Brad Allenby: “Pluralism was designed for a time when information moved more slowly”

In this wide-ranging interview, Brad Allenby – a Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics at Arizona State University – warns us about the transformational impact of technology (including AI) on the existing institutions and shares his insights on the future of war.

Writing about the rise of AI, Henry Kissinger pointed out his concern with “the historical, philosophical and strategic aspect of it. I’ve become convinced that AI is going to bring a change in human consciousness exceeding that of the Enlightenment.” What worries you about the rise of AI (especially as the rise of AI happens in a context where advances in biotechnology and neuroscience seem to be opening new frontiers)?

One of the difficulties is that AI is one of those technologies like electricity, an enabling one across the technological frontier. We are going to be using it in the car navigation systems, in cellphones or refrigerators. It is not that we are going to have this integrated AI as a technological threat in the same way that we perceive a nuclear weapon. AI is going to enable new behaviors and new activities, which is one source of problems—just think about the intervention of the Russians in the 2016 American elections. At the same time, you are also going to have fundamental changes in the assumptions that underwrite our institutions. If you look at the American political system today we are arguing about the First Amendment [on freedom of speech]. But AI as integrated into social media, and the amount of information that we are generating means that that is an irrelevant question. If you can’t get on social media you don’t have free speech. You have AI integrated with other things acting in ways that are destabilising for the existing institutions. This is our biggest problem. The rate of change is accelerating, it is going to be more profound, so we are going to need to be able to develop new institutions that are much more agile and adaptive, and yet at the same time more ethical than the ones they are replacing.

How do you see the impact of AI and big data on democracy and pluralism at a time when the public square has increasingly moved online? Can they make democracy and pluralism more resilient and healthy, or are we going to see the opposite: AI-enabled malign information campaigns, tribalism on steroids (with societies that become divided along Hutu vs. Tutsi lines), or even Orwellian states where comprehensive surveillance is dominant?

Especially because there are so many dimensions to these changes, I think that you can’t predict; the only thing you can really do is to create scenarios. It is not an unreasonable scenario to ask if the integration of AI, the party and private firms into a network in China, which is part of the Social Credit System (SCS) doesn’t give authoritarianism a significant jump in fitness. Meanwhile the difficulty with pluralism is that the pluralistic structure was designed for a period when information in particular moved much more slowly. You see that in the First Amendment and with the checks and balances system. These are fine until the rate of change and technological reality decouple them from the governance system. Institutions that were designed for a low-bandwidth world suddenly find themselves overwhelmed by information flows. Once that happens, pluralistic societies have to think deeply how they reinvent themselves, because their authoritarian competitors are already reinventing themselves. A reasonable scenario is that the changes tend to weaken pluralism and tend to strengthen soft authoritarianism.

If the US is going to be successful going forward, it is going to have to figure out how to create a pluralism that embraces tribalism.

In this context, the thing to keep an eye on is how different cultures manage to use the integrated capability of the emerging cognitive ecosystem — 5G, social media, AI, the Internet of Things. Are they able to use that in ways which augment the effectiveness and the power of the state and party? Or does it rebound on their system in such a way that it fragments even more? The Chinese are putting together the Social Credit System (SCS) which integrates all of those. Everyone depends on the social credit system. You have a high credit score and you can get in airplanes, in trains, you can go to certain colleges. It becomes a very powerful way of nudging behaviour. They are creating a structure where unless people behave the way you want them to, they are going to hurt themselves.

Are the 21st century autocracies better positioned to compete and master AI/cognitive infrastructures than democracies?

Democracies in particular have a big problem. In the Constitution of the US we have this strong split between the military and civilian powers. That is great until your adversaries adopt a whole strategy of civilisational conflict (and both the Chinese and Russians have done it), in which case you are in trouble. Your military knows that it is a threat, but it is over the civilian infrastructure, so they can’t intervene. The pluralistic response may become more chaotic, and very importantly, it begins to take longer. The problem with authoritarianism has always been that it was fragile. But designed properly, a social credit system can not only nudge citizens to behave the way the authoritarians want them to do, but it can also detect when there are issues that might affect the legitimacy of the authoritarian. It can become a way of channeling information upwards as well. Designed right, the traditional problems of authoritarianism are ameliorated by this integrated AI/human capability. If that is the case, then you have pluralism getting more and more chaotic, more sclerotic, and you have soft authoritarianism becoming more effective.

The West: too successful to adapt?

During the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was a hugely disruptive force that reshaped the international system and the balance of power globally. Some benefited and others lost. Are we in the early stages of a similar competition between the West and the Rest, spearheaded by a new technological revolution? With what implications?

Yes, we are. Successful institutions are going to be successful because they are fit for the current environment. That has been true for 200 years of Western models of governance. That also means that when things change fundamentally, they are the unfit ones. It is very hard for a successful organisation to adapt. AT&T used to be a great telephone company, but along comes internet telephony and AT&T goes away. The same is true of very successful governance systems. The problem that the Americans have is that they’ve been successful, and that is going to inhibit their ability to adjust to a world where the fundamental assumptions underlying those institutions have changed. Internationally, we may be entering a period where we are moving toward a kind of neo-medievalism: rather than having a single power we are going to have competing local power dynamics that tend to disrupt international commerce and could lead to higher levels of violence.

The amount of information that is available, the too many different stories, create an information overload so people fall back on their core narratives, not because they are stupid but because they are forced to. The only way they can continue to make sense of the world is to fall back on a tribal narrative that is more a matter of belief than of applied rationality.

This new type of medievalism might happen also inside the states not only in the international system. Tribalism is on steroids, the space for compromise-oriented elites is shrinking. This is a huge pressure for the US, as it used to function under the logic of E pluribus unum.

It is a problem that particularly the Americans have. To the best of my knowledge we never really had a world power that didn’t have an exceptionalist narrative. The problem is that today in their pursuit of identity politics the Americans have managed to destroy the integrating social narrative. The exceptionalist narrative in the US is very weak. Over time the US will become less competitive because tribal interests are going to grow to dominate the body politic. If the US is going to be successful going forward, it is going to have to figure out how to create a pluralism that embraces tribalism. That is going to be very hard. Tribalism, identity politics are here to stay. It is important to understand why. Individuals are information-processing mechanisms. If you fundamentally change the information environment you are going to perturb the performance of individuals and their institutions. Technologically-enabled trends are slowly undermining the core assumption of a pluralistic society — the individual as a rational citizen. That is exactly what we’ve done in the last 10 years. The amount of information that is available, the too many different stories, create an information overload so people fall back on their core narratives, not because they are stupid but because they are forced to. The only way they can continue to make sense of the world is to fall back on a tribal narrative that is more a matter of belief than of applied rationality. In short, a shifting away from System 2 thinking (predisposed to slow, applied rationality), back to System 1 thinking (predisposed to fast, emotional, intuitive thinking). That means that tribalism is not only going to continue, but strengthen.

The era of civilisational conflict

You have written a lot on the changes that affect conflict and war. What significant trend-lines do you see as shaping the future of conflict?

To me the deeper question is what fundamental structures have to change as we move into an era of ongoing, low-level civilisational conflict. Unless and until something dramatic happens, that is going to be the state of the world. If that is the case, what works and what doesn’t? You might say that clearly the military-civilian divide embedded in the US Constitution is obsolete and you should rethink it. That is never going to happen, but the deeper you get into what is happening to those assumptions, the more those kind of fundamental changes may need to be thought through.

But back to this paradigm change. The easiest way to think about the civilisational conflict is that over the last 30 years, the US has become the preeminent traditional military power. If you are China or Russia you are not going to be able to accept that that limits your freedom to protect what you feel are your vital interests. So you are going to figure out some way of developing effective asymmetric warfare and strategies. Overall, strategic and technological imperatives are changing how war and conflict are framed, generating a shift from military confrontation to a much broader and complex conflict waged across all domains of civilisation. Both Russia and China have gone in the same direction moving toward coherent theories of 21st-century conflict, and contemplating the inclusion of all dimensions of a civilisation in a very deliberate, strategically integrated process of long-term, intentionally coordinated conflict. You see this trend with the so-called ‘Gerasimov doctrine/New-generation warfare’ and the ‘Unrestricted warfare’ doctrine of the Chinese, and the implication is that all elements of an adversary’s culture and society become fair game for conflict. It does mean that you will be constantly attacking across that entire frontier. The idea that war is restricted to certain times and certain forms of combat becomes obsolete. Something that we need to recognise is that Russia is in constant war with the West; they have been over a long time, and they are continuing to fight it. The problem that NATO has is that it is more like a digital system. It is either on or off, it is either war or not. With the Russians it’s analogue. That is not something that the West is well designed to meet, either in terms of strategy or institutions. As much as the West may not like it, our adversaries have chosen civilisational conflict, and that is where we are. We need to adapt.

You can see the different ways in which major powers structure, for example, their cyber-activities. The Russians tend to use both internal government and criminal organisations. The Chinese tend to keep their high-technology companies very close and integrated with the state, so the party, the state and the private companies are all generally aligned in their behaviour. The Americans tend to let their companies go and view their private sector as being the innovative sector. That kind of fragmented approach means the Americans are unable to coalesce and align, even informally, the way the Chinese are. They have a different idea of what constitutes a civilisational conflict structure than the Americans do.

Something that we need to recognise is that Russia is in constant war with the West; they have been over a long time, and they are continuing to fight it. The problem that NATO has is that it is more like a digital system. It is either on or off, it is either war or not. With the Russians it’s analogue.

How do you see the implications of the emerging cognitive infrastructure for the traditional Boydian OODA loop? Visions of the war of the future talk about ‘algorithmic warfare’, where decision dominance is of the essence.

Conflict at the level of world powers of all kinds is going to be faster, more complex, and more systemic. Being fast and understanding your environment better – accelerating the OODA loop beyond the point that your adversary can follow – is going to provide the strategic advantage. At the same time, there will be many conflicts, such as in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, that are going to be low-level communal and tribal violence powered by deep ideological differences – the so-called neomedieval environment. Speed, agility, access to large data pools, and adaptability are key, so the nations that figure out how to do that – how to get inside the OODA loop of one’s adversaries – are going to dominate over time. The West is not doing particularly well on any of those metrics, which should be a cause of concern.

What do we want to save about the ancien régime?

What are the implications of how we should think or rethink about the resilience of a pluralist democracy?

If pluralism is going to prosper, it needs to develop a way to reinvent itself from the foundations up. In doing so it may lose something that we value, but that is because it is becoming obsolete. In some ways we should think about the task as sitting down in 1788 – what do I want to save about the ancien régime? Because things are going to change and are going to be different. France was France before 1789 and it was France after 1789. So the question for the West is, what kind of West do we want to be?

Let’s also discuss the main ethical implications. People fear a future where robots might control us. What principles should regulate/govern the use of AI? Do you see the potential to educate and programme the intelligent machines in the spirit of the 10 commandments? Or are we becoming too much dependent on the old assumptions when imagining the future?

