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Technology competition: We need more than just strategy

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America is embroiled in a challenge unseen in decades: a contest with a formidable and resourceful opponent whose geostrategic ambitions are at odds with the interests and values of the world’s democracies. The rise of China presents a profound challenge to the economic competitiveness and national security of the United States and its allies and partners. At the center of this contest is technology, a driver for economic, political, and military power. China’s leaders have made scientific and technological leadership the focus area in its drive to become the world’s economic dynamo, the power center of a new geopolitical order, and a global military leader.

How U.S. leaders act in response will determine whether America maintains its status as the world’s preeminent scientific and technological power, with all the advantages that confers, or descends on a slow glide path to mediocrity. Both outcomes are plausible. Status quo policies make the latter most likely.

To maximize the potential for success, the United States must craft a new strategic approach to technology policy, one that promotes its strengths, protects its advantages, and capitalizes on its alliances and partnerships. The object should be to ensure that the United States achieve this without having to compromise its values or sovereignty.

U.S. leaders increasingly grasp this need, and the United States is inching closer to articulating such a strategy. In late July, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology approved the National Science and Technology Strategy Act. The proposed bill directs the president’s science advisor and the National Science and Technology Council to articulate four-year plans that state the strategic objectives and priorities to maintain U.S. technological leadership; the programs, policies, and activities to meet those objectives; and assess the implications to U.S. technological leadership and national security of scientific and technological developments in other countries.

While a good step in the right direction, two categories of important and necessary elements are left unaddressed. For one, there are requisite bureaucratic and organizational changes to the federal government to develop, execute, and monitor a national technology strategy. For successful implementation of a national strategy, the Biden administration should create a Technology Security Working Group — designed to bring together representatives from myriad of government agencies working on technology policy and supply chain security-related issues. Different agencies have varied but overlapping authorities, and the U.S. government needs a standing, deliberative body to ensure individual agencies are working in lockstep on these issues. The U.S. government is also in need of robust monitoring and evaluation processes to assess its current technology capabilities, and to forecast what technologies the U.S. should prioritize in both the near- and long-term. While many government strategies are evaluated and adapted after a change in presidential administration, the pace of technological advancement requires a monitoring framework that can regularly evaluate and update the country’s technology priorities and policy actions. 

Operationalizing a technology strategy means other changes are also needed. The Department of Commerce — increasingly front and center in key facets of the global technology competition — must have expanded authorities to fulfill its mission effectively. The Commerce Department’s resource constraints — fiscal and manpower — must be addressed first and foremost. While the department’s funding has slowly increased over time, its resources are still inadequate to address its burgeoning list of mission priorities. Like other federal agencies, the Commerce Department has struggled to recruit and retain talent, particularly those with expertise in emerging technology or export control regulations. To address the department’s fiscal constraints, Congress and the White House should use the national defense budget to fund certain Commerce projects, such as military-related export controls or counter-proliferation. Congress should also create special hiring authorities and incentive pay to attract skilled talent to the Commerce Department, like it has for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. 

Congress should also reorganize and expand the mission of the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, or BIS. While BIS has been heavily focused on export controls, it is well placed to take on a broader set of challenges at the intersection of economic security and defense. By reorganizing BIS, the Department of Commerce could centralize and consolidate its intelligence, policy, regulatory, and enforcement authorities related to export controls, as well as the regulation and protection of technology supply chains.

The White House and Congress have rightly turned their attention to how the U.S. government should craft and articulate an effective and long-term approach to its technology development and policy priorities. Policymakers must not neglect, however, the institutional and organizational changes that are needed to successfully implement and evaluate the country’s approach to technology.

These bureaucratic elements are not as flashy or sensational, but they are just as crucial. The stakes are high, and a strategy with vision but no framework for implementation will ultimately fail.

Megan Lamberth is a research associate in the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Technology and National Security Program. Martijn Rasser is the senior fellow and director of the Technology and National Security Program at CNAS. They are the authors of the CNAS report, “Taking the Helm: A National Technology Strategy to Meet the China Challenge” and co-authors of the report, “From Plan to Action: Operationalizing a U.S. National Technology Strategy.”

Tags American technology China economic competitiveness Great power competition Joe Biden National security U.S Department of Commerce

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