Ambassador Kent interview with Eesti Päevaleht, September 5, 2023

Eesti Päevaleht So to start somewhere, tell us about these two conferences this week centered on governance and on cyber – what are the main areas of common interest in these areas?

Ambassador Kent Well, I think, as you say, those are two topics that both of our countries care about deeply. We have the Tallinn Digital Summit, which Estonia has hosted now for a number of years. And then the Open Government Partnership Summit, which is a mechanism that started back in 2011, and other variety of countries have hosted. And the two themes, I think, are very much blended together. This morning at the opening ceremony, I don’t know if you have a chance to attend the opening ceremony? It’s available online, like most public fora these days. Your Prime Minister, Kaja Kallas, spoke. The CEO of Palantir, a leading artificial intelligence company based in the US spoke. The General Services Administration administrator from the US spoke as well as an array of other officials. And I think some of the themes that both today in the digital summit and in the next two days with the Open Government Partnership, we will be talking a lot about the need for transparency in governance, the need for delivering services to our citizens, as well as the need for resilience against those that would use openness against us. And so I think that is where the US and Estonia have similar approaches to using technology and transparency to deliver the services that citizens in democracies expect.

Eesti Päevaleht There was a large delegation from the US in May that also dealt with the cyber security issue. Now, again, there are important people from the State Department, NVIDIA, Google and so on. Can you tell us anything about what kind of meetings that they have?

Ambassador Kent Right. Well, you know, I think digital governance and particularly cyber defense are clearly related. But I think the nature of the meetings this week are quite different than the meetings in May. In May, the meetings and the attendees had more of a national security flavor. There was the Cyber Commanders conference, as well as the Cyber Con. This time, this week, there’s more, I would say, in engagement of civil society and actually more for business. Interestingly enough, because some of the businesses such as Palantir really made its mark on artificial intelligence working with defense establishments. But I think Alex Karp, the CEO, was very much talking about the need to use artificial intelligence and information to protect civil liberties, not just to find out information to to prevent attacks. And so, I think because so many officials from so many countries are here, there’s a lot of engagement bilaterally, not just the U.S. and Estonia, but actually our administrator from our General Services Administration is meeting with, off the top of my head, looking at her schedule Canadian, Kenyan, U.K. and a host of other countries who are here in Tallinn. So, Tallinn, Estonia is a convener and people from many countries are meeting and discussing issues that we have shared interests and concerns.

Eesti Päevaleht About resilience, what are the main challenges right now that we could mutually work to solve?

Ambassador Kent Well, I think one of the issues your Prime Minister raised in her remarks today, specifically reference to the ongoing war, Russia’s war in Ukraine, as a sign of the need and the promise of resilience. Ukraine is a country that has been invaded, partially occupied by Russia. Infrastructure has been targeted by the Russians. And yet Ukraine, in part because it developed the Diia app, which is their government in a smartphone, to use the phrase of President Zelensky. They have continued to be able to deliver services to Ukrainians regardless of where they are or whether they are internally displaced in Ukraine or whether they are refugees outside Ukraine. And that app was built in part on the source code from Estonia’s digital governance. And what it shows is that countries, when they innovate, and they have their code open, other countries can take advantage and sometimes improve it. And our General Services Administrator, for instance, today noted that we’ve adopted some open-source code programs from the UK and Canada. So rather than spending time and money trying to reinvent the wheel, countries can use each other’s good ideas and again improve governance for their citizens.

Eesti Päevaleht One quickly developing area is artificial intelligence. And the world’s response is also still developing. What’s the common view in Washington, how should this area be regulated, and can it be done mutually with other allies?

Ambassador Kent I think this is an area of active conversation. I would say transatlantic conversation. Regulation is a right reserved by national governments. And in the case of Europe, this is an area where the European Union plays an outsized role because it’s really, at this point, more regulated in Brussels than in national capitals. What I would say is it’s worth listening to and going back and seeing what Alex Karp, the CEO of Palantir, said. Again, this is one of the world’s leading artificial intelligence companies working with a number of different countries. And Alex from the stage today said that the US is the real dynamo for development. There are a lot of incredibly talented Europeans working in this space. Many of them have relocated and are operating out of the U.S. So no country has a monopoly on good ideas and innovation, but there are oftentimes clusters of excellence. In the U.S., it’s even he mentioned it’s really the West Coast. So our financial markets are in New York. Our political governance is in Washington. But what’s driving the artificial intelligence and sort of revolution are really companies working in the West Coast And how the US sets up the regulation and how Europe chooses will oftentimes determine where companies continue to operate. So, I think this is an opportunity and also a cautionary reminder for everyone that, as your Prime Minister Kallas said, we want to encourage the development ideas and not kill the possibility through overregulation. And I think that’s something that governments struggle with, each time there is a new emergent technology.

