UK Foreign Policy in a Shifting World Order (International Relations Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:10 pm on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Giddens Lord Giddens Labour 9:10 pm, 21st May 2019

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in saying that this is a terrific report, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and everyone else involved in producing it. The noble Lord has received lots of plaudits in the debate tonight, and they are well deserved.

The report offers an acute account of the huge dilemmas facing the UK in foreign policy, and it analyses very well the seismic upheavals in world politics, but for me it breaks new ground because it recognises how fundamental the digital revolution is to current dilemmas of global power. There are three respects, however, in which I think what is offered on the impact of the digital age—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that this is the age in which we live—could be expanded and further built on.

First, the report is written as though the interconnections between the digital world and geopolitics are something relatively new. That is not the case at all. The digital revolution had its origins in geopolitics and war, both hot and cold. This is true as far back as the breakthroughs of Alan Turing in the Second World War. More or less everyone now uses GPS on their devices to find their way around in everyday life. It is part of the very core of the internet. GPS, however, derives from the “Sputnik moment” that was such a shock to the American psyche in the 1960s. That moment sparked the setting up of NASA itself. Research by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, was the very basis of the emergence of the digital world. Without DARPA there would be no internet—and DARPA, too, was created specifically in response to Sputnik. The background to the later emergence of Silicon Valley was also geopolitical. It was an artefact of 1989 and the “end of history” The American author Franklin Foer spelled this out very well. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, for the first time there seemed no alternative to the reign of free markets on a global level. The huge digital corporations that today dominate the world economy sprang up—with unprecedented speed—on the back of research carried out largely by the US Government, but at a time of the release of free-wheeling global markets. We are all today struggling with the consequences, good and bad.

Secondly, the report tends to identify the digital revolution with social media. Social media have indeed had an immense global impact, all the way from the stresses and strains of democracy, which other noble Lords have spoken about, through to the intimacies of our personal lives. There is nothing in the report, however, about the deeply structural impact of the digital revolution or the huge influence that it has had and is having on global politics and hence foreign policy. The prosperity of western countries for over half a century after World War II was driven by technology that favoured the making of things. The dominant form of production today is driven by intangibles, created in turn by information processing. It has made possible offshoring and the globalised division of labour of the global corporations. This is the backdrop to the struggles between the US and China over free trade, which, as we know, could destabilise the world economy and even lead to war.

Thirdly, while AI and quantum computing get a mention, there is not sufficient recognition of the likely impact of deep learning. This too has a profoundly geopolitical backdrop. One of the biggest ever breakthroughs in deep learning was made right here in London, as I am sure noble Lords will know, by a company appropriately called DeepMind. It created the algorithmic program called AlphaGo, which beat the world champion at go, an ancient Chinese game vastly more complex than chess. As I have mentioned before in your Lordships’ House, the impact of this achievement in Asia was huge and is documented—since I am an academic I feel I can mention a book—in Kai-Fu Lee’s book AI Superpowers. His opening chapter is in fact called “China’s Sputnik Moment”. The five games played between machine and human were watched by only a small proportion of people in the West but by nearly 300 million people on Chinese TV and millions more in other parts of Asia. The Chinese Government responded almost instantaneously, pouring huge sums into the further development of AI. Lee’s main theme is that China can act much faster, and on a far more gigantic scale, than anything in the West.

Huawei has caught the public attention at the moment and is currently sparking an escalation of already existing tensions between the US and China. However, the underlying problems and issues bite much more deeply. Belt and road, as other noble Lords have said, already spans large areas of the world and has now extended into Europe. A core point, however, is that almost all infrastructure projects these days involve a strong digital component. President Xi has in fact said that China wishes to create:

“a digital silk road of the 21st century”,

incorporating 5G and then 6G. This may have many positives, but it does not take much imagination to grasp the geopolitical tensions that could arise around it. What was originally spawned through geopolitics has in the 21st century come back to be the very core of it.