“The countries that shape the use of emerging technologies such as AI, quantum computing, biotechnology, and next-generation telecommunications,” writes Richard Fontaine, “will have an economic, military, and political advantage for decades to come.” The situation he describes is not a pretty one. In the brave new world of the 21st century, autocrats exploit technologies for surveillance and propaganda, launch cyberattacks against the United States and its allies, and research deepfakes and machine learning to undermine freedom and sovereignty.
Fontaine warns that China “has pulled ahead of the United States in facial and voice recognition, 5G technology, digital payments, quantum communications, central bank digital currency, and the commercial drone market.” He urges democratic policymakers to employ countermeasures, adopt a whole-of-government approach to technological competition, and work across borders to create a “values-driven digital ecosystem.” It will not be easy.
Neither the foreign nor the domestic environment is friendly to the tech industry. China has its “national champions,” such as Huawei, TikTok, Alibaba, and Tencent, which seek to corner the global market. The American Left is hostile toward “Big Tech” as a source of income inequality, corporate concentration, and disinformation. The American Right, meanwhile, ought to be committed to technological advancement that deters China and spurs American economic growth and domestic employment. And yet, as Fontaine points out, conservatives are fighting what they perceive as “Big Tech’s” censorship, malign influence on childhood development, and monopolistic practices.
Fontaine’s bracing paper sent me scurrying to Ronald Reagan for guidance. Although both the world and technology have changed since Reagan lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the 40th president is nevertheless an example of a chief executive who saw American technology as an asset rather than a liability. He incorporated technology not only into his public philosophy but also into his defense strategy. Four decades later, President Reagan’s statements and policies continue to lend inspiration and direction for Americans engaging in great power competition with a new set of dangerous rivals.
Anyone who revisits Reagan’s thoughts on technology will be struck by his positive attitude. He believed that technological progress occurs when individuals are free to pursue their dreams. He often reminded his audiences of the numerous innovations that had made life less burdensome for Americans in the years since he was born in 1911. The mass-produced automobile, telecommunications, refrigeration, passenger air travel, television and radio, plastics and penicillin, air conditioning, and the personal computer—Reagan could speak personally of the wonders and benefits of technology.
“Why did so much of this develop so far and fast in America?” he wrote in one 1967 letter. “Because we unleashed the individual genius of man, recognized his inherent dignity, and guaranteed reward commensurate with ability and achievement.” For Reagan, tech lords were not adversaries. They were pioneers. “The explorers of the modern era are the entrepreneurs,” he said in his 1988 speech to Moscow State University, “men with vision, with the courage to take risks and faith enough to brave the unknown.”
Reagan argued that America was home to a disproportionate number of innovators and risk-takers because of its longstanding commitment to human freedom and dignity. “This nation’s greatest competitive advantage in the past,” he said in 1983,“were ideas that helped America grow.”
A couple of years later, while presenting the National Medals of Science, Reagan told the award-winners, “Your work is proof that there are no limits to discovery and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams.” And, he continued, “You’ve proven time and again that freedom plus science equals opportunity and progress, and that America’s future can be determined by our dreams and visions.”
Reagan’s view of technology had policy implications. If freedom and technology were twinned, then both worked to America’s advantage in its Cold War against the Soviet Union. “We're still the technological leaders in the world,” Reagan told the Massachusetts High Technology Council in January 1983. “And we must not only keep that edge, we must increase it.”
Reagan imposed export controls on technology that might benefit the Soviets. He boosted spending on federal research and development. But he also saw his job as removing government-imposed hurdles that stood in the way of innovation. “How can government aid the cause of human progress?” he asked in 1986. His answer: spend money on research and development (R&D), but also reduce regulations and taxes. To Reagan, government should not be an opponent or a rival of private enterprise. Government should be an ally—just as it was during Operation Warp Speed in 2020.
Additional funds for research and development were part of an overall defense buildup. Behind Reagan’s defense spending was the assumption that advanced weapons systems would have secondary benefits for the civilian economy. This belief carried over into Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative—his proposal for a space-based anti-ballistic missile system. “We’re putting technology at the service of a decade’s old dream: the elimination of nuclear weapons,” he said in 1985.
The space program was another area where freedom, imagination, and technology generated both military and civilian applications. Reagan was committed to the space shuttle, to the space station, and to a human future in space. In 1988, while visiting the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, he said, “The nation that has achieved the greatest freedom on Earth must be the nation to create a humane future for mankind in space, and it can be none other. It is only in a universe without limits that we will find a canvas large enough for the vastness of the human imagination.” The long-term goal, Reagan went on, would be for America to lead humanity in colonizing the galaxy. Something tells me he would have liked Elon Musk.
What would a Reaganite tech strategy look like today? It would follow Reagan in spending massively on defense and research and development. It would enforce export controls and prevent technology transfers that would help China, Russia, and Iran. It would devote resources to the Space Force and NASA and promote human space exploration. While embracing Global Zero as an ideal, it would modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and pour money into missile defense. A Reaganite strategy would establish a social and economic framework for science and technology: bountiful energy from hydrocarbons and nuclear fission, low taxes, a presumption against regulation, safe streets and good schools, and an openness to the high-skilled immigrants who will create the industries of tomorrow.
The biggest shift from contemporary practices that a Reaganite strategy requires is a shift in outlook. Yes, the tech industry has changed since Reagan. To the extent that social media erodes the infrastructure of democracy, a Reaganite would address problems as they arise. But a Reaganite would also celebrate the technologists whose work has improved America and has the potential to make it better still. No matter how bad things may be, the Reaganite has confidence in America’s capacity for self-correction.
One week after the Challenger disaster in 1986, Reagan visited Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia. “Our society is inventive because we’re free, and prosperous because each individual is secure to gather and keep the fruits of his labor,” he told the students. “If we’re ever mindful of our enduring principles—the natural rights to life, liberty, and property spoken of in your Virginia Bill of Rights—then America will always be the shining star among nations, leading the world on to a better tomorrow.”
The students invigorated Reagan. “I am so much more optimistic about the 21st century than I was when I came here this morning—and I was pretty optimistic then,” he told them. “And you have done that. And you’ve convinced me: I’m going to stick around for a good part of that century.”
Reagan died in 2004, of course. We do not know how he would have responded to the challenges of today, but we do know the strategy that he pursued to confront the challenges of his time. And we know that his strategy worked. It can work again.