All of the above. I think we are already too dependent on the assumptions that were valid during the first Enlightenment, but they are going to change. The first Enlightenment didn’t fail – it succeeded brilliantly, but now it has obsoleted itself. The second Enlightenment is going to require us to rethink our ethical structures. As far as robots are concerned we are going to find that we have a far more complex environment, but the ethics are not part of what the robots bring to the table. We always tend to think about the robots and AI as being kind of like us. But they are not going to be. We are the product of the things that were evolutionarily necessary for a species like ours to prosper and become the dominant species on the planet. But there is no reason why the Internet should develop that same cognitive structure. For humans, emotion is among other things a shortcut to decision-making. If the situation is too complex, emotions kick in and we respond. An AI should not have the same constraint. It may have different ones, but it is not going to think the way we do. It is going to think profoundly differently. We keep thinking of AI as the Skynet. It may not be Skynet, it may be like Google maps or Alexa, that just become more and more part of your life.

Brad Allenby is a Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics and co-chair of the Weaponised Narrative Initiative of the Center for the Future of War at Arizona State University.

Parts of this interview were published in Romanian in the printed issue of Cronicile Curs de Guvernare, No. 91.

SPECIAL BRIEF: Iran’s endgame – between American sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic

ABSTRACT

COVID-19’s impact on Iran’s already pressured economy is no secret. The pandemic is reducing the government’s income and increasing its expenses. Iran’s fragile economy will endure even more pressure in the coming months, yet the aggressive dialogue between Tehran and Washington is business as usual. Some argue the Iranian regime may not survive the coronavirus crisis. Others are warning that the regime is taking the people of Iran hostage by means of the pandemic. The embargo, put in place by the United States, is only exacerbating the Iranian people’s precarious living conditions. Which are the possible scenarios for US-Iran relations? Escalation, de-escalation or the status quo? This essay aims to present three possible scenarios that could describe the future of the US-Iran relationship and its implication for the European Union. A return to the past – a hypothesis in which the aggressive dialogue would continue without a constructive finality; Iran’s emergence as a regional hegemon; or a Western burst of action – where the European signatories of the JCPOA could decide whether to continue to support the nuclear deal or change the discourse, supporting Washington in its bid to negotiate a new deal.

The impact of the COVID-19

Since announcing its first COVID-19 fatalities, on 19 February 2020, in the holy city of Qom, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been the Middle Eastern country most badly affected by the pandemic, reporting infection and fatality rates among the highest in the world. As this essay is being written, in October 2020, there have been 588,648 coronavirus cases, and the death toll currently stands at 33,714. At the end of the month the numbers reached new heights, with an average of 300 daily deaths. The measures taken have been halting and ineffective, and the response to the pandemic has been a mixture of responsible warnings from public health officials, inconsistent government’ policies and conspiracy theories spread by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Two days after Iran’s February parliamentary elections – which despite the virus did take place, albeit amid historically low turnout – Imam Khamenei referred to what he called the large-scale propaganda from foreign media calling on the ’people not to participate in the elections, pointing out, “This negative propaganda began a few months ago and increased as the elections approached. In the last two days, the pretext of an illness and virus was used, and their media did not miss the slightest opportunity to discourage people from voting”. 

Restrictions and measures aimed at limiting the virus’ spread were implemented in phases: on 23 February, the government ordered universities to close in some provinces and cancelled all cultural events; on 28 February, it called off Friday prayers and gatherings, followed by the closure of all academic institutions; on 5 March, it shuttered all sports venues, followed by religious shrines on 13 March, and a few days later travel between cities was banned.Moreover, by 17 March , Iran released 85,000 prisoners to prevent outbreaks of the virus in detention centres. Meanwhile, the Iranian government’s judgment continued to be marked by a combination of cynicism and religious ideology. Moreover, beyond the momentum of COVID-19, the theocratic government in Tehran is facing a set of challenges whose simultaneous pressure could, in the foreseeable future, cause a new wave of social movements, which would put Iran in the unprecedented situation of managing the fourth consecutive year marked by revolts of society. Under the weight of severe economic sanctions, unemployment and inflation have been rising while GDP is shrinking by 6% per annum. However, the Iranian regime has proved remarkably stable, at least for the time being, as it continues to strengthen its regional influence and even to expand its nuclear programme.

At first, the spread of COVID-19 seemed to provide an opportunity for Washington and Tehran to move away, at least temporarily, from aggressive dialogue and politics. The United States has provided nearly $274 million in aid to Iran, a sum which the Trump administration set aside for emergency international humanitarian funding. Also, Iran has released the US Army veteran and cancer patient Michael White from prison, who was handed over to Swiss diplomats (over time Switzerland has provided a channel of communication between these longtime foes). Furthermore, some US diplomats have demanded the release of at least four other Americans allegedly detained by Tehran, but Iranian decision-makers rejected Washington’s medical aid and did not respond to its request regarding the alleged American prisoners. The Trump administration responded by increasingsanctions on Iran; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the Iranian leadership “trying to avoid responsibility for their grossly incompetent and deadly governance”, alleging that “the Wuhan virus is a killer and the Iranian regime is an accomplice”. However, not only did the economic sanctions fail to bring about the desired outcome – which comes as no surprise – in fact, they have led to the strengthening of the ultra-conservative political faction. It is difficult to draw a clear line between Iranian political leaders, but what is certain is that the current president Hassan Rouhani, along with politicians associated with the foreign minister Javad Zarif, overcame nationalist pride and led Iran to the negotiating table with the West. Even though the mass demonstrations which began during the winter of 2017 and peaked in December 2019 showed that Iranian society is deeply dissatisfied with its government, public opinion of the American administration is even more hostile. In January 2020, hundreds of thousands of Iranians mourned the death of General Qassem Soleimani – killed by an American drone strike – in one of the largest mass demonstrations the country has ever seen. Not everyone venerated Soleimani, who supported a campaign to expand Iranian influence through proxy wars in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen; but his assassination was a blow to national pride.

Iranian hardliners, the main beneficiaries of the current US administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy, may see this as an unprecedented opportunity to do what the Iranian elite has rejected in the past – leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Non-Proliferation Treaty Nuclear (NPT), and then resume the nuclear programme. For the European Union this scenario means that its worst prediction –several European leaders have warned the Trump administration that withdrawing from the JCPOA would trigger a chain of escalation with Iran – are becoming reality. The nuclear deal remains at the heart of EU policy toward Iran; however, if Tehran takes further drastic steps in violation of the agreement terms, this scenario could mark the total collapse of the agreement. The EU and its former member, the United Kingdom, have so far resisted joining Washington’s calls for ‘maximum pressure’, and will need to prepare for a worse security dynamic across the Middle East if Tehran decides to escalate. However, given the latest events in France and the series of statement on the terrorist attacks made by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, Tehran – even though President Macron has not named the Islamic Republic as a perpetrator of extreme religious manifestation – has added its voice to the choir of Macron’s critics (UK, Kuwait, Qatar, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey). Such a gesture has the potential to distance France from the group of states that advocate the preservation of the nuclear agreement, and may create the preconditions for Paris to align itself with the US stance in future.

The American ‘maximum pressure’ approach encountered maximum resistance from Tehran, which has led to an escalation of repressive or aggressive actions on both sides.

The pandemic is having its geopolitical impact against the backdrop of the wider US-Iran animosity that has grown steadily since president Donald Trump decided to unilaterally withdraw the US from the JCPOA on 8 May 2018. The American ‘maximum pressure’ approach encountered maximum resistance from Tehran, which has led to an escalation of repressive or aggressive actions on both sides. General Soleimani’s killing was followed by a rocket attack in Iraq, claimed by an Iran-backed paramilitary group, against Camp Taji on March 2020, when three members of the US-led counter-ISIS coalition were killed and twelve were injured; another barrage upon the same facility three days later injured three US troops. While escalatory dynamics have so far been kept in check, the equilibrium is fragile and often broken by continuous escalations and counter-escalations from both Washington and Tehran – and their proxies. Normally, whenever adversaries are confronted with common transnational threats, their propensity to adopt flexible and cooperative behaviours to protect themselves increases. Even staunch adversaries like the US and Iran have had a history of cooperation against common threats in the post-1979 period. Historical cases include the early years of the war in Afghanistan (1), the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the recent fight against ISIS. On these occasions, both sides have temporarily de-escalated tensions, or have at least refrained from embarking on major confrontations. In addition, the emergence of common threats sets new limits to the continuation of regular policies. For example, during the Iraqi war, the US military’s operational need to safely escape Iraqi air defence by traversing into western Iranian airspace forced politicians in Washington to tone down their anti-Iranian rhetoric

Nevertheless, not much has changed in the US-Iran conflict since the pandemic’s outbreak. Despite expert advices and international calls, the US administration has refused to temporarily ease the sanctions regime and facilitate Iran’s purchase of much-needed medical equipment on the international market. At the same time, Iran has not shown any intention to revisit its offensive strategy against the US forces in Iraq. Both the US and Iran appear to be continuing their collision course. If anything, both parties seem to view Covid-19 as an opportunity to force the other party to change policy or surrender. They seem to have a worrying determination to use the pandemic to reinforce old strategies and narratives.

One might ask why so much is written about Iran-US relations, when in fact the central, and to a lesser extent the eastern European countries, are the ones struggling to save the nuclear deal? And how, exactly, can such heated rhetoric between Washington and Tehran affect Europe or its transatlantic relationship? The current trajectory not only endangers Europe’s non-proliferation goals, but it also heightens the risk of a nuclear arms race and a further military escalation in Europe’s backyard. Direct or indirect confrontation between American- and Iranian-backed forces across the Middle East will further fuel the regional conflicts (2), particularly in Iraq and Syria, that have already taken a heavy toll on Europe. While European leaders do share many of the US’s concerns regarding Iran, some European officials privately say that isolating Iran and excluding it from the international community may lead to a new ascent for the Iranian hardliners, politicians who would not back down from taking action “that [will] further fuel regional instability”(3). A regional escalation could appeal to the Iranian leadership for several reasons: it could divert attention from the mounting economic troubles and popular dissatisfaction at home, and achieve the long-sought goal of pushing the US out of Iraq with perceived lower risks of backlash, given President Trump’s desire to contain China and the need to address internal problems caused by the pandemic. Some officials in the Trump administration apparently hope that the compounded effects of COVID-19 and US sanctions will bring Tehran to the negotiation table: “There may be a window in the spring and summer for a negotiated ceasefire that puts us into a holding pattern until the November [US presidential] elections. A combination of pressures on the Iranian leadership … would leave the regime needing relief for limited stability”. However, signals from Tehran indicate that Iran is not interested in negotiations from a position of weakness. 

