Change takes courage.

(Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez)

Strategic Autonomy and Sovereignty

Sovereignty is a concept that is much debated among political scientists, without arriving at a single or clear definition. The origins lie in the establishment of the system of European states in 1648 in the Treaty of Westfalen, which sought to bring peace and stability after 30 years of war on the European continent. Key elements include ‘the sovereign’ embodied in the state responsible to ensure security (the Leviathan of political philosopher Hobbes), non-interference between states, and recognition of borders. At the time it seemed that unavoidably this would imply an ‘anarchy of states’ as well as arms races between states. However, thinking has much evolved, and a rich governance of the international system of states has emerged through multilateralism, which includes a concrete manifestation such as international standardization.

Loosely speaking, sovereignty is about territory and borders, people, ‘our’ values, and resources that ‘belong to us’. Sovereignty requires internal legitimacy of the authority toward the people. Sovereignty also requires external legitimacy, that is, recognition by other states (Biersteker, 2012; Timmers, 2022a). It may well be that an agreement on what state sovereignty is, cannot be achieved, because it is an ‘essentially contested concept’ (Gallie, 1956).

Likewise, strategic autonomy is not uniquely defined, but has been far less discussed by academia until recently. The term has one origin in India, after World War II. Its meaning was to be able to exercise India’s wish to remain independent from Beijing, Moscow, and Washington. Another origin is, also after World War II, in French military doctrine, where its meaning concerns having the capabilities and capacities necessary in order to exercise French power wherever necessary in the world (‘frappe de force’ with nuclear capability and aircraft carrier, etc., [Wikipedia, 2022]). In recent years, the thinking has evolved under the influence of geopolitics, pervasive and disruptive digital developments such as the rise of dominant platform companies, and global challenges from cybercrime to pandemic and climate. France itself formulated a wider non-military industrial scope for strategic autonomy, which was further widened in 2017 at the EU level as a concern about autonomy in economy, society, and democracy (European Commission & European External Action Service, 2017). Subsequently, a plethora of interpretations were put forward. Now that the dust has settled, it is clear that what these have in common is that strategic autonomy is about the capacities, capabilities, and control—or three Cs—necessary to safeguard sovereignty. That is, strategic autonomy is the means, and sovereignty is the end (Timmers, 2022b). Capabilities are what one knows to do. Capacities are how much one can do. Digital sovereignty is by most authors interpreted as digital strategic autonomy, i.e., strategic autonomy in the digital domain. Strictly speaking, it is therefore a misnomer but the use of the terminology of digital sovereignty, technological sovereignty, and others such as health sovereignty, have become widespread.

In the military domain, the use of the term strategic autonomy is still probably the clearest, namely the capabilities, capacities, and control in the military domain to defend national security and sovereignty more or less as circumscribed above (as is as such also written in ‘task description’ of ministries of defense, see e.g., Ministère des Armées | Ministère des Armées [2022] and Ministry of Defense, UK [2022]).

As in subsequent sections, let’s make the link to 6G. Where people talk about digital strategic autonomy and make this more specific to certain technologies such as semiconductor strategic autonomy, should we also talk of 6G strategic autonomy or 6G sovereignty? Does it make logical, political sense, economic and social sense? We will further address these questions below but for now suffice to say: be prepared for these terms to be touted, whether sensible or not!

Pathways to Strategic Autonomy

National or regional security is central to sovereignty, as is the power to decide and act upon one’s own future in terms of economy, society, and democracy. One pathway to strategic autonomy could be self-sufficiency or autarky of the necessary capabilities and capacities. This route is perhaps possibly for the largest countries, the USA, and China, but not for the EU or individual smaller states. It would simply be too costly and essential resources are lacking such as—in the domain of telecommunications—materials for electronic components. The more realistic pathways then are:

  1. A.

    Strategic partnerships of like-minded actors, i.e., states and industry that sufficiently trust each other and share values that respect and reinforce the sovereignty of each of the states in the partnership. Even these strategic partnerships of the like-minded may not be self-sufficient and could be threatened by third states. They will likely have to live with strategic interdependency of non-like-minded parties and establish a reasonably stable strategic equilibrium. What this means in (6G) telecoms will be illustrated shortly.

  2. B.

    Promote and support global commons, i.e., raise the challenge of three Cs to the global level to seek collaboration under forms of governance that maintain the global common good and deter free riders (Ostrom, 2015). In the field of technology, we know this from Internet domain name management in ICANN and Internet protocol management in IETF. An interesting example because of its well-evolved governance is the SWIFT system of private and central banks for international electronic transactions, though that has its own peculiarities and deficiencies (Cowhey & Aronson, 2017).

