NATO – EU strategic dialogue on the application of artificial intelligence

By Zeynep Basaran
Guest Contributor*

2020 was dominated by a global epidemiological crisis, one that continues to challenge the international order in 2021. While trying to mitigate the adverse consequences of the crisis, both Nation States – and the international organisations they are part of – must prepare for the implications of emerging technologies – especially Artificial Intelligence (AI) – in military, diplomatic and strategic realms. AI presents key opportunities to minimise the risks of delays in decision-making on time-sensitive matters, military innovation, as well as providing superiority over traditional military capabilities.

As the “NATO: 2030 United for a New Era” report highlighted, China recently announced that it aims to become the world leader in AI by 2030. Furthermore, Russian President Putin has stated numerous times that “whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world”. As a consequence to NATO adversaries’ approach to AI, one must acknowledge the necessity of a common approach touching upon AI’s strategic, military, technological, and ethical realms. The Alliance has addressed many NATO-led initiatives over the recent years and is expected to employ a broader AI strategy later this year. Meanwhile in April 2021, the European Commission published a new AI regulatory proposal in order to establish the ground-rules for trustworthy AI, while fostering innovation and expanding partnerships in critical sectors.

The systematic advancement of emerging technologies has proved – and will remain – to be a vital element in the contemporary ‘great-power’ competition, where NATO aims to realise the full potential of AI in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. Threat assessments carried out by AI-enabled – but human-operated – intelligence systems may provide more accurate foresight, may deter the occurrence of conflicts and ease the post-conflict recovery. On the other hand, AI may alter the human cognitive decision-making at critical battlefields, by ensuring fewer intelligence failures.

Faced with this complex undertaking, the challenges for the military innovators are numerous and have far-reaching implications for defence and security and the population of one billion across the Alliance’s Members. Both NATO as well as the 30 democracies it consists of face serious policy planning challenges regarding issues of legal frameworks, ethical rules, and interoperability of AI systems.

One of the main challenges in delivering this common approach is the technological discrepancy between Allies. These divergent national capabilities hinder a common preparedness that can match those developed by NATO adversaries. Although the Alliance has the ability to reach a consensus on various strategic matters, the same argument is difficult to make for a framework of widely accepted standards on the military applications of AI. 

To overcome some of these challenges NATO and the EU must collaborate to ensure the coherent and consistent development of AI regulations in critical infrastructure as well as high-risk fields of operations. The Transatlantic relationship, and the technological leadership of the US, could help in establishing a common platform for enhancing the technological edge of the Alliance. One in which both the ethical concerns, and a discussion on the military implications to national AI strategies the Allies, could be addressed. Up until now, only France and The Netherlands have undertaken work on this matter. Nonetheless, one must underline the divergences on the humanitarian and legal use of AI – which is absent in the concerns of the U.S.

The Alliance must increase its efforts to prevent a potential global arms race regarding emerging technologies such as AI. NATO must establish itself as a frontrunner in the development of AI-enabled capabilities and governance in order to avoid lagging behind the private sector and being forced to adapt to industry standards which may have unprecedented security threats caused by the disruptive nature of these emerging technologies.

Despite the increased focus on healthcare and economic recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Allies will have to contribute more to the funding of innovation and put efforts into the continuous improvement in order to proactively devise the AI technology investment landscape.

Consultations and close cooperation between two organisations will inevitably ensure societal resilience, digital & democratic governance, and in addition, strengthen collective security and defence. NATO and the EU must embrace a High-Level Subject-matter Experts Group, which will assess the future developments, areas of cooperation, and practices of AI, and further express their recommendations to national governments.

In conclusion, NATO needs to set the standard for the application of Artificial Intelligence. Ensuring it complies with international humanitarian law, secures data protection and the intelligence-sharing among Allies, trains its armed forces accordingly, and kickstarts the strategic dialogue between both sides of the Atlantic – as well as within Brussels. 

So will NATO & the EU move forward and together to establish ethical AI principles?


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Zeynep is a guest contributor at Unfiltered Voices. She is the Secretary General of Centre for Economics & Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM). Prior, she worked as a researcher at NATO Parliamentary Assembly and as a Junior Policy Officer within various divisions at NATO HQ (Brussels). Furthermore, she contributed to the conflict resolution and migration research projects at Istanbul Policy Center-Stiftung Mercator Initiative. She holds an MA in International Relations with a specialisation in Global Political Economy from Leiden University. Her research interests consist of transatlantic relations, European & Turkish foreign, security and defence policy, as well as the defence implications of emerging technologies. 

(Image credit to: Kings College London)

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