NATO risks unity over emerging technologies divide

Converging technologies are introducing new security challenges for NATO, and it’s struggling with how to respond.

A picture of Nato flag before a Chiefs
Converging technologies growing "faster than our ability to legislate or regulate" put new stresses on NATO [AFP]

Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, two scientists from a non-nuclear weapons state began to research an innovative approach for isotope separation using lasers. Their project soon proved a major success. Less than five years later, the scientists were able to successfully demonstrate a proof of concept at their company’s laboratories. They then turned to developing the technology into a commercially viable solution. This included targeting the largest global market for isotope separation – uranium enrichment.

This is the story of SILEX, an Australian company originally founded as a technology research and development subsidiary of Sonic Healthcare Limited. SILEX provides a real-world case study on how a commercial company operating in a non-defence sector and located in a non-nuclear weapons state can successfully develop a disruptive innovation that challenges existing non-proliferation regimes. And, it serves as a cautionary tale for counter proliferation experts worldwide.

An exceptional case

Fortunately, SILEX did not follow the path paved by Pakistan’s Khan Research Laboratories. Instead of peddling their technology to aspiring nuclear states, SILEX partnered with the Australian and American governments to responsibly develop it within the limits of Australia’s international commitments. This included conducting their research in “a secure area in a building rented from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation”. It also involved entering into an exclusive licensing agreementwith the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC).

The world is witnessing an unprecedented period of scientific and technological innovation being spurred on by the synergistic combination of converging technologies.

In the end, these safeguards proved insufficient for the Australian and United States governments. This led both governments to undertake the extreme measure of classifying SILEX technology in 2001. This marked “the first time in over twenty years that the government… invoked the Atomic Energy Act to classify privately held information that originated outside of government”. Despite the challenge this posed to civil liberties and free market competition, SILEX chose not to contest their move in deference to security.

This raises the question: Could the SILEX experience travel to other contexts? This is where counterfactuals prove especially insightful. Imagine SILEX was unwilling to enter into an exclusive licensing agreement with USEC. Or, SILEX was developed somewhere other than a “Five Eyes” country and challenged the US move to classify their technology. It is difficult to picture the SILEX experience being replicated in these – or many other – scenarios. Future SILEXes should then be of profound concern.

Disruptive innovations

At present, the world is witnessing an unprecedented period of scientific and technological innovation being spurred on by the synergistic combination of converging technologies, including nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, information technology, and cognitive science (NBRIC). Such convergence is producing a wide range of disruptive innovations that may contribute to a “tremendous improvement in human abilities, societal outcomes, the nation’s productivity, and the quality of life”. And, current WMD states clearly do not possess a monopoly over such innovation.

Converging technologies also pose fundamental human security challenges. As Francis Fukuyama once argued in Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, converging technologies could inequitably transform the world we live in and, in the process, undermine the very foundations that underpin liberal democracies. Whether or not such a future unfolds, it is clear that their application raises serious ethical and moral issues that are proving divisive for allies and enemies alike (eg: the debates over armed drones and cyber espionage). Even where common approaches can be achieved (eg: combatting designer drugs), converging technologies are growing “faster than our ability to legislate or regulate” them.

The search for consensus

These developments are putting new stresses on the NATO alliance. According to a recent experts workshop, the NBRIC Revolution is threatening NATO unity. “As warfare is outsourced to only those who are ‘near peers’ in technology and societal views shift,” NATO will likely experience “decreasing political tolerance for alliance security efforts”. If NATO member states want to sustain “the traditional transatlantic compact [European political support in return for US military guarantees]”, they must change the way NATO approaches cooperative security around emerging technologies. And, they need to do it now.

First and foremost, NATO needs to substantially increase its investment in its Emerging Security Challenges Division (ESCD). This division should be provided the resources necessary to properly investigate the net security implications of converging technologies. It also must be granted the agency to pursue independent assessments of the security impacts posed by emerging technologies. This requires a mandate to conduct its research at arms length from NATO member states to ensure that its reports are not subject to their political meddling. If this cannot be achieved within the institution, then NATO should consider transforming ESCD into an independent institution (eg: the role that UNIDIR plays in the United Nations).

NATO also needs to ensure that all member states possess equal agency to call upon the ESCD to prepare reports on particular emerging technology issues of concern. This would be similar to the agency provided to US Congress members to call upon Congressional Research Services. Through this reform, NATO could institutionalise not only a mechanism to request such reports but also a corresponding mechanism to require that they be subject to mandatory review and deliberation by all NATO member states (potentially in the presence of NATO partners). A fast-track mechanism should also be considered that would be open to any NATO member or partner who believes that a specific emerging technology issue poses an urgent threat to the international security.

To date, there have been far too few committee reports designed to create awareness and common understanding of the key security challenges posed by individual emerging technologies.

Separately, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly needs to be held accountable for failing in its duty to address the serious threat posed by emerging technologies. To date, there have been far too few committee reports designed to create awareness and common understanding of the key security challenges posed by individual emerging technologies. And, there have been no substantive reports that have tackled the overarching implications of the NBRIC revolution. Moving forward, all of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Committees should place emerging technologies on their annual agenda. By doing so, they could remedy some of the challenges raised by the inability of individual member states to develop the legislation and regulations to manage the downside risks of converging technologies. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly might even consider convening a major conference open to all national politicians from the NATO Community on the security implications of converging technologies.

Finally, NATO must do a better job of partnering with non-NATO states and Track II actors to address the security implications of emerging technologies. This includes a wide range of actors, such as academics, think tank scholars, business leaders, and civil society actors. Through these partnerships, NATO can “fill the vacuum/compensate for state institutional adaptability deficit(s)”. Unfortunately, few NATO resources have been allocated to Track II partnerships to-date. If NATO members want to confront emerging security threats, these members need to push NATO to make such investments. This includes expanding on the work undertaken by the ESCD and the Partnership for Peace Consortium, who recently organised the Track I/II experts working group on emerging security challenges. It could even lead to new formal and informal mechanisms for Track II actors to intervene in relevant NATO discourses. Sponsoring an annual Track I/II conference on emerging technologies policy would be one such step in that direction.

Eddie Walsh is the President of the Emerging Science and Technology Policy Centre. He also serves as Senior Fellow at the School of Foreign Service – Georgetown University, Adjunct Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, Director-General of the Pacific Islands Society, and President of the Africa Security Network.

Follow him on Twitter: @aseanreporting