Before long, the White House will release its national security strategy. In many quarters inside and outside the halls of government, this document will be seen as just another bureaucratic exercise with little bearing on the blizzard of issues President Joe Biden and his senior team are facing. The tendency in Washington to play it safe and to stick to the tried-and-true formulations of the past may be especially strong among administration officials who see Biden’s presidency as a restoration of proper order after four chaotic years under former president Donald Trump. The White House could thus be tempted to use the strategy as a tool of domestic politics, trotting out the familiar (and seemingly endless) array of international challenges coupled with an equally familiar set of U.S. government responses and approaches.
But what the president says in the national security strategy actually matters. A strategy that is too prosaic or that lacks realism about the constraints the United States now faces would be a missed opportunity. A better approach would be a concise and realistic statement focused on essentials to help guide policymakers through the stormy waters ahead, while setting the stage for the National Defense Strategy and other top-line strategy documents. Without sounding alarmist or defeatist, Biden’s strategy can be up-front about how core U.S. interests are changing and what implications these changes will have for U.S. foreign and security policy.
In particular, the strategy should telegraph the need for American domestic renewal and the connection between well-being at home and U.S. standing overseas. There is little to be gained from downplaying the problems the nation faces or proceeding as if the work of renewing and restoring U.S. power can be completed in just one or two presidential terms. The Biden administration should also resist feel-good suggestions that U.S. national security ought to be framed in terms of an open-ended battle of wills with an increasingly formidable China or presented as a Manichean struggle of democracy against authoritarianism.
Putting Domestic Renewal First
U.S. national security strategies were mandated by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. Each administration’s respective strategy has since had a core message for which it is most remembered. The strategies of presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton embraced an expansive role for the United States, advocating for policies to ensure U.S. global primacy, promote the spread of democracy, and underwrite global security. Under the presidency of George W. Bush, the 2002 National Security Strategy took a more militaristic approach that divided the world into free and unfree nations, stressed the need for a war on terror, and—most controversially—endorsed the use of preemptive military force. In the wake of the Great Recession, when the deficiencies of the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were becoming increasingly evident, president Barack Obama’s strategy sought to outline a somewhat less ambitious set of goals for the United States, although it still promised to underwrite global security. Most recently, Trump’s strategy placed a much heavier focus on a particular version of American sovereignty, especially on border security, and downgrading the importance of U.S. alliances.
If the Biden strategy sends one message, it should be that America’s domestic renewal is not only a necessary end in itself but also a prerequisite for a successful foreign policy.
Renewal is essential for several national security reasons, especially given that the U.S. economy is the main source of the nation’s global power and that domestic polarization undermines the coherence of U.S. foreign policy. America’s friends and adversaries alike believe that the country may not emerge from its current political predicament anytime soon, a belief that has a debilitating effect on U.S. global standing and clout in the here and now. U.S. investments in education, technology, infrastructure, and other areas are all important for strengthening the United States in the face of the security challenges that lie ahead.
A big challenge in any discussion of domestic renewal will be how the Biden administration frames the relationship between such renewal and its immediate priorities for economic policy overseas. The administration is acutely aware of how economic insecurity and other international pressures contribute to domestic polarization. Its strong emphasis on making U.S. foreign policy serve the needs of the American middle class reflects this concern. The Biden team senses, rightly, that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has lost track of the fact that their policy ideas ultimately need to offer clear benefits to the American middle class, especially when it comes to trade policy and the country’s overreliance on military power.
Concerns about the political, economic, and social impact of globalization on U.S. domestic politics are thus valid in many ways, but it will be important not to respond by leaning in the direction of protectionism. Biden was right to criticize Trump for his protectionism during the 2020 presidential campaign. There are many causes of polarization in the United States, and recent research suggests that the connection between economic globalization and domestic political discontent may be somewhat weaker than is sometimes assumed. In particular, the connections between China’s rise and job losses in the United States, while real, are weaker than sometimes thought.
Moreover, in overall terms, the United States gains enormously from its foundational role in an open international economy. Economic interdependence also tends to favor (although not guarantee) a more peaceful global order. Amid mounting pressure for protectionist measures on security and political grounds, it would be healthy for Biden’s national security strategy to clearly acknowledge the extent to which U.S. power and influence are greatly augmented by the depth and breadth of America’s economic and financial presence overseas and for the strategy to highlight the many ways Americans benefit from a free and open international economy. This would help to convey that the administration fundamentally believes that such an economy is consonant with U.S. domestic renewal.
