Artificial Intelligence, The New Chess Piece Of Geopolitics

China, Russia and the U.S. see potential and risks. And for now, there's still no form of governance to oversee AI development — technology moves faster than diplomacy.

Doing the robot handshake
Julien Nocetti*


PARIS — Artificial Intelligence is now an open topic of geopolitical debate. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently said that "whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world." Back in March, France's then President François Hollande expressed the same idea: "The nations that master AI will be the powers of tomorrow." Elevated to a strategic priority by Silicon Valley and Industry 4.0, AI is about to shake up international politics.

One of the reasons for this lies in the dual nature of Artificial Intelligence. Like other advanced technologies, the applications of AI can be civilian, but also security-oriented or even military. Machine learning — a technique that makes it possible to predict trends, results or behaviors with the use of algorithms — is already applied in the prediction of deforestation in Africa or changes in stock exchange prices. AI has also brought progress in medicine, for instance in the diagnosis and treatment of malaria, and it is widely used in fields such as agriculture, meteorology or insurance.

Meanwhile, in recent years, China and the United States have spent billions of dollars in the development of autonomous weapon systems (drones, missiles, etc.).

The nations that master AI will be the powers of tomorrow.

This considerably expands the scope of traditional warfare, to the point that American intelligence services now believe that AI could transform the nature of armed conflicts in the same way that nuclear weapons once did. In an open letter to the United Nations, co-written with 115 AI and robotics experts, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, warned of the potential risk of AI leading to a third World War.

The art of war is also evolving in its cognitive aspect, as the rivalry to impose one's own narrative plays an increasingly crucial part in geopolitical strategy. Some countries, such as Russia, have been quick to understand the potential of this, and are applying a sophisticated algorithmic approach to its latest propaganda campaigns, often outsourced to private contractors.

Photo: Jiuguang Wang

It goes without saying that AI stirs existing rivalries among powerful nations. In the showdown between the two countries leading in this field, China is currently gaining the upper hand over the U.S., given how Donald Trump has decided to make cuts in the federal budget for scientific research. Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities have launched a massive plan to become the world leader in AI by 2030, and have bound together the commercial and military development of AI through a close collaboration between the government, the Communist Party and national digital giants such as Baidu. On the contrary, Silicon Valley companies such as Google are reluctant to invest in military application, essentially to preserve their image and reputation.

The domestic consequences of AI also carry potential global repercussions. A U.S. report from 2016 claimed that the growing role of AI in national economies risked putting half of the workers aged 25 to 54 out of a job by 2050. Replaced in the wider — and more complex — context of the transformation of work, this fact should lead us to ponder the underlying causes of the rise of populism.

Negotiating the "rules of the game" is a pressing issue.

As far as China is concerned, AI represents a true challenge in terms of social stability with the question of the Communist Party's — and therefore the regime's — legitimacy as a counterpoint. The Chinese government is nonetheless planning to use it to prevent cyber attacks, demonstrations and local labor strikes (there were 90,000 strikes in China in 2016 alone), and to reinforce the already sophisticated system of Internet censorship.

For the time being, however, there is no form of governance to oversee the development of AI — technology moves much faster than diplomacy. The multilateral institutions that have looked into this issue have, so far, only done so when pressured by the civil society and the private sector. What's more, these initiatives emanate largely from either the U.S. or United Kingdom. And yet, it would be good if U.S. tech giants, whose Promethean stance is disarming many of our political leaders, doesn't solely dominate the debates about AI.

Negotiating the "rules of the game" is a pressing issue. Europe has remained silent despite the emergence of public debates, whereas the U.S. is retreating from its multilateral commitments. The fact that more and more players — including from the private sector — are gaining access to the possibilities opened up by AI requires the establishment of a multilateral governance that brings together governments, civil societies and the private sector, similarly to what has been done for the Internet. The difference is that, in all likelihood, the West won't be the only captain in charge.

*Julien Nocetti is a research fellow at IFRI (l'Institut français des relations internationales) with a focus on Russia and the Middle East.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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