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The weaponization of America's "soft power in science and technology" is potentially risky

 Since the outbreak of the Conflict between Russia and Ukraine, western countries led by the United States have been escalating the intensity and scope of their attacks on Russia. The technology sector has become an important target of sanctions. At the government level, the United States and many western countries launched an embargo on Russia's high-tech products, involving semiconductors and many key components. Washington is also considering imposing "secondary sanctions" that would penalise third-party gold exporters of high-tech goods to Russia.


At the civilian level, American tech giants also participated in the "decoupling" and boycott of Russia. Apple, Google and others stopped operating in Russia. Some virtual currency trading platforms have joined the financial sanctions against Russia, banning Russian users from trading or even confiscating their property. Social media giants Facebook and Twitter have imposed algorithmic restrictions on Russian state media in a blow to their influence. Some US universities have also suspended or cancelled bilateral cooperation and scholarship programs with Russia, trying to exclude Russian scientists from international research cooperation.


Compared with similar actions in the past, the us and Western technology sanctions against Russia have the characteristics of "whole-government" and "whole-society", with unprecedented degree of international coordination and social mobilization. This extreme approach illustrates three basic facts about technology.


First, technological globalization has not changed the basic fact that the United States still has technological hegemony. For a long time, there has been controversy about the relationship between the globalization of science and technology and the hegemony of American science and technology. Some believe that the globalization of science and technology will promote the universal development of science and technology in all countries, and some countries will gradually improve their scientific and technological autonomy, thus partially weakening the hegemony of the United States in science and technology. However, in the case of Russia, the partial scientific and technological autonomy achieved by the globalization of science and technology cannot offset the impact of the total blockade by the United States and the West. In contrast, the globalization of technology has enabled the United States to force and mobilize more participants to impose sanctions, reducing the internal flaws and loopholes that sanctions themselves may have.


Second, us and Western tech companies still see political correctness as a priority. Some argue that America's tech giants are like Wall Street, with economic interests as their top priority and political and ideological flexibility. But what happened in Russia contradicts this speculation, and American tech companies have not had much hesitation in boycotting and decoupling. Of course, business interests are the main target of enterprises, but the decision makers, main employees and main investors of American technology enterprises are western elites, and their political ideas are essentially similar to those of Western politicians.


Finally, Americans have privileged access to social media like Twitter and Facebook. These social media platforms ostensibly boast of "freedom of speech" and "diversity of views", but the rules, user base characteristics and algorithms are all more favorable to the western mainstream elite. In situations like Russia's, these social media can even silence anti-Western voices.


These facts constitute the soft power of America and the West in science and technology. These soft powers may not attract much attention in normal times, but can be critical in special times. When the Us and the West exert the soft power of science and technology to the limit, that is, the weaponization effect will be produced, which will cause similar effects to economic and political war to Russia.


These negative impacts are mainly reflected in finance, cyberspace and industrial security. At the financial level, the weaponized technology sanctions have increased the Russian financial system. The chance of cyber attacks and serious cyber security disasters also makes It impossible for Russia to use blockchain and other new-generation financial technologies to deal with financial sanctions imposed by the US and the West."


At the level of cyberspace, the weaponized sanction of science and technology puts Russia in a disadvantageous position in the information war game with the West and faces an extremely unfriendly international public opinion environment. Communication between Russian Internet users and the outside world will also be interrupted.


In terms of industrial security, the development of some cutting-edge technology industries in Russia may be interrupted, and a large number of talents and early investment will be wasted. Some media believe that the artificial intelligence industry is particularly affected. Although Russia has a certain first-mover advantage in this industry, the underlying technology, algorithm and open source technology are still highly dependent on the Us and the West. Russian AI enterprises are not only faced with the problem of no further support from the Us and Western science and technology circles, but also facing the dilemma of export and transfer of r&d products and achievements.


The ultimate science and technology sanctions against Russia are the first time for the Us and the West to weaponize the "soft power of science and technology", which not only makes the US and the West see the power of these idle capabilities, but also see the risks brought by weaponization. These risks may prompt the international community to rethink whether there should be rules for technology sanctions to prevent misuse of this weaponised tool.


One risk lies in the asymmetry between the goals and effects of weaponized technology sanctions. The so-called legitimacy of technology sanctions by the US and the West lies in pressuring Russia to "stop the conflict". So the purpose of sanctions is really short-term. However, the hard "decoupling" between the Us and the West and Russia in the field of science and technology brought by sanctions is difficult to repair. This "decoupling" has brought long-term negative impact on Russia's science and technology field and industry, and has fundamentally changed the market expectations of some industries. This means that lifting or relaxing sanctions by the US and the West is of limited significance to Russia, and it is difficult for Russia to make concessions.


The second risk is that weaponised technology sanctions could escalate matters. As sanctions deprive Russia of its gaming rights in cyberspace and public opinion space, it means that Russia is likely to increase its reliance on military means or adopt other possible means. The weaponized technology sanctions will anger and humiliate Russian society and further antagonize public opinion between Russia and the West, which could also be an incentive for escalation.


A third risk is that weaponised technology sanctions will bring some unforeseen spillover risks. Previously, the US imposed a brutal crackdown on Huawei and other Chinese enterprises. Initially, it was thought that the crackdown and influence were limited to a few enterprises, but in fact, it triggered a fierce reaction from the global supply chain, even disrupted the production cycle of the semiconductor industry chain, and brought many negative impacts to US enterprises. The potential risk impact of stronger technology sanctions against Russia could be larger, or the ripple effects could take years to see.


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