American Tech-ceptionalism

September 2020

Trump’s heavy-handed America First policies on technology, in particular on artificial intelligence (AI), could harm the industry in the long run. It may damage the international partnerships that are so crucial to ensuring that the development of AI adheres to global principles and standards.

by Kate Saslow

Trump America First

When it comes to emerging technologies, and specifically artificial intelligence (AI), the Trump Administration uses powerful rhetoric in speeches, executive orders, and official documents. It is all part of the so-called American AI Initiative that makes the sole aspiration of American tech policy abundantly clear: America First. This approach, though US-centric, will have global consequences.  

AI technologies, much like other emerging technologies, are exported globally and dependent on global supply chains. What a country like the US does domestically will have a ripple effect around the world. Anchoring tech policy so strongly in a tradition of American exceptionalism will likely have a negative effect on technology itself. America may, in fact, isolate itself from its neighbors, disrupt necessary supply chains globally, and lose allies if it tries to strong-arm other countries in the process of promoting American leadership and interests abroad. 

This America First maxim is not new to the Trump Administration. American exceptionalism is a familiar concept, and its etymology has roots in many different political and philosophical movements throughout the history of the US. Yet, although it has a long-standing tradition in foreign policy and global affairs, the intensity with which American exceptionalism shapes decision-making on tech policy is growing. 

America’s moral imperative 

This platform expresses the belief that the US is in a unique position to – and therefore has a moral duty to – be a world leader in technology. To fulfill this self-proclaimed position as a world leader in tech, and more specifically AI, the US needs to continue to shape advanced technologies and the global norms by which they must abide. Like in previous decades of American foreign policy and the shaping of international institutions, American leadership plays a meaningful role at international fora but follows a strategy of international cooperation that is anchored in American interests. This is not a uniquely American practice; however, America does this to the extreme. Furthermore, because American technologies and companies have such a strong global presence, this behavior may disproportionately shape global affairs. 

Political conversations and proceedings around technologies like 5G, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence have now become in vogue. Since entering office, Trump has revamped and supercharged many government documents relating to technology. The current Administration follows a clear strategy: protect American technologies and technological innovation, and push American interests globally by constantly being at the frontier.  

Unprecedented steps 

In order to protect the American technological edge, Trump has, among other things, signed executive orders affecting the foreign direct investment (FDI) screening mechanism and given more power to the government agency responsible for FDI into the US. This was a move to protect the “crown jewels” of American technology, including tech companies, patents, and expertise. Through his reform of the federal committee’s FDI jurisdiction, he also reformed the export control legislation. The new legislation toughens export controls to further protect sensitive technologies from being acquired by foreign actors. 

Additionally, Trump took an unprecedented step in his self-proclaimed tech war against China when he not only said he would restrict skilled-workers on an H1-B Visa, but he also vowed to cancel the visas of thousands of Chinese graduate students, who he feared had ties with military universities in China. Moreover, the Administration is attempting to bar the foreign skilled workers and academics who make these technologies and advances possible. These measures could very well have harmful implications for American innovation by cutting off innovation ecosystems from capital and bright minds.  

What makes the American approach to advanced technologies additionally exceptional are the steps to not only protect American advanced technologies, but also to push American interests and values through their “leadership.” The rhetoric coming from US leaders doubles down on American hegemony when it comes to advanced technologies.  

One of the most influential men in American tech policy, Michael Kratsios, is very direct in his aspirations for American tech policy. Kratsios is now both the Chief Technology Officer of the US (directly advising Trump on tech policy issues), and the Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering at the Department of Defense. Kratsios gives grandiose speeches and writes opinion pieces that discuss the Chinese adversary who now fights conflicts through not only military tactics, but also advanced technology. In response to this, he argues, it is paramount that America uses the technological know-how and expertise to continue to have the upper hand in an “increasingly complex security environment.”  

Aggressive rhetoric 

While there may be truth to the fact that the security environment is changing, the rhetoric used discusses “America’s technological dominance”, presents America as “the sole, undisputed global superpower”, and calls for American allies to band together to promote technology in a manner consistent with America’s hands-off regulatory approach. 

This rhetoric is all too reminiscent of American exceptionalism. It follows the logic: America, as a beacon of hope, has a moral obligation to be the global leader in AI technologies so that Chinese adversaries do not win this war of values. Maybe this language results in political and financial support domestically, but it may be destructive to allegiances and international partnerships, which are crucial to ensuring that AI follows a path of development and deployment upheld by global principles and standards.

But in this case, actions speak louder than words. In addition to using more extreme rhetoric, America is also increasing its international engagement. In official documents as part of the American AI Initiative, strategies for international research collaborations and participation at standards developing organizations (SDOs), the US government has laid out an aggressive and targeted approach. Lead in research and development through public-private partnerships and take on leading roles at SDOs so that standards and norms proliferated internationally align with American interests, rather than potentially hampering American industry and the American technological edge. As American presence grows at international SDOs, however, it is likely that other countries will start to recognize the overall American strategy and get the impression that America is trying to dominate these fora, which could further isolate the US from potential allies.  

Even if discussing international cooperation, Trump’s executive orders, the Administration’s official documents, and leading advisors’ rhetoric paints a very clear image of a strategy followed by presidents for decades: America First. While American exceptionalism is not a novel concept, Trump’s approach to carry on this goal through technology policy and emerging technologies is particularly aggressive. And as advanced technologies play an increasingly large role in geopolitical affairs, this America First tech policy can no longer be chalked up to just an economic strategy. It is shaping American foreign policy, and the legacy of the Trump Administration’s actions may not be easy to un-do. The volition with which the current Administration pushes an America First agenda can stand to hurt American technology. It can cut off American tech to global supply chains (both in terms of resources and leading minds), but more importantly, it can make the American strategy so insular that it leaves little space for international cooperation and partnerships.  

Kate Saslow is the Project Manager of Artificial Intelligence and Foreign Policy at the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (SNV). SNV is a non-profit think tank that develops concrete ideas as to how politics can shape technological change in society, the economy and the state. Its experts work independently of interest groups and parties. SNV’s work is aimed not only at governments and parliaments, but also at anyone who wants to inform and participate. This article is a guest contribution.

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