Moderating the Tone on Values
Biden’s March 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance and campaign rhetoric put considerable emphasis on democratic values by casting the United States as a leader of the global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. The interim strategy, drafted in the wake of the January 6 insurrection, was no doubt influenced by deep concerns about U.S. democracy itself, and it is presumably part of a broader attempt to put Biden’s political opponents on the defensive. Nevertheless, the final strategy should tone this language down—not because values do not matter or because U.S. democracy is not under significant strain, but because giving values a central role in American foreign policy is a recipe for overextension and conflict that the United States can ill afford. Furthermore, such a vision would be hard to turn into reality anyway.
In an echo of the younger Bush’s Freedom Agenda, Biden’s cover letter attached to the interim guidance said, “we are in the midst of an historical and fundamental debate about the future direction of our world,” with democracy on one side and autocracy on the other. The document’s introduction stated, “democracies across the globe, including our own, are increasingly under siege.”
While that is undoubtedly the case, this depiction of the state of the world risks conflating the domestic challenges to U.S. democracy with the threat posed by authoritarian regimes abroad. U.S. domestic political institutions are clearly strained by a range of structural forces, but the world’s authoritarian regimes are not the primary cause of these strains. Foreign efforts to interfere in U.S. domestic politics matter and these incursions should obviously be exposed and blunted, but they are not a major driver of the political polarization in the United States today.
Framing the problem as a global contest between democracy and authoritarianism also divides the world into opposing camps, while heating up an already tense relationship between the United States and China. Such rhetoric tends to reduce the space for diplomacy by adding a moral dimension to this conflict that raises the stakes yet is inherently unresolvable. Such an approach will only lessen Washington’s margins for accommodation, flexibility, and calm—margins that will be needed to steer the U.S.-China relationship through the frightening and tumultuous waters ahead. For example, this confrontational language could make it more difficult for Biden to avoid a war with authoritarian China over democratic Taiwan, a conflict that would be catastrophic for all concerned.
If the intent of this emphasis on values is partly to motivate U.S. allies to reinvest in their relationships with the United States, it probably will not work. Many American allies in Europe and Asia share Biden’s concerns about the erosion of global democratic norms. Few, however, are likely to join a crusade against authoritarianism based on values alone. Economically, most U.S. allies benefit greatly from their trade and commercial ties to the Chinese economy and, in the case of American partners in Europe, access to Russian energy supplies. This is especially true for countries like Germany that believe their economic futures are inextricably intertwined with China’s. When forced to weigh trade-offs between their near-term economic interests and long-term liberal democratic values, most will opt for the former. A realistic U.S. alliance strategy needs to focus on common interests at least as much as common values.
Values should, of course, always have a role in U.S. foreign policy. America’s role in the world has a moral dimension, and there is surely a way to indicate this without tying the president’s hands or setting up unrealistic expectations or unenforceable red lines for U.S. adversaries.
Focusing on Essentials
The final version of Biden’s national security strategy is also an opportunity to identify his top foreign policy priorities clearly. A strategy that truly focuses on domestic renewal would logically imply a more disciplined foreign policy agenda and less willingness to be pulled in a million directions by the issues and crises of the day. Bureaucratic and political realities, both at home and overseas, will make this a challenge, but the administration should still try to keep the document as short as possible. The elder Bush’s economical January 1993 strategy is a useful benchmark in this regard. A rule of thumb might be that if the president is unlikely to spend meaningful time on an issue personally, it probably does not need to be featured in the national security strategy.
Biden’s interim strategy (and the list of topics it covers) is already too long and rather jumbled. It includes, for example, reinvigorating U.S. alliances and partnerships, providing financial assistance to Central America, undertaking a range of activities in the Middle East and Africa, taking action on climate change, responding to the coronavirus pandemic, fostering economic development, working through the UN, focusing on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, making investments in defense, maintaining counterterrorism operations, advancing several trade and domestic policy objectives, augmenting cybersecurity, standing up for democracy globally, winning the strategic competition with China, and investing more in the U.S. national security workforce and diversifying its ranks. Individually, these issues, challenges, and activities matter and merit attention, but collectively they could be narrowed down even more when it comes to the national security strategy.
