Book Review: The Conflicted Superpower

For several decades, the United States – so far the world’s most technologically-advanced and innovative nation -- has been engaged in a remarkable exchange of technology that has significantly added to the country’s economic might and well-being and equally significantly added to progress overseas.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the preoccupations of the press, the countries that are the beneficiaries of the biggest chunk of US research and developing spending are on the western side of the earth. According to Kennedy, they are Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada, and Belgium in that order. India ranks sixth, Japan eighth and China ninth.

Nonetheless, Chinese, Indian and other IT practitioners have swarmed into the US, first as students and then as professionals in Silicon Valley and other locations. Equally, American companies have established extensive high-tech facilities abroad, boosting has boosted global innovation to new levels.

China and India have embraced global innovation policy as well. But while Silicon Valley and its American counterparts have pushed to keep this remarkable flow of technology going both ways, domestic battles have raged in the Congress and administration over how far sharing innovation should go.

Australian Professor Andrew B. Kennedy, of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, has now chosen to explore the extent – or lack of it – to which the US approaches its global collaboration, particularly with the two countries, one now regarded as a threat to the US.

Although Kennedy describes the US as “The Conflicted Superpower” in its approach to technology sharing, over the past two years the conflict has grown exponentially, with the Trump administration regarding everything outside US borders as threatening. One of the primary focuses of the omnibus tax reduction legislation passed earlier this year was to incentivize companies such as Apple, Google and others to re-shore their operations. The decision by the Trump administration to void the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which largely would have pulled the teeth of organized labor opposition to offshoring, was another blow.

High-tech firms have been worried by anti-offshoring sentiment. They have responded with efforts to limit its impact, working with business groups to fend off labor opposition. Whether today they can fend off the opposition of the Trump administration may be another story.

Three broad conclusions emerge from Kennedy’s study, he writes. “The first, quite simply, is that innovation is globalizing. This is now evident in the massive cross-border flows of brainpower that have now commonplace.” The second is that US openness to global innovation is driven by the organizations that embody the country’s technological leadership. Third, the level of openness in US policy broadly reflects the nature of the organized resistance faced by the high-tech community.

It is undeniable that, as globalization of trade has lifted almost all boats – while delivering undeniable harm to pockets of special interest, whether steelworkers or car builders – globalization of intellectual endeavor has delivered undeniable benefits not just to the United States but to countries across the world. This cross-fertilization is clear from the numbers of Indian, Israeli, South African (think Elon Musk), Chinese and other emigres, temporary or permanent, who man the high ground in American technology.

As with trade itself, it seems to be a concept that the leaders of the Trump administration are simply incapable of grasping.

“The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in November 2016 shattered much conventional wisdom about the US political system,” Kennedy writes. But “it is worth asking, is US policymaking shifting to a new phase in which the state eclipses societal interest groups, particularly the high-tech community, in policy toward global innovation?”

Kennedy doesn’t think so. High-tech firms have managed to stymie most attempts to revise US policy, particularly by labor, for more than a decade. The Trump administration, he writes, could act with a more expansive notion of executive power, but it faces legal action to tie it up.

The Trump administration, he says, has a complex relationship with the high-tech community, and can be sometimes more cooperative than is apparent. The president’s preoccupation with immigration, for instance, is characterized by a desire to stop the entry of those described by Emma Lazarus in her poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" He wants to replace the wretched refuse with technocrats and autocrats.

There are huge numbers of reasons to oppose that idea. Despite the rhetoric, it is the wretched refuse who end up as tomorrow’s technocrats and autocrats. Take Steve Jobs, a Syrian refugee orphan. Or Elon Musk, who arrived penniless, or hundreds of others who became inventors and entrepreneurs.

In any case, as Kennedy writes, “although Trump’s election marked a stunning change of course for the United States, it did not erase the basic societal interests that have driven US policy over the past two decades. High-tech interests will remain a potent political force long after Trump has left the White House, and they will continue to press for greater openness to global innovation.”

If the US is to continue to move ahead technologically, it is to be fervently hoped that that sentence is correct.