The following is a transcription of the panel, “Foreign Ministry and Private Sector Approaches to Tech Diplomacy” from the 2022 Meridian Global Leadership Summit.
Speakers: Her Excellency Dame Karen Pierce, Ambassador of the United Kingdom to the United States; Chris Sharrock, Vice President, UN Affairs and International Organizations, Microsoft; and Eugenio Vargas Garcia, Ph.D., Tech Diplomat, Brazil.
Moderator: Bennett Richardson, President, Protocol
Bennett Richardson (BR): We have a fascinating topic today to talk with you all about which I think is really foundational to today’s Summit which is, how technology is transforming diplomacy and how the dedicated craft of tech diplomacy has been developing. [Tech diplomacy] really kicked off about five years ago in 2017 when the Danish government really recognized this need and created the first tech Ambassador role to Silicon Valley and has just developed so rapidly since then. So many countries have followed suit, we have a number of really interesting tech diplomacy initiatives to hear about today from our panel. That the role will continue to evolve. We have more and more perspectives from the Global South being included in the tech diplomacy conversation which is crucial, and just really excited to have this session explore approaches that some of our Foreign Ministries are taking; the private sector is employing to tackle this ever-expanding tech and innovation portfolio. Before we dive in we have another poll that I wanted to just tee up for you with the same Mentee location as before and the question which I’ll also use to to kick off our panel is how do you define tech diplomacy? We’ve got a few interesting options here: cooperation among nations, diplomatic engagement that advances technological progress, diplomatic engagement among nations in international organizations and big tech companies. So would love for all of your feedback and we’ll bring that back up at the at the end of the panel. To kick things off I’d love to hear from each of you about how you all think about tech diplomacy in your respective fields and and roles. Ambassador Pierce, how do you think about and define tech diplomacy within the UK and within the UK Embassy?
Her Excellency Dame Karen Pierce (Amb. KP): Well thanks very much and say hello everybody, thank you for asking me. I think the first thing to say is that tech diplomacy is diplomacy. So a lot of it is about the connections you make, getting the right people in the room, bringing different sectors of society together-government, private sector, civil society trying to make things happen. All of that is is what you’d expect whether it’s tech diplomacy, defense diplomacy, trade diplomacy. I think particularly about tech, and I’m probably the last person who ought to be talking about this because I’m too old and I can barely work the I.T. You actually do need to be a bit savvy about tech. You do you need to be able to see the future and know the direction you’re going in. I do think that makes it a little bit different from defense and trade diplomacy, we use ours to champion the UK as a good place for tech startups, to encourage financing, to encourage bigger clusters to grow. We have a tech envoy out in San Francisco, who liaises with Silicon Valley on all these points and goes around the U.S explaining why Britain is a very good place to cooperate on tech.
BR: That’s great, thank you. I want to come back to your point about helping the UK compete. Chris, tell us,how do you define tech diplomacy and think about it at Microsoft?
Chris Sharrock (CS): Well i think Ambassador Pierce has defined it extremely, extremely well. In focusing first of all on the fact that, you know diplomacy is diplomacy. I suppose what is happening is that different actors, different stakeholders are trying to find way ways in which to talk to each other. I think that the function of the diplomat is to create a space where dialogue can happen and where problems can be discussed and ideally solved sometimes through collective actions. We can think about tech diplomacy in quite a quite a sort of simple way in that regard. To sort of turn to Microsoft and maybe just say a little bit about what I do and what my team does, so I am as you mentioned Bennett the Vice President for United Nations and International Organizations at Microsoft. I lead a team that is based largely in New York, but also in Geneva, in Paris, here in Washington DC engaging with the United Nations and the International System. This team was founded a couple of years ago, but to some degree a new team but pretty well established function because of Microsoft’s partnership with the United Nations goes back a couple of decades. What we’re trying to do in my team is to focus on the four priorities of inclusive economic opportunity of environmentally sustainable development, supporting fundamental rights and building trust in technology and the conversations that we have. The way that we do this is through partnering. We have an office in New York, a physical presence in New York that allows us to convene the private sector, the public sector, the civil society, stakeholders… it allows us to have those discussions, to listen to those discussions and sometimes it allows us to establish a multi-stakeholder program of action that we can take forward and I can talk about that a little bit more later maybe if you want.
