Just as dawn is breaking on an AI-driven era of unprecedented opportunity, a worldwide recoupling from the American-led strategic and economic architecture is underway. While this is a major shift touching many vital sectors, right now it is most critical in defense technology. This was acutely apparent this summer, as longtime American allies like Turkey forged their own paths with military weapons procurements. In this moment of apparent uncertainty, there is an opportunity to reboot the global “operating system” for global competition in the 21st century.
To further draw upon tech-industry parlance, holistic economic and technological development models, and the value chains with which they integrate, are the new geopolitical “killer app” for the coming decades. The country that becomes the preeminent developer of these models stands to benefit via the network effects of “locking in” much of the world to the platform of its construction. This is a phenomenon not unlike the sale of an iPhone, which leads to purchases of iPads, Macs, iTunes, and uncountable apps on the AppStore. Much like in a tech ecosystem, these geo-political killer apps tilt the world toward hundreds of underlying systems, technologies, standards and practices defined by the “platform developer” nation-state.
Yet leaders in Washington continue to struggle to end America’s techno-conservatism, especially when it comes to defense. American export policies generally seem to suggest that the path to leadership requires us to hang on to every military technology advantage we can possibly keep to ourselves. The US export regime has been one of the strictest globally, as staunch allies like Japan found with the not-for-export F-22 Raptor. This approach partially worked in maintaining our military edge, especially during those few decades when American weapons were really the only game in town. But it also had unintended consequences that will become increasingly problematic.
OS Design For Engagement, Not Conflict
Today there are massive incentives for would-be buyers to move away from American technology. Our export controls, ITAR (International Traffic in Arms) regulations specifically, have unequivocally become swear words even in allied states. And as it has played out, America keeping technologies close to its chest for as long as it did only meant that when those technologies ultimately proliferated, the goodwill, profits and influence all went to a competitor.
Take drones. After 9/11, many states allied with America, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey and others made requests for the low-speed, medium-altitude Predator drone. It’s a useful platform for light strike and surveillance, but nothing that would pose a threat to the US even in a worst-case scenario. Despite the tactical—not strategic—nature of the system, these requests were all refused. Fast-forward a few years, and today each of these countries either use Chinese drones and/or have built their own credible capabilities. All the navigation, autonomous flight and computer vision data that could have been used to improve American products is now instead being used to improve Chinese systems. Furthermore, it is Chinese and Russian experts in these new unmanned and AI-influenced capabilities who are forging friendships with military officers in each of these countries, not Americans.
Further fault lines in the fracturing 20th century US-led Western security architecture took center stage at the Paris Air Show in July, when longtime American allies rolled out plans to produce their own cutting-edge weapons systems rather than relying on Washington. For example, NATO member Turkey, a key partner on the US-led Joint Strike Fighter program, pitched its own stealth fighter concept after feeling Washington’s sting for having sought out Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles. France and Spain rolled out a mock-up of Europe’s most sophisticated AI-enabled fighter yet, even as Washington prepares to turn the screws on European governments in an attempt to help US firms sell into a renewed continental defense. And while not as sharp as the air show’s more sci-fi warplanes, regular demo flights of a traditional joint Pakistani-Chinese fighter underscored Beijing’s growing influence on the defense industrial landscape.
Even with these signs of defense-industrial security recoupling as potential sources of friction for American administrations, the goal of such a defense “operating system” is engagement, not conflict. Moreover, as tech-sector leaders have found, if you want to build a popular platform, you must be more tolerant, inclusive and patient. You must engage, even with competitors. What building massive traffic on software-driven platforms has taught the technology sector is that being open to diverse perspectives, opinions and even staunch opposition is key to fostering broad adoption. If Amazon told Netflix that it wanted to launch its own video service and therefore Netflix was no longer welcome to use the Amazon Web Services (AWS) hosting service, perhaps Amazon wouldn’t be the juggernaut it is today. If Google blocked Microsoft from putting Office apps on Android phones, or if Apple prevented Google from publishing the Chrome Browser to the App Store, their success too would be limited.
Technology And Security Reforms For The AI Era
US policymakers and industry need to consider whether America is doing enough to invest in global leadership in AI, as well as in related, strategically vital technologies such as robotics and data science. It is inevitable that many of Washington’s allies in Europe and Asia will take advantage of the globalizing defense industrial and technological landscape, whether they’re lured by China’s low-priced 5G Internet gear or by readily exportable armed drones. Moreover, current policies in Washington risk alienating allies, at the very moment when they are most susceptible to a new wave of easily acquired, strategically relevant technological breakthroughs. This includes new innovations in machine-to-machine communication, as Huawei 5G systems portend, or in waging war, as seen in sales of Cai-Hong armed drones to longtime US partners like Saudi Arabia.
First, the US needs to use our technological capabilities not just as a military advantage to hold on to until it is nearly obsolete, but to accelerate trade and create opportunities for global commerce and collaboration. To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with tight export controls. For example, Sweden is incredibly strict about where they export offensive weapons. But they are also at peace with the implications of this policy: Saab will never dominate the global fighter aircraft industry. If America is to be the premier global power, it cannot afford to adopt Sweden’s arms export policies.
Second, we need to massively increase our investments in military and commercial development of exponential technologies. This list includes AI; robotics and autonomy; space technologies; hypersonic weapons; biotechnology and genetics; quantum computing; 5G+ low-latency communications; materials sciences; electric propulsion for sea, land and air; nanotechnology; 4th industrial revolution technologies, including increasingly sophisticated additive manufacturing and many more. Part of this increase in investment will come from direct grants to universities, and increases in budgets for research-oriented organizations such as NASA, DARPA and the National Labs. Part of it comes about when the government—particularly the Department of Defense—solves its many deeply-rooted, systemic issues and becomes a responsible, fast-moving buyer and purveyor of American technology. The current system of acquisition for most of these technologies lacks credibility; it is a true strategic vulnerability.
Third, rather than worry about playing a defensive game vis-à-vis access to US labs and universities, America needs to go on the offensive with engagement. There are numerous universities, labs and institutions all across Asia and Europe with whom collaborations will be worthwhile. The goal should not be to prevent students from any country from coming to the US, but rather to foster reciprocity: You can come here and learn, and we would like to go to your universities to learn. This omni-directional academic engagement will lessen surprise, increase healthy interdependence and create opportunities for American students to widen their horizons. Good ideas come from everywhere, and the relationships between American students and their international counterparts are truly strategic, long-term investments.
Fourth, the US needs to increase its investments in programs such as the global network of USIS (United States Information Service) libraries and similar programs and institutions. The USIS centers were inexpensive, yet tremendous instruments of American soft power. Their reach and number have diminished in recent years. Giving people in developing countries a glimpse of a friendly, engaging, technologically advanced America—an America that is sharing its knowledge with them—is valuable beyond words. The Chinese, ironically, attempted to replicate this approach with their Confucius Centers, but this has received quite a negative backlash in the US. But instead of worrying about such centers, the conversation should focus on how many USIS centers are active in China and across Asia, and how many citizens in those countries can have access to and experience a real glimpse of America firsthand.
Long the only game in town, America now faces competitors that have demographic heft and economic potential that may be greater than its own. As such, it is high time to adopt strategies that are better adapted to the strategic, political and economic dynamics of the AI century. The US must become the ultimate platform developer as it once did before, but for a new global “OS” for a software-driven world.