from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Technological Change and the Frontiers of Global Governance

March 14, 2013

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The history of global governance is in many respects the story of international adapation to new technologies. As breakthroughs emerge, sovereign governments have tried to craft common standards and rules to facilitate cooperation and mitigate conflict. Consider the phenomenon known as standard time. We now take for granted the world’s division into twenty-four separate hourly zones, with Greenwich Mean Time as the baseline. But in the middle of the nineteenth century, there were 144 local time zones in the United States alone. It was only with the global spread of railroad lines in the late nineteenth century—and the need to standardized train schedules both nationally and internationally—that major countries convened in Washington and agreed to synchronize time within each zone, rather than continue to allow localities to calculate time according to local meridians or solar time.

More ominously, consider the oddly-named United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCWC). Negotiated in 1980 and entering into force in 1983, this binding multilateral treaty proscribes the use of certain weapons that are (in the formal language of the treaty’s title) “deemed to be excessively injurious or to have indiscriminate effects.” An annex to the Geneva Convention of 1949, the CCWC represents a global effort to come to terms with and regulate the use of destructive technologies—some of which had previously been imagined only in the realms of science fiction. Separate Protocols prohibit the use of several categories of weapons: those that produce non-detectable fragments in the human body; non-detectable mines and other explosive devices; incendiary weapons directed at civilian targets; and laser weapons designed to cause permanent blindness.

As these examples make clear, advances in technology have long driven global rule-making. What is different today is that the furious pace of technological change risks leaving global governance in the dust, as national governments and international institutions scramble to come to terms with—much less regulate—innovations with profound implications for human welfare and global order. This growing gap between what technological advances may permit and what the international system is prepared to regulate is increasingly clear in multiple areas. Two of the most obvious, on which I have already written, are the governance of outer space and of cyberspace. But at least four other global regulatory challenges spring to mind, where international laws and rules are virtually nonexistent. These include the expanding use of drone warfare; advances in synthetic biology; the spread of nanotechnology; and the specter of geoengineering.

  • Drones. As my colleague Micah Zenko has observed in multiple fora, including a recent CFR Special Report, the United States has struggled to develop its own legal rationale for what are, in essence, targeted assassinations by remotely controlled, pilotless aircraft. Initially, foreign objections to drone strikes were heavily concentrated within targeted countries, including Pakistan, where they have continued to elicit public outrage, and Yemen. Increasingly, however, drone strikes are the subject of political and legal challenges, both domestic and international—with the latter depicting them as violations of international humanitarian law and the laws of war. In 2010, Philip Alston, the UN special advisor on extrajudicial killings, delivered a damning report to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) arguing that the United States, in conducting its policy of targeted killings, was oblivious to the inevitability that others would follow its lead. By ignoring the principle of due process and undermining the international rule of law, the United States was courting global anarchy.This January, Ben Emmerson, special investigator for the HRC, convened a panel to conduct a nine-month study on “the rising use of drones and other forms of remotely targeted killing.” Beyond raising difficult legal and moral questions, the rapid spread of drone technology to new players, from states like Iran to China to non-state actors like Hezbollah—makes it imperative to create clear rules of the road—designed to make the use of armed drones the exception rather than the rule.

  • Synthetic biology. Drones may dominate the headlines, but rapid advances in biotechnology could pose greater long-term threats to international security. Thanks to rapid scientific advances, human beings are in a position to create new biological systems through the manipulation of existing and insertion of novel genetic material. While these technologies have tremendous therapeutic and public health potential—for overcoming congenital diseases or defeating malaria and other infectious diseases—they also have the potential to undermine biosafety and biosecurity. Indeed, as technology spreads and barriers to entry fall, it becomes easier to envision rogue states—or rogue scientists—fabricating pathogens like smallpox or inadvertently creating creating dual-use technology. It is disturbing, in this context, to realize that there is no overarching international framework for managing the risks of synthetic biology. Rather, there is an incomplete patchwork of regulations. The Biological Weapons Convention, for instance, limits the application of synthetic biology in weapons but does not prevent research taking place. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), likewise, has added synthetic biology to its portfolio through the toothless Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety [PDF], which urges a “precautionary approach to the field release of synthetic life, cell or genome into the environment.” As global regulatory regimes go, this framework is feeble—and made weaker by the failure of the United States to ratify the CBD or its associated Protocol. My colleague Laurie Garrett has decried the current regulatory vacuum on dual-use biotechnologies, and has convened meetings of scientists and senior policymakers to try to remedy the situation. Meanwhile, a global coalition led by Friends of the Earth proposes a set of Principles for Oversight of Synthetic Biology as a starting point for international negotiation.

  • Nanotechnology. Nor is there any international regulatory arrangement to govern research and uses of nanotechnology, defined as the process of manipulating materials at an atom- or molecule-based level, or address the potential dangers of introducing nanoparticles to the environment and the human body. Where regulation of nanoparticles exists, it is performed primarily on a national basis. In the United States, this function is carried out jointly by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology. A partial exception to this national approach is the European Union, in which the Health and Consumer Protection Directorate has performed a primary risk analysis [PDF] of nanotechnology and begun the process of regulating it. But, as with synthetic biology, the overall international regime is fragmented and under-developed—and there is no consensus on which global organization—if any—should exercise jurisdiction. One major obstacle to regulatory coherence is that most research and investment on nanotechnology is carried out by the private sector, which has little incentive to consider potentially negative global costs (or “externalities,” in economics-speak) of the new technology.

  • Geoengineering. Finally, there is the growing risk of uncoordinated efforts to try to alter the trajectory of current global warming trends through experiments to transform the Earth’s absorption of solar radiation or other large-scale interventions to the planet’s climate system. Initially dismissed as fanciful, “geoengineering” has become a plausible means to prevent catastrophic climate change. Possible approaches include seeding the world’s oceans with iron filings (as one freelancing U.S. scientist attempted last July off the coast of Canada), deflecting solar radiation through a system of space-based mirrors, interfering with the climate of the Earth’s poles, and preventing the release of methane held in arctic tundra and the ocean. As the world warms and the implications become graver, countries and private actors will be tempted to take matters into own hands, with little certainty about the planetary consequences. Consequently, the world urgently needs rules concerning goeengineering processes. The CBD, in concert with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, appears to be the most likely venue for new multilateral regulations.