  3. C.

    Handle strategic autonomy based on risk management, including state-of-the-art risk assessment, and possibly based on regulation. This is how countries over many years have dealt with technologies that are critical for sovereignty, telecommunications included. In the EU, risk management is the nature of key digital legislation such as the Electronic Communications Act, the General Data Protection Regulation, and even the first version of the Network and Information Security Directive.

A state or alliance of states may pursue strategic autonomy through a combination of these pathways, dividing up the area of concern—say telecommunications—into subareas. For instance, hardware encryption intended for state secrets might only be dealt with by self-sufficiency, while core network management involves a strategic partnership with trusted partners, and global interoperability may be handled as a global common good, and the less critical and more local remainder through risk management.

The choices are highly political and taken under the pressure of forces that threaten sovereignty, i.e., geopolitical tensions, digital dominance by companies under third-country control, and serious digital disruption such as cyber-attacks and theft of critical intellectual property. Given these three options, let’s consider what future 6G strategic autonomy may be based on according to past and current approaches to telecoms in 3G, 4G, and to some extent 5G and consider the EU, the USA, and China.Footnote 1

The European Union

In the EU, telecommunications privatization and liberalization since the 1970s and the general basis in EU telecoms policy since the 2000s of open liberal market economy thinking has led to a retreating role of the state, national interests, and security. Increasing consumer benefits have been delivered through economic legislation based on free trade in the EU internal market, but strategic autonomy has not been on the agenda, and neither has there been a strong role for national security. Past EU telecoms policy, as is still en vigueur, has been largely strategic autonomy-agnostic, except for telecoms security, which has been risk management-based (see above). Open-to-the-world thinking has also been dominant in the approach to EU and international standardization which, moreover, has been essentially fully left to industry without much government involvement—which is a cause of the 5G security problem, see below, and (Timmers, 2020)—and in the EU’s large R&D program in which, for instance, Chinese companies were also present.Footnote 2 The latter, by the way, did not come with corresponding opening-up of Chinese R&D programs. Again, all this lines up to confirm that at best strategic autonomy had been a risk management approach and even then, with weak risk management, This, however, changed from 2017 onwards, due to the 5G security debate triggered by concerns from the USA. Gradually, awareness grew of national security risks which also drew attention to the ever-growing market share of Huawei and ZTE and the related risk of marginalization of the European telecoms industry, notably Ericsson and Nokia. 5G security was raised to the top level and EU countries collaborated with the support of the European Commission on a 5G Security ‘Toolbox’ to assess technical and political risks of foreign vendors. What is quite remarkable is that, where the core of 5G security are national security concerns and where national security is explicitly excluded from the mandate of the EU (Art 41 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union), countries decided to collaborate precisely at the European level on this core issue! Moreover, though it took much more time, until 2021, EU policymakers realized the weakness of presence in international standardization, notably in telecoms. A strongly worded revision of EU standardization policy was then issued, which notably singled out the EU contribution to telecoms standardization to be brought under strategic autonomy control. Shortly afterwards, the EU and the USA in the TTC (Trans-Atlantic Trade and Technology Council) agreed to team up more closely in international standardization including in the ITU. We see the emergence of a strategic partnership approach. However, despite the push to move Chinese vendors out of EU telecoms infrastructure, by 2022 these still have a very substantial presence according to (Strand Consult, 2022).


In the USA telecoms restructuring of AT&T in 1984, dominant open market thinking, the appeal of opening-up to the emerging market of China and vice versa keeping the USA market open, combined with little government interest, led to the significant presence of Chinese equipment suppliers in the American market. Moreover, R&D telecoms expertise such as in Bell Labs and Lucent became acquired by foreign companies (in this case, European ones such as Alcatel, and later Siemens, and then Nokia). Telecom operators in the USA were a mix of USA-originated companies, T-Mobile from Germany, and on a smaller scale, Chinese operators. All in all, strategic autonomy was not on the agenda, neither from the cybersecurity perspective, nor from the economic security perspective.

With the rise of cybercrime, the general vulnerability of American telecoms to state-sponsored cyber-espionage, ransomware, and other forms of cyber-attack from Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China, and notably with the rise of China as economic and military power, 5G and 4G have become top concerns for national security (in the USA the term national security now includes national competitiveness). The USA has clearly earmarked the further development of 5G and especially 6G as a matter of strategic autonomy, which at best, can be pursued in a strategic partnership and for which some politicians have even advocated for autarky. Further, ideas have been tabled on next-generation telecoms as open source, a take-over of European companies, and more recently in the TTC, teaming up with Europe, and a strong domestic Next G initiative (ATIS, 2022).

