The history of the world is intricately linked to technological evolution. The discovery of gunpowder unshackled the medieval order based on strict social castes and paved the way to the Westphalian system of nation-states. The discovery of America and the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, made possible by changes in naval technology, rearranged the European power structure by shifting trade routes and opening the door to colonialism. The Industrial Revolution enabled the modernization of states and armies and laid the path to continental wars.

The digital revolution is the deep transformation of today’s generation. The onset of an interconnected world has fundamental consequences for the world order. It overhauls the relationship between states and citizens. It can be used to advance democratic freedoms and make governments more accountable, more transparent, and more responsive to the needs of their citizens. It can help companies innovate, explore new business models, and therefore create value on an unprecedented scale. The history of fast-rising online companies like Amazon and Google is a testament to the power of the Internet.

But the omnipresence of interconnectedness also has a dark side. It gives governments an unalloyed ability to carry out mass surveillance. This ability can be used to constrain democratic freedoms. It creates an underlying vulnerability for civilization as critical infrastructure and many public services become reliant on a digital network that can easily be attacked from any corner of the globe.

Because of the ever-accelerating pace of technological progress, governance and policymaking have considerable difficulty in managing the risks associated with this inevitable transition. This difficulty affects national governments as much as the international system, where efforts to establish multilateral norms for the digital universe have been inadequate.

One reason for this deficiency is a lack of true transatlantic leadership, unlike in other areas of the global commons. The fundamental tenets of the international trading system were set up in the postwar period by the collective action of liberal members of the Western world. More recently, international rules for combating climate change were established under European leadership but succeeded only after the United States affirmed its backing.

The digital world needs transatlantic leadership. Otherwise, the risk is that international governance will remain deficient, increasing the risks of net-enabled shadowing, espionage, and even attacks on societies.

The United States and Europe have each developed their own global cyberstrategies. They have tasked their diplomatic representatives to pursue efforts for global norm setting in cyberspace. But so far, these have been mostly disparate efforts with little scope for collective action. One reason for this is that in a range of policy areas—such as the balance between national security and privacy, data confidentiality and data transfers, taxation of large Internet companies, and even cyberwarfare norms—U.S. and European approaches continue to diverge due to differences in political, social, and cultural norms.

But in many other areas, transatlantic leadership can more easily be fostered. For instance, Washington and Brussels can lead efforts to set up a multilateral regime to constrain the export of surveillance and monitoring software to illiberal regimes. The transatlantic partners can seek to change international trade rules to criminalize economic cyberespionage and strive to establish a multilateral instrument to prevent cybercrime. To enhance overall deterrence, they can mandate NATO to develop a more robust cyberposture including offensive capabilities. They can be more active in advancing online freedoms.

History is replete with tragedies that followed failed policy leadership—from the containment policies of the pre–World War II years to the Syria crisis that is presently unraveling with huge consequences for the region and for Europe. In all of these cases, the United States and Europe failed to achieve concerted action. Cyberspace is the next frontier that can be shaped to the advantage of future generations only with a joint sense of policy entrepreneurship from the transatlantic partners.

*

A report by the same author entitled Governing Cyberspace: A Road Map for Transatlantic Leadership will be published on Monday, January 18, on CarnegieEurope.eu. It will be launched on the same day at “Digital Values: Advancing Technology, Preserving Fundamental Rights,” an event organized by Carnegie Europe in partnership with Microsoft and in association with the Dutch Presidency of the EU.