Since World War II, the US has been a geopolitical superpower because it is a technological superpower. Today, however, America's dominance is coming under pressure, as China makes a play for supremacy in many of the key technologies that will shape the balance of economic and military power in the 21st century.
The US has never faced a competitor quite like this: An authoritarian regime that dwarfs America in population (as well as in the amount of data that population produces) and also possesses a fairly robust innovation ecosystem.
The US will need a strategy of "techno-multilateralism" to deal with a challenge it can't overcome on its own. But multilateralism in the age of technopolitik comes with important twists.
The world is experiencing a technological revolution as far-reaching as the one that ushered in the information age. Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping have declared, correctly, that artificial intelligence has the potential to transform the global economy and the way that countries fight.
Synthetic biology could have profound effects on everything from crop yields to the genetic makeup of humans. 5G technology will hypercharge the speed of telecommunications, easing relatively benign advances, such as driverless cars, as well as more ominous ones, such as vastly more sophisticated battle networks.
These technological breakthroughs could upend the balance of global power in alarming ways, and they could certainly challenge US geopolitical prominence.
During the Cold War, technological prowess was America's greatest advantage over the Soviet Union. Washington was able to penetrate Soviet secrecy with tools such as U-2 spy planes and surveillance satellites, to counter mass with quality on the battlefield, and to achieve a level of information-age prosperity that left Moscow gasping for breath. It seems doubtful, however, that the US will be similarly dominant in the coming decades.
The Soviet Kremlin excelled in the production of heavy missiles, for example, but it never mounted the broad bid for technological supremacy that China is undertaking. Through its Made in China 2025 program, Beijing is seeking to transition from the world's factory to the world's leader in information technology, robotics and other advanced sectors. China is building a so-called Digital Silk Road of tech infrastructure projects in countries on several continents. Xi and other top officials have advertised their desire, and willingness to invest, to make China an AI superpower.
"China has emerged as a global powerhouse in AI," the Center for Security and Emerging Technologies concludes. Leading American experts, such as former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, warn that Beijing is rapidly becoming a peer and perhaps a leader in areas where the US cannot afford to lag.
In this as in other areas, of course, the appearance of Chinese strength can be somewhat deceptive. The quantity of research China is producing in AI and other fields is impressive, but there are lingering questions about the quality. The nature of the political system, which requires stifling open flows of information, may constrict the potential for innovation over the long term.
But China is a more serious technological rival than the US has faced in many decades, perhaps ever. Its rise will require a collective, rather than a unilateral, response.
The numbers tell the story. In 1960, the US accounted for 69% of global R&D investment. In 2018, it accounted for 28%, with China nipping at its heels. Yet when we account for six key US allies and partners (France, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea and the U.K.), the "free world" share of global R&D nearly doubles. All told, the US-led network of allies and partners still accounts for roughly two-thirds of global R&D spending.
China enjoys no such force multiplier, because it has no such friendships with technologically advanced countries. The US can stay atop the technological heap only by standing on the shoulders of its friends.
That's particularly true when it comes to AI. China has an advantage here, because its enormous population and lack of meaningful privacy protections give it access to the pools of data needed to "train" AI. Offsetting this advantage will require democratic countries to share access to data sets without compromising the civil liberties of their populations, and to collaborate on setting global standards for testing and validating AI and other technologies.
A multilateral strategy for technological superiority would thus unite the US with other economically advanced democracies. The U.K., under Boris Johnson, has proposed a "D-10" — the Group of 7 plus Australia, South Korea and Sweden. Richard Fontaine and Jared Cohen have argued for a slightly larger "T-12."
Precise membership aside, the guiding principle would be bringing the combined strengths of like-minded nations to bear in coordinating R&D spending, fostering alternatives to Chinese dominance in areas such as 5G, securing supply chains, harmonizing export controls on semiconductors and other sensitive materials, mounting collective responses to disinformation campaigns and digital political meddling, and otherwise preventing the technological balance from tipping toward China and its fellow autocracies.
Multilateralism is nothing new for Washington: America's critical advantage during the Cold War was its network of alliances and partnerships. Yet the techno-multilateralism of the 21st century will be somewhat different.
For one thing, it will be more geographically diffuse. Existing US alliances are still organized regionally: The nations of the North Atlantic cluster together, while Washington has a separate set of relationships with allies in the Asia-Pacific. Yet in the technological realm, Washington will be working with countries from Sweden to Japan, from Germany to Australia, some of which are treaty allies and some of which are not. The technological coalition will be inherently transregional; it will be more fluid and less deeply institutionalized than the alliances with which Americans have become familiar.
Second, the power dynamics of techno-multilateralism will differ from those of America's Cold War alliances. The US is still the most technologically advanced democracy, but its advantages are not as pronounced as in areas such as military power-projection. In certain realms, such as 5G, the key competitors to China's Huawei are not US firms but companies in Finland, South Korea and Sweden. The US will need to act more as a coordinator — the central node in a network of advanced states — than as a hegemon.
Finally, techno-multilateralism needs to come together in a hurry. The Digital Silk Road is well underway. Even as President Donald Trump's administration has persuaded some advanced democracies to abstain from using Chinese 5G technology, the window for convincing developing countries to do likewise — which will require offering affordable, high-quality alternatives — is closing.
Spurred by its own ambition as well as the Trump administration's trade sanctions, Beijing is rushing to achieve technological self-sufficiency in areas, such as advanced computer chips, where the US and other democracies still control China's access to critical inputs. The next few years will be critical in determining who holds the advantage in AI.
Techno-multilateralism will be a long-term endeavor, but it won't succeed unless America and its friends move fast.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.