Artificial Intelligence and Foreign Policy

The 21st Century is characterized by themes such as interconnectedness, digitization, and the emergence of Big Data. Artificial Intelligence (AI) stems from these large amounts of data, which permeate every facet of today’s world. Above all, AI makes it possible to use these data for advanced processing and knowledge gains. The potential applications of AI are greatly diverse, making it the key technology of our time.

Therefore, there is a perceived global race between states to control AI in both civilian and military spheres. By developing national AI strategies, countries aim to develop optimal ecosystems for the research and advancement of AI technologies. Many actors have reached an understanding that AI will be an enormously important criterion for success for science, society, and especially the economy in the future.

Dependencies on technologies increasingly form the core of geopolitical conflicts. These debates are often waged under the concept of technological sovereignty. Despite the increasing developments and applications of AI, it has yet to be addressed as a central challenge for foreign policy. Furthermore, although foreign policy officers have a variety of tools at their disposal (e.g. export control, foreign direct investment screening mechanisms, visa control, etc.), these have yet to be applied despite changing global dynamics in the wake of AI technologies. 

The implications of AI on foreign policy, however, can already be seen. Although AI is discussed extensively on the international stage, there is an accute need for capacity building and agenda setting so that the foreign policy community is able to contribute to the AI debate in a meaningful way.  


Artificial Intelligence poses four central problems for German and European foreign policy:


Trade and Economic Policy Challenges due to the Increasing Added Value of AI 

Access to data, specialized hardware and software, and talented minds are prerequisites for AI development, and American tech giants and their Chinese counterparts are world leaders in each discipline. We have witnessed significant trends of economic protectionism following the global flow of these three prerequisites. How will German and European dependencies on other states' data, hardware, software and talent affect their ability to develop competitive AI products? 

Ethical Questions Raised by Rapid Development and Deployment of AI Systems in the Private and Public Sectors   

Breakthroughs in the AI subfields of machine and deep learning have given rise to new speech- and facial-recognition technologies, among many others. Advanced technologies have been applied in uncountable private sector and public sector applications, coming into contact with individuals in all corners of the world, and not always in a good way. More and more, we see AI technologies infringing upon basic human rights. Greater reliability in identifying individuals based on biometric characteristics can be used not only preventatively to fight crime, but can also be applied repressively to monitor and control populations. Foreign policy, therefore, has the task of closely following developments in this field and scrutinizing their ethical and human-rights implications.

Information-Gathering Power of the Foreign Service 

When it comes to understanding and tracking AI developments on an international playing field, a high level of competence and resources are required. This is one strength of the foreign service. Who better to follow and monitor developments around AI -- not only technical developments and commercial transactions, but also societal debates and government application of certain technologies -- than diplomats and foreign officers who have regional and on-the-ground expertise? This is why building capacity within the foreign service is crucial. 

AI Governance through Political and Technical Bodies 

More and more, we see not only nation-states, but also international fora shaping norms and standards – both politically and technically. International bodies like political fora or standards developing organizations (SDOs) may differ in name, members, and ultimate goal, but they often share similiarities in terms of how they are structured and the main themes they prioritize. When it comes to AI technologies, significant weight has been given to governing the ethics of AI. If foreign policymakers want to play a meaningful role in governing AI technologies, then it is important to understand these political and technical fora in order to strategically engage with them down the road. 

A technology as globalized as artificial intelligence needs international cooperation, not competition. Governing a technology as complex and dynamic as AI should be done at regional, national, but more importantly, international levels. The AI & Foreign Policy project aims to contribute to this international cooperation and help foreign policy identify pressing issues and strategically engage with other relevant actors. 

The Project “Artificial Intelligence and Foreign Policy” is in cooperation with Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, Mercator Institute, and the German Federal Foreign Office. 

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