The United States' global primacy depends in large part on its ability to develop new technologies and industries faster than anyone else. For the last five decades, U.S. scientific innovation and technological entrepreneurship have ensured the country's economic prosperity and military power. It was Americans who invented and commercialized the semiconductor, the personal computer, and the Internet; other countries merely followed the U.S. lead.
Today, however, this technological edge-so long taken for granted-may be slipping, and the most serious challenge is coming from Asia. Through competitive tax policies, increased investment in research and development (R&D), and preferential policies for science and technology (S&T) personnel, Asian governments are improving the quality of their science and ensuring the exploitation of future innovations. The percentage of patents issued to and science journal articles published by scientists in China, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan is rising. Indian companies are quickly becoming the second-largest producers of application services in the world, developing, supplying, and managing database and other types of software for clients around the world. South Korea has rapidly eaten away at the U.S. advantage in the manufacture of computer chips and telecommunications software. And even China has made impressive gains in advanced technologies such as lasers, biotechnology, and advanced materials used in semiconductors, aerospace, and many other types of manufacturing.
Although the United States' technical dominance remains solid, the globalization of research and development is exerting considerable pressures on the American system. Indeed, as the United States is learning, globalization cuts both ways: it is both a potent catalyst of U.S. technological innovation and a significant threat to it. The United States will never be able to prevent rivals from developing new technologies; it can remain dominant only by continuing to innovate faster than everyone else. But this won't be easy; to keep its privileged position in the world, the United States must get better at fostering technological entrepreneurship at home.
This is a premium article
Buy PDFBuy a premium PDF reprint of this article.
SubscribeSubscribe and get premium access to ForeignAffairs.com.