With the 2022-2023 high school policy debate topic selection process nearing completion, I explained my concerns about the multilateral climate regimes topic. This time, I will share my thoughts about the other option on the final ballot: the NATO emerging technologies topic. Is it the better choice? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. I’ll return to this answer at the end of the post, but first I’ll share my analysis of the NATO topic.
Unlike the climate change topic, the NATO topic is supported by a thorough topic paper. It is worded as follows:
Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its security cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in one or more of the following areas: artificial intelligence, biotechnology, cybersecurity.
This is a relatively interesting subject area that would hopefully encourage students to learn more about the many timely and complicated policy challenges related to AI, biotech, and cybersecurity. But how will debates actually play out given the topic’s wording? How well does it divide affirmative and negative ground?
Here’s the official NFHS synopsis for the topic:
Most Bond films open with 007 in the middle of some major crisis with the audience waiting for the opportunity of Q’s new technology to resolve the conflict. However, emerging technology like AI, biotechnology, and cybersecurity, can be easily created, intercepted, and used by the “enemy”. Clearly, the U.S. and its allies need to collaborate for the best solution. Possible case affirmatives would be creating a U.S.- NATO emerging technology investment fund; instituting a NATO treaty on autonomous weapons; increasing cooperation in biotechnology (e.g., on vaccine diplomacy, biofuels investment, or agricultural biotech cooperation); establishing a new U.S.-NATO infrastructure for thwarting and responding to cyber threats; banning offensive cyber operations; and forging U.S.-NATO partnerships with private technology companies to bolster the alliance’s leadership in emerging technologies. These emerging technologies are vulnerable to outside threats. The negative will have multiple strategies. These technologies create case specific disadvantages generating specific links and turns. Theoretical discussions of offensive and defensive cyber weapons, the effectiveness of deterrence, the role of the U.S. as a hegemon, and global politics will be popular. Economic repercussions and interdependence of the global economy will be key. Negatives can argue alternative methods of engagement by using public/private non-military partnerships. Various perspectives on philosophically driven arguments will be intrinsic. The voices of the disenfranchised will be argued. A diverse set of arguments creates a level playing field for all students by debating emerging technologies. This topic affords students from across the nation in rural and urban areas from coast to coast, with ample research and provides scaffolded skills’ development. The topic is broad, but the strength in it is the balance of affirmative and negative material. Debaters will gain experience in a well-rounded understanding of how emerging technologies are reshaping society, the advantages and disadvantages of different policy approaches, and how the issues surrounding emerging technologies will shape the global security agenda for decades to come. Students’ knowledge of how crisis and opportunity work, with a collaborative approach to the solution, are essential skills for life.
As with the climate topic, I tried to determine whether this description was a persuasive prediction about what debates would actually look like if this topic was selected. Let’s start with the part of the synopsis that summarizes affirmative case areas:
Possible case affirmatives would be creating a U.S.-NATO emerging technology investment fund; instituting a NATO treaty on autonomous weapons; increasing cooperation in biotechnology (e.g., on vaccine diplomacy, biofuels investment, or agricultural biotech cooperation); establishing a new U.S.-NATO infrastructure for thwarting and responding to cyber threats; banning offensive cyber operations; and forging U.S.-NATO partnerships with private technology companies to bolster the alliance’s leadership in emerging technologies. These emerging technologies are vulnerable to outside threats.
The mechanism in the resolution — the USFG should “substantially increase its security cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization” — seems to require that topical affirmative plans act in partnership with (or “through”) NATO, but what this means is a little more complicated than I thought.
Notably, the definitions of “security cooperation” in the topic paper are all in the context of the Department of Defense. Does “security cooperation” exclusively refer to actions or programs by the DOD? It seems like the answer is yes. This is the broadest definition included in the topic paper:
Security cooperation is the effort to advance U.S. national security and foreign policy interests by building the capacity of foreign security forces to respond to shared challenges.
