In Speech, Bennet Argues for a National Technology Strategy to Win Tech Race with China and Secure Democratic Values
Washington, D.C. – In case you missed it, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet delivered keynote remarks at the Center for New American Security about the urgency of creating a National Technology Strategy to secure America’s technology leadership and democratic values in our strategic competition with China.
America’s technology leadership gave democracy a crucial edge over authoritarianism in the 20th century — by powering our economy, fortifying our defense, and driving the development of new tech toward our deepest values. The question is whether that will remain true in the 21st century, because we are quickly losing ground (…) China is pursuing a China First policy by any means necessary, licit or illicit. And the question for us is whether we’re content to be collateral damage, or whether we will offer a compelling alternative and show the world that democracy — and especially American democracy — can meet the challenges of the 21st century. I strongly believe that we can, but we need a new approach — and we need it quickly.
Read Bennet’s remarks HERE and below.
Thank you, Martijn. And thanks to CNAS for hosting this timely discussion. I’m looking forward to your questions, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the Center’s terrific work on this issue and so many others we face as a nation. You consistently set the bar for thoughtful, independent, and pragmatic analysis, and that is needed now more than ever before.
Anyone who’s studied our history knows how vital America’s technology leadership has been to our economy and security. Less obvious is how crucial it’s been to democracy — not only here, but around the world.
Just consider the fate of democracy if Hitler — and not Truman — had won the race to a nuclear weapon. Or if Soviet scientists and engineers, and not America’s, had consistently dominated the latest Cold War technologies. Or, more recently, if the internet emerged from a PLA research lab, instead of DARPA.
America’s technology leadership gave democracy a crucial edge over authoritarianism in the 20th century — by powering our economy, fortifying our defense, and driving the development of new tech toward our deepest values.
The question is whether that will remain true in the 21st century, because we are quickly losing ground.
Pick a key technology — from AI to quantum computing to hyper-sonics — and you’ll find China either racing ahead or closing the gap.
The wake-up call for me was 5G. Even though experts had told us for years about its importance, Washington was still caught completely flat-footed as was industry in the United States.
And in this case, we were lucky because the Senate Intelligence Committee was able to sound the alarm, invest in alternatives like O-RAN, and keep most of our allies from signing a 30-year contract with Beijing. I think everyone on this phone call knows how hard it is to get out of a phone contract themselves, and the last thing we would want for our allies is a 30-year contract with Beijing.
But last minute scrambling is not a strategy; nor is it a guarantee that we can improvise our way through for 6G, or biotechnology, or whatever else is around the corner.
And I can assure you, China is not waiting for us to get our house in order.
They are on their 14th five-year plan.
They’ve connected almost 90 percent of their consumers to ultra-fast internet, compared to our 25 percent.
They are building factories for electric vehicles as fast as the rest of the world combined.
They have tripled their doctorate degrees in science and engineering over the past 20 years.
And they’ve done it relying on tools that Stalin could only dream of to entrench their surveillance state by vacuuming up data about their citizens’ every internet search and financial transaction and facial expression, to say nothing of the smart cities that they’ve created around the world.
China is pursuing a China First policy by any means necessary, licit or illicit.
And the question for us is whether we’re content to be collateral damage, or whether we will offer a compelling alternative and show the world that democracy — and especially American democracy — can meet the challenges of the 21st century.
I strongly believe that we can, but we need a new approach — and we need it quickly.
Here are the top four items on my list, but there are many others I’d be happy to discuss.
First, we need a National Technology Strategy. Whether we like it or not, we’re in a race with China for the 21st century.
But unlike Beijing, we have no idea where we want to go or how fast we’re going to get there. That doesn’t mean we should be copying them by picking “national champions” or imposing a one-size-fits all approach, but it does mean we should act urgently to identify priorities, align federal policies and investments, and mobilize the nation in a coherent and enduring way.
Here at least, we’ve made some progress. Earlier this year, I secured a provision in the Intelligence Authorization Act creating a National Technology Strategy, and I’m going to do everything I can to get it passed.
Second, I’ve proposed that we create a National Technology Competitiveness Council at the White House to develop this national strategy and to lead its implementation across the entire government.
Today there is no standing entity empowered to bring different agencies together at the highest levels to assess where we stand on key emerging technologies or mobilize a coherent and comprehensive response to secure U.S. leadership.
This has produced damaging gaps in federal policy, where the IC may be raising alarms about a certain technology on the one hand, while the rest of government continues with business as usual, when it could be acting to tighten export controls or investment screenings, or to shore up key supply chains.
I point you to the example of what China has been able to do in space, in part by stealing our IP, and we just can’t continue to do that to ourselves.
Third, we have to scale up the government’s tech talent, which today is really not what it needs to be. We can have all the strategies and structures in the world, but it won’t add up to much without talent.
That’s why I’ve proposed to create a National Digital Reserve Corps to allow skilled workers from the private sector to serve in government as short-term advisors. This is not a panacea, but I think it’s an important start, and I think there are a lot out there in the private sector that would want to lend their talent.
And finally, we have to make sure that American technology reflects American values, and that as technology is deployed around the world, whether it’s AI or quantum computing, that it reflects democratic values. There is nothing fundamentally democratic about technologies like AI. Their fate depends on the choices we make and the example we set, the values that we import into the standards committees and to the global debate around the world.
And that’s why I’ve introduced bipartisan bills with Senator Sasse to promote a model of American technology that leads with our values — for example, by requiring federal agencies to name a full-time lead for the responsible use of emerging tech, and by conducting a top-to-bottom assessment of federal uses of AI to make sure they align with privacy and civil rights.
These are just a few of the many efforts we need to pursue.
As many others have said, we are entering what could be one of the most disruptive periods in human history, propelled by a convergence of technologies we can barely fathom.
We have already seen how inattention to such disruption has undermined our democracy, as people see economic inequality rising, economic mobility collapsing, and the government doing nothing.
That should seize our attention. Our founders studied history, and they knew that economic insecurity breeds tyranny. They understood that democracies often collapse under the ambition of craven politicians offering false promises of prosperity to consolidate their power.
And in that sense, this conversation is about much more than beating China in AI or quantum computing. It’s about renewing American democracy and reaffirming its example to the world — for ourselves, for the next generation, and for humanity.
So I am deeply grateful to CNAS for hosting this timely discussion and inviting me to join this morning.
I’m happy to stop there and turn it back over to Martijn to take whatever questions you’ve got.