Against this background the only safe assumption is that Tehran will not re-engage in any constructive dialogue with Washington before the US elections in November. Moreover, even this scenario will be influenced by the presidential elections in Iran in May 2021. Given the fact that the Iranian moderates are in freefall (as seen from the elections to the Majlis earlier this year) and Ayatollah Khamenei is preparing his successor, or his legacy, the next American administration will encounter a leadership in Tehran that is very much aggrieved, prideful, risk-averse and hyper-sensitive about appearing weak, domestically, in the Mid-East region, and on the global stage. But even so, given their economic situation, the sharp global decline in demand for oil and crude prices, and the severe pandemic, the Iranians might be convinced to come back to the negotiation table, to back down from violating the provisions of the JCPOA and return to its full compliance. This might be a very good window of opportunity for Europe, which, if it hits the right notes both privately and publicly, will have the chance to de-escalate tensions, to revitalise its diplomacy and to re-establish economic ties. The most important question that arises here – and possibly the only one – is whether Europe is indeed prepared for an open diplomatic confrontation with its natural ally regarding the Iranian issue. Escalation, de-escalation or status quo? this might be a motto for the near future, on this particular international dossier. This essay aims to present three possible scenarios that could describe the future of the US-Iran relationship and its implication for Europe. A return to the past – a hypothesis in which the aggressive dialogue would continue without a constructive finality; Iran’s emergence as regional hegemon; and a Western burst of action – where the European signatories of the JCPOA could decide whether to continue to support the nuclear deal or change the discourse, supporting Washington in its bid to negotiate a new deal.

The first scenario: return to the past

In May 2021, Hassan Rouhani’s term will come to an end, and it is widely believed that a hardliner will come into office, just as the parliamentary elections showed this past February. In short, 2020 has so far been a litany of disasters for the Iranian people. To compound their misery, crisis after crisis has given conservatives and Iran’s unelected institutions the perfect opportunity to sideline voices of dissent, paving a path forward for conservatives to take power in the 2021 presidential election, and control the succession of Iran’s next Supreme Leader. Therefore, the best approach would likely be a return to the JCPOA, on a ‘compliance for compliance’ basis, and build up from there. Rouhani will hand over power in August next year, so there is still a time window of one year to open talks with those moderate politicians who brought  Iran to the negotiations table in the first place. Ali Larijani, a former military officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who served as the Speaker of the Parliament of Iran from 2008 to 2020, Saeed Jalili, a former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council from 2007 to 2013 and Iran’s nuclear negotiator, and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former military officer who held office as the Mayor of Tehran from 2005 to 2017, are probably three of the potential conservative candidates who could become president of the Islamic Republic. Such a scenario could take us back in time to June 2005, when the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, newly elected as president of the Islamic Republic, driven by a new form of Iranian nationalism fundamentally tied to the nuclear programme, caused the Iranian government to resume the enrichment process at the plant in Isfahan. At the time, the EU-3 (France, Germany and the United Kingdom, then still an EU member) reaffirmed its unilateral security guarantees and offered long-time cooperation, but Iranian policymakers rejected the proposal. Throughout 2006 and 2007, the EU negotiators were largely caught between Iran – which was not interested in a compromise, but rather felt emboldened regarding its rising clout in the Middle East – and the US, which saw the referral to the United Nations Security Council as the means to legitimise the containment of Iran (4). 

Engagement with Iran has had three distinct periods: the Critical Dialogue (1992-1997) and Comprehensive Dialogue (1998-2003, under presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami); the period from 2003 until 2005, when engagement was championed by the EU-3 and represented the effort to avoid another US-led war in the Middle East; and the period of coercive diplomacy (2005-2012). It was only during the period of coercive diplomacy that the US government participated – both passively and actively – in the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russian Federation, China and Germany) framework. The Critical Dialogue pursued by the EU between 1992 and 1997 represented the Common Foreign and Security Policy in its infancy, and failed (5) to make any linkages between areas of concern and relations with the EU. 

In July 2012, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told an audience in Iran that the government would not “retreat even one iota from their rights, principles and values against the declining materialistic powers. The enemy strikes at the Iranian nation step by step; but, in return, it receives a stronger, heavier blow”.

History looks set to repeat itself. The newly-elected conservative parliament will most likely bolster hardliners in the 2021 presidential contest and sway public policy debates away from engagement with the US.

History looks set to repeat itself. In 2004, when many reformist voters stayed at home amidst the internal repression of the reformist movement, a weakened reformist president, and also in disappointment at the aggressive speech coming from Washington – the famous collocation “axis of evil” coined by George W. Bush –conservatives were handed a sizable majority in parliament, easing the way into office for Mahmoud Ahamadinejad. The newly-elected conservative parliament will most likely bolster hardliners in the 2021 presidential contest and sway public policy debates away from engagement with the US. If the country’s economic issues and political stagnation continue, Iranians will feel justified in their abstention from the elections, solidifying the notion that the system no longer works for them.

The key problem for Europe in this perspective is perhaps not so much related to the re-emergence of a conservative political elite, but how it will use its power diplomatically, tactically and strategically. While the Iranian market has been reopened for European companies and investments after 2015, and EU trade with Iran reached a total of €21 billion in 2017, the most important companies that had started investing in Iran withdrew after the re-imposition of American sanctions.

Biggest European deals announced in 2017 (Source: The New York Times)

Apart from the economic aspect, a regional incident can always escalate into a more general conflict, just in Europe’s backyard. And in the present circumstances, when Europeans are fighting the next wave of the pandemic and the associated economic crisis, a spillover effect would be more than difficult to manage. The best option would be for EU officials and other European leaders to try to identify convergent interests with the US in the Middle East and do their best to focus on substance, rather than wasting time commenting on Trump’s tweets. They could also try to bring Iranian and American diplomats to the negotiation table before another crisis arises – and before the Russians or the Chinese do so first.

The second scenario: Iran’s emergence as regional hegemon

Ever since 1973 and the first oil shock, the centre of gravity of Middle Eastern politics has been gradually shifting from the eastern Mediterranean and the Arab-Israeli conflict toward the Persian Gulf, where Iran has long harboured ambitions to become a regional power, despite recent escalations in the Eastern Mediterranean. The process was accelerated in 1979 by the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which dramatically reduced the likelihood of another Arab-Israeli war, and the peak of the Islamic Revolution, which replaced the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi with a radical theocratic regime under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In recent years, despite severe regime sanctions, Iran has managed a complex set of regional relations and a considerable measure of success. Just mentioning the connections and proxies Iran has in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen or even Afghanistan, it can be seen that Tehran can wield influence, according to its own needs, over about half of the Middle East region. Therefore, it is no surprise that the nuclear file has two components: a formal one – limiting, even stopping the proliferation process – and an informal one, for which the nuclear issue is the means of pursuing the goal of containing Iran’s regional emergence. Saudi Arabia and Israel – two of Washington’s most important allies in the region – are the main opponents of both Iran and the nuclear deal.

Iran’s regional policy has undergone changes due to a number of internal and external factors. The external factors have mainly followed regional trends and have often been triggered by external powers’ military interventions in the neighbouring countries and/or occupation of those countries. Through a combination of regional trends, often triggered by external powers’ strategies, and Tehran’s definition of national expediency, Iran has become one of the most significant and influential states in the region, and has tailored its foreign policy based on the sovereignty factor (as mentioned in Article 9 of the Iranian Constitution), the influence factor – seeking to maintain strong influence in post-occupation or newly-formed governments in neighbouring countries (such as Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan) – and the ‘balance of power’ factor – concentrating on both international and regional powers (Iran has put a great deal of effort into defying the US’s influence (6) in the region, and has shown a strong degree of aspiration to maintain its leading position as the region’s largest Shia majority country in order to cross-regionally offset the Saudi influence). (7)

The dynamics of the Iran-Syria alliance have become more evident since the crisis in Syria began; both countries have a higher chance of surviving, as well as achieving their long-term goals, through their strategic, military, and economic ties. The relations between the two countries have attracted more headlines since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, but they actually date back to the early stages of the inception of the revolutionary government in Tehran, when Syria was the first Arab country to recognise the provisional government after the Shah’s ouster. The mutually beneficial relations between the two countries have provided Iran with opportunities to use Syria as a guaranteed lifeline supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, and as a safe channel (8) for shipping undisclosed commercial and military goods, something which became particularly important after the sanctions on Iran were tightened in 2011. 

Amid the backdrop of pandemic, sanctions and economic recession, the power of Iran’s conservative establishment has dramatically increased, setting the course for a new era of hardline politics.

Iran has pursued a multifaceted strategic alliance (9) with Syria, in line with the three main pillars of its foreign policy. In line with the sovereignty factor and with keeping Damascus close to Tehran, Iran has retained strategic grounds for retaliating to potential Israeli military aggression. Moreover, in keeping close to the Assad regime, Iran, unlike other regional and international players who have largely alienated Assad since the crisis, has maintained a great deal of influence in the Syrian government. Such influence does not necessarily mean that Iran’s green light would guarantee Assad’s exit, but broadly speaking, Iran is perhaps the only regional player that the Assad government trusts so far. Finally, since the beginning of the Syrian crisis Iran has been the only regional player willing to and capable of putting boots on the ground (10). This kind of strategy has maintained the ‘balance of power factor’, which is a key concern in Iran’s foreign policy.

Iran is not expected to cede its consolidation in Syria, despite its economic difficulties and the danger of extensive popular protests related to the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, Iran has been assisting Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad in retaking Idlib province and encircling the Kurdish areas

Iraq, the former foe and current ally, is an important pillar of the Iranian foreign policy; since as far back as 2003, the influence factor has been translated into control of the post-Saddam Iraqi governments. From that time, Iran has supported, either directly or through proxies, the creation of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Another major goal of Iranian foreign policy in Iraq is to win the competition with other players involved in the region. The military campaign against ISIS in Iraq has triggered a more pragmatic Iranian approach towards the West, somewhat similar to their tactical cooperation in defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Some European states, such as France, Germany, Italy and the UK, have joined the US-led anti-ISIS air coalition, while others have provided training and arms to Iraq’s central army and to Kurdish Peshmerga forces. In private, Western officials say that Iran has been the most willing and effective force (11) in coordinating ground troops with the coalition’s air campaign against ISIS. Europeans would have preferred a strong Iraqi security force that could act independently of Iran, but they recognise that no Iraqi or foreign actor has the appetite or ability to replace Iran (12). Moreover, maintaining influence in Iraqi politics has become more crucial to the Islamic Republic as Iraq’s large market provides an accommodating environment for Iran’s licit and illicit trade (13). Europe can tolerate, and to a degree even welcome Iran’s operations against ISIS, as long as they do not weaken Iraq’s central government or reignite sectarian divisions. In addition, Europe will want to see Iran taking a more active part in tackling the actual and perceived sectarian tensions associated with its role in Iraq. One way that might be acceptable to Iran would be for its high-ranking political, military, and religious figures to follow the example set by Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in condemning sectarian acts (14) and working with Baghdad to shape inclusive political representation for Sunnis and other minorities.

Even amidst the pandemic crisis, the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy imposed by Washington and the large number of victims caused by COVID-19, Tehran is continuing its strategic approach to Iraq. In April 2020, 11 Iranian naval vessels aggressively veered close to five American military vessels transiting the Persian Gulf. This clearly shows that the regime in Tehran has no intention of surrendering, and is carefully planning and executing a strategy based on calculated and calibrated actions.