Under that definition, topical plans must build the capacity of NATO to respond to shared AI, biotechnology, and cybersecurity challenges. What does “build the capacity” of NATO mean? As far as I can tell, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency doesn’t have a definition of “capacity building,” but it does define “Institutional Capacity Building:”
Institutional Capacity Building (ICB) programs, overseen by DSCA, encompass Security Cooperation activities that directly support U.S. ally and partner nation efforts to improve security sector governance and core management competencies necessary to effectively and responsibly achieve shared security objectives. Understanding an ally or partner’s institutional capacity is critical to the development of a full-spectrum approach to Security Cooperation. A Full-Spectrum approach assists allies and partners by ensuring they have all that is necessary and sufficient to successfully perform a security role in support of shared objectives. ICB assists allies and partners in examining and addressing broader, systemic factors essential to delivering what is needed (e.g., money, things, people, ideas, decisions) to:
* Understand requirements, develop forces, and purchase or obtain the articles and services as required to develop, employ, and sustain required capabilities;
* Successfully absorb and integrate fully developed capabilities into their existing security forces;
* Effectively and responsibly employ those capabilities in the pursuit of common objectives between the U.S. and the ally or partner; and
* Adequately staff, sustain, and maintain, those capabilities throughout their lifecycle and eventually retire them when appropriate.
Other definitions in the topic paper also define “security cooperation” as a specific subset of DOD programs:
Security cooperation (SC) encompasses all Department of Defense (DOD) interactions, programs, and activities with foreign security forces (FSF) and their institutions to build relationships that help promote US interests; enable partner nations (PNs) to provide the US access to territory, infrastructure, information, and resources; and/or to build and apply their capacity and capabilities consistent with US defense objectives. It includes, but is not limited to, military engagements with foreign defense and security establishments (including those governmental organizations that primarily perform disaster or emergency response functions), DOD-administered security assistance (SA) programs, combined exercises, international armaments cooperation, and information sharing and collaboration.
This seems like a relatively well-established (and wonky) definition:
DoD Security Cooperation is defined in Joint Pub 1-02: All DoD interactions with foreign defense establishments to build defense relationships that promote specific US security interests, develop allied and friendly military capabilities for self-defense and multinational operations, and provide US forces with peacetime and contingency access to a host nation. DoD Directive 5132.03 provides DoD-wide policy and describes DoD organizational responsibilities regarding Security Cooperation activities.
DoD Security Cooperation includes International Armaments Cooperation (IAC) activities as well as the various elements of Security Assistance, including Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and Building Partner Capacity (BPC). Most DoD Security Cooperation policy, organization, and activities (other than IAC) are led and managed by USD(Policy) rather than USD(Acquisition & Sustainment) and USD(Research & Engineering), but many U.S. Government/DoD Security Cooperation activities are implemented through USD(A&S), USD(R&E), and DoD Component acquisition-related IA&E efforts.
The term “security cooperation” has never been used before in a high school or college policy debate topic. The 2019-2020 high school topic focused on a subset of security cooperation (Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales of arms), but it was written in the other direction (topical affirmatives reduced rather than increased FMS/DCS).
Based on these definitions, let’s revisit the case list. First: “creating a U.S.-NATO emerging technology investment fund.” It seems like this already exists, but presumably the U.S. could increase its contributions to the fund? Is increased funding an increase in security cooperation? What about diplomatic efforts to change the focus or procedures of the fund? Or outreach to allies to convince them to increase their commitments to the fund? Those all seem like topical proposals, but I’m not sure if there is any literature to support them.
Second: “instituting a NATO treaty on autonomous weapons.” Is signing a new treaty “security cooperation” based on the above definitions? Perhaps only if it is a defense treaty? I’m not sure. There do seem to be related proposals to harmonize NATO autonomous weapons standards, but this process — and many other topical proposals — might already be underway.
Third: “increasing cooperation in biotechnology (e.g., on vaccine diplomacy, biofuels investment, or agricultural biotech cooperation).” As far as I can tell, there aren’t many articles about NATO and vaccine diplomacy. Here’s the one referenced in the topic paper:
Whether it comes from natural causes or from an enemy, the crippling effects of a new virus are the same, said Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian ambassador to NATO, now head of the Brussels office of Project Associates, a consultancy. Stefanini thinks NATO should have reacted to coronavirus in the same way it would react to a biological attack, he said.
