with NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană at the Defence Disrupted conference

  • 19 May. 2021 -
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  • Last updated 21-May-2021 15:44

(As delivered)

Syma Cullasy-Aldridge [Director of External Affairs, PUBLIC]: Good morning, everyone. Good morning, everyone and welcome to our opening session at Defence Disrupted. I’m Syma Cullasy-Aldridge, Director of External Affairs at PUBLIC, and I’m absolutely delighted to be joined this morning by the NATO Deputy Secretary General, Mircea Geoană. Deputy Secretary Geoană has long been an advocate of the NATO Alliance and transatlantic integration. And before taking up his current role, Mr Geoană served in senior positions for the Romanian government and has since served as Chairperson in the Office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, as well as founding the Aspen Institute in Romania – a non-profit nongovernmental organisation dedicated to promoting values-based leadership.

And actually, your CV is actually much longer and much more impressive than that. So thank you so much for joining us today, it’s an absolute honour to have you. And to the audience, the session is going to be running for 20 minutes and we’re going to reserve five minutes at the end for questions. So please do get those coming in through the chat and we’ll do our best to answer as many as possible. Deputy Secretary General, thank you so much for joining us this morning. 

Mircea Geoană [NATO Deputy Secretary General]: My pleasure, Syma.  

Syma Cullasy-Aldridge: I wanted to start by asking you about the role that NATO can play in supporting new technology. I think we can all agree that we’re living in a really different time to ten, fifteen, even five years ago, in the way . . . in how technology impacts our lives. And in defence, emerging technologies are disrupting the traditional landscape and nations are now competing to leverage these technologies at speed. In the latest Annual Report, NATO highlighted a strong commitment to maintaining a technological edge. And whilst historically the key driving force behind NATO has been about the development of a military and security alliance, one could argue that if you want to maintain a technological edge, the concept of a tech alliance is just as important. So with this in mind, in your view, what can NATO do to better support collaboration and transparency within the Alliance on technology? 

Mircea Geoană: Well, first of all, thank you for having me, and I remember with great pleasure the GovTech Summit two years ago, in person, in Paris, and I can only hope that we’ll be able to do this again. So, congratulations to you and to . . . for this great event. Listen, the whole issue of technology is not only the most significant structural trend in . . . probably in human history. We’ve never seen such an acceleration in such a compressed period of time, with so many implications across the board – from daily life, to business, to society, to defence and security. And the major difference between now and a few decades ago, only, is that today the driver of innovation is the private sector. It’s the venture capital, it’s the start-ups, our universities, what we call here in NATO, and I think what all of us are indicating, is a different kind of innovation ecosystem.

Governments still matter on a few of the defence and security-related innovation and technology, governments still do matter. But a time when governments were basically in the driver’s seat and the dispersion of those innovations were filtering, trickling down towards the rest of the economy are now basically reversed. And why is NATO such a successful organisation? Why are we so proud in saying we are the most successful alliance in history? Because we are always able to combine two things: a permanent return to our fundamental values; and also we have in our DNA permanent adaptation and agility. This is what we are doing today. Secretary General Stoltenberg asked me to chair the Innovation Board in NATO. We have assembled the best minds when it comes to science and technology. We have a Chief Scientist and his office are doing an exceptional job. Thousands of the most brilliant minds around the NATO ecosystem are working with us. We are reaching out actively towards the private sector. We are reaching out, as I’m doing today, to academia and think tanks and platforms, because the innovation ecosystem in NATO today has to reflect these structural changes. This is one.

The second part is also related to the fact that we also have to continue to adapt and to adopt new technologies in what we do. Our first line of business is deterrence and defence – and this is why we have a very ambitious plan. On the political side, our leaders in London instructed us to work on an emerging and disruptive technologies roadmap. The implementation plan of this roadmap is already approved. So we are working actively towards the implementation of a number of technologies that we believe are the most relevant to security and defence, AI and big data, biotechnology, quantum, space, human enhancement, hypersonic defence-related equipment. On top of that, we are also looking towards the future. As we speak, the North Atlantic Council is debating the documents that our leaders will be adopting at the NATO summit on June 14th. Under the . . . if you want, if you want the brand:  NATO 2030, that Secretary General Stoltenberg proposed, and we are negotiating decisions by our leaders. Innovation and technology will be part of those decisions. And we speak of NATO 2030 just because we want to think not only for one or two years, but a decade ahead.

And if we talk to our military colleagues and the dedicated strategic command we have in Norfolk  on transformation, they’re even thinking up to 2040, because of the anticipation of these structural trends in technology are very important to us. So what I’m saying that, we are always keen in making sure that when we adopt and use new technologies, we keep the values, the ethical and moral norms that are bound to our democratic societies at the heart of what we do. And secondly, that we are always, always open. And that’s why I’m so happy to be here today with you. Open to engaging with the triple helix between public sector, private sector and academia. And here, the Political West, we still have a huge edge, when it comes to open societies and innovation. We know that always free, open . . . the freedom to think and to speak up your mind is also part of the innovation ecosystem I was referring to. 