The Hezbollah model was the most effective way to spread the ideology of the Islamic Revolution, and Lebanon was the right environment to implement this strategy. Iran’s financing of Hezbollah’s military and social services enables the group to solidify its role as the protector and provider of Lebanon’s Shia community. This core constituencyprovides the base for Hezbollah and Iran to fight for dominance throughout the Middle East. With Iranian support, Hezbollah has emerged as the most powerful military and political force in Lebanon. 

Iran’s ambitions in Afghanistan are not necessarily hegemonic. Tehran knows that it cannot dominate its neighbour completely, yet it has certain interests to protect, such as securing its eastern border, preserving the flow of water from Afghanistan, countering drugs trafficking and dealing with the large Afghan refugee population on its soil. Also, Iran is particularly anxious to prevent a total Taliban victory in Afghanistan and the expansion of Pakistani power. The Iranian government has attempted to achieve its objectives through a variety of means, such as cultural and religious bounds, economic tools and even supporting various militias and armed groups (15). Iran’s activities in Afghanistan have not drawn the same attention as its operations in the rest of the region, but it still remains an important and often difficult arena of Iranian foreign policy – meaning, above all, to see stability in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, Iran recently sent five oil tankers to Venezuela, violating that country’s embargo, and thus crossing the regional border of its desire for influence. In doing so, Iran escalated its activities in the western hemisphere, even if it is not the first time Tehran has meddled in South American affairs: relations between Tehran and Caracas go back as far as the 1960s, when both countries were founding members of OPEC; Iran’s proxy Hezbollah has also been sending mercenaries to the tri-border region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. 

Amid the backdrop of pandemic, sanctions and economic recession, the power of Iran’s conservative establishment has dramatically increased, setting the course for a new era of hardline politics. Conservatives politicians and critics – the very people whom campaigned against Rouhani’s administration and his platform of external engagement and internal moderation – are more likely to continue, or in some cases to resume, the policy of regional influence from where they left off. In this scenario, Europe needs to institute a paradigm shift in its relations with Iran.The European Union needs to move from a country-specific policy focused on non-proliferation toward a Gulf strategy that accounts for the Islamic Republic’s ties with its littoral neighbours. As it happens, the promotion of intraregional cooperation is part of the EU’s history and continuing success – despite current shortcomings in handling migration, stabilising national debts and fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

In institutional terms, the timing on the EU side is good now. The European Commission that took office in December 2019 aims to be “more strategic, more assertive and more united” in its foreign policy, in the words of its president, Ursula von der Leyen. After the US-Iranian escalation in Iraq in January 2020, the EU’s Council of Ministersmandated the union’s foreign policy chief to talk to all parties to help de-escalate tensions in the region, support political dialogue, and promote a political regional solution. Europe can now move beyond its exclusive nuclear focus with Iran, and shift to a relationship based on engagement, not containment. This would allow the EU to pursue its interests with Iran across a range of issues, in particular on de-escalating those conflicts in the Middle East in which Iran is involved. Despite the regional disorder, Iran is one of the few countries in the region that has a fully functioning state, security, and intelligence apparatus. Relations with Iran matter to Europe, in particular because of Iran’s deep footprint in almost every crisis that is currently unfolding in this region of strategic importance. Europeans have to deal with the repercussions of the Iraqi state’s disintegration after the US-led invasion in 2003, their incorrect calculations on how quickly Bashar al-Assad would fall in Syria, and the rising extremism across the region. The surge of ISIS has further underscored the volatile nature of the threats to Europe from internal radicalisation and the backlash in the form of Islamophobia, the potential return to Europe of citizens now fighting in Syria, terrorism, and the human cost of the regional crises.

Although focusing on either Iran as a country or the nuclear deal as an issue is too narrow an approach in and of itself, the JCPOA should still be the EU’s point of departure. Even if Iran’s successive steps to reduce its commitments endanger what is left of nuclear cooperation under the deal, the coronavirus pandemic provides an additional reason to open a humanitarian channel that allows for regular trade in medical products and food staples with Iran, and from there to build a way to the negotiations table.

The third scenario: a Western burst of action

It is almost certain that in a year from now, Iran’s foreign policy will take on a new dimension, and the issue of the nuclear agreement will be more likely one of the main points on the next Iranian government agenda. Yet this scenario involves two ramifications, conditional upon the US presidential elections in November 2020, and those in Iran in May 2021. Whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden wins, the next American president will have about seven months to deal with the ongoing administration regarding the future of the nuclear deal and, in consequence, with Iran’s ambition in the region. Hassan Rouhani will end his second term, and he will hand over office to the next administration in August 2021, so there is a window of opportunity to negotiate with the moderates who brought Iran to the negotiations table in the first place. 

If Trump is re-elected it is more likely that the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy will continue. However, there is a chance to open up to an overture from Tehran, given the fact that the country’s economic and health conditions are such a precarious state. So, in order to avoid further mass uprisings, whose effects could be more profound than the previous ones, the current moderate regime in Tehran could take at least a minimal reconciliation with Washington into account. In spite of his aggressive rhetoric, some analysts have argued that President Trump’s reluctance to launch a military strike against Iran is proof of his prudence and restraint. Starting a war with Iran might lead to bloody retaliations against US’s regional allies; moreover, it would require a new military involvement in the Middle East, in addition to those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such a scenario would be inconsistent with the Trump campaign’s slogan of ‘America First’. The fact that President Rouhani has just listed a set of conditions under which Iran would resume dialogue with the United States – even if Mike Pompeo has dismissed them – could send a message to the US administration that Iran is not completely closed to negotiations. However, it is equally clear that Washington will have to make certain concessions, otherwise any such zero-sum game will be completely rejected by Tehran.

Biden’s election to the White House presents fewer and more accessible variables than the previous scenario regarding Iran. Even though the remarks made by Antony Blinken, a former Deputy Secretary of State with the Obama administration – “Iran would have to come back into full compliance and unless and until it did, obviously, all sanctions would remain in place” – sparked a backlash in Iran, and Fars News, a conservative outlet affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, seized on Blinken’s remarks to say that Biden’s approach to Iran will not differ drastically from that of the Trump administration, it is more likely that the Democratic Party’s candidate will try to save some parts of Barack Obama’s legacy, including the JCPOA.

Regardless of who the new US president is as of January 2021, one thing is certain: Europeans will have to make a decision on Iran, either trying to save the nuclear deal or rallying behind Washington if the new administration decides otherwise.

Regardless of who the new US president is as of January 2021, one thing is certain: Europeans will have to make a decision on Iran, either trying to save the nuclear deal or rallying behind Washington if the new administration decides otherwise. “Europeans view the nuclear deal as a significant foreign policy achievement”, analyst Kelsey Davenport has said; yet at the same time, the EU could come to rethink their stance if Iran continues to test the limits imposed by the JCPOA. However, at least for now, the EU (together with the United Kingdom, China and the Russian Federation) seems willing to do its best to save the deal, to continue to use INSTEX – the EU-Iran trading mechanism designed to allow Europeans to bypass US sanctions and continue trade with Tehran – which just has concluded its first transaction (facilitating the export of medical goods), and to cooperate with Tehran on several issues affecting the Middle East. France and Germany, signatories of the JCPOA, could force the pace of the EU’s involvement in the Iranian issue, especially as the Europeans begin to lose visibility on an international stage which is now occupied, and will probably remain so in the near future, by the new type of cold confrontation between US and China. The rest of the Central and Eastern European member states will most likely follow the approach of Paris and Berlin; the only visible exception could be Poland, whose opinion in the aftermath after the US unilateral withdrawal from JCPOA in May 2018 was that the “EU needs more empathy toward the US over the Iran deal”. But this stance did not come as a surprise, as Warsaw is keen for security assurances from the US as a deterrence policy against Russia. Nevertheless, the Polish minister of foreign affairs, Jacek Krzysztof Czaputowicz, implied that Poland had not yet made a final decision: “We need to think, there is still time. This doesn’t mean we don’t feel part of the EU community in these discussions … We will see what other EU members think”. On the other hand, some US observers believe that, when faced with a choice of doing business with Iran or facing economic secondary sanctions, European governments will opt to preserve their ties with the US. They also tend to believe that, by threatening to adopt a confrontational position toward Iran – dismantling the nuclear deal, pushing for regime change, or even conducting limited military strikes against Iran – the US will coerce (16) Europeans to jump onboard with less extreme policies, such as the renegotiation of the JCPOA or demanding that Iran change its behaviour on regional issues. In opposing the current administration in Washington policy toward Iran, European governments – especially Paris and Berlin – find themselves in the unusual position of being closer to Russia and China than to their traditional transatlantic partner (17). Even if the EU’s leaders do share many of the concerns of the US with regard to Iran, they have consistently voiced unanimous support for the JCPOA, and have broadly favoured similar multilateral engagements to address outstanding issues regarding the Islamic Republic. 

Conclusions

The COVID-19 crisis comes at a particularly difficult political moment for the Iranian government. In November 2019, its decision to abruptly raise fuel prices triggered widespread protests, the latest and most significant bout of unrest due to economic discontent and political stagnation. Security forces brutally suppressed the uprising, killing hundreds and imprisoning thousands. In January, Iran downed a Ukrainian civilian airliner, having purportedly confused it for an incoming US missile at a time of heightened bilateral tensions following the US killing of General Qassem Soleimani. All these events have eroded public confidence in the current government in Tehran, and with the 2021 presidential elections looming, hardliners are seizing the opportunity to promise a more effective leadership. But given the history of ultra-conservative governments, the likelihood of negotiations with Iran will be much lower, even for Europe, which has managed, at least for now, to keep the door open to diplomacy with Tehran. 

While the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy has not tempered Iran’s policies in the region, the Europeans should attempt to de-escalate the situation. Even if the ‘New Europe’ – namely Central and Eastern European countries – tends to support US foreign policy on most Middle East issues, the Iranian question seems to be its Achilles heel, as all European states, including the CEE, could feel the effect of a possible escalation of events in the Middle East region.       

The first two scenarios described above would set back the confidence and rapprochement already built between EU and Iran by at least a decade. European countries should now prepare to minimise the damage and preserve their strategic interests on non-proliferation, pursue stability in the Middle East, and keep an eye on the on economic and energy strategy. The question arises: Does the EU want to be a global power or not? However, the reality on the ground is that Europe does not have the tools – or possibly even the will – to project its power. Europe’s financial resources cannot match those of the US, and more fundamentally, deep divisions remain within Europe over whether it should even seek power, with or without the UK. Yet, the Iranian issue is far greater than Iran – in reality it epitomises a structural turning point in the transatlantic relationship. 

Nevertheless, as cynical it might sound, the ongoing pandemic crisis could be an opportunity for Europe. While the US has to manage a set of internal crises – pandemic, rising unemployment, and possibly further riots across the country – the EU can step up, and as a starter, protect its important humanitarian connection with Iran. Given that the country continues to be the epicentre of the pandemic in a fragile Middle East, the coronavirus is likely to lead to increased refugee flows to Europe. Building from here, the EU should form a coalition on non-nuclear issues, focused on freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, and the conflicts in Yemen and Iraq (18). Also, the European governments will need to push back against the US-led sanction regime so that their companies will not be penalised by the US for undertaking legal business with Iran. Should Europe (and the US fail) to provide relief to Iran in such grave circumstances, this would turn the Iranian public against them for generations. Moreover, it would give ammunition to those in Iran who favour confrontation with the West. To devise smart contingency plans, it will be imperative for European governments to increase their coordination with China, Russia, and the other Asian economic giants such as India, South Korea and Japan (19). Not only do their interests align with respect to the JCPOA, they also share a more general concern about the use of secondary US sanctions.