In the future, the defense alliance should consider how to help its members better prepare for this kind of emergencies, maybe as part of their defense spending budget, he said. When a vaccine would be approved, NATO could play a significant role by using its logistics to help deploy it to member countries and maybe to other countries, as well, Stefanini said.
NATO Spokeswoman Oana Lungescu rejected this criticism, saying the organization is not the first responder in these situations. That’s up to nations, but NATO can use its capabilities to support them, she said.
Maybe there are proposals for a bigger NATO role in vaccine distribution; U.S. policies to support those initiatives might be “security cooperation,” especially if they were implemented by the DOD — e.g., as a response strategy against bioterror attacks.
Regarding biofuels, this seems like it could be part of the larger issue of NATO’s response to climate change. In June, NATO adopted a set of climate change goals and plans as part of its NATO 2030 agenda. Topical plans could potentially increase U.S. support for these initiatives, but I was unable to find a solvency advocate about biofuels; there isn’t one in the topic paper.
As for agriculture, there are some older articles about NATO’s food security role, but I couldn’t find a solvency advocate for increased security cooperation on agricultural biotech.
Fourth: “establishing a new U.S.-NATO infrastructure for thwarting and responding to cyber threats.” Cybersecurity seems like a major issue for NATO, but it is unclear what proposals exist for increased U.S. security cooperation in this area. The topic paper includes a few cards about how NATO could or should change its cyber policies, but the resolution requires the affirmative to defend a U.S. security cooperation plan. What if anything can the U.S. do to change NATO’s cyber policies? Are those actions/policies “security cooperation”? I’m not sure.
Fifth: “banning offensive cyber operations.” From my experience researching the 2015-2016 surveillance topic, there seems to be an interesting and robust debate in the scholarly literature about OCOs and whether/how to regulate them. However, a plan that has the U.S. ban its own offensive cyber operations seems clearly untopical: it is not “security cooperation with NATO.” NATO seems to be increasing its use of OCOs, so perhaps a topical plan could encourage NATO to reverse this policy? This could reasonably be described as a DOD “interaction, program, or activity with foreign security forces and their institutions to build relationships that help promote US interests,” but is there solvency evidence to support its efficacy? This gets at the larger issue of how much U.S. security cooperation can change NATO’s policies or behavior; I’ll discuss that again below.
Sixth and finally: “forging U.S.-NATO partnerships with private technology companies to bolster the alliance’s leadership in emerging technologies.” Again, this seems like it is already happening: NATO announced the creation of a DARPA-like research program and “an innovation fund to support private companies developing dual-use technologies.” As with the emerging technology investment fund, there might be proposals for adjustments to these initiatives; if they exist, some might be topical “security cooperation” plans.
In addition to these six cases, this is the longer list of “Aff Cases” in the topic paper:
- Regulate/Ban Autonomous Weapons
- AI for International Supply Chains/Logistics
- NATO Emerging Tech Investment Fund
- AI Oversight Body
- Regulate Facial Recognition
- Vaccine Diplomacy
- Agricultural Biotechnology Cooperation
- Limit DNA Databases
- Regulate CRISPR
- Investment in Biofuels
- Critical Cybersecurity Infrastructure
- Layered Cyber Deterrence
- Defend Forward Cyber Strategy
- Strengthen norms and non-military cyber tools
- Create a “Cyber State of Distress” and cyber response and recovery fund Military Cyber Mission Force
- Deterrence First Cyber Strategy
- Name and Shame Cyber Deterrence
- End Offensive Cyber Operations (OCO’s)
- International Legal Frameworks for Cyberspace – Military & Non- Military NATO Cyberspace Operations Center Cooperation
- NATO Industry Cyber Partnerships
As with the short list, these case areas do not explain why they can be constructed as U.S. security cooperation plans. This is concerning for reasons I will explain below.
