GILBERTO ESPARZA, Plantas autofotosinthéticas, 2013–2014 (detail). Courtesy the artist. Photo by Dario Lasagni.

Export Control as National Security Policy


Change and Continuity in US Export Control Policy
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In 1909, as part of the Declaration of London on the Laws of Naval War, a group of nations produced a list of items we would today consider “dual use,” but at the time were called “conditional contraband.” The list was the first time a large set of states had agreed to a common understanding of what goods and technologies represented a security concern.

Interestingly, the list included an item that is not on current export control lists, but is very much on the minds of people engaged in security governance today: balloons. Like general aviation airplanes, box cutters, or novel genetic sequences, balloons, such as the ones floating over the United States recently, represent a type of security concern that is not really visible to, and therefore governable by, today’s conventional export controls. But they still represent security concerns to the state.

In “Change and Continuity in US Export Control Policy” (Issues, Winter 2023), John Krige and Mario Daniels discuss how a historical gaze allows us to better understand “the context, effects, prospects, and challenges of the Biden administration’s current policy changes” on export controls. But there is a bigger conversation about export controls that we seem unable to have: When is this system of governance not the right tool for the job?

There is a bigger conversation about export controls that we seem unable to have: When is this system of governance not the right tool for the job?

Many aspects of the modern export control system took shape in the 1940s. What was once primarily a concern of the movement of goods from seaports is now about the movement of those goods, and the knowledge around them, from computer ports and laboratory doors. Krige and Daniels amply critique the central idea in much current export control policy: that security comes from preventing foreign supply. And the view that we can know what we need to be concerned about with enough time to put export controls in place—at least two years if you want to have international harmonization—doesn’t need that much inspection to find many areas where it doesn’t fit anymore.

Just five years after nations produced that first international lists of goods and technologies that represented a security concern, the concept of conditional contraband essentially fell apart in World War I and the era of total war. While export controls may not be on a similar precipice at the moment, their limitations are becoming only more apparent. In recognizing these limitations, we open the window to thinking differently about whose security matters, what counts as a security concern, and who has responsibility for doing something about it. Krige and Daniels note the obstacles the current export control policies will likely encounter, but it is also worth noting that we can capitalize on these obstacles to have a bigger conversation on when export controls are not the right tool for the job—and what the right tool might look like.

Senior Research Fellow, Program on Science, Technology, and Society

John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

“National security” is a beguiling concept. Who does not wish to be secure among one’s people? Yet the very idea of a secured nation, as well as the instruments to achieve it, is not so much about the safety and well-being of the people in a country but the maintenance and expansion of state power, often at the cost of such safety and well-being. The normalization of national security obscures its contested origin and the violence it invokes.

As John Krige and Mario Daniels elucidate in their essay, national security as a whole-of-society response to perpetual danger grew out of institutional legacies of World War II and quickly took hold at the onset of the Cold War. Export controls have been central to this mission: to keep US adversaries technologically inferior and economically poorer, hence militarily weaker.

Since the beginning, export control regulations have faced pushback from proponents of free trade. Yet the dual objectives of a secured nation and a free market are in tension only if one believes in the fairness or at least neutrality of the capitalist market, and mistakes the purported ideals of America for reality. The so-called liberal international order, including financial systems, intellectual property regime, and trade rules, overwhelmingly favors US corporate interests and aids its geopolitical agenda. Export controls are another set of tools in service of US hegemony.

By the parochial logic of techno-nationalism, safety from dual-use technology is achieved not by restricting its harmful use but by restricting its users.

A country’s foreign policy cannot be detached from its domestic politics. During the Cold War, US policymakers wielded the threat of communism as justification to wage wars and stage coups abroad, and to suppress speech, crush unions, and obstruct racial justice at home. Export controls should be understood within this broader context: more than just directing what can or cannot move across borders, these exclusionary policies also help define the borders they enforce. Both within and beyond the territorial bounds of the United States, the interests of capital and stratification of labor follow a racialized and gendered hierarchy. Export control policies reflect and reinforce these disparities; they are exercises of necropolitics on a global scale: to dictate who may live and who must die.

By the parochial logic of techno-nationalism, safety from dual-use technology is achieved not by restricting its harmful use but by restricting its users. Guns are good as long as they are pointed at the other side. The implications of this mindset are dangerous not just for existing technology but also for the future of science, as the anticipation of war shapes the contours of inquiry. When the Biden administration issued sweeping bans on the export of high-end semiconductor technology to China, citing the potential of “AI-powered” weaponry, the military application of artificial intelligence was no longer treated as a path that can be refused with collective agency but as destiny. The lust for a robot army further distracts from the many harms automated algorithms already cause, as they perpetuate systemic bias and aggravate social inequality. The securitization of a national border around knowledge depletes the global commons and closes off the moral imagination. The public is left poorer and less safe.

Research Scholar in Law and Fellow

Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center

Cite this Article

“Export Control as National Security Policy.” Issues in Science and Technology 39, no. 3 (Spring 2023).

Vol. XXXIX, No. 3, Spring 2023