artificial intelligence, Barack Obama, budget, China, mercantilism, National Science Foundation, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, research and development, technology, technology transfer, Trade, trade surpluses, Trump
“#SMH” (Shaking My Head) is one of my favorite Twitter hashtags, and it’s the perfect reaction to a new post on FOREIGNPOLICY.com on the growing technological challenge being posed to the United States by China, and on its frightening national security implications. The post has me shaking my head, and should have you shaking yours, because for all the useful information it contains on this critical subject, it completely misses the much bigger, much more important picture. And it misses it because the authors are so transparently determined to lionize former President Obama’s record in this regard, and vilify President Trump’s – though few of the facts warrant this conclusion.
The post is useful mainly for calling attention to China’s intensifying effort to establish global superiority in artificial intelligence, and to the Trump administration’s budget policies, which look oblivious to China’s efforts because they don’t provide adequate resources for federal research efforts capable of keeping the United States ahead.
I say “look” because the budget situation may not be as dire as strongly suggested by the authors. Specifically, it’s true that the administration has proposed cutting funding for the National Science Foundation’s artificial intelligence programs by 10 percent. At the same time, as made clear by the source they relied on, “the proposed budget does call for more spending on defense research and some supercomputing.”
Much more misleading is the post’s portrayal of the Obama administration as nothing less than Churchillian in sounding the tocsin. After all, the Obama reports the authors cite as evidence of his foresight on the subject came out at the very end of his presidency. At least as important, they gloss over major non-budgetary developments crucial to understanding China’s progress.
As they themselves admit, for instance, Chinese tech companies have established presences in Silicon Valley because they believe that “by rotating Chinese staff to Silicon Valley and American staff to Chinese campuses, they can accelerate the timeline for reaching parity with the United States in AI technology and depth of talent.” Under whose administration do the authors believe this practice started? And why do they think the Chinese were confident they were so free to proceed?
Also completely ignored: Throughout his presidency, Mr. Obama did absolutely nothing as American companies continued their longstanding efforts to transfer advanced technologies to Chinese partners voluntarily, or were forced to share this knowhow due to Chinese threats to shut them out of its market. Nor did he move to prevent these firms from investing in Chinese companies working on tech products and services with clear defense implications, or to help them cope with Beijing’s demands that they pony up or else.
And let’s not forget: The Obama administration made only the most token efforts to combat the predatory Chinese practices that enabled Beijing to amass immense trade surpluses with the United States; therefore to further fuel the growth of its market and make it that much more difficult for American companies to resist tech extortion demands; and to finance its own multi-billion technology development efforts with these handsome trade profits. Indeed, Mr. Obama staunchly opposed Congressional efforts to punish China for its most important mercantile policy: currency manipulation.
So I share the authors’ view that federal research and development efforts have been crucial to establishing America’s intertwined global technology and military leadership, and their hope that President Trump will reject the conservative anti-government dogma that justifies virtually every type of budget cut outside traditional defense or law enforcement spending. But the idea that America’s approach to the Chinese tech challenged was remotely up to snuff before Mr. Trump’s election not only fails the test of historical accuracy. It has blinded them to all the other policy changes needed to ensure that the United States stays Number One.