Europeans see the nuclear deal as a key pillar of regional and world security, and have struggled to keep the agreement alive, despite US pressure. It might be the time now for a more assertive approach, one that will add to Europe’s credibility and strengthen its position. It will increase the likelihood that Iran will take steps to return to full compliance with its nuclear commitments, because Tehran’s endgame is to restart oil exports, to enter the international finance system, and to overcome the pandemic crisis.

At the same time, a principled stance by Europe would pay off regardless of the outcome of the US presidential elections. If Joe Biden wins the election, Europeans will have kept the door open for a US return to the nuclear deal. If, however, Trump is re-elected, Europe will have taken a long overdue step towards protecting itself from further coercive action.

NOTES

(1). Mir. H. Sadat, James P. Hughes (2006), ‘US-Iran Engagement Through Afghanistan’, Middle East Policy, 17(1).
(2). Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), ‘The Coming Clash: Why Iran will Divide Europe from the United States’, ECFR, October 2017.
(3). Ibid.
(4). Bernd Kaussler (2014) Iran’s Nuclear Diplomacy. Power politics and conflict resolution, New York: Routledge, pp. 36-37.
(5). Bernd Kaussler (2014), op. cit., p. 94.
(6). Sara Bazoobandi (2014), ‘Iran’s Regional Policy: Interests, Challenges and Ambitions’, ISPI, Analysis no. 275, November 2014.
(7). Ibid.
(8). Ibid.
(9). Sara Bazoobandi (2014), op. cit., pp. 4-5.
(10). Ibid.
(11).Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), op. cit., p. 4.
(12). Ibid.
(13). Sara Bazoobandi (2014), op. cit., p. 6.
(14). Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), op. cit., pp. 5-6.
(15). Alireza Nader et. al. (2014), ‘Iran’s Influence in Afghanistan. Implications for the U. S. Drawdown’, RAND, pp. 1-74.
(16). Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), op. cit., p. 4.
(17). Ibid.
(18). Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), op. cit., p. 1.
(19). Ibid.

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“Europe has no interest in decoupling from Asia” – interview with Parag Khanna

Dr. Parag Khanna is a leading global strategy advisor, world traveller, and best-selling author.

Sometimes crises put history on fast forward. What would you expect to be the geopolitical fallout/aftershocks that will shape the post-coronavirus world? To what extent is Covid-19 accelerating some of the trends that were discernible even before the pandemic? 

For me the biggest geopolitical and geoeconomic trend under way for quite a few years is regionalisation. It is an organic process given the growth of the Asian regional environment, given the renegotiation of the North American trade relationships, but also because of the US-China trade war. In the post-COVID world regionalism will accelerate because it is very difficult to travel outside of one’s region for an indefinite period of time, as the supply chains are going to be more entrenched within the regions; it will accelerate because of the growing suspicion of outsourcing to China across long distances. In short, there are many reasons why we will see this emphasis on the region, instead of the global. This is a very significant geopolitical trend that began before the pandemic.

There is no West…

You are a researcher of globalisation and connectivity. What will change in the pattern of globalisation? How will globalisation be restructured and recalibrated? Especially in a context shaped by pressures for decoupling and fears of deglobalisation.

It is very important to emphasise that decoupling and deglobalisation are different things. Deglobalisation is if all globalisation stops. But Europe and China are both trading more with Asia, therefore you do not have deglobalisation. Decoupling simply means that the US might invest less in China, it might buy less from China and the reverse. Some connections are weaker and some connections are getting stronger. But when it comes to trade, the United States is not nearly as important as Asia. We should be looking at the globalisation of trade from the Asian standpoint, not the American standpoint. Trade between Europe and Asia is much larger than trade with America. There is not necessarily deglobalisation, but we can identify sectorial decoupling. 

In the post-COVID world regionalism will accelerate because it is very difficult to travel outside of one’s region for an indefinite period of time, as the supply chains are going to be more entrenched within the regions; it will accelerate because of the growing suspicion of outsourcing to China across long distances.

We can talk about increasing globalisation or decreasing globalisation by sector. In the energy sector, you have deglobalisation because oil is abundant, but consumption is down, so you have less trade in oil. You have some slight deglobalisation of finance, as some portfolio capital has been removed from some emerging markets. In digital services there is an increase of globalisation – everyone is using Skype, Zoom and Netflix. We have an increase in trade in digital services, which is a very high value-added component of globalisation. It is more important and more valuable than oil. We usually see the oil tankers as the embodiment of globalisation, but they are not. Internet is a better embodiment of globalisation.

To what extent is this phenomenon of decoupling reinforcing the trend of regionalisation? In both United States and Europe we can hear calls for reshoring some strategic industries and creating some sort of Western resilience from this perspective. Should we expect massive shifts in this direction? 

When we talk about infrastructure, supply chains and resilience we should not be talking about the West. The West is a cultural concept and it has nothing to do with supply chains and resilience, which are essentially geographical concepts. We must focus on North America and Europe completely separately. For example, Europe is moving towards some degree of decreasing the dependence on fossil fuels, therefore it is not competing for global oil supply. When you look to North America – United States, Canada and Mexico, all are major energy powers. North America has energy self-sufficiency, a large labour force, it has industrial potential, it has technology, labour, land. All of these potential inputs for self-sufficiency and resiliency are present in North America. Europe does not have its big software companies, but it has more people than North America, it has enough land, it has renewable energy, it has financial capital. It still needs to import some energy, it is still importing food from different parts of the world, but it is trying to be more self-sufficient. If Google were to stop Internet access for Google in Europe, that would be a problem for Europe. But there is no particular technology where you would say that if Europe switches off that access to America, then America is in trouble.

Time for Europe to take itself seriously

I also want to discuss a bit the dynamic that you see inside the Atlantic system. The COVID crisis that started in China hit the West dramatically, right at its core. Is COVID an opportunity for the Atlantic system, for reinventing the strategic unity & solidarity of the Atlantic system? We see a lot of calls from the other side of the Atlantic trying to persuade Europe to align with the U.S. in the broader great-power competition.

Europe has no interest in decoupling from Asia. Europe is much more export-dependent than America is. Europe still needs to trade and export to Asia. That is why you can see that while the US is trying to block the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Europeans were joining the AIIB. There are different perspectives on this issue. In terms of a strategic community, you can still argue that there is a cultural West, but in terms of geo-economics, you cannot argue that there is a common West. America’s geopolitical allies are also its geo-economic rivals. They are competing with each other to gain market share in Asia.

How would you see the EU faring in a post-COVID international system where we see so much internal fragmentation, between North and South, Old Europe and New Europe, but at the same time a world in which the “return of history” and Machtpolitik, not multilateralism define the new normal? 

I don’t believe in the language of Robert Kagan. It is reflective of a trend focused on measuring capabilities in a way that is very different from the way sophisticated people measure capabilities today. In the XXI century, there is no particular reason to privilege the size of a nuclear arsenal over market access. Europe’s strength derives from areas where a) it acts coherently, and b) where it demands reciprocity and where it insists on high standards. This is a very important source of European influence. Europe has to actually act on these capabilities in trade, in regulations, in human rights. What we are seeing over the last couple of years is Europe trying to be tougher on China in terms of reciprocity, demanding to have a greater share in the BRI projects, demanding reciprocal market access, it has declared China as a strategic competitor, it is working to develop a big fund to support strategic industries. All of these are indications that Europe does want to be a more coherent strategic player, but this will require of course that Europe evolves towards a common fiscal policy as well.

When we talk about infrastructure, supply chains and resilience we should not be talking about the West. The West is a cultural concept and it has nothing to do with supply chains and resilience, which are essentially geographical concepts. We must focus on North America and Europe completely separately.

Balancing China

In the recent past, the way China has been rising has created a lot of resentment in Japan, in Australia (as we’ve seen in the last few weeks) in the whole East Asia, because of Beijing’s aggressive push in the South China Sea. Does the US have the ability to create a balancing coalition to check China’s strategic ambitions there? Or is that a role to be played first and foremost by local countries (like the TPP-11)?

The answer is definitely both. The most important thing to remember is that Japanese, Indian, Korean and Australian interests have been aligned for a very long time. As neighbours of China, they’ve been concerned about China’s rise for much longer than anyone else. It is important not to argue that the United States are leading the effort to balance China. That is not true. Japan and India really are leading the effort. America has the most powerful capabilities and it is wisely supporting efforts like the Quad arrangement (Australia, India, Japan and United States). The four navies are working together to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The aim is to prevent China from dominating the South China Sea, from dominating the Indian Ocean. This is going to shape Chinese behaviour. It is not a formal alliance, as in Asia alliances are very rare. It is a coalition of countries based on a very strong structural agreement on the desire to contain China.

In the book (“The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict & Culture in the 21st Century”) published last year you point out that “Russia and China are today closer than at any point since the heyday of their 1950s Communist alliance”. Do they learn from each other in challenging the status quo? Are they coordinating their movements?

It is more an axis of convenience than a real alliance. Russia remains very suspicious of China, but Russia is also accepting a lot of investment from China. What will happen over time is a China that is being very careful not to alienate Russia, as it could potentially cut down on the amount of the Chinese investments in the country, even though it needs it desperately. In the long term, China has significant interests in using Russia for access to Europe and the Arctic, but it has to be careful not to appear too dominant. I can see that right now Russia is the country that is most compliant with the Chinese interests, but in the medium term it could be the country where there is a substantial backlash against China.

In a shifting global landscape where we will see a change in supply chain patterns, will the Belt and Road Initiative remain a comparative advantage for China or could it become a liability?

The Belt and Road Initiative is an integral part of China’s grand strategy. A lot of people are discussing whether China is going to speak less about BRI or de-emphasise it. We should focus less on what they say in speeches and more on following the money. This is the bigger issue. What we will see is that China will talk less about BRI as it has become controversial, but I think it is still a strategic priority to achieve the supply chain diversification, to build these infrastructure corridors, to access West Asia and access Europe through infrastructure. There will still be BRI, but China will talk less, it will try to multilateralise more and it will have to make concessions on issues of debt relief in the wake of the pandemic.

In terms of a strategic community, you can still argue that there is a cultural West, but in terms of geo-economics, you cannot argue that there is a common West. America’s geopolitical allies are also its geo-economic rivals. They are competing with each other to gain market share in Asia.

Lessons from Asia in managing COVID-19 

South Korea and Taiwan were at the forefront in managing the pandemic. What lessons in terms of resilience and effective governance should be learned from their example, including by the West?What is crucial to remember is that these are democratic states (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan) that performed very well during the pandemic. The key aspect is that they are democracies, but they are also technocracies. They have democratic elections, independent branches of government and separation of powers, but they have a very strong civil service, really competent and professional bureaucracies that know how to get things done to meet the basic needs of the people to deliver high quality medical care. It is very important to appreciate that countries can be democratic and technocratic at the same time. Very often that is something that we ignore.