BR: That’s great, absolutely. I think we’ll definitely come back to the multi-stakeholder side of tech diplomacy. Eugenio, you are our Deputy Council General in San Francisco for Brazil’s Consulate General and also Brazil’s Tech Diplomat, so especially curious to hear how how you think about and define tech diplomacy in your own work.
Ambassador Eugenio Vargas Garcia (Amb. EVG): Thank you so much, I’ll give you my own definition of tech diplomacy as the conduct and practice of international relations dialogue, negotiations on global digital policy and emerging technological issues among states, the private sector, civil society and other groups. We need a holistic approach to see the big picture. [Tech diplomacy] is mostly a stakeholder understanding of the why we need to engage more in global digital policy. I think the assessment in Brazil is that we have the structure in place in San Francisco, the Consulate General, we have a network of science technology innovation sections around the world, fifty-five of them. But the assessment is we could do more. The idea is to enhance our presence in the Bay Area, in Silicon Valley and engage more of the big tech companies, but also with the innovation ecosystem in the Bay area as a whole.
BR: That’s great, that’s tremendous. Ambassador Pierce, I would love to come back to the topic of competitiveness. Obviously trade economic competitiveness [is a] key topic for so many countries. The tech industry is so global both in its reach and in its economic impact. How does having this tech diplomacy strategy inform that work with the industry and how does it help the UK compete on a on a global stage?
Amb. KP: It sets a framework for all our actions and priorities, I think that’s the first thing to say. We hope to publish our tech strategy very shortly. It’s based on three key principles, which enables us to organize our work right the way across the US, India and other places that we’re very interested in for tech. One principle is free, Chris alluded to this, the open society element of I.T and tech, and the internet. The other [prinicple] is around responsibility in line with human rights, public safety, online harms, protecting children… it’s securely resilient to withstand attacks from what we might call hostile actors, whether they’re competing companies or they’re state powers. We organize our work around those three things.
BR: Got it, tremendous. Eugenio, how do you organize your work day-to-day? This is a new capacity as a dedicated Tech Diplomat for for Brazil. How is your work with both the tech industry and around championing these digital policies evolved during the past years you’ve taken this on and what is your day-to-day work championing tech diplomacy look like?
Amb. EVG: I think we need to strike a balance between the traditional way of doing cooperation type of science technology innovation because this is what we always do in terms of seeking partnerships, promoting the country and having negotiations with interlockers in the Bay Area, etc. But now in addition to that, we have this agenda in terms of digital global policy. That’s why we are reaching out not only to big tech companies, but also to all the players in the Bay Area. There is a group it’s called, Tech Diplomacy Playground. It’s it’s a small grou of twelve countries but now it’s expanding. Mostly from Europe but also from Asia-Japan and South Korea. Brazil is the only Latin American country that joined this group. The problem is if tech diplomacy now is going global, we need more countries involved, especially from the from the Global South. You have forty-one consulates in San Francisco but not a single African country. You need a global approach and a global range for this discussion. You need to have everybody on board even from Africa and the Middle East. The idea is to expand this group and seek alternatives for tech diplomacy-not only in Silicon Valley, but also [other] countries to appoint tech ambassadors based in their capital or use a multilateral settings to engage in this conversation.
BR: Absolutely. A follow-up question for you, you made an important point about the power of tech diplomacy for the Global South and some opportunity for expansion there. For guests that we have from developing countries who are thinking about their own tech diplomacy strategies, what advice would you have for them as you’re starting to expand into increasing your tech diplomacy footprint? How do you really lift up that profile on a global stage?
Amb. EVG: I think for developing countries, this is a challenge because they lack resources. If you say that the only place to do tech diplomacy is San Francisco, there are costs involved in having a physical presence there. Perhaps an alternative is to engage in multilateral fora because they are available for developing countries for instance, the United Nations. There’s a global platform for and discussions for example AI, the center of this technological revolution. But when do you discuss AI governance at the global level? There’s something missing. For these countries, I would suggest being more active. We need normative leadership, we need the multilateral engagement and this is the place for negotiations on policy making and any normative ideas that can come up to have this space and move forward in terms of global digital policy.
