The Biden administration recently issued its National Security Strategy (NSS). The strategy, mandated by Congress, follows a short interim national strategy issued by the administration in March. The reason for the delay is obvious: the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The text of the NSS is available for download from the White House.
There is nothing particularly new in the strategy. The general thrust and individual policies of the Biden administration, now 18 months in office, are well known. But the strategy is nonetheless valuable. It summarizes, in 48 pages, the administration’s approach to foreign policy. The NSS will certainly be read closely by Congress, executive agencies and foreign governments.
Like all such documents, the NSS is a bureaucratic product. Every major institutional player gets to tout its successes and justify its current policies. At an important level, the strategy is like a multiple-choice exam where every answer is “all of the above.” Still, it is possible to glean some highlights from the routinely boilerplate language.
Substantial portions of the strategy cover familiar ground for anyone who has followed President Joe Biden’s approach to U.S. foreign policy. The NSS stresses the urgency of domestic economic renewal in today’s highly competitive global environment. This provides an opportunity for the NSS to highlight some of Biden’s major domestic legislation: the infrastructure bill, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. The NSS also stresses the importance of alliances. This is a theme that Biden has emphasized since his presidential campaign. Then and now, his attitude differs from his predecessor, President Donald Trump, who often showed disdain toward individual allies and even alliances in general.
Early in the NSS, the administration lays out two fundamental forces driving international affairs: the return of great power politics and the rising importance of global issues like climate change and infectious diseases. These two forces are in tension. The former makes cooperation more fraught; the latter makes cooperation more imperative. These tensions cannot be resolved, though they can be managed. Much of the strategy is given over to how the Biden administration hopes to accomplish this task.
Unsurprisingly, Russia and China dominate much of the NSS. The strategy describes Russia, particularly in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, as the more direct threat to international order; the challenge from China, in contrast, is cast as more systemic:
“Russia poses an immediate threat to the free and open international system, recklessly flouting the basic laws of the international order today, as its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine has shown. The PRC, by contrast, is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective.”
The strategy embeds these challenges as part of a broader global struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. This reflects both a long-running Wilson streak of idealism in conventional U.S. foreign policy and sense that, in recent years, democracy has been struggling, not just abroad but here in the United States. But the NSS stops well short of a Manichean battle to the death between the forces of freedom and autocracy. The strategy distinguishes between autocracies that seek to undermine international order and those, however unsavory their domestic policies, that do not. According to the NSS, the United States stands ready to partner with the latter. Moreover, the strategy forgoes democratization by force: “We do not believe that governments and societies everywhere must be remade in America’s image for us to be secure,” it says.
If much of the NSS is understandably given over to discussion of China and Russia, it does include sections on the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. The section on the Middle East does not state outright that the Biden administration will deprioritize the region. But the text suggests more modest U.S. objectives:
“We have too often defaulted to military-centric policies underpinned by an unrealistic faith in force and regime change to deliver sustainable outcomes, while failing to adequately account for opportunity costs to competing global priorities or unintended consequences. It is time to eschew grand designs in favor of more practical steps that can advance U.S. interests and help regional partners lay the foundation for greater stability, prosperity, and opportunity for the people of the Middle East and for the American people.”
With the exception of the Middle East, however, there is little sense of setting priorities in the NSS or much discussion of trade-offs. And yet strategy, to a large extent, consists of ruthless prioritization and painful trade-offs. This is true even of the United States, which, for all its power, possesses limited resources. In many ways the strategy depicts the United States as unbounded by these constraints: we will lead in Europe, we will lead in East Asia, we will lead, in fact, everywhere. This is not a criticism of this particular NSS; it is simply the nature of the beast. The best way to assess the strategy of the Biden or indeed any administration is to examine actual polices, actual budgetary outlays, actual deployment of military and other resources. At root, the NSS is talk — informative, useful talk — but talk nonetheless.