The second scenario focused on how emerging technologies are able to supercharge fundamental debates being had within international relations. In it, Chinese Tech Giant Alibaba has rolled out smart city infrastructures all over BRICS countries, which gather vast amounts of data to train artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning systems to allow cities that face rapid growth best function Alibaba’s growing presence in cities in the BRICS regions pose crucial questions concerning both surveillance and security. Another key characteristic of the actors in this scenario is the close ties between Alibaba, the Chinese government, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Such successful implementation of AI by the private sector in public critical infrastructure has not yet been seen in other powerhouses, like the United States or Europe.
This scenario tested global power relations as the BRICS countries used their increasing cooperation in science, technology, and innovation to transition into a security alliance challenging the resilience of NATO. The BRICS-NATO Summit in 2025 in the newest smart city in Russia showed just how critical the public critical infrastructure could be; the NATO motorcade was ambushed by a swarm of sUAS (small unmanned aerial systems) traffic drones and led to the deaths of five NATO officials as the autonomous vehicles’ routes were locked and crashed into cement barricades.
During the discussion of this scenario, the divide between senior and junior expert groups resulted in very different understandings of not only who the key actors were, but also what the appropriate responses to an attack may be. The more junior-level participants discussed the events to fully understand the implications of the attack. The first part of the scenario leading to debate among the participants was whether or not the car crash leading to the death of NATO officials could be defined as an attack on a NATO member state. If this constitutes an attack, then the logical next step would be to trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, calling for collective defense against the perpetrator. This potential reaction was brought up by the senior-level participants as well. Before invoking Article 5, however, a few other questions needed to be answered.
If the decision to counter attack is made, then who would be held responsible?
That is a question that both groups had to answer before developing a strategy for action. This led to questions of accountability and attribution. The attack happened in Russia, but Russian officials claimed no responsibility. Can Russia certainly be held accountable? Or is Alibaba liable for the malfunctioning of these systems that they sold to BRICS municipalities? Does the Chinese government play any role if Alibaba is responsible? These questions presented further obstacles in the discussion because even if the stakeholders agreed that there was an attack against a NATO member and Article 5 is triggered, who should be the subject of a counter attack?
Both groups seemed to agree that before attribution, launching an official investigation into the events was necessary
In addition to military responses, the groups discussed more long-term dilemmas as well. The growing presence of Alibaba in many regions means access to immense amount of sensitive data in the scenario. If a big part of the “threat” to NATO was Alibaba’s growing influence, then Europe, with Germany taking an active role, needs to offer an alternative. Developing and deploying responsible AI was also a part of both groups’ discussions. Both groups agreed that simply trying to get rid of the smart cities infrastructures in order to taper Alibaba’s influence was not realistic.
The consensus was that instead, there needs to be a safer, more responsible, and more transparent alternative. If Alibaba was able to roll out AI scaffolding into public infrastructure in different corners of the world, then this could be an opportunity for European tech companies to leverage responsible AI. This could allow European tech companies to set standards internationally by offering responsible AI systems that are not affiliated strongly with any country’s political party.
One trend that the two groups disagreed on was the rise in importance of regional governance. While the senior-level group tended to think only of state-level actors, the junior participants toyed with the idea of governance happening at the city level. For example, within India, not every city may be a smart city connected with these AI systems, but the well-connected mega cities would have a different significance on the international arena. The senior-level group, however, stood behind the traditional nation-state agency in dealing with this crisis, saying that only state actors carry weight on the international level.
While the two groups did not reach two drastically different action plans, the way the discussion evolved showed that dividing the participants into level of experience changed who the important stakeholders were. However, the infiltration of emerging technologies into critical public infrastructure showed that fundamental questions are still unanswered and challenged. The scenario dealing with AI systems and the equality of public- and private-sector players in the face of the law super-charged the discussions of accountability, attribution, and stabilizing the rapidlychanging global power dynamics.
■ Collection and processing of Big Data in smart city infrastructures opens the doors for security and surveillance threats, which states are not able to fully address.
■ A NATO security alliance is easily challenged today by shifting technological capabilities and closer cooperation of states that were not previously threats.
■ AI has the ability of supercharging fundamental questions that remain unanswered: how does globalization and technological advancement affect geopolitics? What does brain drain from public to private sector mean for military threats in multinational corporations? How can machines be held accountable in the case of an accident or attack, or can they at all?
■ Innovation in technology may require innovation in international relations.
by Kate Saslow, Stiftung Neue Verantwortung