Despite an impressive title, the reception for the White House’s new National Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technologies received a remarkably tepid response from experts following its release Thursday.
In fact, some were unsure whether they should call the document a “strategy” at all.
“I don’t see any dollar signs,” said James Lewis, senior vice president and director of the technology-policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Does it count as a strategy if you don’t identify which agency is in charge, give them a deadline, and identify funding?”
That was one of the more polite criticisms of the Trump administration’s plan, which in broad strokes seeks to ensure that the United States promotes the domestic development of emerging technologies while preventing the spread of those technologies to U.S. adversaries.
The senior administration officials who briefed reporters Thursday billed the “comprehensive” document as a watershed in America’s escalating conflict with China—and to a lesser extent, Russia—over the development of technologies such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, wireless telecommunications, and advanced computer chips.
“The United States will no longer turn a blind eye to the tactics of countries like the People’s Republic of China and Russia, who steal technology, coerce companies into handing over intellectual property, undercut free and fair markets, and surreptitiously divert emerging civilian technology to build up their militaries,” one official said during a background briefing call.
But most experts scoffed at the notion that the brief document—which includes several blank pages and several nearly-blank ones—does much of anything to advance the White House’s goals.
“It’s 18 pages, but half of them are filler pages, or there’s two paragraphs on each page,” said Caleb Watney, the director of innovation policy at the center-left Progressive Policy Institute. “What is going on? It’s a document full of bullet points.”
“There’s so much blank space,” said Martijn Rasser, a senior fellow in the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security. “Not sure who did the layout for this, but … yeah.”
Critiques of the strategy went beyond the formatting, of course. While Rasser said the White House was correct to identify certain principles, including the notion that the U.S. should reduce intellectual-property theft and protect its investments in emerging tech, the lack of a road map to reach those goals left him scratching his head.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to get to anything close that I would consider a strategy,” said Rasser. “This isn’t actionable—there’s no direction as to who should be doing what, what resources they have to execute that plan. If I’m sitting in the Department of Commerce or Energy, what am I supposed to do with this?”
Senior administration officials said the strategy is meant to expand the federal agencies responsible for promoting and protecting critical technologies past Commerce.
“While Commerce has the lead on export controls, and that will continue, this comprehensive strategy brings the power of the interagency to that problem,” said one official.
But experts said they didn’t see much to that effect in the actual document. And other suggestions in the strategy appear to cut directly against current administration policy.
The plan stresses the importance of “developing the highest-quality science and technology workforce in the world.” But several experts said recent Trump administration efforts to significantly curtail the number of students and high-skilled tech workers entering the United States contradicts that goal.
“It’s really the only zero-sum issue in this broader strategic competition,” said Rasser. “For every foreign researcher, scientist, engineer that does not come to the United States to live and work and innovate and build companies, they’re going to go elsewhere.”
The document is particularly puzzling when viewed as part of the Trump administration’s broader efforts on emerging technology. In President Trump’s first term, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy developed widely praised strategies focused on AI and the quantum sciences. The failure to do so this time, said Lewis, suggests this specific document may’ve been “rushed out.”
“I’d say the lack of implementation and the profuse amount of white space are the things that leap out,” Lewis said.
Not every expert was so critical. Melissa Flagg, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, said it’s not necessarily a bad thing for the White House to keep things vague and high-level. “I’m not sure it’s a great idea to write a deeply granular strategy and give it to China,” Flagg said.
But even Flagg was confused by the timing of the release, noting it could be drowned out by the chaos surrounding the presidential race. “Putting a strategy out before the election feels like something that gets lost, rather than something that gets focused on,” she said.
Overall, however, experts saw the document as a missed opportunity to rally the federal government against Chinese efforts to dominate emerging technologies beyond AI and quantum computing. Given the attention that Beijing has paid to the issue, some are wondering whether the White House is as invested in the effort as they claim.
“You’d think that an administration that is trying to take this message seriously would, yes, be investing in particular issue areas, but also recognizing that it’s hard to anticipate sometimes what are the technologies of the future,” said Watney. “We should be making these broad-based bets, not only in specific technologies, but in basic science fields.”