The COVID-19 era “reality shift” has accelerated the race among the world’s most powerful nations for global influence and America will have to get smarter about harnessing and spreading access to digital technology if it seeks to retain its position as the world’s top economic and geopolitical force.
That was a central takeaway of an ideas webinar hosted by The Washington Times on Thursday, featuring discussion among a diverse mix of thought leaders who generally agreed that China and the U.S. are now solidly positioned against each other on an increasingly wide slate of fronts — from trade to international aid.
“This is great power competition,” Ambassador Mark Green, a former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development said at the start of the event co-sponsored by Philip Morris International and CollaborateUp, a consulting firm that facilitates coordination between private and government forces.
“It is a battle of ideas, it’s a battle of opportunities,” said Mr. Green, now executive director of the McCain Institute at Arizona State University. “It’s whose rules are going to set the world? And it’s for all the marbles because China’s policies have profound negative ramifications for the countries involved — and quite frankly for us.”
CollaborateUp CEO Richard Crespin offered a broader framing for the webinar titled, “Reinventing the People and Places Left Behind by Globalization.”
“Over the last 50 years, technology, treaties, and trade have raised countless millions out of poverty and created vast wealth for nations — and their elites,” Mr. Crespin said. “Yet frustration from left-behind communities has driven populist and nationalist reactions at a time of already heightened great power competition, threatening to undo the international system. COVID19 exacerbated and accelerated many of these trends requiring leaders across the civil, private, and public sectors to wrestle with a ‘new normal.’”
Mr. Green suggested the U.S. can keep its edge as the more standard bearer of humanity by leading global efforts to help more than 70 million people currently displaced around the world by such “tyrants” as Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro such civil wars as that which ripped through Syria over the past decade.
“We’ve got people on the move and unless we figure out ways of utilizing nimble technologies - often frugal technologies — to connect with those folks to bring them in with our way of thinking and our set of rules, it’s going to be very hard for us to succeed,” he said. “If we fail to connect with displaced communities and that young generation that may be born in camps or in displaced villages, we’re seeing the seeds for a whole new round of violent extremism and challenge in the future.”
“The good news is we still have the most vibrant economy on the face of the earth,” Mr. Green said. “We have the most entrepreneurial culture on the face of the earth and so, even with all of these challenges which are frustrating to so many of us, we are still, ideally situated to succeed, if we’re smart in our policies and in the investments that we make.”
The webinar’s wider discussion was dominated by talk of the battle between the U.S. and China, as well as the potentially vast impact to be had on American foreign policy by the so-called “decoupling” set in motion over the past three years by the Trump administration.
“The overhang on all this conversation is the China problem,” said Michael McKenna, a former senior advisor to President Trump on energy policy, who now writes an opinion column for The Washington Times.
“It’s going to be a generational problem,” Mr. McKenna said. “We now have 20 years of trade normalization experience with China and normalization didn’t work. It failed. And I don’t think that anybody’s going to take the foreign policy or pro-trade establishment in this country seriously until they just say, ‘look, that was a failure.’”
“The idea that we’re going to have supply chains originating or transiting through China is just not going to be sustainable over time. That’s just not the way the world’s going to work. So we’re going to need a plan, and you know, this administration hasn’t done a great job, but at least they’ve opened up the conversation on it. I expect whoever comes next, having let it marinate for a while, they’ll have a better sense of what needs to be done.”
Others emphasized the reality-shifting aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID’s been an accelerator and a disruptor,” said Daniel Runde, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, who heads the think tank’s Project on Prosperity. “It certainly has disrupted the urban-rural divide in some ways and sort of re-thought it. But it’s also been an accelerator on the digital front.”
“There’s been more e-commerce, e-government and more distance-learning shifts in the last 28 weeks than in the last 28 years,” Mr. Runde said. “But around the world and in many places, people are being left behind.”
The reason, he said, is that vast stretches of the world, including right here in the United States, are living without the internet connectivity needed to participate in and capitalize on the reality shift that’s currently taking place.
“The demand for digital connectivity…is going to mimic the demand for clean water, for functioning toilets and for electricity,” said Mr. Runde, who warned the U.S. must out-compete China as the world-leading government that facilitates global proliferation of such connectivity.
Mr. Runde also stressed that the lack of high-speed connectivity in rural America, while not understood by most who live in major cities, must also be addressed on the immediate front in order to pave the way for a “re-engagement” of vast U.S. regions left behind by globalization in recent decades. “Local and state governments need to be aware of this,” he said. “Universities need to be aware of this and we need to enable and encourage incentives.”
Chip Pickering, a former Republican congressman from Mississippi echoed the point.
“What would it look like as we go forward to have both rural America, which has felt left behind and damaged by trade and technology to also feel the prosperity and the progress and the wealth that we’ve seen in our suburban and urban and university towns?” said Mr. Pickering, who heads INCOMPAS, a trade association pushing for broadband proliferation.
“In the pandemic and in COVID, what we’ve learned probably as directly as possible is that broadband connectivity makes a huge difference in remote learning, remote work [and] online education,” he said, adding that future industries tied to everything from “advanced robotics” to “artificial intelligence” could base in rural America if broadband access were ubiquitous.
“Rural communities will — much like coming out of the depression or World War II — need to have the type of national commitment and funds, federal funds and private capital, to flow into the 5G fiber and the networks of the future,” Mr. Pickering said.
“More than any other investment, I think that that can make a difference of reconnecting rural America and small town America back into a system where education and health care can be of the highest quality, the community and the family relationships can be preserved, [as well as] the benefit of those small town rural values and communities to the American fabric,” he said. “If we make the commitment like we did coming out of the depression to electricity…But now to the broadband connectivity, to me, I believe that is the one single thing that we can do that would have the greatest return and to give opportunity to all parts of the country.”
Indranil Ghosh, CEO of the U.S.-based Tiger Hill Capital and former head of strategy at Abu Dhabi’s Sovereign Investment and Development Fund, made a similar point — only with a globalized touch, asserting that many far flung nations are gripped by the same broadband access deficiencies.
“Those economies really need to reinvent themselves similarly to what we’ve been talking about in terms of the rural America cohort - parts of America that have been left behind,” Mr. Ghosh said. “They need to enter a digitally connected economy and start being good at other things.”
With regard to great power competition and debate on U.S.-China decoupling, Mr. Ghosh said separation “makes sense” from several perspectives, including security and manufacturing source chains for medical supplies. “It also makes sense to over-invest and double-down in industries, which are new and where the sort of regional leader or the global leader hasn’t yet emerged,” he said. “It makes sense to compete, especially if you’re a large economy like the U.S. or the European Union collectively with a large market to make a play for market leadership in those industries — and that’s things like batteries and electric vehicles, hydrogen, you know, many of the sort of technology-based industries.”
“Where the key goods and services are produced and where they are consumed and how they are connected is a map that’s totally up for transformation and re-shifting,” Mr. Ghosh said. “And every location needs to think about how they can put their best foot forward and be competitive in that new economy.”
Others who participated in the discussion included Martin King, the CEO of PMI America; Nilmini Rubin, co-founder of Fix the System and a former senior House Foreign Affairs Committee adviser; and Conor Savoy, the executive director of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network.