Biden needs to counter Russia and China to secure our digital future

Biden needs to counter Russia and China to secure our digital future
© VALERIY SHARIFULIN/AFP/Getty Images

International debates surrounding innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), facial recognition, and big data have intensified in recent years — but our digital future is under threat from malign actors that attempt to shape international norms in the technology space through more authoritarian approaches. Given this backdrop, it is important to focus on the leadership race taking place at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an unfamiliar but important UN agency in the technology space.

The ITU — the “Major League Baseball Commission” of global information and communication technologies (ICT) — will undergo a leadership change in October 2022. At that point, 193 member states will convene in Bucharest, Romania, at the 22nd Plenipotentiary Conference to elect its next leader. The U.S. took the right step by nominating early a highly qualified American candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin. It now must follow through by ensuring she wins this critical election.

This election is poised to be a historic event, with Bogdan-Martin potentially becoming the first woman, and second American since 1965, to lead the Geneva-based institution. While the Biden administration’s recent endorsement of Bogdan-Martin’s candidacy is an essential first step, there is an urgent need for continued efforts by the U.S. government and private sector stakeholders to support her. There is unprecedented demand for a leader who can guide the ITU through this transformational period. Bodgan-Martin would most certainly meet this requirement.

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Established in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union, the ITU is now a UN specialized agency responsible for critical ICT standard-setting and regulatory activities. Initially created to regulate cross-border telegraph communications, the ITU’s mandate and treaty instruments have expanded over time to include areas that are vital to U.S. national security such as 5G, radio spectrum management, satellite placements, and cybersecurity. Put simply, the ITU is the most important international organization that you have likely never heard of.

The October 2022 meeting is critical for the United States and its allies. Held every four years, this plenipotentiary meeting will provide the U.S. and member states the opportunity to deliberate on the future of global telecommunication governance and determine who will guide the ITU secretariat for the next four years. Other senior leadership positions are also scheduled to be elected at the forthcoming event.  This includes the deputy secretary-general and three other directors overseeing technical topics like development, standardization, and radio communication.

The candidates 

Two candidacies have already been announced, with more likely to follow: Bogdan-Martin of the United States and Rashid Ismailov of the Russian Federation.

Bogdan-Martin began her career at the ITU in 1994 after five years as an international telecommunication policy specialist with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA). An expert on global communications issues, Bogdan-Martin has risen through the ranks of the ITU, occupying senior leadership positions within the organization since 2008. Bogdan-Martin currently serves as Director of the Telecommunications Development Bureau (ITU-D) and is the first woman to be elected to one of five senior leadership positions in the agency’s 155-year history.

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While Bogdan-Martin’s formal platform is yet to be announced, she will likely focus on global digital development and inclusion. In 2015, she helped establish the EQUALS Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age, an initiative that seeks to bridge the digital gender divide and empower women to become telecommunication leaders and entrepreneurs. She has also been actively involved in youth outreach and awareness, directing the ITU’s first global youth summit, BYND 2015.

Bogdan-Martin has remained a strong advocate for digital transformation through global partnerships. Under her leadership, she was able to forge 42 public-private partnerships in 2020 alone. In the words of Acting Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica RosenworcelJessica Rosenworcel50 groups urge Biden to fill FCC opening to reinstate net neutrality rules Top Democrat: FCC actions are a 'potential setback' to autonomous vehicles Biden needs to counter Russia and China to secure our digital future MORE, “No one is more qualified to sit at the helm of the ITU than Doreen.”

The second announced candidate, Rashid Ismailov of the Russian Federation, is a former Deputy Minister of the Russian Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications and former telecommunications executive at Huawei. In what some have described as a ‘worst-case scenario,’ Ismailov’s victory would provide substantial influence to a former senior official from a government known as one of the “world’s leading saboteurs of open dialogue on the internet.” The benefits of his candidacy are limited by a relative lack of intergovernmental experience and his open support for policies that challenge the integrity of current ICT governance structures.

The way forward

The question remains how the U.S. can compete and win at the upcoming ITU election.

Similar experiences, such as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) race in 2020, provide valuable lessons on success. There were four winning elements: 1) a qualified candidate with a unifying platform; 2) a strong diplomatic support for the candidate; 3) an established electoral pathway to victory; and 4) a strong coalition of like-minded countries.

A challenge is that Bogdan-Martin is an international civil servant and there are issues around how she campaigns and who pays for her efforts to campaign. The U.S. private sector through the 63-member U.S. ITU Association can play an advocacy role and take creative steps to support coalition building to ensure Bogdan-Martin wins.

This election is a lengthy process: There are 17 months left until the October 2022 meeting, but the stakes are very high. The Biden administration must allocate time, staff, and money to support this campaign.

Our digital future depends on it.

Daniel F. Runde is a senior vice president and William A. Schreyer chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank Group, and in investment banking, with experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.