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Talent immigration is the secret weapon the US can employ against China

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

In the struggle for global supremacy, the US has a massive advantage that China has yet to replicate: its ability to attract and absorb the world’s elite into its own citizenry. Unfortunately, Americans are shunning immigration at the very time they need it to keep their noses ahead of the Chinese. Closing its doors to global talent would be a grave and irreversible error for the US.

Throughout its history, and especially in the wake of World War 2, the US has been the destination of choice for eminent scientists like Albert Einstein and top entrepreneurs like Elon Musk. The US is the economic equivalent of Paris Saint-Germain in the French Ligue 1: everyone toils for years to produce the occasional star player, and then the US simply cherry picks the best players while offering scant compensation.

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This immigration supremacy is a key reason why America’s scientific and entrepreneurial environments remain the most attractive in the world, and why a country that accounts for less than five percent of the world’s population dominates the global economy in almost every facet. China has caught up a lot by leveraging its domestic talent more effectively, but it remains unwilling and unable to take advantage of the world’s elite.

As an illustration, China’s ability to develop civilian and military aircraft remains quite limited, in turn impeding the capacity of its air force to dominate the skies. In contrast, decades of teaching the world’s best rising engineers in its universities, and then offering them jobs and citizenship, has allowed the US to be the unquestioned aviation hegemon.

In 2021, America’s status as the globe’s only superpower is under serious threat due to a combination of its own relative decline and China’s meteoric rise. In a very narrow sense, China has superior prospects to the US because it has a much larger population (the landmasses are comparable), but the US’ immigration success can more than make up for that if it continues to suck in the world’s elite.

1954 photo of physicist Albert Einstein. (File photo: AP)
1954 photo of physicist Albert Einstein. (File photo: AP)

Unfortunately, that’s not how many Americans see the issue. There is a perception among working class Americans that globalization has lowered their living standards since the 1990s, and this view has garnered more support following the global financial crisis in 2008, and the COVID-19 pandemic today. There is a cultural aspect, too, as some Americans feel that immigrants do not share the US’ traditional values and that they therefore constitute a threat to the country’s long-standing identity.

Having surveyed a lot of the evidence, I believe that these immigration-related claims are largely false. I attribute their persistence to a combination of the xenophobia that economic crises inevitable breed, and the general atmosphere of anti-intellectualism that has taken root during the last 10 years, whereby people have become less accepting of scientific arguments.

My goal here isn’t to go over the evidence, as that would take thousands of words. Instead, I wish to highlight that America’s immigration decisions have impacts that go far beyond the direct effect on living standards and cultural values, because US hegemony is under serious threat.

For years, the US’ status as the only superpower has allowed it to reap inflated economic benefits, such as those stemming from the US dollar being the world’s de facto currency for trade and reserves. These economic gains have had geopolitical consequences, too: being sanctioned by the US – and denied access to its economy or the system of international payments – is extremely painful, giving the US massive leverage in international negotiations.

If the US closes its doors to the world’s best and brightest, its global economic influence will shrink considerably, and the unique advantages it has enjoyed for decades will disappear. That’s not something I see being acknowledged by those demanding a higher wall at the Mexican border, or who are happy to see Afghan translators and their families stranded outside Kabul airport lest they enter an America that is supposedly “bursting at the seams”.

The problem for US voters is that unlike a carbon tax or a universal basic income, this isn’t the sort of thing that one can experiment with. If the US surrenders its status as the favored destination for elite immigrants, the ill effects will materialize slowly, and by the time an evidence-based decision is made to fix the error, we will all be speaking Mandarin.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.