Conservative Common Sense in the Fight Against China
Richard Fontaine correctly and effectively catalogs many reasons why conservatives, particularly conservative internationalists, ought to advocate for America leading the free world on technology policy. At the heart of the generational battle for economic, political, and social primacy between the United States and China is technology innovation. While we are unlikely to defeat China solely by throwing more people or resources at the problem, America’s winning edge will almost certainly be its ability to rapidly create new and novel solutions to difficult challenges and implementing them in a highly scalable manner through modern technology.
The problem, of course, as Fontaine points out, is that China has already pulled ahead of the United States in key technology areas, having bootstrapped itself by stealing American intellectual property. Moreover, like other repressive regimes, China not only uses technology to hold its own population in check, it also uses it to export its particular brand of global repression. By sowing discord and discontent around the globe, China—like Russia and others—seeks to set democratic nations against one another both internally and externally, making us less effective at combating its expansionist agenda.
Succumbing to this effort, America increasingly finds itself viewed abroad as an itinerant ally at best and a weak adversary at worst. We have demonstrated an unwillingness to act forthrightly in the face of serious and sustained challenges to our authority has become a global theme under the last three presidents. This also plays out at home, where our leaders have been unwilling to make the case to the American public for sustaining our nation’s global leadership role nor to take the domestic action necessary to gird our nation for the ongoing economic and political battle with China.
Despite the Trump and Biden Administrations having said some of the right things, we continue to take action at home that undercuts our best chance at winning this long-term battle, and we continue to dither on actions that are critical to protecting our long-term economic and national security against China.
Fontaine references the ongoing debate within the conservative movement about the role that “Big Tech” plays in American society. But what is missing from his analysis is the fact that some conservatives are actively partnering with hard-core liberals to undermine one of our most potent weapons to confront China: American companies that have the scale to challenge the global dominance China seeks to achieve. Likewise, as a bipartisan coalition in Congress seeks to onshore more production of critical capabilities, key conservatives oppose these efforts, claiming fealty to fiscal discipline. None of this makes (conservative) common sense.
Big Tech and Conservatives: Getting It Right
One of the most fashionable things to do among “real conservatives” (and, as it turns out, an unrepentant liberals) in Washington, DC these days, is to bash America’s most successful and profitable companies for being “too mean” to conservative speakers or “too aggressive” in boxing labor unions and their allies. To be sure, technology companies are not innocent actors—they have made choices that may well warrant some reigning in—but they hardly deserve the current punishment being pushed on both sides of the political aisle. Namely, the effort to modify longstanding antitrust laws to target a handful of our most successful technology companies—which employ literally millions of Americans—undermines our best chance to out-innovate the Chinese at scale. Targeting American companies not for legitimate anticompetitive behavior (which absolutely ought to be rooted out), but because they have simply grown too big or because they cause particular political concerns, sends exactly the wrong message to the robust American startup community. It borrows a page from our European allies, who often choose to punish, rather than reward, economic success and innovation. This is hardly the way to keep America ahead in our fight with China.
At a time when China is throwing massive state resources at its companies and artificially propping them up with stolen intellectual property, it makes no sense to dismantle our most successful economic players, much less to require them to interoperate or provide open access to their software and hardware to Chinese (and Russian) companies. Indeed, at a time when the government is telling American industry to put its “shields up” against foreign cyber threats, it hardly seems wise to require lowering them instead.
Conservatives, of all people, ought not reach immediately for the regulatory stick to achieve our political and policy goals, and particularly ought not do so in a selective way that undermines our nation’s ability to effectively compete internationally. Rather, conservatives ought seek to incentivize the behavior we want, reaching first for the carrot, not the stick. To the extent the stick is necessary, applying penalties consistently, not selectively, is the better, more conservative approach.
Investing in America: The Case for Common Sense Conservatism
In addition to avoiding efforts to undermine our own competitiveness against China, conservatives ought to also back government policies that level the playing field against competitors (like China) that do not play fair. For example, conservatives were right to support efforts, like those undertaken by the Trump Administration, to call out China for its bad behavior and penalize it economically. At the same time, we must also be willing to go further to remove barriers to technological innovation and to provide incentives and investments that kickstart our economic and national security.
To be sure, conservatives are right to be deeply skeptical of the government’s ability to deploy capital effectively or rapidly innovate on its own. But let us be candid: no one is talking about the government owning or managing the means of production nor picking economic winners and losers. Rather, what the government ought to do is create an economic, legal, and regulatory environment that permits private business to flourish and incentivizes technological innovation that undergirds our economic and national security. This is hardly socialism, it is actually the type of classic economic conservatism that was once at the heart of the GOP, the kind advocated by Ronald Reagan. To the extent government funding is needed, it should be about making long-term investments in basic research and providing access to long-term contracts and capital financing to help generate large-scale, long-lead technological innovation and economic opportunity for our nation.
It is worth noting that conservatives, including President Reagan, have long backed government efforts to sustain and grow certain critical national industries, like the defense and telecommunications sectors. In the modern era, and particularly given our ongoing competition with China, the technology sector is likewise critical to our success. Incentivizing growth in the technology sector and implementing policies that support it is not only consistent with longstanding conservative ideals, it is also what—for a long time (and until fairly recently)—made the modern GOP the go-to party on national security issues. Richard Fontaine is certainly right about American leadership internationally when it comes to technology issues, but if we are to succeed in the long-term fight with China, we also need leadership at home and that requires conservatives stepping up to the plate.
 Bill Evanina and Jamil N. Jaffer, “Kneecapping U.S. Tech Companies Is a Recipe for Economic Disaster,” Crushing Tech Innovation Will Weaken U.S. Competitiveness With China | Barron's (Barrons, June 17, 2022), https://www.barrons.com/articles/kneecapping-u-s-tech-firms-is-a-recipe-for-economic-disaster-51655480902.
 Jamil Jaffer and Klon Kitchen, “Technology and National Security Innovation Working Group” (Forum for American Leadership, May 23, 2022), https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/1d008308-a2e8-48d3-ac4d-11267653d021/downloads/Does%20the%20United%20States%20Need%20a%20Technology%20Indus.pdf?ver=1653336175127.