TO THE TECHNOCRATS who preside over America’s export rules, “national security” used to mean anything to do with weapons, particularly weapons of mass destruction. The technocrats’ job, and the purpose of the export rules to which they tended, was to prevent weapons and their components from reaching the hands of America’s enemies.
This started changing in 2016, at the end of Barack Obama’s second term in office, after China’s government announced it would spend $150bn over the next ten years to subsidise its semiconductor industry. The plan put American national security at risk, a council of technology advisers reported to Mr Obama in January 2017, just before Donald Trump took office. The subsidies threatened to hand control of cutting-edge chip technology to Chinese firms, leaving America’s armed forces short of high-tech supplies.
The remit of export control expanded, leading to the present-day sanctions against Huawei, a Chinese telecoms-equipment firm (see article). But Mr Trump and his administration proved keen to apply the term in other domains, peppering it through speeches and tweets. The New York Times is a threat to national security. Canada, America’s pleasant northern neighbour, is a threat to national security. Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate for president? A threat to national security.
The effluvia of Mr Trump’s political agenda can be discarded, but the placement of microchips in the national-security scope, coupled with the administration’s expansive view of the issue, has big consequences. The algorithms that run on chips, and the data that flow through them, have drifted into its crosshairs too.
On August 6th Mr Trump invoked national security to order bans of two Chinese apps, WeChat and TikTok, on the ground that they have the potential to be used as weapons by the Chinese Communist Party, spying on Americans, or distributing propaganda automatically at scale through tweaks to algorithms that are controlled by engineers in Beijing or Shenzhen.
This expansion of national security is not baseless—there is no doubt that America’s competitors are tapping into digital networks to gain an edge. But it does present problems. The portion of economic activity that relies on the flow of data in, out and within the United States is rising fast. If these data flows are seen broadly as a national-security issue, then the portion of economic activity that they underpin is too. This may end up harming America.
That is because national-security decisions are often characterised by secrecy, unilateralism and top-down instruction—when security is really at stake there is no time for collaborating with allies, informing the public, or the pondering of technocrats. But this way of operating is antithetical to global trade and business, including its digital slice. With an ever-growing portion of economic and social activity deemed a matter of national security, America’s government must directly intervene in markets and its citizens’ affairs.
Mr Trump’s executive order on securing technology supply chains, issued in May 2019, provides a worked example of the problem. The rule implementing Mr Trump’s command gives the Department of Commerce the power to block any “transaction” that poses “undue risk” to America’s tech supply chains, its critical infrastructure or its digital economy. This wording is so broad that “it could capture under government control nearly every transaction in US commerce”, according to IBM, an American computer company.
It is easy to hurt the industry that the government is seeking to protect by unintentionally isolating it from global markets. IBM said Mr Trump’s supply-chain rule “would lead to substantial disengagement of US businesses from global markets, reducing their competitiveness, threatening US jobs, and hurting US economic growth”.
A mass of potential tech national-security threats wait in the wings. The computers in American data centres are often made in China. They run every service from YouTube to Bank of America. Cainiao, a Chinese logistics network, is capitalising on the pandemic to expand, aiming to deliver goods anywhere in the world within 72 hours. It will collect lots of data in the process. Tencent, which owns WeChat, makes some popular war-based video games through subsidiary companies. It is easy to construe all this as a threat.
The pandemic has inflated the share of American economic activity carried out digitally. This raises the stakes. But there are solutions that do not rely on resignation to foreign influence. One is to carry out the less clandestine bits of national-security policy in the digital domain more transparently, letting the public, and thereby investors, understand the rules under which the government is operating. Those rules ought also to be applied consistently, creating a stable business environment. Where there is real evidence of state espionage, or cyber attacks, or where the welfare of Americans is directly at risk, the full trappings of national security should remain. Multilateralism is also important. By binding allies into the same set of rules for the digital economy, America could prevent the self-harm that comes with unilateralism. Global investors would have no choice but to follow the rules.
Without these changes, America may one day encounter a paradox: the invocation of national-security doctrine in its current form risks having a negative impact on the nation’s security. Because when everything becomes a matter of national security, then, in the end, nothing is. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “From iPhones to aircraft carriers”