Today Americans need a new unity of purpose. Three decades of American beliefs about themselves, their government, and their place in the world have been shaken. In the midst of a wave of technological change, we are left with questions about the future of democracy, rising geopolitical danger, and disorientation about where we are heading.
We created the Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP) to develop an agenda that can help Americans recapture the confidence to face these challenges with a shared sense of national purpose. SCSP’s mission is to make recommendations to strengthen America’s long-term competitiveness for a future where artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies reshape our national security, economy, and society.
The premise of our work is straightforward. Strategic competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the defining feature of world politics today. The epicenter of the competition is the quest for leadership and dominant market share in a constellation of emerging technologies that will underpin a thriving society, growing economy, and sharper instruments of power. At stake is the future of free societies, open markets, democratic government, and a world order rooted in freedom not coercion.
Why Competitive? Competition is SCSP’s organizing principle. It frames the three major dynamics shaping our world — geopolitical rivalry, technological promise, and the ideological contest between democracy and autocracy.
- Geopolitical Rivalry. Competition with China imposes a new lens on most significant trends impacting the United States and the world. The PRC is the United States’ chief ideological opponent, largest economic competitor, technology peer, most capable military challenger, and most powerful geopolitical rival for the foreseeable future. China is creating spheres of influence without any clear limits, underpinned by physical and technological infrastructure, cemented with commercial ties and technology platform dependence, deepened by authoritarian affinities, and enforced by growing military capabilities. Its goals are to exercise control in the Indo-Pacifc, extend its influence globally, and ultimately remake the international order.
- Technological Promise. A constellation of emerging technologies is ushering in an era technologists call an “exponential age”1 and the beginning of “the most important century of all time for humanity.”2 Foundational technologies – often powered by AI – are producing new discoveries and applications that will improve quality of life and solve some of the hardest scientific challenges. Today’s tech wave, driven by digital technologies, is now cresting. The next tech wave, building on digital breakthroughs, is in the physical and biotechnical domains. The states and companies that harness this wave of “ABC” foundational technologies – atoms, bits, and cells – will win the future. China is intent on supplanting the United States as the world’s innovation hub. Without such a competitor, many of the technological developments underway could be seen as areas for collaboration or merely of commercial interest. Instead, the technology competition has become a key element of a systemic competition over world order.
- Democracies Tested. The post-Cold War democratic ascent is over. Democracies are disoriented and in search of equilibrium in a technology-enabled society. Citizens want to protect their rights and their freedoms, and still enjoy the benefits of digital connectivity. Tech-skepticism threatens to stall innovation and adoption. Governments are attempting to moderate online content, fight disinformation, and protect privacy while unlocking the benefits of data, and also confronting the consolidating power of large companies without stifling innovation, over-extending government power, or sacrificing core liberties. It is a tall agenda. As democracies pursue different paths to tech governance, they risk dividing the community of democracies. Meanwhile, autocracies are seemingly ascendant. They are harnessing technology to deliver the benefits of modernity and extend government control. Beijing’s brand of autocracy recasts the challenges within democracy as part of a larger referendum for how best to organize modern society.
These three futures must be tackled together in a comprehensive competitive agenda. The geopolitical rivalry is intimately connected to harnessing the technology wave. The stakes of the technology waves become sharper when viewed through the lens of rivalry. The nature of different political systems will determine how technologies are developed and used, and the success of democracies and autocracies in using technologies will help to determine the broader appeal of each governing system in a long-term competition. There will be winners and losers.
From NSCAI to SCSP. Intellectually and organizationally, SCSP grew from the Congressionally-mandated National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI). SCSP’s leadership and some of its staff worked on that project. NSCAI accomplished a great deal as an independent commission established under one presidential administration and concluding under a second. It succeeded foremost in informing the U.S. Government — Congress and the Executive Branch — and the American people about the multifaceted implications of AI and associated technologies for national security. It identified technology as the central element of the rivalry between the United States and China, explained why the United States must organize to compete, and provided blueprints for action. We knew, however, that NSCAI left much unfinished business. Getting AI right was only the beginning. The commission quickly realized a constellation of technologies could lay claim to broad strategic import across economic and national security applications. Winning a technology competition requires comprehensive focus across the full range of them. SCSP will expand the “tech list” and develop blueprints for action. Our new project is privately funded, but it remains publicly minded and staunchly nonpartisan in believing technology, rivalry, competition, and organization remain enduring themes for national focus.
Model from the Past. We found a nearly perfect model for the level of ambition befitting our challenges in a 1950s era Cold War study led by Henry Kissinger called the Rockefeller Special Studies Project. It marshaled expertise from across American society to bring coherence and direction to a national agenda at the beginning of a new era. The group – drawn from industry, academia, and government – believed America needed a forwardlooking response to the era’s many upheavals. Their message resonated with SCSP. “A nation which does not shape events through its own sense of purpose,” they wrote, “eventually will be engulfed in events shaped by others.” They appreciated the close correlations between foreign and domestic policies and the importance of science and technology leadership to wider trends. They kept at the fore a positive outlook that defined strategic competition as a “struggle for something.” The project provided clarity about America’s ideals, honesty about its shortcomings, and ideas for improvements at home that would help persuade friends abroad.
Non-Partisan Agenda. SCSP sees the core challenges facing America as non-partisan in origin and solution. SCSP’s goal is to provide a roadmap for strengthening America’s competitiveness, armored against changes in political sentiment or leadership and recognizing the central role played by a wave of technologies changing our world. SCSP will not have all the answers. Our first step is to bring together a diverse group of Americans to frame the challenges, outline an agenda, and provide actionable recommendations for the United States to lead in the technology competition. There is a path to a safer, healthier, free, united, and more competitive nation.
The SCSP Process. Inspired by this example, SCSP draws contributors from across American society united in the mission to strengthen U.S. competitiveness. We also intend to extend our work to bring in foreign counterparts and organizations who share our outlook on the global nature of this competition. The project seeks to clarify the nature of the strategic challenge the United States and its partners face and anticipate how it may evolve. And it will help to build what the original SSP project members called a “working consensus” that allows a vast and diverse democracy to “get ahead with its business.” SCSP is divided into six panels on technology platforms, economy, society, foreign policy, defense, and intelligence. Each is pursuing solutions to its respective mid-decade challenge, works with its own advisors and objectives, and will publish its own detailed reports over the life of the project.
The Report. This report sets an agenda for a strategy of technology-centered national competitiveness. The report is an initial why and what that outlines the logic for action and an agenda for the future. Where immediate opportunities exist, the report highlights areas for federal action. However, it is far from the sum-total of the project’s work or a comprehensive set of recommendations.
Next Steps. The remainder of the project will be focused on the how of the competitiveness agenda. SCSP’s ambition is to develop detailed action plans for technology priorities, organizational requirements, resource recommendations, and to bring the private sector, government, academia, and civil society, and U.S. allies and partners together for a common purpose. These action plans will follow in the coming year.
The Need for National Purpose. While the SCSP agenda is focused on technology and national security, the project’s motivation is deeper. Americans and the democratic world have experienced a difficult few years –the wider impact of emerging technologies on our lives, a once in a century pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and our own society’s polarization. Disillusionment is a real concern. And pessimism threatens to paralyze action. We see the opportunity to rebuild a mission around an enduring national purpose.
America’s purpose is anchored in protecting the rights of the individual within a democratic system. The United States stands for human dignity, universal rights, and the principle that governments serve the people. America represents an experiment in human liberty, not its culmination. It is an example of a society that can recognize its faults and can also correct them. The U.S. Government’s role in supporting the purpose is outlined in the U.S. Constitution: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
America’s purpose is also the foundation of its strength even if we do not always live up to the ideal. Enduring purpose can orient our actions. Americans want to look to the future. They want to innovate, and they want to demonstrate the superiority of a society where free people live under a democratic government. We should not lose sight of our advantages, dwell on our weaknesses, or lower our ambitions. If we do, we hurt the prospects for democracy in the world and create our own obstacles to action.
There is a long history of misguided anxiety in American life about whether a free and unruly pluralistic society such as ours can compete with the central planning and seemingly forceful dictates of authoritarian regimes. The members of the 1950s Special Studies Project had more confidence: “the power which is generated by the voluntary effort of a free people cannot be equalled by the reluctant compliance of subject nations.” An equally good lesson for today’s competition.
1. Azeem Azhar, The Exponential Age: How Accelerating Technology is Transforming Business, Politics and Society, Diversion Books (2021).
2. Holden Karnofsky, The Most Important Century (in a nutshell), Cold Takes (2021).