JANUARY 2ND, 2024 BY KLON KITCHEN
As originally appeared on The Cipher Brief.
The realm of artificial intelligence (AI) is a battleground not just of technological prowess but also of geopolitical strategy. The European Union’s (EU) passage of its AI Act serves as a stark reminder of a glaring deficiency in the Biden administration’s approach: a lack of coherence in intertwining technology and foreign policy. This discord was conspicuously displayed during the recent security forum in Washington, encapsulating the internal contradictions plaguing U.S. policy.
United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai’s remarks at the conference underscored a growing skepticism towards American technology companies. She pointedly questioned what she asserted is the monopolistic control of data and computational resources by a handful of powerful American corporations. “What is AI built on?” she asked. “It’s built on massive amounts of data. How do you develop AI? You have to have access not just to those massive amounts of data. You have to have access to incredibly powerful computing processes. Who has access to that kind of data and that kind of computing power? A very small number of extremely powerful and dominant companies that are almost all, if not all, American.”
In contrast, Deputy National Security Advisor Anne Neuberger took a divergent stance, emphasizing technology as the cornerstone of America’s economic future and global standing: “Technology is really the future of our economy and key to our position on the global stage. Key to our competition with China and our bilateral relationships.”
This dichotomy of views within the administration exemplifies a troubling inconsistency in the narrative on AI’s role in America’s strategic future.
The Biden White House, while naturally encompassing diverse perspectives, seems to have allowed these variations to morph into a form of paralyzing confusion. On one hand, Vice President Harris has rightly acknowledged America’s leadership in AI, highlighting the unique position of U.S. companies in driving global innovation and consensus: “When it comes to AI, America is a global leader. It is American companies that lead the world in AI innovation. It is America that can catalyze global action and build global consensus in a way that no other country can.”
On the other, you have Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan straight-up promising to regulate AI aggressively, saying in the New York Times, “Enforcers and regulators must be vigilant. Dominant firms could use their control over these key inputs to exclude or discriminate against downstream rivals, picking winners and losers in ways that further entrench their dominance … The F.T.C. is well equipped with legal jurisdiction to handle the issues brought to the fore by the rapidly developing A.I. sector, including collusion, monopolization, mergers, price discrimination and unfair methods of competition.”
This policy dissonance understandably confuses industry and government partners alike and becomes even more concerning considering the EU’s recent legislative moves.
The AI Act is little more than a tool for the EU to leverage American technology for its benefit under the guise of “digital sovereignty.” This term, though lofty in aspiration, masks a protectionist agenda that will stifle innovation and unfairly penalize U.S. companies. Alarmingly, more than a hundred European tech leaders have voiced concerns that this legislation will harm rather than help their industry. Yet, partly enabled by the Biden administration’s inconsistent and often absent engagement on these issues, the EU has proceeded with its plans, leaving American companies to bear the consequences.
The paradox within the Biden administration’s stance is not just a matter of internal policy wrangling; it has profound implications on the global stage. As AI continues to be a key driver of economic and national security, the U.S. must present a unified front in promoting and safeguarding its interests. The EU’s approach, while seeking to foster digital sovereignty, is undermining the very innovation ecosystem it aims to protect by targeting the industry leaders who are central to global AI development.
To truly understand and leverage the symbiotic relationship between American innovation, economic prosperity, and national security, the Biden administration needs to resolve this policy incoherence. It must aggressively counter international efforts aimed at constraining and exploiting U.S. technology companies. Moreover, it should strive to deploy a coherent and unified strategy to promote and protect American innovation on the global stage.
The stakes are high. AI is not just a technological domain; it’s a crucial element of geopolitical strategy in the 21st century. The U.S., with its leading position in AI, has the opportunity and responsibility to shape global norms and standards. However, this can only be achieved through a clear, consistent, and forward-looking policy framework that reconciles internal viewpoints and strategically engages with international partners.
To put it plainly: President Biden’s administration must urgently address its internal policy contradictions. By fostering a coherent and strategic approach to AI, it can not only safeguard American technological leadership but also influence the global discourse on AI governance. This is not just about protecting American interests; it’s about shaping a future where AI is harnessed for the greater good, underpinned by values of openness, innovation, and fair competition. As AI redefines the contours of power and influence in the global arena, America must lead with vision and unity.
Mr. Kitchen is a managing director at Beacon Global Strategies and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute