WASHINGTON – It isn’t often that America’s highest-ranking military officer publicly chastises one of America’s leading corporations for collaborating with the enemy. Yet that is what Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did by arguing that Google’s cooperation with China on artificial intelligence is effectively aiding Beijing’s ongoing military buildup.
Dunford, whose comments came in a Senate hearing and at a think tank panel in Washington, is right to criticize Google for helping China master one of the technologies that will determine who dominates the 21st century. He has also highlighted a larger problem with Google’s behavior: A company that prides itself on seeing around the corner of history is living in a world that no longer exists.
In June 2018, following an outcry from thousands of employees, Google ended its participation in the Pentagon’s so-called Project Maven. That initiative focuses on improving U.S. targeting capabilities by using AI to identify objects captured in countless hours of surveillance footage from drones. In October, Google then dropped out of the competition for the Pentagon’s cloud-computing contract, on grounds that the project was incompatible with the company’s values.
All the while, however, Google was secretly helping the Chinese government build a restricted search engine that would reinforce Beijing’s censorship policies; the company only admitted to its involvement in the project, known as Dragonfly, late last year. This came a year after Google announced it was opening an AI research center in Beijing — despite the virtual certainty that any breakthroughs made there will find their way into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army.
Even some Google insiders seem to have recognized the danger here. Eric Schmidt, then the chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was at the same time warning that the U.S. and China were locked in a competition for AI supremacy, and that the Trump administration was doing too little about it.
It is no surprise, then, that Dunford and other U.S. officials have been seething over Google’s behavior. A company that has grown fantastically wealthy, in part because it is based in the United States and benefits from the American-led global order, has decided that its “values” don’t allow it to cooperate with Washington, but that it is happy to help the Chinese Communist Party defend an authoritarian political system and scale the commanding heights of global technological superiority. Google’s conduct, in turn, reveals a deeper intellectual failing: The inability to see, or perhaps the refusal to acknowledge, that the post-Cold War era has ended and the world has entered the Age of Rivalry.
The period that followed the fall of the Soviet Union was a time of vaulting optimism. Walls were falling, borders were disappearing. Technological breakthroughs seemed to be carrying humanity toward ever-greater communication and understanding. The positive-sum agenda of globalization had apparently displaced the zero-sum rivalry of the Cold War; the world looked to be converging toward geopolitical harmony and democratic governance.
In this world, American officials and corporate leaders assumed that deep economic engagement with the world’s remaining authoritarian regimes — especially China — would gradually transform them, first economically and then politically. It followed that there was no trade-off between security and profit, because what was good for U.S. corporations would ultimately be good for U.S. geopolitical interests, as well.
If it was true, as President Bill Clinton said of U.S.-China relations, that “the choice between economic rights and human rights, between economic security and national security, is a false one,” then that choice could be avoided. It was just this logic that led the U.S. to bring China into the global economy by helping it gain admission into the World Trade Organization.
The trouble is that the remaking of global politics was never as complete as it seemed. Economic integration did not transform China: The Communist Party clamped down politically even as it reaped the benefits of trade and investment. Great power rivalry had not disappeared; it was simply held in abeyance until Beijing gained the strength to challenge a U.S.-dominated system that China had never fully accepted. Over the past several years, the post-Cold War world has given way to a new rivalry as China asserts its interests, challenges U.S. power on many fronts, and argues that illiberal authoritarianism, not democracy, is the wave of the future.
In this world, economic integration is not a cure-all, because it may strengthen rivals and give them the wherewithal to pursue destabilizing designs. Something closer to zero-sum competition has returned, and so there are once again hard choices to be made between profits and security. American rivals, with China at the forefront, are making major investments in AI and other advanced technologies, and the U.S. will have to tap the energy of its formidable private sector if it is not to fall behind.
This is the world Dunford lives in — and the world he is trying to drag Google and other Silicon Valley firms into. As acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan has announced, the Pentagon is focused on “China, China, China,” as its pacing threat. The Trump administration has explicitly labeled China a competitor and made moves — some better considered than others — to slow if not reverse the trend toward progressively greater economic interdependence. With some exceptions, however, the corporate world has been slower to make this transition, in part because post-Cold War optimism dies hard, and in part because there is still good money to be made in China.
Yet this view is short-sighted, especially for a company that has a trajectory as long as Google’s. Given how assiduously China transgresses intellectual property protections and promotes its own “national champions,” Beijing will surely seek to push Google aside after it reaps the benefits of the relationship. Given that Google has flourished in the rules-based, open international economy — and stable geopolitical order — anchored by the U.S., it has a great deal to lose in a world led by a mercantilist autocracy. And given that concern about China’s rise is itself surging throughout the American political system, the alternative to Google adopting a more constructive approach now may be a showdown with an angry Congress — or an angry president — in the future.
In the 1950s, Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson remarked that what was good for America was good for General Motors, the company he had formerly headed. Google may view itself as a global company, but it should keep that basic idea in mind.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.