Syma Cullasy-Aldridge: I think that’s . . . that’s absolutely right, and I’ve seen you talk about this triple helix thing a few times, and I think I’d like to look into that a little bit more and what you’ve called this kind of road map for implementation – and actually digging into that a little bit more and digging into the triple helix, the role that start-ups can play and how start-ups can get involved. So, you know, you said yourself this . . . this event is kind of the first of its kind in terms of how many start-ups and how many defence disruptors that we’re bringing together. So you know Geollect, Open Cosmos, Red Sift, Drone Defence, like a handful of many that we have here with us today and tomorrow. So start-ups are really important components of this technological race. But actually for some of them, it’s quite difficult unless you kind of really understand how to use the system, how to . . . how government procurement works. So, to sell into the military and to be a part of that triple helix can actually be quite difficult for start-ups sometimes. So, in your view then, thinking about that and how start-ups can fit into that triple helix, what can NATO do to better promote that partnership between start-ups and governments and the military and academia? 

Mircea Geoană: I fully share the view that when it comes to the private sector leading today and in the future, this huge effort of innovation and technological progress, we also have to keep in mind that, that private sector is composed not only by the big technological firms and the big defence-related firms that are also are investing in this thing - they’re very important as well. But I think the beauty of our open societies is that we have this abundance of talent and innovators at a smaller scale. So how to make sure that we are of help to these very gifted and highly-promising new ventures, in order for them to be able, number one, to be able to scale up, to test, and also to have access to capital, which is trusted. This is, in essence, what we are trying to do.

Because NATO doesn’t have, like the European Union, let’s say, the power of regulation, but we have something else which is equally important. We have the power of standardisation. Once NATO adopts a standard, that standard becomes almost instantly the gold standard on everything which comes through defence and security – not only in NATO, but even our adversaries and rivals are looking to the quality of what we do. One other thing that is very important is also to make sure that we have trusted capital. And the idea to have some form of trusted capital databases and also to make sure that some of these highly talented start-ups . . . at a certain moment, there is a risk that they could suffocate in a way and they will be in need of additional financial resources. And sometimes – and this is something we have to be vigilant against, it’s part of our resilience, if you want – that sometimes capital coming from, not the best places, let me put it more diplomatically, could eventually be, and they already are, trying to capture early on some of the talent that is produced by our democratic societies.

That’s again a component where NATO is and will continue to be active, in making sure that our gold standard, if you want, also applies not only to the capacity of that technology to also have dual use, to be also applicable and usable and vendable for our purposes and the Allied nations’ purposes and our partners’ purposes, but also that the kind of . . . the ownership and the capitalisation of these start-ups is done with legitimate and not insidious or adversarial components into this. I would say that these are the three issues that we can do: the power of standardisation, helping through our centres – not only NATO owned, but also Allied nations owned – testing facilities, we have many of those. And as we speak, we are trying to concentrate a few of those just to become, also, even more open for these start-ups to be able to test with us, for us to be able to be with them when there is also, you know, risk and trial, failure is part of innovation. So we want to create this kind of ecosystem – making sure that we nurture talent. It’s not up to us to decide which of these venture capital will be the big winners of the competition, that’s the beauty of capitalism, if you want. We are not pre-deciding who’s going to be the winner. But I think we are, as we speak, creating this bedrock, this foundation, for many of these start-ups to be able to have access to what we can offer and also what we need in terms of defence and security. 

Syma Cullasy-Aldridge: That’s really, really great to hear and I’m sure lots of the start-ups who are listening today are going to be very excited that they are very much at the heart of your implementation plan. And I’m sure there’ll be lots of them knocking on your door, wondering specifically how they can get involved in some of those test centres. So I will pick that up with your team afterwards. Something you were saying whilst we were talking just then was about the military technology influencing civilian, and the kind of changing role of private investment. So I’m interested to hear a little bit more about that, because many of the technologies that we use today are only here because of military invention, so: microwaves, GPS and the Internet itself, but – and you said it earlier on as well – much more . . . there’s much more private investment in technology than there is state investment. And a lot of the innovation is being driven by private sector investment. So I’d be really interested to hear, as part of your 2030 plan, and some of this other work that you guys are doing, what role that you think NATO now has in driving wider R&D and innovation in the economy and how that’s changed over the last few years?

Mircea Geoană: Well, thank you for the question. That’s a fundamental question, because I think on the one side, we are, if you want, now on the demand side, because of the change of the roles between the private sector and the public sector when it comes to innovation and technology. So we are a big customer. So we are, in a way, driving demand. But in order to have not only a demand-driven relationship with the private sector, what we are trying to do – and this is also an invitation through you to this . . . to this ecosystem of innovation – together, we have to work in a sort of a symbiotic way, also to understand the implications of civilian technologies when it comes to something that, eventually, those companies are not thinking about the way in which civilian, relatively benign technologies, could be used and sometimes abused when it comes to defence and security. There is also another component when we need each other and a sort of a cross-educational effort, if you want.

