Trans-Pacific View

The Socrates Project: The Key to Countering China?

The quest to advance American competitiveness could learn from a Reagan-era project.

Bonnie Girard
The Socrates Project: The Key to Countering China?
Credit: Pxhere

If a nation could have a tool that allowed it to outclass all competitors in economic and military capabilities, rendering rivals essentially neutered, why wouldn’t it adopt and use that tool immediately?

This is the question that supporters of the Socrates Project are increasingly asking in the United States.

A groundswell of support formed during the presidency of Ronald Reagan to maintain American competitiveness by co-opting the power of technology planning tools, as opposed to the economic and financial planning models that the United States had largely used after World War II. The program, called the Socrates Project, was designed to use new formulas and concepts to ensure the nation’s superiority over rising global economic and military challenges, and to make the United States the undisputed single power on the planet.

In the 1980s, few foresaw that China, India, and other developing countries would constitute a competitive challenge to the United States. Reagan and members of his team were prescient, however. Michael Sekora, director of the Socrates Project, was one of them.

Fast forward 30-plus years, however, and China is not just rising, but has, in many key technologies, already arrived. The current trade war between the United States and China is not just about trade imbalances in plumbing fixtures and furniture. It is about the wholesale appropriation of international technologies that have entered China for added-value manufacturing, as direct sales, and for ongoing joint research by Chinese-government-tied companies and industries capable of appropriating those technologies.

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China has used this unprecedented access to technologies it did not create to build a powerful foundation for economic and military expansion.

And while few in the United States or in NATO nations would argue that the democratic countries of the West should use political and planning tools as the Chinese Communist Party does, some understand that, as the Socrates Project and its principles expound, the U.S. began to lose competitiveness when technology-based planning was supplanted by planning based on budgets and profits.

Is Socrates a project that could answer the competitive deficiencies vis-à-vis rising authoritarian states that America and her allies around the world are facing?

Uncharacteristically for a limited-government conservative, Reagan thought so. As Michael Sekora writes:

In the closing days of his administration, President Reagan had an executive order drafted to create a new government agency — the first new federal agency since the creation of NASA in the 1950s. Why would a president who built his reputation on reducing the size of the government want to create more government?

Those who would be concerned that a governmental approach to leverage technology to maximize competitiveness sounds too much like a national industrial policy, as is found in China, have nothing to worry about, according to Stefan J. Banach, writing in Small Wars Journal:

The National Technology Based Strategy [NTBS] is not a government-centric endeavor, where the government is trying to ‘pick the winners and the losers’ for the U.S., similar to the classic Soviet Union style industrial policy. Rather it is a grand technology strategy developed by representatives from all sectors of the U.S. competitive ecosystem.

The jargon associated with the project and the strategy that it furthers can seem academic, abstract, and even esoteric to the uninitiated reader. Phrases such as “4-D technology space, where all competitive advantage is won or lost,” and “finance-based planning is incapable of providing a logical construct of the competitive environment” pop up all over the place in slides and briefings describing the project.

But despite the lack of specificity for public consumption, one fact remains, according to Sekora: “The Socrates team did design, build and demonstrate a proof-of-principle version of the automated innovation system that was the project’s goal.” Technologies such as the Strategic Defense Initiative, otherwise known as “Star Wars,” would not have been developed without it, according to the project’s supporters.

In fact, Banach argues that the National Technology Based Strategy adopted by Reagan and implemented under Socrates “dramatically reframed the strategic direction of the diplomacy, information prowess, military capabilities, and the global economic growth of the United States of America.”

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America, he continues, “achieved exponential technology overmatch against every adversary in the world.”

The NTBS and the Socrates Project that was largely its delivery vehicle helped to underpin the development not only of GPS, but also “precision strike munitions, stealth aircraft, global satellite communications and enterprise-wide technology growth that enabled the creation of the World Wide Web (WWW) – the Internet in 1989.”

When George H.W. Bush came into office, he abolished the Socrates Project. Political considerations may have been the reason, says Ervin Ackman, Michael Sekora’s partner in pursuing the resurgence of Project Socrates:

As one begins to understand the Socrates system, it is easy to see how it significantly hampers the ‘wiggle room’ that politicians seek to preserve allowing them to shift easily from one position to another for political advantage. The unbiased universal view of reality provided through the pure logic of System Socrates removes all ambiguity. This causes resistance from some political leaders who seek to preserve that ambiguity.

The China Military Power Report produced by the U.S. Department of Defense this year is clear: “China continues to build up its military to challenge and supplant the United States as the preeminent power in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Not only that, but “China continues to challenge U.S. military advantages, such as America’s ability to deploy and sustain forces anywhere in the world and its unparalleled alliance system,” said the DOD spokesman.

Before it is overlooked for yet another generation, the Socrates Project deserves serious reconsideration in intel, military, and political circles in the United States. As a process that grew American competitiveness exponentially 30 years ago, the principles were considered applicable and timeless for any age.

That age may well have arrived.