Allies and the Challenge of a Long-Term US Innovation Strategy

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Allies and the Challenge of a Long-Term US Innovation Strategy

There are difficult trade-offs that U.S. policymakers need to consider.

Allies and the Challenge of a Long-Term US Innovation Strategy
Credit: Missile Defense Agency

Forging an Alliance Innovation Base, a CNAS report discussed here, represents a serious effort to provide a long-range technology strategy for the United States that simultaneously cleans house domestically and leverages partnerships on the international stage. In essence, the report calls on the United States to bring together technology development and investment with a few close allies, and then to work on closing that system off as far as possible from Chinese intervention. Yet, as with any report worth engaging, there are some causes for reservation regarding its proposals and conclusions.

Perhaps the biggest problem lies in reliance on and selection of allies, a key component of the technology program. The report barely mentions military and technological powerhouse South Korea, perhaps in part because partnership with South Korea would make cooperation with Japan more difficult. Similarly, the prospects of negotiating a restrictive technology regime that could navigate European rivalries without too many hurt feelings are daunting. Expanding the base beyond a small group of allies offers a broader base of technological growth, but also greater risk of Chinese intrusion and exploitation.

And while the report explicitly discusses improving partner capacity to protect information, often the ally lacks not the capability, but rather the will. Israel, for example, has its own geostrategic reasons for engaging with China, associated with undercutting any pro-Palestinian or pro-Iranian international coalition. While Australia and Japan have shared less of their technology with China, they also have geopolitical reasons to seek some balance in U.S.-China competition. Japan is pursuing its own industrial decoupling with China, but remains closely connected and will continue to do so for some time.

Similarly, while the report is fluent in discussion of technological statecraft, it lacks a clear theory of how technology underwrites national power. As Andrea and Mauro Gilli have shown, China’s technology policy (including especially its theft of technology in cyberspace) is only incompletely correlated with military and economic outcomes. Indeed, some have argued that creating technology regimes that exclude China will simply force China to become more self-sufficient and possibly more potent.

Finally, the report does not linger on the question of how the presidency of Donald Trump has affected the ability of the United States to engage in multilateral ventures. To be sure, the combination of the Trump administration’s various trade wars with the global closing that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic have given the United States an opportunity to reset the terms of global technological innovation. But the Trump administration has also inflicted serious damage on some of the bilateral relationships that this consortium would require, not to mention undercutting global confidence in the ability of the United States to make and follow through on commitments. Trump will not be in power forever, but his presidency indicates an inherent instability in U.S. foreign policy that may make foreign partners sketchy about risking such tight regulatory and economic integration.