BR: Absolutely. I’m going to come back to the UN in a moment because it’s something that you all share in your backgrounds. Chris, Microsoft is unique in this space. It’s the only large technology company that has a dedicated digital diplomacy team, a dedicated office specifically focused on diplomacy with the UN and other international organizations. Can you tell us more about about how that works, about how that came to be? How does your team work with those governments and institutions?
CS: Absolutely. I think we are at this point in time the only company that has a physical office at the United Nations wherein one dag (?) which Ambassador Pierce will know well is a building that houses a number of emissions. I’d say a couple of things, first of all I’d say that the private sector being engaged in multilateral discussions that is not a new thing. The OECD in Paris, an organization I know is celebrating sixty years of the Business Advisory Committee, which actually has a seat at the table in those discussions. At the United Nations, you have the International Chambers of Commerce with observer status at the General Assembly. You have in ECOSOC, you have the major groups with business there as well, so I think there is a traditional route of engagement with multilateralism and the United Nations so businesses have tended to use that. I suppose what we’ve done through establishing an office is really demonstrate, and it comes back to the point that Ambassador Garcia was just making, an aspiration to engage with the established multilateral system. We see it as a place where we can have a discussion around the many global challenges that we face and we hope that we can be a constructive partner in helping solve those global challenges partially because we see that technology is capable of genuinely transformational change in addressing some of these challenges. When we think about for example the sustainable development goals, that is the settled global agenda for the United Nations to a large extent. Microsoft’s Vice Chair and President, Brad Smith is one of the Secretary General’s SDG advocates. We have almost an obligation to be there to try and support that activity. For example, one piece of work that we’re doing is co-chairing the Private Sector Forum at the Conference of Least Developed Countries in Doha in March next year. Least developed countries account for 1.4% of global GDP. In about 20 years time, one in four young people in the world will be living in least developed countries. If we’re genuinely serious about engaging in support of the sustainable development goals, that is the sort of work that we should be engaging with. I think that is new that is innovative. We hope that others will follow and we hope that others will come with us. On an activity like the Private Sector Forum, part of our job is convening and bringing private sector partners. I’d encourage anyone in the audience who wants to talk to me to do so about that afterwards.
BR: Absolutely. They can can learn from you and start to set up some of their own institutional offices in Microsoft stead. One thing you all mentioned was the UN. It’s something that you all share in your backgrounds. Ambassador Pierce, you were UK’s permanent represenative and the Ambassador to the UN. Eugenio, you served as a Senior Advisor for 73rd General Assembly. We’ve got an interesting timing here today with the UN General Assembly just about a month behind us and then COP27 coming up in the next few weeks. Question for all of you, what role do you think that the UN specifically and other global organizations can play in trying to further global tech policy, digital governance and how we think about technology issues on a global level?
Amb. KP: I think Chris and the Amb. EVG have described it really well. Chris and I used to serve in the British Diplomatic Service together so we know each other. We try and use our time as Brits on the International Telecommunications Union, which is one branch of the UN, to try and help develop strategies as Ambassador Garcia was saying to enable developing countries to have access to tech. One point I did want to make though, if you are an authoritarian country with an authoritarian mindset you actually love these things being done through the UN because you have, not necessarily a literal veto, but you can influence and crucially restrict what gets agreed. Although it seems natural to champion the UN as the way forward, and there are lots of good reasons for the UN to be involved to help even the playing field for developing countries, we do have to be a bit careful at this drive from countries like Russia and China to have government always be involved in tech interactions. That way you actually end up closing down the multilateral or multi-stakeholder model that Chris was talking about. It’s a fine balance to make sure that things like the internet remain open, multi-stakeholder and free. That’s a pity, because normally the UN would be absolutely the most natural place to help developing countries but it needs a balance.
BR: Absolutely. Ambassador Garcia, how do you think about that role at the UN and how Brazil uses it to champion your digital policy and governance?