From our side, with our requirements, with our specificities, with our obligation to defend one billion people living in thirty NATO Allies, but also to make sure that when we develop technologies – and private sector is the one, again, in the driver’s seat – that we have also the ethical international norms, the democratic values, things that are, in a way, our number one strategic difference with our opponents. So it’s an epical struggle for the commanding heights between our open democratic societies that NATO embodies and also authoritarian regimes that are using technology not only for normal advancement of their societies – that’s normal, that’s competition, that’s fine – but also sometimes abusing these technologies to create societies that are closed, authoritarian, controlling their populations, things that we are not in the business of doing. So I do believe that when it comes, number one, for the private sector to understand from the beginning, which would be the requirements that we have for adoption and introduction of new technologies when it comes to security and defence, the dual use part of this.

This is a very important conversation and I am encouraging you and all of us to do it even in a more structured way. And knock on our doors, there’s not a problem. And also, a big discussion about ethical values and moral values. There’s a lot . . . a big discussion in our societies and lots of, especially of the young people in our societies, they’re interested on the one side on climate change, and that’s why, also, NATO is looking into the security implications of climate change, this will be part of the summit decisions that we’ll take. But also many of our citizens, not only young ones, but mainly the young ones, are also looking with concern to issues that could be: autonomous weapon systems, the use of AI and big data into some applications that could also be seen as deviating from our moral compass, if you want. This is why this engagement is so important. As we speak we are working on an AI implementation strategy, a sort of a subset of strategies from the emerging technology roadmap, implementation roadmap.

On each of these things we are going with, let’s say, more specialised strategies and we are working on AI. We are embodying in our approach and introducing the gold standard of NATO, this important component of international . . . respect for the international law, respect for human decency, respect for our values, respect for our ethical, legal and moral norms. That’s a very important issue that I believe that on . . . on both sides, us as beneficiaries of new technologies and also the ones producing and innovating on technologies, we have to have this dialogue. And I think we’ll be strong together. We are doing this with the EU as we speak. We are engaging on EDTs with the European Union. We had an excellent conversation, structured dialogue, just a few weeks ago. We are also working with the European Union. We have an excellent cooperation with the OECD, which has a tremendous, tremendous analytical and intellectual capability to work on these kind of things. So I’m calling on likeminded partners of NATO – private sector, academia, institutions – to work together in making sure that technology is not only progressing, but it is also used in a moral and also efficient way. 

Syma Cullasy-Aldridge: And I think that’s something that we all definitely agree with and we’ll take you up on that collaboration. One of the things I really want to talk to you about today, but we’re about to be timed-out was skills and actually how you can make sure that both NATO and the people in the Alliance have the right skills to do everything that you’ve just said that is incredibly important. But perhaps that’s a conversation we can pick up in the GovTech Summit. And in the last 30 seconds then, I have one final question for you: what do you think is the most technological . . . is the most important technological advancement that we need in the next five years? So, just a thought to leave everybody with. 

Mircea Geoană: I would say a mindset, a culture of innovation. That’s the most important thing. We speak all the time, and I’m speaking all the time, Jens Stoltenberg speaks every single day, about the fundamental need for NATO to maintain our technological edge. And this is contested for the first time in decades and probably in centuries. So, in order to stay there, to continue to lead, to continue to set the norms, to continue to influence, positively, the world, we have to introduce in everything we do, a mindset of innovation, a culture of innovation, of permanent adoption and adaptation to this thing. From workforce and talent, investing in talent, in human talent, being able to be attractive to the young, gifted, smart people that are going towards technology, towards, also, a mindset of innovation. That’s the most important thing.

And that’s what we are trying to do, this is what they’re doing. And also, Secretary General Stoltenberg asked me to be the champion of innovation in NATO – not an easy task – but this is where I think we should continue to be perseverant, investing in the triple helix, being open and transparent with the rest of the ecosystem of innovation. And also, the last point I would like to make: make sure that we maintain interoperability amongst all Allies. Not every single Ally has the depth of capital markets, the wealth of universities and the capacity of deep venture capital markets, like a few of the Allies. Our job is also to make sure that we have a homogeneous innovation ecosystem across the Alliance, to the smaller ones, to the newcomers into the Alliance. And that’s another important ingredient to our enduring success. 

Syma Cullasy-Aldridge: I absolutely could not have put that better myself. And at PUBLIC we are here to help and we completely agree on the importance of innovation and the importance of that culture of innovation. Deputy Secretary General, we have to, unfortunately, leave it there today, but thank you so much for joining us and for such an excellent conversation. And we look forward to continuing it. Thank you. 

Mircea Geoană: Thank you so much.