The political rhetoric on the 6G shows the strategic intent but a sense of realism is also present. Namely given the erosion of the industrial and research capability and capacity in the USA (an exception being the strong position in advanced semiconductor design for telecommunications) effectively 6G industrial initiatives are assumed to be open to at least a European presence. As is the EU, the USA is starting to pursue a strategic partnership approach. Make no mistake, however, to assume that strategic teaming-up means identical strategic intent. In international relations, there is fundamentally never an identity of sovereignty between countries. When push comes to shove, such as in a semiconductor supply crisis, despite partnership the US government will prioritize US industry. The EU is matching this in a much weaker form only, however, in the much softer formulated EU Chips Act.


In China, since the early 2000s, an explicit policy has been pursued to capture (mobile) telecoms as a strategic industry. China has managed to create space for its own 4G development and with significant state subsidies and impressive entrepreneurship and technical skills, companies such as Huawei and ZTE and China Mobile rapidly grew from minnows to world players. By 2015, these players jointly actually managed to capture the largest share of the world market including the European market and a significant part of the USA and Canadian and Indian markets. In the domestic market, they were overly dominant as access for European and other players remained difficult and relatively small. The EU and the USA for a long time underestimated the rise of these Chinese suppliers, firstly, not realizing what this did to erode their national competitiveness, and secondly, not seeing the influence of the Chinese state eroding their national security. In hindsight, China clearly and consistently pursued and continues to pursue—successfully—an autarky approach to strategic autonomy. China is explicit about its intention for dominance in 6G (China State Council, 2015) though the quest for autarky may for years be hampered by foreign dependencies (Rühlig, 2023).

Relatedness of Policies

Strongly related to telecommunications policy are cybersecurity, cloud, data/AI, IoT, and semiconductor policies. In most of these areas, in the EU at least, the approach to strategic autonomy has been based on risk management, which as mentioned above, is rather soft in terms of guarantees for sovereignty. Gradually, however, harder strategic autonomy elements have been appearing in at least some of these policies. For instance, in the ICT supply chain requirements for cybersecurity are being stepped up in the EU Cyber Resilience Act. These requirements are inspired by the EU 5G Security Recommendation and will imply stronger and independent controls on vendors, including those of IoT and other connected devices. Ensuring cybersecurity is thereby less left to third-country control. In addition, high-security cloud requirements are being developed by ENISA, the EU’s cybersecurity agency which may include a greater degree of cloud (and thereby data) localization and staff security scrutiny. However, the final form of these requirements was not yet clear at the time of writing.

International Relations and Technology

Before addressing how the interplay of geopolitics and 6G technology may result in four different futures, we briefly digress and discuss how international relations scholars view technology.

In international relations thinking—grossly simplified—the main schools are the realists, liberalists, and contingency-thinkers. Realists consider that the international system of states is basically an anarchy of states. This does not mean that there is chaos but rather that there is no overarching authority. Moreover, states are captured in a ‘security dilemma’, ever mistrustful of the intentions of foreign states, having to rely on self-help, and likely pre-emptively having to arm themselves. This line also fits in with global or regional hegemonic thinking (Mearsheimer, 1994; Waltz, 2010).

Liberalists consider that there is more to world order than states alone. International organizations and other actors (e.g., private sector, NGOs, or as relevant here, the global tech community) also play a role in international relations. Collaboration between states is possibly and in fact, quite likely out of ‘self-interest rightly understood’ (de Tocqueville, 1864). Contingency thinking considers that international relations between states ‘depend’ on history, the identity of states as historically formed and in relation to the ‘socialization’ between states, as developed over years and in all forms of international relations (cf. the establishment of international institutions/governance post-1945 which was strongly influenced by the traumas of the two World Wars).

The evolution of international relations in relation to technological trends has been occasionally investigated, but generally technology has for a long time and for most international relations scholars been seen as an exogenous factor and mainly as a factor of warfare. The exception is the thinking about the Internet—famous is the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace that states ‘Governments of the Industrial World […] You have no sovereignty where we gather’ (Barlow, 1996).

Recently, however, an emerging paradigm, which is still ill-defined, is ‘techno-politics’. This has grown out of Science and Technology Studies and takes seriously a two-way interplay of technology and (international) politics (Eriksson & Newlove-Eriksson, 2021). Examples of such techno-politics are where cyber-weapons are used nowadays by maleficent or rogue states to destabilize the established international system of states, creating a ‘sovereignty gap’ (Kello, 2017); or where a techno-state exercises a degree of surveillance with digital technologies such as mobile phones and smart cameras that could be considered by other countries as an infringement of human rights and even get raised to the level of the UN as a crime against humanity; or where control of electronic ID technology by the private sector straddles into the realm of the sovereign functions of the state (Timmers, 2022a).