The experience of Singapore

Singapore is a country that embodies a lot of hesitation and concern about China, even if it is a majority Chinese country. You have Chinese people in a country that is not China, but they are very worried about China. In a way, the more Chinese Singapore has become demographically, the less comfortable it has become with China geopolitically. I believe there have been times when, even though Singapore was suspicious about China, it was also naïve, as they hoped that China would have a peaceful rise. That has not been the case. Now, Singapore has been very clever to make sure to emphasise to China that it will maintain its strategic relationship with the United States, that it will not back down from allowing American naval forces to have a presence on its territory. It is a strong sign of Singapore’s independence and neutrality. When it comes to the US and China it is much more of a binary. But countries like South Korea, Thailand and Singapore have been very good at maintaining good relations with both. This is tricky because there is very strong US pressure on one side and very strong pressure on the other side.

Short-term vs. long-term trends

“The Second World: How Emerging Powers Are Redefining Global Competition in the Twenty-first Century” is about the competing efforts of the United States, of Europe and of China to develop spheres of influence in emerging regions and ‘swing-state’ sort of areas like Eastern Europe, Arab world, Latin America, Central Asia or Southeast Asia. In each of those regions you see a very different landscape of influence. In the short term you hear people saying that Russia calls the shots in Syria, that it is very influential in the Middle East. In the long term that is nonsense, because Russia cannot be influential in those regions. Through the 2000s we thought about Central Asia as part of the American dominion because U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and had a very large military presence there. In 2020, American presence has declined to almost a symbolic one and American influence is almost zero. Geopolitically we have to make a distinction between a very artificial and short-term situation like the occupation of Afghanistan, versus the long-term reality that countries like China and Iran will be much more influential in countries like Afghanistan.


Parag Khanna is Founder & Managing Partner of FutureMap, a data and scenario-based strategic advisory firm. Parag’s newest book is The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict & Culture in the 21st Century(2019). He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics.

Will computers decide who lives and who dies? Ethics, Health, and AI in a COVID-19 world

“Brother! You doubting Thomases get in the way of more scientific advances with your stupid ethical questions! This is a brilliant idea! Hit the button, will ya?”

Calvin addressing Hobbes regarding the ‘Duplicator‘ (Waterson, 1990)

While talk about a post-COVID-19 world is ripe, reflecting more the desire for an economic relaunch than the medical reality of the moment, we are still struggling to understand the effects that the pandemic is having on our societies. Those ripple effects are likely both to outlive the pandemic, and even to make themselves visible after the pandemic has hopefully been eradicated. 

One of the conversations that has emerged most clearly is linked to the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in healthcare, and concerns both its effectiveness and its ethics. This article will follow two major ethical questions that have dominated the public sphere up to now: the use of data tracking systems for forecasting viral spread, and the possible use of AI as decision support for the allocation of medical resources in emergency situations. The main question underpinning this article is: how will our approach to these challenges impact our future?

Exploring the possible answers to this question will lead us to analyse the impact of the dynamic socio-cultural environment on the predictive capacities of algorithm-based AI models. The article will emphasise the importance of integrating culturally specific dimensions in developing and deploying AIs, and discuss how to approach ethics as applied to AI in a culturally aware manner. 

COVID-19

The pandemic we are living through has generated a series of unforeseen effects on local, regional and global scales. From raising instances of racism and subsequent domestic violence in conjunction with the lockdown measures, to major disruptions in human activities that may generate the biggest economic contraction since World War II, we are experiencing a combination of phenomena that reminds us of the interconnectedness of our world. 

The SARS-COV2 virus appeared in a context of decreased trust in public institutions and in scientific expertise at a global level, against a background of the increased dominance of social media in spreading fake news and pseudo-scientific theories. This was a perfect storm, which has allowed not only the weakening of democratic institutions and the rise of authoritarian leadership, but also the rapid spread of the virus itself. 

At the global level all efforts are geared towards controlling the spread of the virus, creating a vaccine, and treating those affected. Naturally, eyes turned to Artificial Intelligence and to the possibility of using it as a tool to help in these efforts. This process has revealed, and continues to reveal, complex and rather problematic interactions between AI models and the reality in which they are deployed, as well as the conflict between competing AI ethical principles.

Ethics: principles versus practices

In a lecture at Tübingen University, the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: “One thing that should be clear is that the validity of universal values does not depend on their being universally obeyed or applied. Ethical codes are always the expression of an ideal and an aspiration, a standard by which moral failings can be judged, rather than a prescription for ensuring that they never occur.” 

This is a powerful statement, touching at the core of the ethical challenges of leadership. However, it may also contain a major flaw: while ethical codes can be framed as an expression of universal aspirations, the standards by which we may judge moral failings cannot equally be universal. Whether we like it or not, morality is culturally dependent – and moral failings may certainly fall into a cultural blind-spot for many of us. Yet this does not mean that we can advocate abdicating universal ethical codes in the name of ‘cultural particularities’ (although this is a current practice among authoritarian figures, particularly regarding respect for human rights). It merely means that we need to be aware of how these aspirational universal codes are expressed in daily practices, and how the transformation of these practices can (and does) generate new moral norms that in their turn shed light on those very cultural blind-spots. 

Let’s take an example: Valuing human life is a universal ethical code. But what type of human life is more ‘valued‘ than others in different societies? And how do these societies make decisions on that basis? Is a young life more valuable than an old one? How is this valuing expressed in daily practices? Is life at any cost more valuable than an individual choice to ‘not resuscitate‘, or to retain dignity in dying? Is it possible to have an ‘equally valuable‘ approach to human life even in moments of scarcity? Is collective survival more important than individual well-being – and can these even be separated? 

These types of questions have emerged forcefully during the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis, and scientists, ethicists, and politicians are tackling the answers – or acting as if they knew them already. 

To continue, let’s follow two major conversations that have dominated the public sphere lately: the use of data tracking systems for forecasting viral spread, and the possible use of AI as decision support for the allocation of medical resources in emergency situations. By analysing the conversations and practices around this topic, this text will advocate a bottom-up approach towards the use of AI. The main arguments are that sometimes ethical codes may compete among themselves, and that trying to codify them in universally applicable AI algorithms would probably lead to the emergence of new types of biases instead of eliminating the existing ones. Thus, both deciding on the instances of using AI, and designing & relying on AI as decision-making mechanisms need to have the practices that embody moral norms as their starting points, and not universal ethical codes and their presumed possible codification in AI algorithms. The immateriality of AI models has received a reality check, and the same is about to happen to AI ethics.

A material world

At a higher level of analysis, the pandemic is a reminder that our world is material, despite a discourse that everything has now been virtualised, from markets to life itself. All of a sudden COVID-19 has forced us to experience at least three major types of materialisations: 

Materialisation of borders. While borders have not always been easy to cross, and some frontiers have been more material than others, in the past three months the transboundary movement has come to almost a complete halt. Most countries in the world have become inaccessible to those who are not their citizens or residents, and repatriation has more often than not been the only type of existing international travel. As I write this text the lockdown is easing in the European Union, but many other countries around the world remain closed to foreigners. 

In parallel, extraordinary forms of collaboration at regional and global levels have shown that only the continuation of an open type of approach may offer long-term solutions, for example the German hospitals taking in French patients at frontier regions in order to relieve the over-stretched French hospitals. At the same time, displays of solidarity have also been received with suspicion, raising questions about the use of solidarity as a mechanism of soft power, particularly in the case of China. 

(De-)Materialisation of movement. Movement has become at once materialised and virtual. Movement has entered a controlled phase at all levels during lockdown, with much of the workforce entering a mass experiment of working from home. Many who perceived the ability to move as ‘natural‘ are now experiencing it for the first time as a privilege. And movement has been displaced onto online platforms, dematerialising itself into bits and pieces of data (more on this later).

Materialisation of our bodies. Most importantly, we have been called upon to acknowledge the full extent of the importance of our bodies. We, individually and collectively, have dramatically come to realise that our lives are very real and unequivocally linked to our material bodies. The variations of the abstract indicators of the economy show that the entire global complex system is not separated from, but is in fact heavily dependent on our human bodies, their health and their movement (see above). This will contribute to the gradual dismantling of the illusion that we may have had that we live in a virtual world in which the body is only an instrument among others, a tool to be refined in gyms and yoga sessions, or a resource to overstretch during long, caffeine-fuelled working hours. Somehow our bodies have become ourselves again.

Tracking

The data tracking systems (DTS) are not a novelty, and their use by the police is quite widespread in the US. So is their use by marketing companies that rely on ’data from individual users to push products through targeted advertising. As early as 2012 the question of data tracking while surfing the internet was brought to the public’s attention’. The generalisation of the use of smartphones has made possible the extension of tracking from virtual movement to material movement in space and time. Apps, which use the phones’ GPS system and a scantily disguised but default option for the user (‘allow the app to access your location’), track, store, and sell movement data to third parties for the purpose of marketing and targeted publicity. In some instances police forces can use the same data to track movements and ‘prevent crime’ – a contested practice that is not yet fully understood, let alone regulated. 

The European Union (EU) enacted a data protection act (the General Data Protection Regulation 2016/679, implemented as of May 2018) that obliges developers to allow for security protection, pseudonymisation and/or anonymisation of users in designing their products, and to fully inform and obtain consent from the consumers regarding their use of data. This regulation impacts the use of data tracking systems (DTSs), and makes it more difficult to apply it indiscriminately or sell it to third parties (as US-based corporations tend to do). More recently the EU has adopted a series of white papers regarding the more general use of AI, to which I will return. 

DTSs combine borders, movements and bodies, and recreate them in the immaterial world of algorithms, while juxtaposing them with pre-designed models, assigning the individual user to typologies within the models. It does not matter if the models are of consumer habits, potential delinquency, or the likelihood of paying off one’s mortgage. The trouble with models in AI has largely been discussed in the literature (O’Neil, 2019; Broussard, 2018; Galison, 2019), and it emerges from a few major sources: 

  1. The models are based on previous behaviour and aggregated data, and have a probability rate of correct identification. This means that they are not 100% accurate. While this may not be a major problem in cases in which we have models of success for an athlete’s performance, it is highly problematic if they are used to decide upon the finances of or the delivery of justice to individuals. It also means that they function as long as the reality matches the conditions within which the data has been collected, and they are highly dependent on the data quality and accuracy. Under normal circumstances (read long periods of status quo), the models more or less function as designed (my emphasis). But as the COVID-19 crisis has shown, any sudden disruption causes ‘model drift’: that is, the models no longer correspond to reality, and they need to be redesigned. This was first signalledin Amazon’s use of AI, and then spotted in all the major industries that use Artificial Intelligence.
  2. The use of proxy measurements in order to decide the value attributed to a typology. For example, in order to decide if one is a good educator, a model may use the measurement of children’s performance in a specific exam. However, that in itself depends on a series of other factors that have nothing to do with the educator’s qualities and qualifications. At the same time, performance scores may be tackled if an educator feels threatened in her livelihood, giving birth to further distortions (see O’Neil).
  3. Models are designed by humans, and more often than not they embed the biases held by their designers and developers. This is also a frequently discussed topic in AI ethics. The solutions offered range from increasing the diversity in designer and product development teams to renouncing the use of the tool itself altogether. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic, eyes have turned towards the possibility of using DTSs in order to predict and prevent the rapid spread of the virus by creating early warning mechanisms. The idea is relatively simple: once downloaded, the DTS apps track the user’s movements using their phones, and identify whether the user has been in the vicinity of someone who is already registered as being COVID-19 positive. The app would then alert the user, and also create an anonymous map of possible viral spread.

