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US candidate beats Russian to secure top UN telecommunications job

Posted By on October 7, 2022 @ 11:00

On 29 September, member states of the International Telecommunications Union voted to elect Doreen Bogdan-Martin as the organisation’s next secretary-general [1]. Bogdan-Martin—a US national who’s served in the ITU since 1994—was in contention for the top job with Rashid Ismailov, a former Russian deputy minister and executive at Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson.

The election was overshadowed by Russia’s ongoing collision course with the international rules-based system. And the outcome largely reflects the amount of goodwill Russia still carries among the UN membership. The Russian candidate received 25 votes, while Bogdan-Martin won with 139 of the total 172 votes cast. When she takes office on 1 January 2023, she will be the ITU’s first female secretary-general.

Framing the election in terms of geopolitical symbolism, however, does an injustice to the winning candidate’s expertise and competence. It also miscasts the role of the ITU.

In recent years, a sentiment has emerged that China is outpacing the US, Australia and like-minded countries in efforts to set international standards for emerging technology.

Much of the recent commentary has placed the election of ITU secretary-general in the context of internet governance against the backdrop of technology decoupling and the alleged emergence of various internets. Multi-stakeholder governance [2] is pitted against authoritarian control, with the principles of an open, free, global, interoperable, reliable and secure internet at stake. Russia and China want the ITU [3] to take up a role in internet regulation, whereas the US and its partners prefer to keep this policy area out of the organisation’s remit. But this is too narrow a spectrum through which to see the ITU’s role and capabilities.

The mandate of the ITU is to set regulations and technical standards for telecommunications: in the late 1890s, it did so for postal services, later for telegraphs and telephones, and today for the interoperability of internet-based communications. The organisation facilitates the global management of the radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits, oversees the development of standards for information and communications technologies with an eye to interoperability, and delivers capacity building to help close the digital divide and drive digital transformation in the global south.

To properly assess the impact of the ITU’s work, and in particular the issue of interoperability, it’s important to understand its internal processes. Initiatives for standards are not dictated by the praesidium. Although they require the secretary-general’s consent to proceed, they are generated bottom-up through proposals by member states, in consultation with private industry. Successful proposals are typically years in the making and involve deeply technical debates among experts, and there are many procedural steps and consultations before a consensus agreement is reached.

While Huawei’s proposal to the ITU in 2020 for a new internet protocol definitely rocked the boat, many in the technical internet community don’t expect it to come to fruition. Significant uptake of any proposed standard is dependent on broad global support. When consensus is reached, however, agreement texts are set in stone, and it will be costly to change or refrain from observing them.

If there’s genuine concern about the direction the ITU is taking or the direction of internet governance more broadly, liberal democratic countries, Australia included, may need to change course altogether.

They will need to foster a proactive rather than defensive agenda that includes more concerted participation of public- and private-sector representatives in the ITU’s technical working groups.

Also, Western states’ preference for internet, cybersecurity and technology standards to be managed through alternative forums, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (which tend to be more industry driven), means they have to make a greater effort to be inclusive and ensure these forums tangibly benefit those in emerging economies too.

Simply dismissing and pushing back against an ITU role in internet, cybersecurity and tech governance won’t cut it. The ITU is a known and generally trusted entity in the global south.

Unlike in countries such as Australia, cybersecurity, internet governance and emerging technology professionals in developing nations have largely come from the telecommunications sector. This includes countries such as India—a close Quad partner—and most Pacific island nations. Many have personally benefited from the ITU’s capacity-development work.

More strategically, the ITU is a forum in which all member states have a vote—by default. This means government departments don’t have to compete for a seat on the table and invest time and scarce resources in other, potentially seen as parallel, forums. Across the board, emerging economies tend to prefer a stronger lead role for the UN secretariat and UN agencies in supporting digital development and cybersecurity.

Is the election of Bogdan-Martin irrelevant, then? The reality of managing international organisations is that a secretary-general is more of a secretary than a general. They have influence over agendas and processes—which is important—but they will have to work through an administration with seniors representing all geographic areas. More than that, no leader of an international organisation can allow themselves to be seen as favouring national positions; that would instantly undermine their credibility. The same has applied for the outgoing secretary-general for the past eight years, China’s Houlin Zhao.

In her first statement [4] as secretary-general-elect, Bogdan-Martin expressed her belief in ‘the power and potential of connectivity to drive economic growth and transform healthcare, education, employment, gender equality and youth empowerment’ and refers to digital technologies as ‘crucial to efforts to meet’ the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

This may be a first sign of her priorities and interests and reflects her recent experience directing the ITU’s development work.

Her election can become a significant milestone if it serves as a turning point for reigniting the enthusiasm of the US and its allies and partners for the ITU’s work. However, significant efforts by US President Joe Biden’s administration will be required to instil lofty ambitions, such as those articulated in the Declaration on the Future of the Internet [5], into the proceedings of the various ITU-run technical working groups and to get stakeholders in the telecoms, cyber and technology industries sufficiently interested in articulating, promoting and advocating liberal norms and democratic values.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/us-candidate-beats-russian-to-secure-top-un-telecommunications-job/

URLs in this post:

[1] as the organisation’s next secretary-general: https://www.itu.int/en/mediacentre/Pages/PR-2022-09-29-ITU-SG-elected-Doreen-Bogdan-Martin.aspx

[2] Multi-stakeholder governance: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/neck-neck-election-future-internet

[3] Russia and China want the ITU: https://www.gmfus.org/news/what-stake-upcoming-itu-secretary-general-election

[4] statement: https://www.state.gov/doreen-bogdan-martin-itu-secretary-general-candidate/

[5] the Declaration on the Future of the Internet: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Declaration-for-the-Future-for-the-Internet_Launch-Event-Signing-Version_FINAL.pdf

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