Geopolitics Versus Technology, 2035 in Four Scenarios for 6G

It is against the backdrop of sovereignty-threatening forces that we can map the interplay of sovereignty and technology and consider a number of futures or scenarios. While in the following section we approach these futures for digital technologies in general, the reader may keep in mind what this may mean for 6G. The mapping onto 6G futures will then be dealt with in the later sections. Before moving into the detailed scenarios, let’s first present a policy narrative on the future of 6G in a geopoliticized world.

A Policy Narrative on Geopolitics Versus 6G in 2035

What will the future of 6G look like when threats to sovereignty and strategic autonomy are on the rise? We can imagine geopolitics in the future to range from an ‘anarchy of states’, in which sovereign states never can trust each other, and in which they resort to self-help, and may even be at war; to global collaboration that respects the sovereignty of individual states. Future 6G technology can range from fragmented with closed solutions to fully interoperable and open. See Fig. 10.1.

Fig. 10.1
A chart presents the future of 6 G. The four scenarios of 6 G are defined. It can range from anarchy of states to one world. From fragmented and closed to global and open.

Geopolitics versus technology

The actors steering 6G’s future are states, digital giants, 6G suppliers, 6G user companies, the technology community, the academic world, and civil society. Last but not least, there is also a vast army of cyber-criminals. That geopolitics is a major driver for the future of 6G is evident. Many argue that states have a natural tendency to not trust each other. Others are always a threat to survival.

The promise of 6G technology is another major driver. 6G is a huge opportunity and solution for many global problems provided it is integrating, pervasively available, inclusive, and open. Many argue that this is the natural direction for 6G to develop. However, counteracting forces are at work such as global threats of climate change and cybercrime and these can motivate states to collaborate. On the other hand, there is the quest for dominance of large tech companies, who drive 6G toward proprietary oligopolistic configurations. States and large companies may be fighting to control technology, but they can also collude for world dominance.

We can imagine four futures in the fight between geopolitics and technology (see Fig. 10.1, the scenarios are spelled out in detail in the next section):

  • Scenario I: when states are on a knife’s edge, yet they support or force their companies to continue developing global standards and where not possible, they limit 6G.

  • Scenario II: when global standardization and global collaboration fail, the result is fragmented 6G in a fragmented world.

  • Scenario III: when states are willing to collaborate, but a few global and dominant companies slice up the 6G space, the result is a 6G of corporate islands.

  • Scenario IV: when states collaborate and global standardization functions, we could get a global, open 6G in a global, open world.

Which one of the scenarios is most likely to win? Which one do we wish to win? Many will probably say that fragmentation, both geopolitically and technologically, is most likely (scenario II). Many will probably say that a global, open 6G in a global, open world is the most desirable (scenario IV). What if we want to avoid scenario II and maximize the chances of scenario IV? The key is to understand the forces at work and steer them in the right direction by developing our capabilities and capacities, and control ‘our’ 6G strategic autonomy.

Current Stage?

Let’s spell it out. Today, we are probably closest to scenario I. Tensions between states are on the rise and technology is becoming increasingly weaponized. To keep this trend in check, we need to renew cooperation on 6G standards in a balance of countries, companies, the tech community, and civil society. We need new security technology and/or architectures in 6G that safeguard the core of government information and still enable global connectivity and secure end-to-end information flows. Who can do this? The core is a coalition of like-minded countries, companies, and academics (from the USA, the EU, Korea, and Japan) but with openness to include India and, in selected areas where they see a common interest, China.

We also see large corporates increasingly expanding from cloud and platforms into 5G and 6G, involved in a power grab on all the required technologies, from AI and crypto to cables and satellites, from the meta-verse to digital health, retail, and logistics. 6G risks becoming corporatized and fragmented into technology islands. To keep this trend in check, we need the global tech community to team up with innovative emerging disrupters and risk capital, supported by open-minded states to define open standards, make open tech available, and address global challenges with 6G.

Next Steps to Avoid Scenario II and Maximize the Chances for Scenario IV?

What can we do today to best move toward scenario IV, a global open 6G in a global open world? The action must be to strengthen and expand today’s collaborations of the willing that subscribe to the two-track agenda of open global collaboration and open 6G. What are such collaborations? In the global R&D community, open collaboration used to be supported by the EU Horizon 2020 R&D program, in both telecoms and information technology. This has helped to create a global community of specialists in future technologies and in standards-setting with corresponding forms of global governance. On the telecoms side, the main long-running collaboration platforms for these communities are 3GPP, GSMA, and ITU, while more recently platforms have been emerging around open RAN. These platforms have got and still get their input from large-scale R&D projects (a long tradition pre-6G and continued for 6G, such as in the University of Oulu-led 6G Flagship and many projects co-financed by the EU), private and public–private deployment pilots, and regional but fairly open standardization organizations (ETNO in the EU). On the IT side, the main long-running forms of global governance likewise are still with us from the early Internet times, notably IETF, W3C, IASB for technical architectures and specifications, with the ITU playing a growing role in IT standardization, and ICANN in the management of the Internet domain name system. A plethora of other global alliances exist in the world of AI, cloud, IoT, and even secure computing, which are all potentially relevant for the future of 6G.