Before that, let’s review the topic synopsis’s summary of negative ground:
The negative will have multiple strategies. These technologies create case specific disadvantages generating specific links and turns. Theoretical discussions of offensive and defensive cyber weapons, the effectiveness of deterrence, the role of the U.S. as a hegemon, and global politics will be popular. Economic repercussions and interdependence of the global economy will be key. Negatives can argue alternative methods of engagement by using public/private non-military partnerships. Various perspectives on philosophically driven arguments will be intrinsic. The voices of the disenfranchised will be argued. A diverse set of arguments creates a level playing field for all students by debating emerging technologies.
This explanation reflects the focus of the topic paper: that debates about emerging technologies are interesting and timely. On balance, is artificial intelligence good or bad? How should it be regulated? What about biotechnology? Cybersecurity? These are interesting debates, but the resolution accesses them indirectly. In order for “emerging technology debates are interesting” to be a good reason to vote for this topic, one needs to be confident that the topic will actually result in debates about emerging technologies. After doing some research, I’m not convinced that this will be true.
Why? Counterplans. While the NFHS synopsis suggests that “negatives can argue alternative methods of engagement by using public/private non-military partnerships,” I think this misses the central negative ground on this topic. In my view, there are two core generic counterplan-based strategies that every affirmative case will need to be able to defeat:
First, the Unilateral (or Bilateral or Multilateral, but Not Via NATO) U.S. Action Counterplan and Security Cooperation With NATO Bad DA. This strategy will challenge whether the U.S. needs to increase its security cooperation with NATO in order to solve the affirmative’s advantage(s). If an advantage is about emerging technologies, it will be very difficult for the affirmative to prove that only U.S. security cooperation with NATO can solve it. If NATO’s involvement is important only because it is a multilateral institution, the negative can counterplan to have the U.S. act through the UN or in partnership with the EU and other allies. By forcing affirmatives to claim NATO-specific advantages, this strategy will create a strong functional limit on topic. Whether that functional limit will be too strong is unclear, but I was surprised at how few solvency advocate cards were included in the topic paper. That seems like a significant red flag.
Second, the NATO (Or Other Countries) Action Counterplan and U.S. Security Cooperation Bad DA. This counterplan might be theoretically illegitimate; fiating action by NATO might reasonably be criticized as an unfair and uneducational example of “object fiat.” If it is theoretically acceptable, however, the NATO counterplan will directly solve most advantages while avoiding procedural disadvantages to U.S. action; the NATO CP and Politics DA combo will be tough for affirmatives to defeat.
Even without being able to fiat NATO, negatives will likely be able to turn to other forms of international fiat. If an affirmative advantage requires changing a NATO policy, the counterplan could fiat action by one or more of the other 29 NATO member states. Again, this will create a very strong functional limit on the topic: to be viable, an affirmative case must be able to prove that U.S. security cooperation (and U.S. security cooperation alone) is necessary and sufficient to change the NATO policy in question. Even if affirmatives can convince judges to reject NATO fiat, this will still be quite difficult.
There are two complications related to this second strategy. First, the U.S. is a NATO member state and would be involved in any NATO discussions about policy changes. Second, NATO operates via a consensus decision-making model:
Consensus decision-making is a fundamental principle which has been accepted as the sole basis for decision-making in NATO since the creation of the Alliance in 1949.
Consensus decision-making means that there is no voting at NATO. Consultations take place until a decision that is acceptable to all is reached. Sometimes member countries agree to disagree on an issue. In general, this negotiation process is rapid since members consult each other on a regular basis and therefore often know and understand each other’s positions in advance.
Facilitating the process of consultation and consensus decision-making is one of the NATO Secretary General’s main tasks.
The principle of consensus decision-making applies throughout NATO.
While somewhat of an oversimplification, this means that the U.S. has functional veto power over NATO policy decisions. As such, the affirmative might persuasively argue that the NATO counterplan includes the (U.S. security cooperation with NATO) plan and is therefore not competitive. They might also persuasively argue that the counterplan links to the procedural U.S.-based disadvantage for the same reason; if the counterplan requires the U.S. to support the NATO policy change in question, this might also link to (for example) the politics DA.
