Regulatory intelligence for US exporters

Multilateral Export Control Bodies Need Modernization, Experts Say

Multilateral export regimes need to be modernized to address new export and proliferation controls surrounding emerging technologies, technology proliferation experts said. While groups such as the Wassenaar Arrangement work well to control physical categories of items, they may overlook advancements in exports and other technology areas that could lead to proliferation of dual-use goods, the experts said.

“The problem with the existing export control regimes is that they do work well for physical objects,” said Alex Montgomery, a professor at Reed College and former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, speaking during a Sept. 29 webinar hosted by the Strategic Trade Research Institute. “But they’re less effective with respect to what are some of the most important exports, which are people.”

While U.S. export control regimes focus heavily on physical items such as emerging technologies, dual-use goods and weapons, the U.S. also controls deemed exports: the transfer of controlled technology or information to a foreign person, even within the U.S. Montgomery said export control regimes sometimes fail to consider “people who can take innovations and then use them to transform militaries” or innovate in another country. “We need to start thinking beyond just the prevention of moving large metal objects or silicon objects from one place to another,” he said.

Montgomery added that the regimes are “much less effective” controlling digital exports. “They're good for what they do,” Montgomery said. “But we need to think more holistically … to selectively decide which particular aspects of dual use technologies we want to go after.”

Amy Nelson, a former policy analyst at the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, said there need to be better partnerships between governments and industry to modernize export controls. “Wassenaar has worked well for Cold War technologies,” Nelson, a research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, said during the webinar. “But can Wassenaar continue to be an effective tool? Maybe, maybe not. If we're going to rely heavily on it, we should probably do something [to modernize it] sooner rather than later.”

Aside from multilateral bodies, export controls within the U.S. may need to be more focused, Montgomery and Nelson said. Both said the U.S. would benefit from a comprehensive national technology strategy to streamline its policy goals across government agencies and to keep pace with emerging technologies. Montgomery and Nelson said the U.S. is “well behind” assessing the proliferation risks of technology related to additive manufacturing and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Instead, Nelson said, the U.S. and countries around the world have focused on controlling nuclear-related technologies because of the obvious concerns those items present. But emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, warrant similar concern, she said. “For some technologies, it's just too late, right? They're already out,” Nelson said. “So what additional capabilities, what enabling capabilities are coming down the pipeline, and on what timeline?”

Nelson said U.S. foreign policy and technology policy should be more intertwined. “We need to think about foreign policy as technology policy and technology policy as foreign policy,” she said. “I think a strategic approach to both innovation and regulation to include export controls … is more than called for at this point in time.”