The default mindset in this broad community has been and still largely is to enable global open specifications for each generation of 3G, 4G, and 5G, as well as for 6G. Even if much intellectual property is protected by patents for commercial reasons, the assumption of a common global specification for 6G is still driving this ‘tech and business community’. One would say then that this broad technical and standards and business community is then the natural anchor for these collaborations of the willing who subscribe to the two-track agenda of open global collaboration and open 6G.


To assume the above will happen, however, would be naïve: these communities too are pulled into the maelstrom of geopoliticization. The growing concerns about sovereignty and strategic autonomy are also being felt in these forums. The suspicion of the hand of the state behind Chinese companies, which would steer their involvement in global standardization and international R&D collaboration has led to a pushback (Sheehan, 2021; Yan et al., 2019). Various studies document the growing influence of China in standardization, whether in 3GPP or in ITU (Baron & Kanevskaia Whitaker, 2021; Bruer & Brake, 2021). China indeed pursues a very active and comprehensive 5G and 6G leadership policy, as argued above. This is closely linked to its geopolitical ambitions (China State Council, 2015). The EU has become aware of the growing capture of its standardization efforts by foreign companies, and the state actors that are possibly hiding behind them and has come forward with a new approach to standardization that should better safeguard EU strategic autonomy (European Commission, 2022). The USA has been ramping up its involvement in global standardization and expressed willingness to team up with the EU (US & EU, 2022), while launching 6G R&D collaboration, the Next G Alliance, with a strong ‘American leadership’ ambition (ATIS, 2022). The EU’s Joint Undertaking on Smart Networks and Services states to ‘foster Europe’s technological sovereignty in 6G’ (European Commission, 2021). For national regulatory initiatives across the world, see (Serentschy et al., 2022) in this volume. The national and regional 5G/6G R&D and standardization initiatives are increasingly rivalrous. They are being complemented by trade and foreign investment restrictions that cast a dark shadow on the prospect for continued global collaboration. The realistic prospect at the time of writing is of increasing geopolitical tensions that are fueled by the Russian aggression against Ukraine and mainland China’s threats against Taiwan and by rising geopolitical rhetoric.

The international academic, technology, standards and business community must go through a self-assessment on how to best handle geopolitics if it is to stay relevant as a platform toward open global 6G. We accept the premise that social construction and technological construction are related, viz. (Cohen, 2019; Lessig, 1999; Timmers, 2022a). Therefore, this should not only be a governance self-assessment but also a technological assessment, answering the question: which 6G technical architecture(s) will enable global collaboration that respects geopolitical concerns about strategic autonomy? In this respect, lessons can be learned from 5G security, that clearly did not live up to this expectation. The issue is that, while 5G was already being rolled out, concerns were raised, initially from the USA, that working with Chinese equipment suppliers such as Huawei would pose a national security risk, due to possible influence by the Chinese state such as on the early stage technology development or on the actual 5G operation. The EU subsequently agreed on a 5G Security Recommendation that would enable to do at least a cybersecurity risk assessment. This experience shows that such security concerns were raised only at a very late stage of 5G evolution, probably due to the lack of earlier involvement of governments. 6G should not fall into the same technical and governance traps that led to this 5G security problem (Timmers, 2020).

A second collaboration that may contribute to open global 6G has been hinted at above. This is where policymakers of ‘like-minded’ countries (currently the USA, the EU, Japan, South Korea, and possibly India), despite potential differences of views such as on state surveillance (c.f., Voelsen, 2022), discuss aspects of 6G collaboration. Such discussions are happening largely in bilateral dialogues, sometimes with more concrete policy collaboration such as between the EU and the USA in the TTC. An international platform of these 6G policymakers does not exist, though. Provided these policymakers have a clear view on which parts of 6G are highly sensitive to sovereignty concerns, they can issue an open invitation to other countries to join efforts on those aspects of 6G that are not sensitive to sovereignty concerns. An example would be collaboration on pilots of global interest (e.g., global logistics, public health, climate change) provided 6G is properly technically architected. What does this mean? The 6G academic and technical community needs to urgently develop the characteristics of these parts of 6G. This would likely include compartmentalizing information which is of national security interest. Providing this assessment would be a very important contribution to the techno-politics as a recent and still-evolving perspective on international relations.