AI ethicists raised the first concerns, particularly having to do with the tension between two major ethical principles in AI: the autonomy of the user (including rights to privacy) and usage for the common good. First, the DTS cannot offer 100% autonomy, particularly when the GPS system is being used for tracking. When movement data becomes health data (as in this case), anonymity is all the more important. Individual health data is highly sensitive; it is stored in highly secure environments, anonymised and used exclusively by specialists in healthcare. What if movement is health? What if one’s own movement is used in the aggregated data set in order to evaluate, through approximate models, one’s health – and eventually sold to interested third parties? Can we decide based on this data who can and who cannot return to work, travel, or even visit friends? What about getting the treatment one may need?

This dilemma has generated different responses, and the solutions proposed gravitate around a twofold approach: use the device’s Bluetooth systems instead of the GPS to signal proximity only (and not location), and store all the relevant data on the device (and not on third parties’ servers). Downloading and using the app is voluntary. A diversity of apps featuring these solutions are being deployed as I write. 

The US took a fragmented approach, leaving the development and deployment of tracing apps, and the subsequent ethical decisions, to the latitude of private companies. European countries have a more centralised approach, in that the governments are more involved in financing and developing the apps, with features that must meet European privacy standards. Germany has only just started rolling out its 20-million euro app, and is reassuring its users that the data will not be made accessible to the platform provider they use (Android or Apple), but only to public healthcare specialists in the country. At the same time, Norway has decided to withdraw its own app because its reliability was questionable at the very least. Being based on voluntary download and reporting, and built on the assumption that people always carry their smartphones with them, the Norwegian government concluded that the app’s models do not necessarily correspond to human behaviour. 

To the external observer, the situation seems to be completely different in those countries that appear to have a centralised, all-powerful system of data tracking and AI use, such as China. While a European observer may readily conclude that the balance between the common good versus individual anonymity has already tilted towards the former in China’s case, and that China can already use its Social Credit System in order to track and prevent COVID-19 spread, this is not precisely the reality of the situation. The approach in China actually seems to be more fragmented than in some European countries. Some provinces have developed their own DTSs; some of the apps use GPS, while others are based on the user voluntarily inputting their location. Regional governments and cities may use different apps that may result in different ‘health scores’ assigned to the same person. As Ding (2018) observes in his analysis of China’s AI strategy, the Western perception is that AI deployment in China is top-down and monolithic, hypercentralised and controlled, with no room for ethics. But this is far from the truth, as Ding shows in his work. This perception is a common trope of the depiction of the ‘East’ in Western popular thinking. While the doctrine of social peace and its attainment does guide the actions taken in China, ethical debates are still present and are being conducted by private enterprises, such as Tencent’s Research Institute.

In conclusion, the use of DTSs poses ethical dilemmas because they reveal the opposition between individual autonomy and the common good, and they raise practical issues regarding accuracy and efficiency because of the way in which data is collected, stored, and used.

Triage 

The spread of COVID-19 has put serious strain on healthcare systems in many countries, and each of them has had to find a different way of coping with the crisis. From avoiding testing and sending home those patients who were not in a critical state, as happened in the UK in the first phase of the pandemic, to carefully planning the lockdown and the bed allocations in places like Germany, the entire range of systemic behaviour has been displayed during this crisis. Among these, uplifting shows of solidarity between countries have been displayed, for example when border hospitals from Germany accepted patients from neighbouring France in order to help ease congestion in the French system. 

The strain on hospital beds and respiratory units, and the need to allocate scarce resources to an increasing number of patients in critical states have placed a lot of pressure on medical personnel. Ideally every national health system should have guidelines for extreme situations such as pandemics. More often than not, though, these guidelines contain a set of recommendations about triaging the patients and allocating scarce resources, but they do not necessarily describe practical ways in which these recommendations can be implemented. Thus, nurses and doctors are left scrambling to devise their own procedures in this type of emergency. 

The particularity of this pandemic is putting strain on the Intensive Care Units (ICUs) rather than on Emergency Rooms (ER). ERs around the world are currently using a diversity of triage systems, where one usually decides what type of treatment a patient needs, and in what order of emergency. This is different from the pandemic situation in overstretched ICUs, where treatment may not be available for everyone who needs it, and access to it has to be selective. This is an important distinction, and this is what happens today in many ICUs around the world. ER triage procedures do not apply to this situation. So what are the healthcare providers around the world doing? They are trying to follow the recommendations and to devise their own procedures, in order not only to best serve their patients and the common good, but also to reduce their own enormous emotional stress. There are a few criteria they may use, and as Philip Rosoff, ethicist and MD at Duke University explained, we know how not to take a decision of this kind: not in a rush, not at the bedside, and not using judgment based on privilege. In his words, in healthcare, at least in the US, there are ordinary situations in which there is a distinction made between VIPs and VUPs (Very Unfortunate Persons). In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic this distinction is eliminated, and so is the question of age. Age is not a decisive factor in providing treatment in case of scarcity (contrary to what some may believe). 

The only criterion that should play a role, Rosoff explained, is the clinical chances the patient has of surviving. This can be assessed by healthcare professionals based on the healthcare records of the respective patient and on the current clinical state displayed. Here, one can see that AI-powered tools may come into play to a very significant degree. Electronic Health Records (EHR) facilitate the preservation of patients’ medical history and, combined with the data of the current chart of a patient, they could theoretically match the patient’s history and current state with a recommendation regarding a triage decision. This may provide certain relief in high-stress situations, and the decision may be supported by this type of evidence-based approach. 

However, two important factors need to be taken into consideration here: 

  1. The AI models embedded that pass a judgment on the state of health of the patients may themselves be flawed: the use of proxy measures in order to establish the state of a patient’s health (such as the money they have spent in the past x years on health-related issues) can be very misleading: for example, one such AI-powered tool kept showing that black patients’ health is much better that of white ones, and as a result they may receive less medical attention. This was in fact due to a reversed causation: blacks in the US receive less medical attention due to financial hardships and systemic racism, resulting in their spending less money on health. The AI system considered this a sign of good health. If a subsequent decision is taken based on this, it will in fact continue the spiral of inequality (Obermeyer et al., 2019). 
  2. The risk of errors induced by the way in which the humans interact with the machines. One important element in AI as a decision support tool, particularly in healthcare, is that the system should remain a tool for support, and should not be transformed into a decision-maker. However, the high emotional stress combined with the workload experienced by health workers may generate the so-called “suspension of clinical thinking”, that is, taking the AI’s recommendation as the ultimate authoritative decision. In other words, under a variety of circumstances, particularly high stress, humans may be tempted to offload the weight of the decision onto the machine. While this may be possible in a driverless car, it may prove disastrous in medical settings. Ironically, it seems easier (although it is not) to create an algorithm advising doctors (because everything happens between the screen and the health worker) than an integrated AI system that drives a car. 

In conclusion, AI may provide assistance in patient triage for resource allocation in a pandemic situation, but it should not be transformed into an automated decision-making instrument, precisely because previous biases and model dysfunctionalities may create irremediable medical errors. And of course, the question of accountability may have to be considered.

AI ethics and models

Both the instances analysed above (DTSs and the possible use of AIs in triage for medical resource allocation in the ICU) have in common concerns regarding ethics. 

We should distinguish between making an ethical decision and the method with which we arrive at that decision. The methods used to arrive at an ethical decision are the equivalent of ethical codes, or principles. The decisions we take (or which we let the AI take in an automated manner) are the result of choosing the precedence of one principle or code over another. When subsequently analysing the decision under the lenses of a different code, the decision taken may appear unethical.

In ethical decision-making theories, there are five major methods of coming to an ethical decision: the utilitarian approach (make the most good and the least harm), the rights-based approach (what best protects the moral rights of those affected), the fairness and justice approach (whether the decision is fair), the ‘common good’ approach, and the virtue approach (is the decision in accordance with the decision-maker’s values?).These methods are present and expressed as AI ethical codes in most of the approaches.

Currently a series of bodies are devising principles for creating ethical AIs, that is, the things one needs to take into consideration when designing and using AIs. The EU has put forth seven principles for trustworthy AI: Human agency and oversight, Technical robustness and safety, Privacy and data governance, Transparency, Diversity, Non-discrimination and fairness, Societal and environmental well-being, and Accountability. Under each of these principles we can find a list of recommendations meant to explain what they mean. Under privacy and data governance we may find anonymity, respect for individual rights; under Societal and environmental well-being we may find concerns for the common good, and so on. As argued above, these principles may compete in different cases. They are also highly abstract, and they may mean different things in different socio-cultural contexts.

AI models interact with institutional, social and cultural contexts, and may fail if they are not designed for the appropriate context. In fact, this happens in most cases where AIs work directly with humans: a very recent example comes from health again, when a retina scan AI diagnosis system by Google performed perfectly in lab conditions but failed consistently in Thailand. This happened simply because the workflows differed from the lab, the light conditions were variable, and the health technicians understood the deployment of machines as an authoritative measure to which they had to respond perfectly; sometimes they photoshopped the images so that the AI algorithm would accept the quality of the shot.

Ethical models do the same, and in order to avoid drift, we should develop them by starting with observing practices. The ethical codes themselves do not exist in theory, 

despite the fact that some ethicists generate them theoretically first. In fact they are initially expressed in different practices. Their very meaning is translated through practices; but practices vary in time and space. Different practices show the cracks in the models, as in the AI deployment cases. We should look at practices and their variations first in order to make our way back to judgements on values and ethics. Returning to the question of rights and valuing life: how is this expressed in various practices? How can we design decision-making mechanisms (automated or not) that correspond to the variability of practices and their dynamic transformations? 

Matter matters

The major lesson for AI and for ethics which COVID-19 has taught us is that adoption means adaptation in a world in which matter matters. Therefore we must conclude: 

  • AI is a tool: it does not need to be ethical (it’s absurd). It should be designed in accordance with ethical principles understood contextually, leading to it acting ethically within the context. Therefore, we first need to understand the context – ask an anthropologist.
  • Assume that models are always wrong. Models do not drift because people behave weirdly – they drift to begin with because they are models; their accuracy is limited over time, and the faster we change, the faster they drift. Carrying them across contexts will implicitly lead to drift. So first, one needs to study the model’s cultural context (regional, institutional, professional) and to work one’s way back from there into the design of the AI systems. 
  • The design process should start in the field, and not in labs. We need to design for the cultural context: build models starting with reality, and do not try to model reality on abstract models (including ethics) – sooner or later they will drift, and one of the domains in which they fail is ethics. 
  • And last but not least, we need to create constant evaluation feedback loops. Remember, AI is material: it has a material support and it interacts with the material world. That means it is not going to flow smoothly. Be prepared to reassess and adjust based on how the adoption process develops. 