These complications might be a good thing: they could conceivably reduce the power of NATO CP and Politics DA-type strategies. Still, their existence is likely to make them the central subject of many debates — not issues related to AI, biotech, and cyber policy.
There are also potential drawbacks to the first (“Unilateral (or Bilateral or Multilateral, but Not Via NATO) U.S. Action Counterplan and Security Cooperation With NATO Bad DA”) category of negative strategies. Most obviously, “U.S. security cooperation with NATO” — or at least “U.S. security cooperation with NATO member states” — is not unique: it exists now.
Again, this might be good. In order to win link uniqueness for their disadvantage, the negative might need to add an anti-NATO cooperation plank to their non-NATO counterplan (e.g., reducing current U.S. security cooperation with NATO). In response, the affirmative can argue that decreasing U.S. cooperation with NATO is bad. While inelegant, this might produce the interesting “NATO Good/Bad” debates that I think many proponents of this topic are imagining.
Ultimately, however, my concern with the NATO topic is that it is not a NATO topic. Had the resolution’s actor been NATO — something like Resolved: NATO should substantially reform its artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and/or cybersecurity policies. — I think it would have been more likely to produce the kinds of debates that the topic paper authors are describing.
As written, however, the topic is a U.S. security cooperation topic — and it is not clear to me that the literature base defending the importance of U.S. security cooperation with NATO over emerging technologies is robust enough to defeat the generic counterplans described above.
If I’m right, this will make for a frustrating season of debates. Unable to reliably win debates with big core-of-the-topic cases, affirmatives will shift to contrived, process-focused cases to try to dodge the negative’s powerful strategies. This will be similar to how affirmatives adapt to the states counterplan on domestic topics, but the shift will likely be even more aggressive. This affirmative maneuver might “work,” but it will mean that students learn a lot about arcane NATO procedures and relatively little about the major tech-related controversies that motivated this topic’s creation. That won’t be very much fun to debate, judge, or coach.
So, which topic is the better choice?
On one hand, the multilateral climate change regimes topic might be unmanageably large. U.S. “support” for multilateral climate regimes might include nearly any domestic or international climate-related policy, from an aggressive national cap-and-trade policy to symbolic diplomatic initiatives to modest changes in climate financing measures. While the affirmative will have abundant ground, the negative will lack a core generic strategy that links to all (or even most) cases. This could be terrible, but perhaps the inherent quality and quantity of the scholarly literature about climate change will make it a good topic despite its flaws. Empirically, climate change-related topics have generally been pretty good; maybe this one will be, too.
On the other hand, the NATO emerging technologies topic might be too difficult to affirm. Transforming a NATO problem area into a U.S. security cooperation topic mechanism might have overestimated both the quantity and quality of affirmative solvency evidence and underestimated the strategic power of both NATO and U.S.-but-not-via-NATO counterplans. Instead of interesting debates about AI, biotech, and cybersecurity, this might shift the focus of most debates onto arcane issues of NATO procedures, the definition of “security cooperation,” and counterplan competition. That sounds awful, but maybe the shortcomings of the negative’s counterplan-based strategies will be severe enough that affirmatives can find winnable cases. And maybe those same shortcomings will convince negatives to engage those cases on their merits rather than resort to generic process-based strategies.
In my opinion, either choice is defensible. Given the potentially serious flaws in both topics, picking the one that seems more interesting to research seems like a reasonable choice. Or if one of the topics seems likely to attract more interest from new-to-debate recruits, pick that one.
If all you care about is choosing the “best” topic — the one that will produce the best debates — I think you should vote for the climate topic. Despite my very serious reservations about its wording, I am more convinced that the negative will be able to construct winnable strategies on the climate topic than I am that the affirmative will be able to construct winnable cases on the NATO topic. I might be wrong — and I generally prefer more limited topics to broad ones — but I am simply unconvinced that the NATO topic can sustain a year of high-quality debates.
Neither option on the final ballot is ideal, but I’ll be reluctantly casting my vote for the multilateral climate regimes topic.