Europe wants to rearm. It should do the same thing when it comes to innovation because innovation is the Achilles’ heel of autocrats.
Europe wants to rearm militarily, and since last week the extent of its ambitions have become known. The “Strategic Compass” paper adopted by European foreign and defense ministers speaks of a “quantum leap.” “The EU is surrounded by instability and conflict and confronted with war on its external borders,” the paper states. This “increasingly hostile environment” is forcing a change of paradigm in Europe.
Since Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine, the prohibition against thinking about rearmament in Europe has lifted. The “Strategic Compass” talks a lot about higher defense spending and soldiers (a rapid reaction force with 5,000 emergency personnel by 2025). By implication, Europe is “more united than ever.” But what if this new unity among the 27 EU countries were also to lead to EU military expenditure that not only defended what exists (and destroyed the aggressors) but also to the development of something new as a quantum leap in innovation?
It may sound absurd while in the midst of a brutal war, but innovation has, by no small measure, established and preserved the freedom and prosperity of the West in recent decades. And the power of innovation will continue to make the Western community of values more attractive to people from around the world than the backward-looking narratives of autocrats. Russia’s lack of innovation under Putin is in fact its Achilles’ heel, as much as that of all other despots.
Europe needs more than high-tech weapons
No organization in the modern era has been more innovative than the research arm of the US Department of Defense, DARPA. From the Internet to the computer mouse to GPS and voice recognition, many inventions from DARPA projects and laboratories now form the basis for global billion-dollar businesses and have made companies like Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft possible. Today, these are the most valuable companies in the world. The so-called “Challenges” and cooperative projects of DARPA also laid the foundations for the self-driving car. Waymo, a Google subsidiary that emerged from this, is also now considered a technological leader in the field of robotic cars. In interviews, even Ingmar Hoerr, the German inventor of mRNA technology, used to enthusiastically talk about how uncomplicated cooperation and financing through DARPA projects was for his young company CureVac — and that was in times when no one in Germany even wanted to open the cheque book for his bet on the future.
If the EU wants to make a sustainable contribution to the stability of the West and defend Western democracy with its new military understanding and billion-dollar budgets, it needs not only high-tech weapons but the will and a concept for a DARPA-like construct. It needs a research alliance that does not get tangled up in the minutiae and eternal bickering of previous European innovation projects from Quaero to Gaia X, but that instead triggers a quantum leap in the innovative power of the EU.
Russia is comparatively defenseless on this front. The country that once launched the first man-made object into space, Sputnik, and the first astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, no longer has anything comparable to offer on the innovation front. The history of Russia under Putin is rather the history of a decline in innovation, even though the country has always had incredible talents in science and technology. But here, kleptocracy gives birth to billionaires rather than an inventive or entrepreneurial spirit.
Isolation prevents innovation
Russia’s ambitions to set up a new Silicon Valley in St. Petersburg have long since faded. Entrepreneurs with a thirst for action and free ideas preferred to migrate straight to the original instead. And since the beginning of Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine, it’s mainly scientists and intellectuals who have left the country. In March alone, 50,000 IT specialists were among them. The Russian industry association RAEC estimates that this is only the beginning.
That leaves Putin’s triumphs on the cyber front. His Internet army is the invisible vanguard of this brutal war that we are currently experiencing in Europe. It has long been in a third world war with the West and is carrying out Putin’s mystical war cult in cyberspace. The question, therefore, is: Who will offer the more attractive narrative in the long-term in order to retain the best talent and the brightest minds and thus form a more stable community of values? Will it be the ideas of freedom offered by the West, which is always also a promise of the future, or the one-man dictatorship whose future is the past?
In addition to this, Putin is increasingly alone on the innovation front and is becoming more and more dependent on China. However, the newly strengthened “borderless friendship” between the two states will not ensure greater strength in innovation. Every German car manufacturer knows that China is happy to receive know-how, but that it doesn’t share any. Under President Xi Jinping, China is isolating itself. Chinese scientists have long feared that China’s innovation phase of the past decade, which has produced companies such as the TikTok parent company ByteDance, may suddenly grind to a halt. Xi is even breaking up overly successful tech companies and letting entrepreneurs vanish into thin air overnight. This may be intended as a deterrent against the borderless and state-despising data capitalism of Google or Meta. However, the “XI system” no longer provides much of an incentive for people in China to dare to innovate and develop new things.
China also has a weak point, and that’s chip production. Despite billions in investment, the country has not yet managed to catch up with the West in this area. Innovation is difficult to dictate from above. Just as mRNA technology is likely to help cure cancer and take medicine to a new level, so is the next generation of tech innovation unthinkable without power chips. This should be incentive enough for the mothers and fathers of the EU’s military “Strategic Compass” to set quantum leaps in cooperation on the innovation front as well.
This article was originally written in German (translated by Kristy Henderson).