But there’s aspiration and then there’s fiction. This week, the director of national intelligence’s threat assessment threw cold water on two big cyber ideas in the strategy. The first is the claim that the U.S. will maintain its leadership in emerging technologies. Nobody doubts that emerging technologies are crucial for America’s military and economic competitiveness. But China has also realized how important these emerging technologies are to its national success. Artificial intelligence (AI), for example, has assumed a major role in Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” plan. And that plan is aggressive, calling for China to keep pace by 2020, achieve breakthroughs by 2025, and become the world leader in AI by 2030.
Just like the nuclear race and the space race, it’s now the tech race that will define global dynamics for years to come. In the U.S. National Cyber Strategy, the White House hopes to “catalyze United States leadership in emerging technologies and promote government identification and support to these technologies.” That’s some vague optimism all right. The real question is whether it’s even possible for the U.S. to maintain its current edge.
The DNI’s answer: Nuh-uh. In his prepared testimony, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats made it clear that U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded the U.S. was already losing its edge in emerging technologies, and we’d better get used to it. He even provided a devastating chart with the title “Researchers Worldwide Citing More Foreign and Less US Research,” which showed a steeply rising line for Chinese research citations around the world over the past 10 years and a precipitous decline for American citations. The evidence didn’t lie. “For 2019 and beyond,” Coats wrote, “the innovations that drive military and economic competitiveness will increasingly originate outside the United States, as the overall U.S. lead in science and technology shrinks; the capability gap between commercial and military technologies evaporates; and foreign actors increase their efforts to acquire top talent, companies, data, and intelligence property via licit and illicit means.”
The National Cyber Strategy also declared that the U.S. would “preserve peace through strength” in cyberspace by, among other things, encouraging adherence to global cyber norms. Here, too, this week’s DNI testimony put the kibosh on all that hopey-changey talk, making clear that cyber norms have been very much contested by China, Russia, and their autocratic buddies who believe that every country should repress free expression within their own borders and free enterprise from outside them. Not only that, but Team Autocrat seems to be winning through a devious strategy of populating international organizations like the UN with their own countrymen to push their own views of “global norms.” In case you missed it, China is now the second-largest contributor to the United Nations budget. “[China] is successfully lobbying for its nationals to obtain senior posts in the UN Secretariat and associated organizations,” notes the intelligence threat assessment, “and it is using its influence to press the UN and member states to acquiesce in China’s preferences on issues such as human rights and Taiwan.”