Four Scenarios for 6G in Detail

The 1648 Treaty of Westfalen established the system of sovereign states, which consists first of all of the idea that the international order is based upon states and secondly that each state is sovereign and has a sovereign. The latter at the time was a king or emperor but this has evolved via popular democracy into what we now see as the government of a state. So, Westfalen has evolved into the international system of sovereign states, in the West generally internally legitimized by popular democracy, and internationally externally legitimized by treaties, international law, and a plethora of international bodies, most prominently the UN, a rich mix of hard and soft power, and, importantly, having evolved way beyond the idea that the international system of sovereign states is an anarchy of states that in principle are always at war. However, in today’s world we do see a harking back to this proto-Westphalia model of sovereign states that principally cannot trust each other and have to rely upon self-help (Waltz, 2010). Here, when we say ‘Westfalen’ we mean the whole range of geopolitics (i.e., international relations) from Westfalen-1648 to a global world in which sovereignty is compatible with global collaboration.

A Borderless World

Digital technologies largely are constructed as if the world were without borders. From the perspective that social construction and technological construction are related, it is understandable that the until recently dominant paradigms (social constructs) of a global, open, liberal market economy, open research and innovation, academic freedom, and restrained states, have led to such technology. However, and importantly, there is rarely a technical reason that technology must be open, interoperable, uniform, and globally standardized. We can therefore also take technology here on a scale from fragmented to uniformed (on purpose written in this way, that is, formed to be non-fragmented).

This leads to four scenarios as in Fig. 10.1, which, for the purpose of presentation, we label in a somewhat sloganized way as: state-controlled global but limited 6G; fragmentation into political blocs and 6G technology islands; 6G controlled by mega-corporations; globalization in economy and technology, that is, a full, open, and global 6G.

One future may be that geopolitics leads to strong polarization between states (‘back to Westfalen’). Alternatively, global cooperation may win in the long run, perhaps under the pressure of the existential global challenges of climate change. In the world of technology, one future is that tech and service companies compete with largely proprietary monolithic solutions. It would be likely then that markets would be served by a few mega-corporations. Another technology future is one of global standards, interoperability, with many building blocks where companies compete through technological and service innovation and possibly disruptive new technologies.

The Role of State Control

Not all technology architectures will fit neatly with strong state control, e.g., non-permissioned distributed ledger solutions in telecoms. Conversely, not all state governance will allow for all technology architecture to develop unchecked. A global world that—hypothetically—would agree on strong fundamental rights including privacy, will wish to keep in check or perhaps even ban privacy-invasive network management architectures. Sovereignty, or more generally, the social constructs that we associate with states, are therefore also conditioned by the way technology is ‘constructed’, that is, put into technological architectures, specifications, and ultimately coded into hardware and software. Finally, this interplay is neither static nor completely known in advance. Anticipatory regulation is an approach to deal with both the dynamics and the innovation in this interplay (see Serentschy et al., 2022).

In quadrant I, we find a globally open 6G where states are on a knife’s edge. Telecom companies have been ordered by their governments to ensure global interconnectivity. Military experts exercise oversight in standardization forums. No information flows can be trusted and there is constant suspicion that implementation is vulnerable to intrusion, backdoors, etc. This necessitates new technical solutions to ensure end-to-end security. Companies will compete globally with extensive backing from their home countries. They will not shy away from using any means to make foreign government buy their gear. The telecoms business may flourish but overheads will be large. 6G strategic autonomy will be a ‘militarized’ strategic autonomy.

Fragmented 6G

Fragmented 6G in a fragmented world (quadrant II) represents the failure of years of global telecoms and global collaboration in 4G and 5G. The telecom industry has limited markets and seeks value-added in diversification and application, stimulating thriving adjoint industries and entrepreneurship. There is rapid progress in technology within geopolitical blocs provided that these have sufficient scale. Where they do not have this, government subsidies must cover shortfalls. Governments will allow telecom oligopolies to have enough scale. Along the same lines, telecom companies are likely to be eaten by adjoint companies (e.g., cloud providers) to achieve economic scale and protect the state or coalition of states. 6G strategic autonomy means ‘fortress strategic autonomy’.

In the third scenario (quadrant III) 6G technology is fragmented, yet there is global collaboration between countries. Mega-corporations have de facto taken over telecoms sovereignty from states and created their own technology islands, likely integrating much more than a traditional telecoms infrastructure (e.g., also satellite systems and cloud platforms and proprietary large-scale AI-as-a-service). Government policies have little effect on these mega-corporations or are absent due to their power and their integration into governmental processes. The ‘6G strategic autonomy is void’.

