War, Technology and Power: The challenges to international security – 2nd edition of the Tech & Foreign Policy Summit

The second edition of the Tech & Foreign Policy Summit is organised by the Rome office of ECFR with the support of the Compagnia di San Paolo Foundation and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and in collaboration with the Post Conflict Operations Study Centre (PCOSC) of the Training Command and Application School of the Italian Army

, Berlin time (CEST, UTC+2)
Venue: Turin

After the successful first edition of the Tech Summit in 2022, the 2023 edition continues the conversation on the challenges of technological competition for sovereignty in the current global order. The first edition, “Great Powers and Technological Competition: what role for the EU?”, focused mainly on the role of technology in the global competition and on the EU’s efforts in keeping pace. As a result of the two-days exchange, the conference set the basis for a productive reflection on the nature of the geopolitical competition in the technological field, ranging from the confrontation with the US, to the definition of tech sovereignty for the EU and for Italy to become a smart and cyber secure country.

The 2023 edition focuses on what the EU has done so far to fill the gap between the current scenario and the relevant geopolitical actor in the tech domain it is aiming to become. The impressive effort in making the Chips Act come true, and facing the semiconductor shortage, is certainly a positive sign in enhancing European technological sovereignty. But the supply chain fragility and the dependance from other foreign great powers is not the only threat in the digital world. The experience of the war in Ukraine has shown that interstate conflicts are still possible, even in the peaceful Europe: the technological power of states is therefore still something to be carefully taken into account when talking about international security, since technological development influences both the way wars are fought, and the domains involved in the clashes. Brussels has traditionally perceived technological development as a terrain to enhance the Single Market and an opportunity to increase services and people’s way of living. With the Von der Leyen Commission’s “Digital decade” as one of the six priorities, this aspect has become pivotal for the EU effort in the civilian domain. But what about the security and military dimension?

For this reason, the 2023 Tech Summit aims to stimulate the debate on the concept of “hybrid warfare” drawing some lessons from the experience in Ukraine. Technologically advanced weapons, like drones, and new tactics are in fact deployed alongside traditional ones, since the conventional domains are subjects to the attacks as well as the new domains. Attention will be therefore drawn on cyber security and the current debate on the topic: from its role in the new NATO Strategic Concept, to the possible EU effort in providing assistance to Eastern and Southern Partner countries. Secondly, the Summit will try to adopt the perspective of the defence industries in the technological competition and catch a glimpse of the current trends in this field. Eventually, cyber space will be again the protagonist, this time as the place where authoritarian regimes are now enhancing their repressive methods against people’s human rights.

The conversation explores challenges and opportunities both for EU and Italian institutions to identify vulnerabilities and build on existing virtuous programs so that the geopolitical dimension will not be lost. In conclusion, the 2023 edition of the Tech Summit will build on the success of the previous one to expand the reflection the impact of technology in international relations and its security dimension.

The initiative is organised by the Rome office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) with the support of the Compagnia di San Paolo Foundation and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and in collaboration with the Post Conflict Operations Study Centre (PCOSC) of the Training Command and Application School of the Italian Army.

The discussion is in English, under Chatham House rule.  


DAY 1 – April 19th, 2023

19:30 – 21:30 Dinner discussion: Technological Sovereignty and beyond: the EU and Great Powers competition

This dinner discussion will introduce the conference providing an overview on the EU efforts in improving the technological sovereignty and its role as a geopolitical actor in the digital and cyber space, more than one year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine started. The technological competition is higher than ever, and the EU is determined to keep the pace with the other main actors in this race, the US and China. As a matter of fact, the efforts to improve member states resilience in the digital field is certainly paramount in protecting the livelihood of European citizens. But as a geopolitical actor the EU recognizes the importance of ensuring a certain degree of resilience also in the neighbouring countries, since cyber space is way more volatile than the physical one, and the weaknesses of a partner can be exploited to harm the Union. For this reason, it is both an internal and an external effort to be carried out in the digital dimension.  In particular, the speakers will try to offer a comprehensive view on the state of play in the Digital Decade, with a particular focus on what EU has done to improve the technological sovereignty, and to ensure its role as a geopolitical actor also in the field of cyber thought the projects developed by the External Action Service.

DAY 2 – April 20th, 2023

09:30 – 10:45 PANEL 1: Is this what “hybrid” really means? A reflection on the war in Ukraine between cyber space and conventional domains

The eruption of the conflict in Ukraine brought on the one hand to the return of conventional conflicts in Europe and on the other hand to the concretization of what theoretical and doctrinal experts have called “hybrid warfare” for years. As a consequence, since the beginning the debate around the war has been polarized in two main factions: the ones underlining the return to old fashioned tactics and weapons, and the others, highlighting the use of cyber warfare as the greatest possible game-changer in the conduction of the war. As some time has passed since February 2022, analysts can now prudently observe that the cyber dimension of this conflict was less predominant than expected, albeit essential in the Kremlin strategy. In this context, it is important to understand whether the offensive Russian capabilities have been overestimated or whether they were neutralized by the Ukrainian cyber defensive forces better than anticipated. In this case, it would be paramount to investigate the role of EU member states and NATO Allies in providing assistance: in front of a possible spillover of a cyber conflict, all states must be prepared to defend themselves, to defend the civilians, because the resilience of the overall system depends on the endurance of each member of the Alliance. At the same time, it would be unwise to forget the conventional aspects of the conflict and how technology has made relevant improvements in this, as well. The use of drones, for instance, which are not a new element per se, can still represent a way in for new applications of tactics implying further development of AI to be tested in an interstate conflict. To be prepared for the “future conflicts”, understanding the role of technologies and the possible use of it, will be paramount: this panel will therefore focus of the lessons to be learned so far and on possible improvements to be made, as European, as Italian, as part of NATO.

11:15 – 12:30 PANEL 2: The defence industry in the technological competition: Trends and challenges

This panel will explore the current trends in technological development from the defence industry point of view, exploring the main field of investments by EU member States and by the global superpowers. Moreover, there will be room for discussing how the various countries, from the smallest to the biggest, are now allocating the budget for R&D in the field of defence. The shocking event of the war in Ukraine has certainly played a role in shaping the most recent tendencies in the development of new weapons, that are compliant to the current strategic scenario. Alongside a return to conventional arms and weapons systems, it would be interesting to stimulate the debate on how the new technologies are being integrated with the traditional ones, as well as on the States investments in the different fields.

12:30 – 13:30 PANEL 3: “Invisible borders”: the cyber space fragmentation as a threat to democratic rights

New technologies have brought new forms of democratic expression as well as new kinds of threats. Authoritarian regimes, in fact, can take advantage of surveillance technologies to control and to impose digital borders to their citizens. The days of the Arabs springs, when social networks were used as tools to spread ideas by the protesters, are now dead and gone, since many undemocratic governments have developed strategies to stop uprisings to be fueled by the virality of posts and videos online. If on the one hand the European countries have clearly stated their effort in defending democratic expression and human rights also in cyber space, many other States in the world have a slightly different vision on the topic, as it can be seen in the last Freedom House report “Freedom on the Net 2022: Countering an Authoritarian Overhaul of the Internet”. This panel will therefore explore cyber space and the impact of a progressive fragmentation of the global network on the balance of power between authoritarian regimes and democratic states, in a context where people are more and more divided in cyber bubbles. Particularly, it would be interesting to analyse the EU efforts in this sense under the Global Gateway and the possible countermeasures to be taken at the international level, improving the regulation mechanisms or advocating alongside with civil society organization.