Review of: “National Strategy for Critical And Emerging Technologies,” The White House, October 2020.

On October 15, the White House released its National Strategy for Critical And Emerging Technologies (C&ET). Protecting emerging technologies is a crucial component of American national security—one made all the more urgent by the rollout of 5G and the administration’s ongoing battle to limit the network infrastructure provided by the Chinese company, Huawei.

However, like other recent efforts in this space, the administration’s strategy has two major problems. First, it lacks the detail and implementation plan necessary to make its recommended actions useful. And second, it fails to adequately address the balance of economic and national security that must be at the heart of any strategy such as this one.

Like the National Cyber Strategy of 2018, the National Strategy for C&ET reads more like a hastily thrown-together, mish-mash of ideas than a cohesive plan of action. For example, many of the priorities listed by the National Security Council are too broad to be an effective guideline for policymakers. This issue becomes immediately apparent when the document begins with a blurry vision of the path forward for the United States, outlining a hierarchy of technology “leaders,” “peers” and “risk managers” based on an as-yet-undefined threat calculus process.

Moreover, while in some places the strategy calls for the United States to attain world leadership of the “highest-priority technologies,” in other places, it calls for the nation to be only a “global peer” or a “risk manager” in these areas. It also provides no rubric to determine which technologies should be considered “high priority.” And, while it does list 20 “critical technologies,”—a hodge-podge of everything from “advanced weapons systems” to “advanced agriculture”—the broad nature of those technologies leaves far too much room for interpretation, bureaucratic rent-seeking and industry lobbying in the name of national security. Put simply, if a research and development (R&D) program manager within the government or a private company wanted to use this document to try to align their efforts with the administration’s guidance, she would be left with more questions than answers.

In fact, perhaps the most consistent part of the strategy is its lack of clarity regarding prioritization and implementation. For example, the White House argues that R&D should be prioritized in federal budgets, but stops short of calling for an attendant budget increase. Unlike the Endless Frontiers Act, which would put $20 billion behind new R&D centers across the United States through the National Science Foundation (NSF), this strategy lacks the teeth necessary to achieve even its limited goals.

Indeed, a more actionable strategy to enhance American competitiveness and protect national security is offered by The Cyberspace Solarium Commissions’ (CSC) newly released “Building a Trusted ICT Supply Chain.” In it, the CSC recommends identifying key technologies and equipment like the National Strategy for C&ET does, but it elaborates to provide specifics such as ensuring minimum viable manufacturing capacity through both strategic investment and the creation of economic clusters; and stimulating a domestic market through targeted infrastructure investment and by ensuring the ability of firms to offer products in the United States that are similar to those offered in foreign markets.

Other recommendations are equally nebulous. For instance, the National Strategy for C&ET calls for “attracting and retaining inventors and innovators” and “rapidly fielding inventions and innovations” but lists no details for how such goals should be achieved. Without corresponding implementation plans, there is no real strategy, as these goals could be reached in a variety of different ways—not all of which would be equally beneficial to the United States.

Consider, for example, that the latter goal could be used as justification to nationalize 5G—an idea that has gained recent attention after the Department of Defense (DOD) released a Request for Information (RFI) about the prospect. But doing so would likely stifle the competitiveness of American companies without providing superior national security benefits. It’s also antithetical to the free-market model that has made our country prosperous and innovative. A more useful strategy would recommend specific actions the administration considers most feasible in its strategic competition with China, outline any actions it considers contrary to American economic principles and suggest a workable balance.

National security and the economy are not inherently at odds. The free market has served the nation well in many industries by spurring innovation, which allowed us to become the kind of global leader this strategy claims we should be. However, some government actions required to mitigate security risks do have costly economic consequences and should therefore be taken only after careful consideration.

Yet, the White House’s strategy does not adequately reflect a methodology for determining when this tradeoff is appropriate. For example, the recommendation to restrict exports of critical technologies to adversary nations will have significant economic consequences for American companies. At best, being overly restrictive risks making American companies less competitive. At worst, it exacerbates long-term security risks by forcing American companies to vacate industries if Chinese companies are able to provide cheaper options. All of these outcomes are very real possibilities if we try to build policy based upon such a shortsighted, nebulous approach.

But, while it has many limitations, the National Strategy for C&ET is not entirely without merit. Many of the identified priorities are appropriate targets for attention. It is also right to acknowledge the global and multi-stakeholder nature of critical and emerging technologies and to extend involvement to state and local government, the private sector and international partners. It also calls for the United States to lead in the development of international standards, an effort that gains further importance as China focuses heavily on the same. The National Security Council should also be applauded for enumerating the desire to reduce burdensome regulation, which so often serves only to stifle innovation.

Still, the administration’s efforts fall short of the thorough and coordinated global competition strategy the nation deserves: one that can strike the appropriate balance between national security considerations and the economy; address critical emerging technologies within a broader framework of economic competitiveness; plan for research and development; and provide smart trade policy. While the Chinese national champions model is not, in the end, effective in market economies, it is high time that the United States created its own democratic alternative.

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