America’s framework to lead on AI

Technology and geopolitical power have a long and interconnected history. The nations that have harnessed new technologies to gain strategic advantages, and advanced their societies to new heights in the process, have been able to leverage their innovations to influence global affairs and shift power dynamics. Those that have failed to develop and adapt to these technologies have fallen behind at home and abroad.

Eras of human history are often defined by technological breakthroughs, from the Iron and Bronze Ages to those of Sail and of Steam. As technology has advanced, it has usually been scientists who have foreseen these new inventions. In 1939, it was Albert Einstein who wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt, predicting the dawn of the Nuclear Age. The same is happening today: our leading minds are observing the dawn of the Age of AI. Henry Kissenger and Eric Schmidt with Daniel Huttenlocher wrote, “[AI] bids to transform the human cognitive process as it has not been shaken up since the invention of the printing press.”

As we look to the future, we can see the transformative power of Generative AI (GenAI). The latest breakthroughs have rapidly transformed GenAI models from harmless novelties to powerful tools that can match or surpass human capabilities in many areas. Today — when coupled with accessible, easy-to-use user interfaces — nearly anyone with an Internet connection can create text, images, code and more with only a simple call to a Chatbot.

But GenAI is only the start of the creation of more powerful AI forms, including Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). When GenAI’s use spreads to other fields, it will result in new developments in computing, accelerate the pace of scientific discovery, and transform the very process of innovation. The impacts will revolutionize industries and touch all corners of society. The potential positive effects are extraordinary.

But so are the risks. This era has dawned at a time of complex and unstable geopolitical conditions similar to those that defined the years before World War I. During that period, the combination of rapid industrial growth and rising geopolitical competition heightened tensions in Europe to such a fever pitch that a conflict unparalleled in its ferocity and destructiveness resulted. This should be a stark reminder of the dangers that come with massive shifts in power and technological capability. As we move towards more advanced AI, we must navigate these complexities with caution, wisdom and a keen awareness of history.

The world is scrambling to make sense of the shifting opportunities and threats. But we are only at the dawn of this AI era. Much more is to come. Governments, industry, academia and civil society need to develop strategies capable of responding to ever more changes in an already turbulent environment.

The U.S. government must lead on this. U.S. companies are driving GenAI progress, and Washington must work to shape the innovations that they produce, to advance our values and interests. We cannot become bogged down in endless debates or frozen by hype-driven paralysis. Instead, we need a framework for how, amidst this uncertainty, the government can responsibly promote and harness this age-defining technology.

Two principles should guide U.S. actions. First, establishing U.S. global leadership in GenAI must be made a national security priority. The ability to develop and deploy advanced AI systems will offer immense strategic advantages, particularly in military capabilities, intelligence gathering, and cyber warfare. Simultaneously, GenAI will significantly impact our democracy by reshaping both economic opportunity and our increasingly digital society. AI must be used to strengthen, not weaken, our democracy. Failure to act risks leaving our nation vulnerable to authoritarian rivals who will use their technological capabilities to undermine Americans’ physical security, economic future, and the rights and liberties at the heart of our nation. 

Second, we need to win the platform competition which is critical for our national prosperity and the trajectory of freedom at home and around the world. Despite current economic difficulties, China remains steadfast in its ambition to become a global leader in science and innovation. Its centralized governance, considerable financial resources, and innovative — yet constrained — talent make it a serious contender in the development of frontier large language models (FLLMs). While U.S.-based platforms currently lead in the competition, China’s ambitions elevates GenAI to a new battleground in technological competition, one laden with geopolitical implications. Both nations offer competing visions for the world’s technological future — visions that will inherently reshape the economic, political and societal circumstances in countries around the globe. Ceding ground in GenAI would not only risk national security but could also tilt the global balance of power. States are not making a single grand strategic choice between two models. However, the cumulative little decisions that actors make, particularly in countries in the “Global South,” will have significant consequences for which platforms succeed regionally, and therefore which values and norms prevail globally. Thus, retaining leadership in GenAI isn’t just about innovation. There is a strategic imperative for the United States and its partners to support the global reach of the platforms critical to this competition.

Washington must have two objectives in this competition. First, the United States, together with its allies and partners, should ensure that its companies remain at the forefront of AI innovation and it must then use that technological leadership to set the rules of the road. AI transcends national borders, requiring an international framework of regulations, norms and ethical standards. Through proactive engagement and strategic investment, we must ensure that the future brings stability, protects progress, and safeguards shared democratic values.

The second objective is to prevent the grim prospect of a destabilizing AI arms race. This must include battlefield AI weapons, but also those that can damage society by generating waves of mis- and dis-information to degrade the basic facts that make our political process possible. Guardrails are needed. By championing dialogue, cooperation and the establishment of shared rules and norms around AI — both with close, like-minded partners and, at times, with rivals — we can avert this potential catastrophe. We can ensure that AI technology is harnessed for the benefit of humanity, and does not serve as a catalyst for conflict.

To accomplish these objectives, we need a three-pronged policy. First, the U.S. government should create the conditions conducive to GenAI development by ensuring the availability of critical resources. These include data, computing power and human talent including keeping skilled immigrants in this country. A vibrant innovation ecosystem should also be fostered akin to the pre-World War era where the public and private sector worked hand-in-hand to ensure America’s leadership during uncertain times.

Second, we must convene a diverse range of domestic and international stakeholders to agree on a system of responsible governance. While GenAI heralds a new era of technological innovation, it also presents new challenges to privacy, security and societal cohesion. Consequently, the United States must work in close collaboration with industry and partner nations to guide this technology’s development and mitigate potential negative impacts. Likewise, the United States must actively work to include stakeholders from Global South countries in discussions on both governance and innovation, as the latter shapes the former. As GenAI tools will deeply transform the lives of individuals in these nations as much as the advanced industrial world, it is imperative these populations have a seat at the table to define their own futures.   

Third, the United States must demonstrate leadership by introducing GenAI tools to all government sectors. If Washington fails to do so, it risks not only falling behind its geopolitical competitors but also losing the chance to reap the immense benefits that this technology can bring to our democracy. GenAI has the potential to enhance the core business of government, from administrative tasks to critical military operations, thereby contributing to our national competitive advantage.

We must not be paralyzed by the desire to eliminate all AI risks. Instead, we must clearly articulate and relentlessly pursue a positive vision for the future. To meet the moment, we need bold action and thoughtful leadership. The approach put forth by Washington will enable a more secure, prosperous future guided by shared values and ethical norms.

The United States is at a critical juncture. Throughout history, nations that have embraced technological advancements have flourished, while those that resisted them have been weakened and made vulnerable. The United States must not resist this new technological era. It must embrace it, lead the way and be at the forefront of this change.

Ylli Bajraktari is the president and CEO of the Special Competitive Studies Project. Prior to this he served in the Pentagon for 12 years and his last assignment was Executive Director of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence.

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