Feb. 2, 2024

During the concluding week of Wintersession 2024, the LISD International Policy Associates (IPAs) embarked on an insightful journey to Northern California to examine the role of tech companies as geopolitical actors. This visit aimed to deepen their understanding of the intricate ways in which technological advancements are influencing the realm of foreign policy, national security and global trade. Starting in the heart of downtown San Francisco, the IPAs engaged in a series of meetings and site visits, extending their reach to Mountain View and Paolo Alto in Silicon Valley as well as the policy and political corridors of Sacramento. 

In the vibrant city of San Francisco, the IPAs' agenda commenced with a breakfast gathering alongside over 20 Princeton alumni involved in technology, government, climate change, venture capital and more. This was followed by a series of enlightening interactions with leading figures from influential companies including Meta, Salesforce, Clearway Energy Group, and OpenAI. A highlight of these conversations was the privilege of meeting David Risher '87, CEO of Lyft. The IPAs also enjoyed a unique dialogue with senior tech and financial journalists of the Financial Times, The New York Times and The Economist. 

The visit to Sacramento, the seat of California's state government, offered the IPAs a unique opportunity to engage in discussions with diverse policymakers and elected officials, partake in a guided tour of the capitol building, and enjoy a fascinating conversation over lunch with over a dozen Princeton alumni based in Sacramento. Meeting with Federal Judge Daniel Calabretta ‘00, US District Court for the Eastern District of CA gave the IPAs a unique opportunity to understand the complexities of a judicial career. Sacramento revealed the oft-overlooked power of state governments not only in shaping industrial policy, but managing foreign relations in the private and public spheres often outside of the purview of the federal foreign service apparatus.

The delegations’ visit to Stanford University was marked by insightful meetings with notable academics including Professor Francis Fukuyama, Professor Michael McFaul of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and Mauritz Kop of the Stanford Center for Responsible Quantum Technology. Additionally, they had the opportunity to interact with Dean Jonathan Levin of the Graduate School of Business, and to connect with Princeton alumni at a special reception.

Reflecting on the impact of this experiential learning visit, IPA Abby Lu ‘26 writes that she “gained a fascinating insight into the values and framework that guide tech leaders … all of which tend toward grappling with industry-wide uncertainty.”

While in Silicon Valley, the IPAs engaged with pioneering companies and government agencies at the forefront of the technology sector. Noteworthy encounters included a meeting with Astro Teller, CEO of Google’s X Moonshot Factory and a visit of their site, visits to the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), the NASA Ames Research Center, and a discussion with Blake Lawit, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of LinkedIn. A particularly engaging experience was the extended visit to Google’s headquarters where IPAs spoke to Kent Walker, the Global Affairs President and Chief Legal Officer, participated in a Project Manager team exercise and gained insights into Google's diverse initiatives from multiple employees.

“This trip gave me more perspective on the economic and political power of Silicon Valley-based technology companies, which has challenged our assumptions about sovereignty and self-determination in the modern setting.” says IPA and Rhodes Scholar Sam Harshbarger ‘24.

Throughout this journey, the IPAs demonstrated a commitment to deep and thoughtful engagement with the speakers and alumni they met, posing challenging questions about their respective fields of work. By immersing themselves in the epicenter of the technology industry, the IPAs not only expanded their understanding of the motivations behind the actions of the companies and organizations they visited, but also gained a tangible sense of the environments in which these entities operate. Prominent themes that emerged from the trip included the growing influence of artificial intelligence (AI) in both technological and policy discourses, the dynamic legislative and foreign policy interplay between California's state government and the federal authorities, the pivotal role of creativity and private enterprise in driving technological innovations, and the critical, ongoing debate surrounding the regulation of AI. The trip demonstrated the often informal capacity with which American company’s exert influence on its foreign policy and coordinate with the foreign service.

The trip was led by Executive Director Nadia Crisan, Acting Faculty Director Dr. Sophie Meunier and LISD Non-Resident Fellow Jonathan Fredman, and supported by the institute's assistant Jana-Alessa Peper.

With contributions from IPAs Ferenc Nicolae Somogyi ’25 and Luke J. Carroll ‘26.