A global, open, and full 6G in a globally open world (quadrant IV) is the continuation of the 4G global standards and assumes to counter the risk of security-induced fragmentation of 5G/6G. It requires a careful reflection on 6G architecture to combine openness and security. New security technologies, such as embedded quantum encryption and end-to-end system integrity control with blockchain safeguard the core communications of the state. This requires a new multilateral public–private organization for a balanced and trusted relationship between global 6G companies and governments worldwide, and an understanding that sovereignty battles are better fought elsewhere than in 6G. That is, hard power in other areas is balanced by soft power agreements in 6G, mediated by international diplomacy. Telecom companies will flourish but need to be extremely politically savvy. 6G strategic autonomy delivers a common good, namely ‘global 6G peace’.

Discussion and Conclusions

Let’s take scenario IV as the desired one, that is, a full and open and global 6G, with global availability and functionality that allows for innovation and inclusiveness. It may be a dream, but only the future will tell. What can be done—in the modest realm of those that are directly involved in 6G—to increase the chances of this scenario becoming a reality? ‘Modest’, because the likelihood that this scenario will materialize is influenced to a great extent by ‘big geopolitics’ on which the 6G community of policymakers, industry, and academics may have little influence.

How do we arrive at recommendations on what to do? One way is to look at the other three non-desirable scenarios as destinations to avoid and consider the drivers that push the future in any of those. These are the negative recommendations. Another approach is to consider the drivers of specific positive qualities of the full 6G scenario that create a pull to move in that direction. These are the positive recommendations. To make this somewhat more concrete, for instance, we would want to avoid fragmentation and securitization (or worse, militarization) of 6G as that will block the road toward realizing a full, global, and open 6G. Openness would be a positive quality of full 6G, so we would want to promote that. This then leads to recommendations as in Table 10.1. The recommendations are labeled with ‘to avoid’ the bears on the road and with ‘to promote’ progressing in the desired direction.

Table 10.1 Recommendation toward open, global, and full 6G

We now conclude with several practical and cross-cutting research recommendations toward full, open, and global 6G, for governments, industry, and academia.

For Policymakers

Above all, policymakers would have to promote open, global, and full 6G as a political vision, implying that policymakers mobilize their full, and extensive toolset for their 6G industrial policy. This would recognize that digital industrial policy is as much about geopolitics as about the industrial ecosystem and business economics, which is the modern view (Timmers, 2022c).

Governments therefore need to also promote this vision at the global level such as in the UN Global Compact (, or minimally to do so multilaterally. A case in point is to build on the Declaration for the Future of the Internet ( and international cooperation such as the EU’s Global Gateway (, such that other countries can join in when they recognize this vision as the better alternative to any other 6G future.

The implication is to develop an integrated policy in at least two respects. Firstly, combining traditional 6G policy (R&D and deployment incentives, market regulation) with international/foreign policy actions such as trade policy, strategic international standardization, technology diplomacy, and international or multilateral cooperation. Secondly, to collaborate across user sectors in order to leverage economic, societal, and democratic benefits of 6G. A particular important case is 6G military-civil collaboration within public–private relationships (given that open, global, and fully 6G must enable strategic autonomy).

Policymakers should be well-placed to define and initiate common good global 6G use cases, such as in global logistics, environmental monitoring, circular economy, and global public health. Collaboration on practical, highly relevant use cases, motivated by ‘self-interest rightly understood’ (de Tocqueville, 1864) is fertile ground for growing global trust. It is far from evident that policymakers can come forward with integrated, anticipatory, techno-politically and techno-industrial relevant policies. The road to full and open 6G requires breaking down policy silos and policy creativity, and perhaps even a degree of policy experimentation, something that is not in the DNA of traditional policy(law-)makers. Institutional capability- and capacity-building is therefore a must and can be stimulated by a close cooperation between policymakers, industry and civil society, while with academia new approaches to flexible regulation—that take account of the interplay between highly dynamic technology development and the more stable governance of 6G—will have to be developed.

Two more specific policy challenges immediately relate to full, global, and open 6G, namely strategic standardization and open-source policy. Governments will have to develop new forms of engagement in international 6G standardization in order to safeguard their sovereignty interest, yet not destroy global openness or constrain 6G functionality. Such engagement must reflect the nature of technology and technology architectures that are embedded in 6G or are the foundation of 6G. It will be important to consider legitimate needs to protect the core of government information or ensure the resilience of critical services. Open source is likely to play a central and positive role in this future of 6G. However, governments have traditionally stayed away from the world of open source, for good reason—to not interfere with the powerful innovation and common good which stems from the collaboration of the open-source community, but at times also to bad effect, such as being exposed to cybersecurity risks and corporate capture of open source. Governments will have to develop and internationally align 6G open-source policy in order to both avoid such risks, yet ensure that the open-source momentum is maintained notably also from less-powerful contributors.