COVID-19 is here to stay. There is no post-COVID world. Even if a vaccine becomes readily available, the virus will only be subdued by its generalised use. Just as with measles or polio, stopping vaccination would mean the return of the virus. The ripple effects of the current pandemic will be felt in economy, culture, and politics. For AI it means both a great opportunity to show where it is really helpful, and a wake-up call to demystify some of the hype around it. One major lesson is that AI not only interacts with a material world in continuous transformation, but that its functioning depends on this very materiality (and material culture). The crisis has also re-emphasised the importance of understanding socio-cultural variations (geographical or institutional) when approaching ethics, and to be more aware of the ethical implications of AI design, deployment and adoption. One major question that was overlooked till recently would be: what domains and instances need the deployment of AI? Is AI as a decision-making support a really good idea in a particular domain or not? Should we automate decision-making support in all domains? Should we optimise everything just because we can? As Rosoff observed in his dialogue with David Remnick, healthcare is a multibillion-dollar business in the US. In this particular context, optimising processes with AI may not always be in the best interest of the patient. So let’s be patient, and instead consider where AI can be useful, and where it has the potential of becoming a ‘weapon of math destruction’. 

References:

Broussard, Meredith (2018). Artificial Unintelligence. How Computers Misunderstand the World. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press.

Ding, Jeffrey (2018). Deciphering China’s AI Dream The context, components, capabilities, and consequences of China’s strategy to lead the world in AI. Centre for the Governance of AI, Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford.

Galison, Peter, ‘Algorists Dream of Objectivity’, in Brockman, John (ed.) (2019) Possible Minds. 25 Ways of Looking at AI. New York: Penguin Press. pp. 231-240

O’Neil, Cathy (2019). Weapons of Math Destruction. How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, New York: Broadway Books.

Obermeyer, Ziad, Brian Powers, Christine Vogeli, Sendhil Mullainathan (2019), ‘Dissecting racial bias in an algorithm used to manage the health of populations’, Science, Vol. 366, Issue 6464, pp. 447-453, DOI: 10.1126/science.aax2342

Waterson, Bill (1990). ‘Calvin and Hobbes’, January 9, 10, 11, in The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Book Three 1990-1992, Kansas City, Sydney, London: Andrew McMeel Publishing, p. 9

It’s a tough choice to hold elections during the pandemic

There is little doubt, by now, that the novel coronavirus pandemic is a threat not only to health and the economy, but also to some of our democracies. In order to fight the spread of the virus effectively, governments have to restrict civil rights. Some are becoming excessively good at it.

Emergency powers sometimes fit into the plans and desires of would-be autocrats in search of an opportunity to grow stronger. This is done at a rapid pace and is creating growing concern. To give just one example, calling Mr. Viktor Orban a dictator, once an expression relegated to informal conversation, is now becoming mainstream (see The Economist coverage on April, 2nd vs. April, 23rd).

But there is another problem that plagues even countries that remain committed to liberal democracy: how to hold elections. Elections can be quite robust: polls have taken place during wars, famines and civil unrest. But this kind of crisis is peculiar. Elections bring people together in various ways and bringing people together will surely bring about disease.

Let us walk through the options.

Business as usual

This one is the most clear-cut case. Running elections during a pandemic increases the health risks for participants and society at large. Since people will realise that, they are likely to come to the polls in smaller numbers, undermining to an extent the very legitimacy of the process. France played brave and saw it happen.

Delay the elections

An obvious strategy would be to delay the elections until a better moment arrives. Mostly, such plans suppose that the virus would be less… viral during the summer months. But this is just untested theory yet.

Also, playing with the elections date can be politically and constitutionally complicated.  Some constitutions require elections to happen before a well-defined moment.

Even where it is constitutionally possible, delaying elections at will may still give governments the power to pursue improper political gains. Even when they do not give in to temptation, opposition parties may feel that they do.

Multi-day elections

One easy way to lower the risk posed by elections seems to be to keep the polls open during more than one day. Thus, there will be greater social distancing, especially if people are advised to come to the polls in different days, according to their name or any other random characteristic.

But other problems remain. People will still need to be in close proximity to those who are part of the elections committee, will still use pens and stamps.

Those who handle the pens, stamps and ballot boxes will be particularly vulnerable. Keeping the polls open during more than one day might actually have a discouraging effect on these people, even though, statistically, they are at no greater risk.

Multi-day elections would also be relatively novel since, typically, countries are more than happy to close the polls the same day they open them. Romania has tried this approach a few times, particularly when referenda required a quorum to be considered valid and people were reluctant to meet that quorum.

Vote by (physical) mail

In such a scenario, postal workers would deliver the ballot papers to the citizens, making sure that everybody who has the right to vote gets one authenticated piece/ set. Then, so to speak, the mailbox would become the ballot box. (Multiple similar arrangements are possible)

Mail voting is regularly done in the case of citizens who live abroad, or who are unable or sometimes unwilling to come to the voting booth on election day. It is considered safe in the United States (though president Trump recently disagreed). But in the UK a judge ruled in 2005 that “the system is wide open to fraud and any would-be political fraudster knows that”, adding that he could find “evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic”, according to the BBC.

Scaling up such a system would create major logistical and security problems. Can postal companies and services cope with such pressure? After all, they are continuously losing market share to more agile competitors. Supposing the deed can be done, the mail worker may choose not to deliver the postal sacks from areas where people tend to vote “the wrong way”.

Americans have voted by mail in record number in the recent US elections. The same was also planned to take place in Poland, already arousing suspicions of a familiar combination of authoritarian slide, ill-prepared policies and malevolent intentions. The same was also planned to take place in Poland, already arousing suspicions of a familiar combination of authoritarian slide, ill-prepared policies and malevolent intentions.

However, even if postal voting were possible and secure, it may be unconstitutional in many countries. After all, nobody wrote a constitution with a pandemic in mind.

Even if constitutional, postal voting is not necessarily safe from the coronavirus. Citizens would have to be identified by the postal workers and few institutions in Eastern Europe would accept identification without some form of handwritten signature. That makes postal workers potential super-spreaders. It also makes them potential victims. It is worth remembering that in some East-European countries postal workers are essential for delivering pensions, utility bills, and generally keeping remote places connected to the world.

Voting by Internet

Large scale Internet voting is logistically easier (possibly, maybe, we do not really know). But all the other problems of postal voting come back to us with a vengeance. People would still need to identify themselves when they get some form of “electronic right to vote”. The process would be ripe for spreading the virus. It also could be unconstitutional in many countries.

On top of this, there are a whole host of ways to defraud internet voting. And, very importantly, voting fraud is much easier to scale than in pretty much any reasonable elections scenario.

E-voting may be the future, but, realistically, the technology is not here yet.

Are there any ways out?

Earlier this year Singapore revised electoral districts and promoted measures to ensure that voting was possible during a pandemic. This was read by some as a sign that the government is considering snap elections to capitalise on the success of containing the virus. As the number of infections increased, plans seem to have been abandoned. However, speculation about snap elections were not a cause for public outcry, suggesting that the population is generally willing to trust that the government will be able to organise elections safely (voting is mandatory in Singapore).

Can we, in Eastern Europe, or Europe generally, copy that model? Not really. Singapore is a strong state, some say authoritarian, inhabited by a compliant population that is well familiarised with social distancing from previous epidemics. Europe, and especially Southern and Eastern Europe, are nothing like that. The case of Singapore suggests, nevertheless, that, if the pandemic persists, we might eventually learn to competently live with it to the point where relatively safe elections become possible.

Another theoretical option is sortition, which is randomly selecting people for office. Such means of selecting magistrates was a staple of ancient Athenian democracy and was used later in some Italian Republics. Nowadays it is used sparingly in “citizen juries” selected to advise politicians on issues.

Given a large enough elected body or simple enough responsibilities, it can be argued that sortition ensures representation of relevant opinions at least as accurately as elections, if not better.

However, such a solution precludes the citizens from giving a mandate to elected leaders. It also results, sociologically speaking, in diminished legitimacy and trust. In Romania, for example, after each major election the number of people who believe that the country is heading in the right direction increases. Such moments of optimism would be lost.

Last, but definitely not least, only very few – if any – constitutions in Europe would allow it.

What next?

It may well be that the actual response to the electoral challenges of the virus will come, like the virus itself, in waves.

We experience now a wave of confusion. Governments are under political or constitutional pressure to hold elections. But the science about the coronavirus is in flux and new ideas are untested. So, decision-making will include a certain degree of randomness.

And there is ample room for bad decisions. In Poland voting by mail was deemed impossible at such short notice. So, elections were postponed de facto – but not necessarily de jure, because it was too late in the process (it’s complicated).

Next comes the mix-and-match wave. Various means of voting described in this article could be used simultaneously. And each country might have its own combination. Inclusive electoral democracy will pay off: countries that already have more inclusive voting options will have it easier, both from a legal and a logistical perspective.

At least in summer, good mixes stand a chance to deliver good elections. But it will take a while to get everything in good order. After all, for Singapore, which was first to consider holding elections despite the virus, this is not its first epidemic.

And then we hope for an effective vaccine to come.

*

The considerations above are far from exhaustive. They aim not to be a study in electoral alternatives, but to illustrate the challenges that any such alternative would face.

Not to mince words, we are at a point where democracy kills, because elections kill. When calling an election, governments will know that they are sending people to death just as surely as they know it when they send troops into the fight. But, at least, modern troops are volunteer-based rather than conscripted. Army members choose to risk their lives. But, in an epidemic, citizens who go to vote will implicitly risk the lives of those who do not vote.

This will undoubtedly impact the legitimacy of elections and, by extension, of democracy itself. But resilient democracies can move on. Failed elections are not a proof of failed democracies, but rather of failed public health planning. Once the crisis is gone, democracies can fully recover.

Except where democracy is already plagued by “pre-existing conditions”.

PS When I wrote this article, I said that we were living a period of confusion on what safe alternatives to traditional elections looked like. In a certain sense, we are still there.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, more than 60 countries have postponed elections from the start of the pandemic. But those who did hold them largely abstained from innovation. Behind the plethora of public health measures the same-old same-old kind of action took place: in-person, single-day, come-when-you-like (exceptions exist).

Did it work? For some countries it did but for some others it did not. As the virus will continue to roam among us for months (at least), the discussion is still valid: are governments doing everything to protect the voters? Or are they trying to make choices that are safe for themselves, adhering to the conventional wisdom more than necessary.

An inflexion point may be brought about by the US elections, where extended mail-in voting seems to be the solution of choice. A successful, reasonably uncontroversial process may give the world a signal that alternatives are possible. Anything less may scare government away from electoral innovation.