Eesti Päevaleht About this sort of regulation, there are currently divergent views in Europe and the U.S. about things like privacy and anti-monopoly laws, and so on. And so do you see these views diverging further, or is there any hope of bringing them closer together?

Ambassador Kent I think the US and Brussels, if you want to use that as a geographic metaphor for the European Commission, have a much-improved dialog. There is a working group to discuss these issues because you’re right, that oftentimes there is a difference in approach, philosophical approach on regulation, and I don’t think anybody has a monopoly on wisdom. So, there is an issue for protection of civil liberties. And then there’s also an issue of not stifling innovation. The CEO of Palantir made very clear that A.I. also has the potential and needs to be used to protect civil liberties. He personally is an advocate of the right to be forgotten. Again, he expressed that is his individual view. But I think that it’s important to understand that any new technology has benefits to protect civil liberties as well as defend against potential threats, which is where Palantir got its start.

Eesti Päevaleht And the one area that Americans have been worried about is technology transfer. Do you think that the Western countries are currently doing enough, you know, so that important technology doesn’t fall into the wrong hands?

Ambassador Kent Yeah. Well, I would say there are two parts to the puzzle of transfer of technology. I think it’s actually important that countries and innovators like the U.S. and Estonia seek ways of making technology available for other countries. And I think this is actually part of Estonia’s digital diplomacy. During that Cyber Week in May, there was also a digital governance component and there were a number of companies or sorry, countries from sub-Saharan Africa that were invited by the Estonian government to come here. And I heard Jontan Vseviov, the Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, saying that we, this is the collectively we, Estonia, European countries, the U.S., need to offer something to the so-called global south, because we can’t just say this is who we are, particularly if we’re making a case that the Russian model or the Chinese model is not attractive and we in the West need to offer something. Digital governance, improving services to people when you have thin states as oftentimes exist in sub-Saharan Africa, is one way to take innovations from Estonia and the U.S. and help other countries in other societies serve their people better. And that’s one of the themes that is going to emerge this week, as we have many members of civil society from at least 70 countries here. That dialog between government, the private sector and society, how can we be open? How can we serve people? How can we protect personal rights and do so in a way that gives space for innovation?

Eesti Päevaleht You already mentioned the Russian-Ukrainian war and the lessons learned in the cyber domain. Could you comment on the current debate on the security guarantees and the things which Ukraine would need in the future if there is to be peace?

Ambassador Kent Well, I think earlier this summer, the G7 countries issued a statement of support and willingness to negotiate a series of security arrangements. And since that time in July, a number of other countries, including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have affiliated with that statement. I think what is happening now is each country is working with Ukraine for those security arrangements. I would stay away from the word guarantees, and this goes back to, I think, some of the debates with the Budapest Memorandum, where in the English version it said assurances from the Russian and Ukrainian version that said guarantees. But I think security arrangements in order that Ukraine has the assurances and understanding that other countries are going to support it for the long haul. This is not an issue for just this year or for next year or even the current ongoing war. I think the focus now is on helping Ukraine win on its own terms. Ukraine will make the determination of how long it will fight and if it wants to initiate conversations on which terms with Russia. I think what is clear that Russia, having invaded Ukraine without provocation, could end the war tomorrow by leaving Ukraine. And so, the pressure should be on Russia to stop its crimes of aggression, its war crimes, crimes against humanity, and to stop occupying Ukrainian territory.

Eesti Päevaleht If I understand correctly, the government, congressionally mandated, funding and aid package for Ukraine is going to dry out. So, what will happen next?

