NATO leaders are gathered in Madrid this week to mark the reinvigoration of the transatlantic alliance and to discuss its ongoing challenges. After the fall of the Soviet Union, some dismissed NATO as a relic. Vladimir Putin’s brutal and unjustified war against Ukraine to expand Russia’s sphere of influence and reclaim its former glory stands as a stark reminder that hegemonic fantasies backed by brute force remain a threat to the international order, even in the 21st century.
In response to Putin’s aggression, NATO has recovered its sense of purpose and relevance. It is also learning some important lessons regarding the future nature of warfare, from the criticality of adaptive leadership and robust logistics to the importance of asymmetric approaches. One of the most crucial lessons is that information dominance is essential, especially when confronting authoritarian powers like a revanchist Russia or a rising China who are willing to manufacture “facts” and create false narratives in order to undermine the political will and unity of their adversaries. As we look to the future, NATO must ask itself: How can we strengthen post-Westphalian institutions for a Wiki-world?
In the last century, the United States and our allies sacrificed lives and treasure to defend the liberal world order, vanquishing the Axis Powers in World War II and Soviet Communism in the Cold War. In this century, traditional reliance on kinetic force is not enough. The ability to control, process, disseminate and protect information is critical. Malign actors are investing in a host of digital technologies without any restraint or regulation, preparing for the day when artificial intelligence (AI) becomes a dominant force on the battlefield.
Digital authoritarianism – using technology for disinformation, ubiquitous surveillance and oppression of populations at home, and coercion abroad – is not the way of democracies, nor can it ever become our way. Instead, we need to reinvent our alliances and our own frameworks for information dominance consistent with our values. A coalition of like-minded nations could shape international technical and ethical standards, promote alignment on technology export controls, increase AI talent exchanges and technology investment, and importantly, facilitate cross-border data sharing.
Creating an Artificial Intelligence Network in collaboration with our allies shouldn’t be just a hortatory statement or a commitment to compete on this turf with actors who don’t share our values. Instead, establishing information dominance through establishing such a network should be a strategic imperative. We have strengths, as do our allies, that authoritarian powers can only dream of, starting with free and open institutions that generate creativity and innovation across all intellectual and military disciplines. We can fully engage allied research universities and private sector companies to accelerate the development and integration of ethical AI that will give us an edge in everything from predictive warning of crises to better, faster human decision-making.
For years, we’ve been fixated on whether countries are meeting their commitments under NATO to spend 2% of their GDP on defense. While more and more allies are meeting this goal, particularly in the wake of Putin’s aggression in the heart of Europe, the more provocative and consequential question for the long term is: Are we, together, investing in the development of the right new technologies and concepts? And are we adopting them with adequate speed and scale to be able to deter and, if necessary, defeat future aggression?
The United States invested $4 billion in government-led, unclassified AI-related R&D in 2019 alone and remains the leading destination for global AI investments. Counting the private sector, America’s annual investment in AI is over $40 billion, with more than 2,000 American AI firms, including startups and large private companies.
But making AI a strategic priority for NATO would be an enormous force multiplier. To date, Europe has lagged behind in AI. The MIT Sloan Management Review surveyed cross-industry AI practices and found 97% of Chinese companies have a strategy for AI, compared with just 62% of their European counterparts. Putting AI at the heart of the NATO Alliance could be a catalyst to addressing Europe’s growing AI gap. It could also create valuable synergies with U.S. efforts.
After all, this is the playbook that won the Cold War: creating public-private synergy and bringing a network of trusted allies with shared values and tremendous talent and intellectual capacity into direct partnership with the innovation and creativity of America’s entrepreneurial centers and our capital markets.
Alliances are about more than talking points or traditions–their value comes from what they can do now to shape a better future for us all. In the case of NATO, that means shaping a dynamic security environment in a period of intensifying great power competition and profound technological disruption. If NATO wants to stay relevant and be prepared for a very different future, it is time to modernize the alliance by working with allies today to triumph with tomorrow’s technology. That’s a conversation that should be front and center in Madrid.
Disclaimer: The authors have ties to Rhombus, a defense company which serves the national security enterprises of the U.S. government.