are increasingly competitive,” Mr. Blinken told the RSA Conference. “It’s critical we work with trusted vendors and exclude untrustworthy ones from the ecosystem.”

Mr. Blinken made clear, by implication, that it was China’s firms he was labeling as untrustworthy.

He cited a U.S.-backed effort, along with Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Taiwan, to link up 100,000 people living in the Pacific islands — a tiny population, but one that China has targeted because of its strategic location — in its effort to expand its influence in the South Pacific.

“Any disruption — or compromise — could isolate a country, threaten national security or lead to billions of dollars in damage,” Mr. Blinken said.

The new State Department strategy acknowledges that cyberweaponry and a range of digital tools were central to Russia’s effort to take over Ukraine in 2022 — starting with the attacks on the Viasat satellite system that kept the country’s government agencies connected. And it notes that Ukraine was kept connected because of technology provided by Microsoft, Amazon World Services and Elon Musk’s Starlink, which enabled the embattled authorities in Kyiv to move their records and communications to the cloud, just days or weeks ahead of Russian attacks that destroyed computer servers around major cities.

But the new strategy says surprisingly little about how to deter state-directed attacks, a focus of the Obama-era strategy and a source of continuing frustration for American officials. It also acknowledges the degree to which China has penetrated American utility and water supply networks, installing malware that U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed are designed to trigger chaos and slow an American military response if Beijing decided to invade or choke off Taiwan.

The strategy describes that operation, which Microsoft’s investigators have named “Volt Typhoon,” in unusually stark terms. It characterizes China as capable of “launching cyberattacks that could disrupt oil and gas pipelines, rail systems and other critical infrastructure services within the United States or its allies and partners.”

“Attempts to compromise critical infrastructure by PRC actors are designed in part to pre-position themselves to be able to disrupt or destroy critical infrastructure in the event of a conflict,” the State Department report, using the initials for the People’s Republic of China, continued, “to either prevent the United States from being able to project power into Asia, or to affect our decision-making during a crisis by instigating societal chaos inside the United States.”

David E. Sanger covers the Biden administration and national security. He has been a Times journalist for more than four decades and has written several books on challenges to American national security. More about David E. Sanger

A version of this article appears in print on  , Section

A

, Page

12

of the New York edition

with the headline:

As Artificial Intelligence Grows, a New Diplomatic Strategy Emerges for the United States. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Harry Byrne

Related post