Ambassador Kent Well, I think if you look back in the 18 months since February 24th, 2022, no one, even Ukraine’s closest friends in Washington could ever have predicted that the U.S. would provide over $60 billion in support for Ukraine. That’s a combination of military support. It’s a combination of economic support as well as humanitarian assistance. And I think what it shows is that that scope was clearly needed for Ukraine to have the weapons it needed to fight back and regain its territory, to keep its government funded, including salaries, as well as to help Ukrainians either displaced in Ukraine as internally displaced people or as refugees. And I think on this, Estonia is to be commended because no country has been as open in terms of a percentage of the population. More than 5% of the residents currently in Estonia are Ukrainian refugees or as a percentage of its GDP, its economy. In terms of the assistance that Estonia gave in the first year after the wider invasion. So, I think that generosity of spirit, that empathy is something that Estonia has really shown and should be commended for what Estonia has done for Ukraine.

Eesti Päevaleht And a note about the U.S. contribution, for example, I understand that the F-16s should come from Europe. The U.S. is not going to give any.

Ambassador Kent Currently, I think three countries have discussed their readiness to provide F-16s to Ukraine, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway. The training of Ukrainian pilots is being discussed in a number of countries and the U.S. doesn’t rule out an additional wave of it later on. Some Ukrainian pilots are also being trained in the U.S. There were announcements this past week of U.S. willingness to transfer and release AMRAAM missiles to Ukraine. That is an advanced missile that is traditionally associated with the F-16. So, I think when you talk about a platform like the F-16, there are issues of the planes, the maintenance of the planes, the training of the pilots and the equipping with weapon systems. And I believe that you will see many countries, including the United States, participating in this process, to provide Ukraine with a capability that will be part of their air force for many years to come.

Eesti Päevaleht And one of the main reasons that the Ukrainians and others in Eastern Europe are talking about what about their own security arrangements is the fact that the governments change, including in the U.S. Maybe the Americans will go back into isolation. How serious will this be for Europe?

Ambassador Kent I think everybody watches elections in countries closely, particularly when there are views expressed that are different than the ongoing current policy. The U.S. is a democracy with elections that are fiercely competed and 2024 is an election year. Candidates during what we call our primary season because we have a preseason of elections within parties, oftentimes express views that distinguish themselves from other candidates. The policies that they actually implement oftentimes are not the views they expressed as candidates. So, I think it would be premature to speculate on what any particular candidate might do as elected president this far in advance. I think what is clear is that in Congress, there is a strong and clear majority in favor of continued funding for Ukraine. That goes to both parties. We hear that when we have senators and congressmen visit here in Estonia, as we have in this year. And that has been the message of our elected congressional representatives, both in the House and the Senate, that there is vigorous debate. Obviously, it can be. From outside, it sounds quite negative at times, but there still is a strong majority of support in Congress in both parties to support Ukraine. And I think if you look closely at the votes, they’re not unanimous. But democracy isn’t about getting 100% of every vote. There is a strong majority in the House, in the Senate for continued support of Ukraine.

Eesti Päevaleht And you’re fairly confident that they will be able to do this?

Ambassador Kent I’m confident that there will be a continued strong majority in both houses of Congress and in our system, assistance and budgets coming from Congress. And then the executive branch, led by the president, implements policy with the funds that Congress makes available. And again, without knowing who will be president after the next election cycle, it would be speculation about the policy. But again, I do feel confident in predicting that Congress will continue to fund unprecedented levels of support for Ukraine.

Eesti Päevaleht Thank you. Anything you would like to add about the summit?

Ambassador Kent So I think it’s a great opportunity, as we heard today from the CEO of Palantir and last night at the reception, opening reception, representatives of the Estonian company, Nortel and Mandiant, which is another AI company that has been taken over by Google. For those of us who do not live and breathe the conversation about artificial intelligence to understand the opportunities for improved governance, not just the concerns about artificial intelligence as a potential threat. And so I think that conversation from business is very important because there’s some technical details that we, as non-technical company representatives, may not understand, but it’s also critically important that that the conversation happen between governments; between government representatives and society; and government representatives, society and business. And that was one of the messages today that the administrator of our General Services Administration, Carnahan, said at the Tallinn Digital Summit. And we will hear later this week from the administrator of USAID, Samantha Power, one of the most articulate members of the U.S. government, about our commitment to open governance, where she will speak on the final day of the Open Government Partnership Summit. Thank you, everybody.