Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Unraveling the Political Dynamics Shaping the U.S. Strategy for Technology Leadership

Introduction

“While the battlefield has changed since the Cold War, leadership in science, technology, and innovation remains the most important weapon in the current competitive environment.”

Securing U.S. leadership in cutting-edge, dual-use technologies is now an overarching policy priority shared by Republicans and Democrats. Leaders in both parties routinely tout U.S. competitiveness in semiconductors, AI, and other ‘critical’ technologies as necessary to address a series of global and domestic challenges—from China’s steady rise as a geopolitical adversary, to climate change, to the hollowing out of manufacturing capacity in the heartland of the United States. Policies intended to protect and promote technology competitiveness have featured so prominently in the administrations of Presidents Trump and Biden that many observers claim we may be entering a new era of U.S. industrial policy in advanced technologies.

Although there is broad agreement between the two major parties on the desirability of technology leadership, significant sources of tension—and confusion—persist. These include disagreements about whether to focus exclusively on national security objectives or to also address economic development and social policy goals; whether to invest heavily in strengthening domestic productive capacity or simply slow geopolitical rivals’ progress; and whether to fund early-stage research and development or invest in more advanced stages of technology development such as scale-up manufacturing. These issues, which often block consensus both within and between the two major parties, are likely to influence the course and effectiveness of any federal technology leadership strategy for the foreseeable future.

By examining the political dynamics that led to the enactment of the CHIPS and Science Act, we probe these tensions and seek to assess their likely impact on the federal technology strategy in the coming years. We contend that safeguarding national security has been and will remain a core factor driving bipartisan consensus on expanding the federal government’s role in developing technological capabilities at home and restricting the transfer of knowledge and resources overseas. However, this factor alone may not be sufficient to bridge unresolved ideological disagreements over the proper role of government in the economy, the economic merits of industrial policy, and the proper balance of geopolitical objectives and broader societal goals in shaping the national technology strategy.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: M. Vidal Bustamante, Constanza and Doug Calidas. “Unraveling the Political Dynamics Shaping the U.S. Strategy for Technology Leadership.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 20, 2024.