US and Russia Competing for ITU Leadership

Image of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow at night.
Russia has been aggressively aiming to lead the International Telecommunication Union.
Source: Nikita Karimov via Unsplash.com

The US and Russia are competing for a position to lead the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The competition renews the East and West’s struggle for influence. 

Ms. Doreen Bogdan-Martin is the US candidate. She has remained a member of the US Chamber of Commerce and has served at the ITU for over a decade. 

Russia is backing Mr. Rashid Ismailov, a telecommunications executive in the Russian government. Additionally, he has served as an executive at Huawei.

Both candidates are competent for the role. Yet the ITU election has become a battle of ideologies. The US, and the countries that back its candidate, are calling for a free internet. Inversely, both Russia and China want state-controlled internet.

The country controlling the ITU can exert global influence over multilateral telecommunications contracts.

Importance of Control over the ITU

The ITU is one of the oldest UN agencies. But, its economic influence is far greater now than in the past. This century-old organization has shaped global cooperation in telecommunications.

Many consider the United Nations an ineffective organization. But the same isn’t true of the ITU. The UN agency handles control over the internet and other telecommunication services. Further, the ITU is the only global body with the power to decide the debate over the direction of communications technologies. 

193 UN general assembly members will vote in ITU’s leadership election. Additionally, the ITU has over 900 “sector members”. These sector members are private and public entities. It also includes stakeholders like IP providers and media companies. They remain active within the member nations.

With such a broad reach, the ITU’s decisions impact global electronic communications. 

Since 2015, under Chinese chairman Houlin Zhao, the ITU has shifted in favor of a more state-regulated internet. During this time, countries have censored internet access within their boundaries. These censoring measures often benefit more autocratic regimes.

Image of Secretary-General Houlin Zhao outside the venue of the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference
Houlin Zhao has been at the helm of the ITU since 2015.
Source: ITU/D.Woldu

A Push Towards the Splinternet

The splinternet is a term coined in 2001, describing a divided internet across national or alliance borders. The separation can also be across technology, commerce, religion, and politics.

Interestingly, the splinternet marks the absence of physical barriers to communication. So connections can exist across nations, but countries can censor the information flow for political reasons.

With a win for the Russian and Chinese-backed candidate at the ITU, the splintering of the internet will be imminent. 

Both countries oppose opening their markets to US internet companies, as they want to maintain political and economic privacy.

Russia has a direct, two-fold interest in keeping external actors out of its internal market. Doing so reduces their reliance on US software, which protects Russia from surveillance. Additionally, the Kremlin regime could exert more influence over local companies.

A Tech War Proxy 

Many view the competition for ITU’s leadership in Geneva as a proxy for the ongoing US-China tech war. The US is banking on Ms. Bogdan-Martin’s win to prevent Chinese dominance in tech from encroaching.

Once at the helm of ITU, the US will rally more countries under its banner. A free internet should take away censoring controls from autocratic regimes. This will allow for more peace and cooperation.

But the increase in EU-based bans on US products, such as the German Microsoft 365 ban, is a concern. Russia and China are also worried about the CLOUD Act which allows US federal agencies to get information on users inside their borders.

From a purely economic standpoint, US-based companies will benefit significantly from a free internet. They already enjoy a dominant market position.

EU members have the same fears about a free internet as the elites in autocratic regimes. Thus, they’re unlikely to support any aggressive moves on the US’s behalf. 

Image of Ms. Doreen Bogdan-Martin, US candidate for next chairwoman of the ITU.
Ms. Doreen Bogdan-Martin, US candidate for next chairwoman of the ITU.
Source: state.gov

Biden Administration Endorses Doreen Bogdan-Martin 

Ms. Bogdan-Martin has enjoyed national and international acclaim for her telecommunications track record. Moreover, her experience and expertise make her a very competent candidate.

President Biden endorsed her last week—an unusual step regarding UN agency elections. Additionally, she gained audible support from Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

China Backs Russia 

Russia’s diplomatic potential in the UN has dropped since invading Ukraine. But the balance of forces is not as simple. For instance, African and Asian countries are not taking sides in the Ukrainian conflict.

Moreover, the African nations hold over a quarter of the votes in the General Assembly. This makes it one of the most important blocks in the assembly. Therefore, China will push the African block to support the Russian candidate. This will leverage its biggest trading partner status in Africa.

Thus, a US win is uncertain unless aggressive diplomatic campaigns rally the nations to vote for Ms. Bogdan-Martin.

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