Flashpoints | Security

The Promise and Peril of Technological Competition

The Senate bill to increase U.S. technological competitiveness with China does not address the most important part of the competition to come.

The Promise and Peril of Technological Competition
Credit: Depositphotos

The U.S. Congress is, by almost all accounts, more divided and less cooperative than it has ever been in the modern era. With tiny and precarious Democratic majorities in both houses and strident and unified Republican opposition, the big question hanging over the first few months of President Joe Biden’s term is how much he can actually hope to accomplish legislatively.

And yet, on Tuesday, the U.S. Senate passed an enormous – at least by pre-pandemic standards – and novel spending bill by a margin of 68-32, with 49 Democrats and 19 Republicans voting in favor. Unlike the administration’s successful pandemic recovery bill or its still-in-progress infrastructure package, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act – formerly known as the Endless Frontier Act – flew largely under the radar until its passage.

The bill is essentially designed to increase U.S. competitiveness with China by increasing investment in science, technology, and basic research. While much of the bill’s impact is domestic, the geopolitics angle is crucial: Not to put too fine a point on it, but a bill framed as a domestic initiative to invest more government funds in scientific research and specific industries would not achieve anything like this level of support across the aisle. Casting it as an exercise in national security-adjacent competitiveness gives political space for Republican members of Congress to vote for a bill that a Democratic White House is pushing for.

Certainly, there are models for industrial and scientific progress supercharged by adversarial competition: the Cold War, for one, produced any number of notable scientific advancements. Some – like the underpinnings of the internet on which you are reading this article – were direct offshoots of military technology; others – the rockets which brought human beings to the moon – were demonstrations of national prowess built on military technology but with limited immediate ramifications, civil or military. The more intense the competition, the quicker the technological progress: World War II for example, took rocketry from the preserve of enthusiasts to a strategic delivery system in half a decade. But almost no one would argue that a hot war – with its attendant human, economic, and environmental devastation – is a price worth paying for some accelerated technological development.

The argument advanced in support of measures like the Senate bill is, rather, that technological competition is already here and that investing in both basic research and advanced technologies is a necessary predicate for maintaining a dominant position, thereby avoiding war.

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It is a compelling argument because it has elements of truth. China has staked out an aggressive technological strategy, especially in emerging and potentially transformative technologies. It has become increasingly willing to leverage its technological advantages to support its geopolitical ambitions, which are not compatible with the kind of world order preferred by the United States and its allies.

Yet the fact that the Senate can only agree on action when it comes to confronting a potential state rival points to a fundamental weakness in the United States’ plan to “win the 21st century.” As I recently argued, our imagination for what challenges we will face in the coming years and decades is limited and blinkered. To be sure, more investment in basic research will certainly bear dividends regardless, but much of the money allocated in the bill is dedicated to shoring up the U.S. ability to do specific things – like building superconductors and advancing its space infrastructure – better than China can.

Here is where the model of “competition” that seems to be animating the Senate is limited – again, not wholly incorrect, but incomplete. The competition between the United States and China is not simply about which country can build the fastest supercomputer or the most modern satellite constellation. It may turn on which side has the most sophisticated military hardware – but it is at least as likely that it will not.

If the competition is indeed for global leadership, then the question is which side is providing the most useful goods in the most visible way for the large portion of the world’s population who are not instinctively sympathetic to either Beijing or Washington. Right now, with most of the world still seeing worsening outcomes from the pandemic (even as life returns in fits and starts to normal for most U.S., European, and Chinese citizens), what is meaningful both morally and strategically is doing the largest amount possible to suppress SARS-CoV2 quickly and comprehensively.

But the current pandemic will not be the last global disaster of the 21st century. We are entering an era of unparalleled systemic risk, which no one country – even a superpower – can address singlehandedly. As always, the impacts of these emerging systemic risks are not likely to be felt evenly. Shoring up U.S. science and industry for technological geopolitical competition is an important step, but the real challenge of putting those industries to work to benefit not only Americans but the persuadable mass of global public opinion is the much greater one ahead.