Amb. EVG: Yes, thank you. I was exactly thinking about that because San Francisco is the birthplace of the United Nations. The UN Charter was signed there and now it has become the birthplace of tech diplomacy. But as I said, we need to embrace a global approach to digital policy and tech diplomacy in general. Maybe a multilateral setting could help us but we need to acknowledge the existing challenges. For example, the political and ideological divisions. We need to be realistic but focus on areas of convergence and common interests. Remember that with climate change, people would say that the Paris Agreement was impossible. But we succeed despite skepticism. We need to build a narrative in terms of engagement and inclusion because we need more countries engaged and on-board to keep the doors open. Even if you have like-minded states, they are not single-minded states. We need this different religious and cultural backgrounds from many countries, developing countries in particular. They can join these discussions and if we identify and secure this global platform for policy making negotiations. I mentioned the U.N because they have a convening power, the legitimacy universal representation. But of course, there is a crisis of confidence in international institutions. We need to revive the multilateralism so that we can tackle these issues in a proper way.
BR: And Chris obviously a key element to that multilateralism is the public-private partnership. So many organizations use moments like the UN General Assembly and COP to try and influence policy and promote and champion their policies and positions. How has Microsoft used some of those moments to create real results for some of your goals in tech diplomacy? I know you all have built partnerships and announced some really interesting work at some of these major UN institutional moments over the years.
CS: These big global moments are important for everyone because they sort of focus the mind somewhat they focus attention and you know people are all together in physical proximity which you know, even with the wonders of Microsoft Teams and everything else, there’s still a place for that. We use them and you know we’ll be at COP27 in a few days time and we’ll be you know continuing to attend all of those. But I just want to pick up on a couple of points that we made to accentuate and one I’m really glad that Ambassador Pierce mentioned the ITU because that’s a tremendous organization and of course we’ve got the planet potentially recently agreed that Doreen Bogdan-Martin, the US candidate would be taking the leadership there. I hosted the ITU and all of the UN resident coordinators in the Microsoft Office just this week to talk about this program, Partner2Connect which is a fantastic example of a multi-stakeholder initiative happening within a UN body and this connectivity challengem, which I heard the fantastic presentation earlier. There are 2.7 billion people unconnected from the internet. 96% of them in least developed countries. Everyone doing what they can to try and solve that problem, Partner2Connect brings those pledges and the different things that people like Microsoft and others are trying to do, brings them together into a UN framework. There’s some great things that can happen within the existing UN structures. I’d also pick up on a point that Ambassador Garcia, made 41 consulates in the Bay Area I think he said-well, there’s 193 missions in New York. If the barrier to entry to engagement may well be lower for particularly the Global South, if they were to engage, certainly they can engage with Microsoft through our platform at the UN. And I think that is a model that is worth thinking about if we want to have a genuinely global conversation which I think we probably do. I’d like to come back to your initial question about moments. To talk about one particular moment that is coming up where I think there’s a fantastic example of a multi-stakeholder initiative and that’s the Paris Peace Forum, which is obviously taking place in Paris on the 10th and the 11th of November. There was a thing which we which was launched at the Paris Peace Forum in 2018 called the the Paris Call. The Paris Call, which is a multi-stakeholder initiative that has brought together 80 governments, 700 companies, 400 civil society organizations in support of a shared commitment to global cybersecurity principles. Of course, there are processes like the Open-ended Working Group looking at these issues in the UN, but you can have a complementary and very valuable conversation taking place in places like Paris, the Paris Peace Forum to really move forward and that is a call which has continued to have action and continue to have new signatories joining it. I think that you always have a plurality of options but I think both the established and the new mechanisms can be useful.
BR: Absolutely. It’s such a stark comparison to thinking about only 41 consulates in San Francisco and the Bay Area but hundreds in New York and in Geneva and these other global places so it needs to make sure that it’s not simply bilateral between countries and the technology industry, but really taking advantage of those multilateral moments to really champion progress and build that consensus with groups like the ones we have on stage here today, with developing countries and the private sector. Ambassador Pierce, you all have in the UK, you’re in the process of getting ready to issue a new international technology strategy in the near future. Can you give us a preview of what some of that might include?