For Industry

Industry must find new approaches to deal with sovereignty concerns without losing its momentum toward open, global, and full 6G. One approach is to develop 6G tech alliances that have a political, industrial, and technological anchor (Timmers, 2022b). That is, these tech alliances should be driven by a political framing (namely, the political vision as mentioned above, as and when it shapes), which provides the strategic intent; industrial involvement as a delivery-/results-oriented platform with a strategic plan that reflects the strategic intent; and a clear technology focus in order to both advance the technology frontier yet remain practical. An example would be AI for 6G linked to advancing global common good causes such as sustainable global logistics or preventative global health. Obviously, alignment with governments and civil society is then also possible. A particular responsibility must be taken up by industry to support policymakers, civil society, and academics in ensuring that there is democratically responsible 6G in development and usage, or to put it more strongly, that 6G does not lead to democracy-related harm,Footnote 3 such as its misuse for citizen surveillance, manipulation of public opinion, or cyber-undermining of society and democracy.

For Academics

This chapter introduced some challenging concepts that must be developed in order to ensure that the movement toward full, open, and global 6G is not stopped in its tracks. This includes sovereignty-by-design, which—for legitimate and democratic sovereignty—implies citizen rights-by-design (including privacy-by-design) as well as security-by-design. The academic and tech worlds need to develop architectures and individual technologies that respect and reinforce the social constructions of legitimate, democratic sovereignty and of rights.

There is a long-lasting debate about what citizens’ rights are and in international law even human rights do not encompass all that is covered by rights charters such as the fundamental rights that are part of the EU Treaties, let alone political visions such as the EU’s Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles ( Nevertheless, on some rights there is widely shared common ground such as on privacy and rights derived from trustworthy AI.

On a somewhat more reflective level, the academic world must develop thinking on techno-politics, i.e., where international relations (IR) embrace technology as an endogenous rather than exogenous force. 6G is par excellence the test case, but more than mere academic interest such conceptual thinking is necessary as an alternative to arms race realist, powerless idealist, or vulnerable contingent IR thinking.

Finally, there is the trilemma of (economic) globalization, sovereignty, and democracy, meaning that most but not all three can be realized at the same time, as posited by (Rodrik, 2007; Stein, 2016). If this holds true, one could argue that democracy will suffer from the path toward open, global, and full 6G as of the three it is the one that has the least powerful champions behind it. Whether this is correct and how it should be anticipated and perhaps alleviated, is a challenge for academics to investigate. One way may be to strengthen the global common goods case as suggested by (Stein, 2016), namely for 6G itself to be sustainable and to be a credible contribution to sustainability, as developed in 6G visions, such as (Yrjölä et al., 2020). It could be argued that ignoring the planet-sustainability of 6G would have to therefore undermine sovereignty. Namely, firstly, climate change goes way beyond and is more powerful than any individual country. Lack of 6G sustainability would put the sovereignty of any country at risk. Secondly, sustainability is becoming a profound and cross-cutting requirement (from semiconductors to services to applications). Not mastering 6G sustainability means weakening one’s strategic autonomy, i.e., one’s capabilities, capacities, and control, and thereby putting sovereignty at risk.

For Global Civil Society and the Tech Community

Finally, global civil society has a particularly important and triple cross-cutting role. Firstly, to defend causes for the global common good, societies’ specific interest agenda (such as climate, democracy, but also the planet-sustainability of 6G itself, etc.) would be to bring governments, industry, and academia around the table together with civil society and the tech community. Secondly, and related to this, global civil society should provide a meeting place to grow global collaboration and trust. Thirdly, to reduce the risk of democratic deficit that has been highlighted above, global civil society should become public communicators about the benefits and the risks of full, open, and global 6G.

The global tech community is somewhat less easily identifiable and perhaps more fluid than the other stakeholders. Nevertheless, they were present at the start of the Internet and much of the open software and open hardware developments that will continue to provide building blocks for 6G. The global tech community has a particular responsibility to bridge technological construction and social construction of 6G. That is, to develop technological solutions that are compatible with the social constructions in the table above such as promoting openness and avoiding lock-in, or, one of the major challenges, to enable in technological and governance terms sovereignty-by-design.

On Methodology

The analysis of participation is based on A typical Cordis query is:

  • QUERY = contenttype = ‘project’ AND frameworkProgramme = ‘HORIZON’ AND relatedRegion/region/euCode = ‘CN’ AND (‘telecoms’ OR ‘4G’ OR ‘3G’ OR ‘5G’ OR ‘6G’ OR ‘wireless’ OR ‘telecommunications’ OR ‘broadband’ OR ‘cloud’ OR ‘mobile’ AND ‘communications’). Table 10.2 gives the results, where this QUERY is amended or modified as indicated in the first column.

Table 10.2 Participation of Chinese companies in EU-funded projects