It would make more sense to focus on a few essentials, especially U.S. homeland security, Asia, the global commons, and U.S. alliances.
- Protecting the homeland. Preventing catastrophic attacks on the U.S. homeland and its critical infrastructure is obviously a vital interest. The United States is safer than many other countries thanks to its geographical distance from key adversaries. Twenty years of counterterrorism efforts have meanwhile greatly reduced the threat from overseas terrorism. The strategy would be remiss not to acknowledge these facts. It also needs, however, to grapple with the fact that today’s interconnected world has degraded the natural security that once flowed from the country’s unique geography. Cyber attacks on U.S. infrastructure are one area where the U.S. homeland will probably remain especially, and perhaps increasingly, vulnerable to attacks from state and nonstate actors. This clearly also applies to pandemics and natural disasters.
- Keeping Asia open. The Biden administration’s strategy on China still appears to be in development, even as the United States has moved forward with important elements such as the new trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK, and the United States (AUKUS) and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. Even if the strategy is still in the works, it is widely recognized that access to Asian economies is and will remain a vital U.S. national interest. The national security strategy should be candid about the ways China could threaten this access over time and should underscore the reasons the United States and the rest of the region have for discouraging Chinese nationalist revanchism. At the same time, amid the mounting fever in Washington over Chinese behavior around the world, the strategy will need to find ways to avoid turning the temperature up, and, if possible, it should signal some willingness to accommodate some of China’s interests, ideally without emboldening Beijing or enraging Congress.
- Prioritizing the global commons. Biden’s interim strategy rightly noted the need for collective action to protect the global commons. The two most pressing problems that most require collective action are strengthening international responses to pandemics (the current one and potential future ones) and working to address climate change. Collective action problems are, however, notoriously difficult to overcome: with fewer resources and less room to maneuver in domestic politics, the United States is less well placed to resolve them than it once was. Washington may provide diplomatic leadership, but it also needs to stay focused on what it can reasonably expect to accomplish in the next few years, and this may be more limited than many are ready to accept.
- Bolstering U.S. alliances. Biden’s interim strategy rightly underscored the importance of American alliances and partnerships. The idea should not be a return to the past, but a reformed and reinvigorated alliance system that suits U.S. interests in the future. The final version should therefore be careful not to signal that the United States will indefinitely underwrite the security of allies who have the means to do so themselves or whose defense is not clearly linked to a vital U.S. interest. To do otherwise would perpetuate long-standing burden-sharing problems and mislead allies about the realities of U.S. domestic politics and changing U.S. interests. The political uproar over the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will probably lead to pressure for stronger rhetoric on U.S. commitments to allies and partners than strategic imperatives warrant. But unless solid intelligence indicates a major shift in existing threat levels, the drafters of the national security strategy should resist this pressure. The strategy is a priority-setting document that should eschew momentary anxieties with limited strategic relevance. If anything, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan strengthens, not weakens, America’s capacity to defend its allies.
Access to Europe’s economy is a vital U.S. interest too, but the strategy should not overstate the security threats to the European economic heartland. While Russia is a nuclear peer of the United States, Moscow’s influence is felt primarily thanks to its penchant for recklessness, and the Biden team’s strategy should be cautious about endorsing an unfocused, globe-spanning campaign to counter any and all Russian influence. Indeed, the strategy should do the opposite and clarify that the United States does not intend to take on such a campaign but will instead focus on areas where Russian activities directly threaten vital U.S. interests.
There is, of course, an ideal model for a national security strategy, and then there is the reality. Like any business or military strategy, Biden’s national security strategy is not supposed to be a detailed road map for U.S. policymakers, much less a straitjacket. Policymakers will inevitably be forced to adapt and improvise when confronted with an overwhelming tide of global challenges, unexpected crises, and their own mistakes.
But what the president says in the national security strategy still matters, and a concise, well-conceived strategy can help to guide policymakers through the stormy waters of the coming years. The authors of the strategy should thus aim to cleave as closely as possible to this ideal.