Amb. KP: It’s being formulated at the moment and the new government will have to approve it. I think the common features will put the emphasis on having more tech diplomats, more tech envoys like Ambassador Garcia but in more countries. I think that’ll be an important part. I’m hoping it will say something about investment, how we do tie-ups and how we don’t just take innovation but how we apply that innovation. As I was saying earlier, it will be guided by these principles of multi-stakeholder, open and free, protecting the public while sticking in line with human rights legislation and by being secure and resilient against things like cyberattacks. All of that will underpin our strategy. I hope it will say something as we’ve been discussing about cooperation with developing countries. As Chris and Ambassador Garcia have outlined, it’s not a level playing field. It’s not even close to a level playing field and really everybody would benefit from our finding the right ways to improve access for developing countries. I’m going to do a big shout out if I may for the UN Geneva who has a lot of these very specialized agencies that the public doesn’t generally hear about, but are working very hard to help developing countries access what’s available. The last thing I’ll say if I may on this, I actually think new technology is on a threshold. The like of which we probably haven’t seen since nuclear issues in the 1950s. If you think of all the work that has been done to deal with nuclear in all its forms- non-proliferation, energy, testing, the conventions we have, the multilateral meetings we have, I actually think we will and need to go down that way with tech.
BR: Absolutely and that list of priorities just underscores the diversity and complexity of tech diplomacy. It is economic, it’s geopolitical, it’s human rights, it touches on every portion of a diplomats portfolio. Ambassador Garcia, as as you’re thinking about your strategies for the coming year, how do you measure success or results as the tech diplomat? How do you think about, “I have achieved some of my goals in furthering the digital diplomacy of Brazil”?
Amb. EVG: Yes,thank you. The measure of course, not in terms of the number of meetings but the quality of interactions. I can have 10 meetings with Microsoft but I need just half an hour to have a big deal. I’d strike a deal and have win-win cooperation. But coming back to the case of Brazil, I think not only developing countries but in general all states should have a tech diplomacy and foreign policy as a top priority. I mentioned the idea that we should enhance our presence, energize our presence in Silicon Valley. But also in multilateral fora for example, you remember last year the GGE, Group of Governmental Experts on cyber the chair was a Brazilian ambassador, in [Amb. Guilherme de Aguiar Patriota] and also last year I have UNESCO’s recommendation on the ethics of AI and the recommendation was adopted when the the president of the General Conference at UNESCO was also a Brazilian Ambassador, Santiago Irazabal Mourão. This year in Geneva, precisely, we have negotiated the discussions on autonomous weapon systems, the GGE on laws and the the Chair is a Brazilian Ambassador, (?) D’Amico. We in Brazil have this tradition and engagement with multilateralism so maybe this is a the way to go. But of course, all countries have to define their own priorities and find the best way to proceed.
BR: Absolutely. Chris, from your side I could envision a Microsoft dashboard with lots of metrics around your digital diplomacy and your tech diplomacy success. How do you measure that success? What do you think about as the overarching goals and milestones for successful effort?
CS: Oh there’s no shortage of dashboards…
BR: We’ll have to see those next time.
CS: Absolutely. Microsoft’s mission, and this is our publicly stated mission and has been for a good deal of time, is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. That’s what have we set out to do. If we are able to substantially or practically shift the needle in any of these efforts that I’ve talked about before in a way that is going to achieve that mission then we have succeeded. I think some things are harder than others but that’s what we’re setting out to do.
BR: That’s great. Final word from you Ambassador Pierce, how do you all define success or think about success in this diverse world that is tech diplomacy?
Amb. KP: It’s not my job to cheerlead for Microsoft but I think that’s a pretty good way of putting it. “To work to improve the state of the world”, which is also borrowed from the World Economic Forum, but I think all of those mottos are exactly what we’re trying to do. It’s not just about the UK getting better at tech, it’s about putting that to use as a force for good.
BR: Certainly. It looks like our our poll results agree with all of you that it is really complex and diverse. We were overwhelmingly in the “all of the above” bucket that tech diplomacy is technological cooperation among nations, it improves relations, it’s diplomatic engagement among nations that advances technological progress and it’s diplomatic engagement among nations, international organizations and technology companies. We could we could talk about this for for many more hours…Thank you all so much for listening and thank you again to our amazing panel for their brilliant insights.