Two themes of Donald Trump’s deeply disruptive presidential campaign resonated with the American people. One was to put America to work again by bringing jobs back and the other was to make the US military the most powerful and feared in the world again. Both would involve dealing with new technologies like big data, artificial intelligence, robotics and bioengineering — often described as constituting the “fourth industrial revolution”.
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The fusion of the cyber and the physical is indeed transforming the economic and security landscape in the world. Delhi, which has had little debate on the unfolding strategic implications of the fourth industrial revolution, must now begin to pay attention. Given the deep interconnections between India’s advanced technology sector and the United States, any steps that Trump might take will have huge consequences for India.
To ease the pressure on the American working classes, Trump has promised to limit the in-sourcing of labour and outsourcing of work to cheaper locations like Mexico, China and India. He has threatened to walk away from free trade agreements and raise tariff barriers. He also wants to launch massive infrastructure spending to create jobs. Trump is likely to take at least some steps on all these fronts to demonstrate his good faith to those Americans who voted for him in large numbers. On the security front too, the expectation of a massive uptick in military spending has already lifted up major defence stocks on Wall Street.
Trump surely knows that symbolic actions are not enough to heal the deep sense of economic hurt in America that he has mobilised during the elections. For here is the problem for Trump: The jobs that America lost in the era of globalisation are not easy to bring back. The impact of free trade has been sharpened by the technological transformation that is killing manufacturing jobs at an unprecedented rate. The fourth industrial revolution, driven largely from the Silicon Valley, is poised to eliminate many white collar jobs.
Many top Silicon Valley executives had publicly scoffed at Trump during the campaign, but now recognise the importance of adapting to Trump’s economic agenda. Trump too needs support from the Silicon Valley to restructure the US economy. The technology companies will also be at the forefront of redefining American security.
Among the few specific things that Trump said about US national security were references to artificial intelligence (AI) in boosting America’s defence edge against rival powers, especially China. Although Trump has challenged many geopolitical assumptions of the foreign policy establishment — on Russia, Middle East, terrorism and more broadly the US’s role in the world — his interest in AI marks an important continuity with the policies of the Obama administration. For some time now, the US defence establishment has focused on what it called the “Third Offset Strategy”. The idea is to leverage American competence in emerging technologies like machine intelligence to counter the advantages of mass and geography that China has in Asia.
As a distant power called upon to shape the balance of power in Eurasia since the Second World War, America had to compensate for the strengths of its rivals and the weaknesses of its allies. Soviet Russia, for example, had huge advantages of geographic location and the large size of its armed forces that seemed to give Moscow the whip hand over Western Europe. The American deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe to blunt the Soviet conventional military superiority was the first offset strategy. As Russia developed its own nuclear capabilities, America came up with its second offset strategy — long-range precision guidance and vastly improved surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities — that put American military at the top again in Europe.
As China’s growing military capabilities challenge the historic American primacy in Asia, America is betting on AI, autonomous weapons, and improved man-machine interface to contain Beijing’s strengths. Carter has already mobilised the Silicon Valley to rejuvenate America’s defence industrial base and revitalise its security strategy. Trump is likely to persist with it.
Delhi should not narrowly define its problem with Trump in terms of H-1B visas and new limits on outsourcing work into India. For the technological transformation that is haunting Trump on the manufacturing front will also severely limit Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plans to create jobs in India. If India can’t replicate China’s manufacturing strategy from the 1980s, Modi has no option to develop a new economic strategy that relies on technological innovation. The fourth industrial revolution also offers Modi new possibilities to deal with the twin national security challenges — cross-border terrorism from Pakistan and the growing gap in conventional military capabilities with China.
Unlike most of his political peers today, Modi appears to have an instinctive sense for the unfolding technological transformation. But to turn his multiple initiatives — from demonetisation to digital India — into effective national strategy, Modi needs a more intensive and sustained conversation with technology hubs like Bengaluru that are generating new possibilities for India’s transformation but find Delhi rather difficult to engage with.