New ITIF Report Calls for U.S. Doctrine of “Digital Realpolitik” to Maintain Global Leadership in Critical Information Technologies

January 19, 2021

WASHINGTON—The rise of the digital economy in recent decades has deepened and widened global economic and political integration, but it also has created an opening for an autocratic, non-democratic China to wrest global leadership in critical information technologies from the United States. This has profound social, political, economic, and security implications, and the United States must articulate and advocate for a coherent strategic response, according to a new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the leading think tank for science and technology policy.

U.S. international digital policy in the past has not been guided by an overarching global grand strategy, other than perhaps to push for “Internet openness,” a concept related more to the welfare of foreign nations than to core U.S. national interests. The new ITIF report argues this is inadequate in the current environment. ITIF calls on the U.S. government to formulate a grand strategy grounded in “digital realpolitik” focused first and foremost on advancing U.S. interests and constraining digital adversaries, especially China.

The new doctrine would entail moving away from an idealist, ambassadorial view of a harmonized, values-based global Internet—which ITIF argues is not going to happen—and adopting a more pragmatic focus on protecting and advancing key U.S. interests by vigorously promoting and promulgating the U.S. approach to IT policy and regulation. At the same time, the doctrine of digital realpolitik would recognize that the United States can no longer rely principally on persuasion to convince others of the economic and innovation advantages of its approach. America must enlist, in a variety of ways, like-minded nations to support U.S. interests, but also be willing to exert pressure to make other nations come along.

“A major part of the challenge U.S. officials have faced in international negotiations on these issues is that they haven’t had a model of digital governance and talking points to articulate it,” said ITIF President Robert D. Atkinson, who authored the report. “What does the United States want? For many years, the answer was open markets, international trade, less regulation, greater economic integration, and the rule of law, because we thought those would benefit both the United States and the world. That basic framing may have worked before China became a systemic competitor and adversary, before Russia and others became systemic bad actors, and before the EU and many developing states embraced digital protectionism. But it won’t work now. Today’s world calls for digital realpolitik.”

The report provides an analysis of why leadership in IT and digital technology matters. It summarizes the strategies and progress of key nations and groups of nations, including the United States, China, the EU, Japan, the Four Asian Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong), developing nations generally, and disruptive nations such as Russia. It then enumerates a series of undesirable scenarios that could unfold in the absence of a grand strategy, followed by four desirable scenarios that a U.S. grand strategy should pursue:

  1. The United States, EU, and non-aligned nations should isolate, punish, and defend against IT and digital “scofflaws,” such as Russia.
  2. The United States should form an Anglo-American (and friends) alliance to push back against Chinese innovation mercantilism.
  3. If possible, this alliance should be expanded to include the EU and non-aligned nations to cooperate against China.
  4. The U.S. approach prevails in developing markets.

ITIF warns that the United States faces a risk that much of the world, including the European Union, could align against American IT and digital interests, leading to a many-against-one environment with detrimental consequences. The report urges reestablishing closer relations with the EU, but it cautions the United States should not “give away the store” by allowing the EU to go forward with its increasingly aggressive technology mercantilism. The United States must ally with likeminded nations in ways that support American interests, and it should not be reluctant to exert pressure to encourage these nations to come along.

To frame a new doctrine of digital realpolitik, ITIF proposes a set of guiding principles:

  1. Unabashedly support IT and digital innovation, rejecting the techlash narrative and policies, at home and abroad.
  2. Embrace IT and digital “national developmentalism” (smart, active policies to support IT innovation and adoption) and bring more nations into this orbit.
  3. Limit China’s IT and digital progress, especially when it is based on innovation mercantilism.
  4. Fight foreign IT and digital protectionism.
  5. Embrace IT and digital free trade, especially with like-minded nations.
  6. Resist authoritarian influences in the digital economy but remaining focused on key U.S. interests.
  7. Defend the private sector’s core role in IT and digital governance.
  8. Defend the principle that “big is not bad, and is often superior.”
  9. Defend innovation-oriented regulation.

10. Defend the mostly open Internet.

11. Support a robust domestic IT and digital policy that ensures U.S. global leadership.

“The next decade will be decisive for the global digital economy generally, and for the U.S. IT and digital economy in particular,” said Atkinson. “We can move to a world dominated by the EU’s innovation-limiting regulations and China’s technology predation and authoritarianism, which will undermine U.S. and global innovation. Or the United States can press for a world in which appropriate technology and regulatory policies enable IT and digital innovation to flourish, with all the attendant benefits, including continued U.S. leadership.”

Read the report.