Biden’s National Security Strategy

15 novembre 2022

On October 12, President Biden released his National Security Strategy. It is available here.

What is a “national security strategy”?

Mandated by law, the strategy is each new administration’s foundational foreign policy document. The strategy sets a tone for America’s international relations and gives readers a sense for a president’s governing philosophy. The document identifies key threats, challenges, and opportunities, as well as the key targets of US foreign policy. Each strategy also spends a few pages highlighting key administration concerns and priorities in each major region of the globe.  The subject of wide interagency discussion, often months in duration, it essentially reflects not only the president’s views but the consensus of the national security establishment. While the general public is certainly welcome to peruse the strategy, its intended audience is first and foremost the US Congress, and also the US Government itself, the Washington foreign policy ecosystem, and America’s allies (and adversaries). While it is often short on specific policy prescriptions, a close reading of the national security strategy will give analysts a good sense of where the president will devote his attention. As an ambassador in the field, I would pay detailed attention to this document.

Why haven’t we heard more about the new strategy?

The rollout of Biden’s national security strategy was relatively discrete. Media outlets that follow foreign affairs closely certainly took note. But Biden left it to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to present the document, and the strategy’s publication was hardly the top story in popular news outlets. The Administration’s attention was certainly focused on the midterm elections just a few short weeks away. The electorate’s views on foreign policy are variable, and polling suggests a significant degree of ambivalence among voters, even democratic voters, about America’s role in the world. Further, one of the top concerns of many voters, inflation, is closely linked to the Ukraine war and foreign policy.

What are the key takeaways?

First, Biden clearly seeks to return to, and reinvigorate, the emphasis on American leadership and the importance the United States puts on its alliances and relationships. Right up front, the document asserts “The need for a strong and purposeful American role in the world has never been greater.” The United States, the strategy emphasizes, will “build the strongest possible coalition of nations to enhance our collective influence to shape the global strategic environment and to solve shared challenges”. This stands in contrast to Donald Trump’s 2017 document, which Trump qualified as an “America First National Security Strategy.” As he has throughout the first year and a half, Biden is using this opportunity to reassure America’s partners that his administration does not intend to go it alone.

Second, the strategy targets a range of transnational challenges that loom as large, or even larger, than national ones. Climate change is perhaps the most important of these. As the Biden strategy puts it, “The climate crisis is the existential challenge of our time.” The policy statement prioritizes the “urgent need to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels”. Again, this stands in marked contrast to Trump’s strategy, which mentioned climate change only in passing, and mostly in the context of the challenge emissions reduction efforts represented for US business. “U.S. leadership is indispensable to countering an anti-growth energy agenda that is detrimental to U.S. economic and energy security interests,’ it said. Biden’s strategy also identifies pandemics, food insecurity, terrorism, and nuclear proliferation as important concerns.

Third, democracy plays a surprisingly important role in this strategy. There is a clear sense that America’s democratic institutions are a key force multiplier for US diplomacy, and that these institutions are under threat at home. Further, the strategy sees the United States locked in an international confrontation between democracy and authoritarianism, one that in some ways is reminiscent of the Cold War. As the strategy puts it, “the most pressing strategic challenge facing our vision is from powers that layer authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy.” Supporting democracy and human rights against repressive regimes is a key theme of the strategy.

Finally, two countries – Russia and China – are the clear targets of Biden’s foreign policy. The strategy treats the Russian Federation as a dangerous, nuclear-armed disruptor, and a regional bully. “Over the past decade, the Russian government has chosen to pursue an imperialist foreign policy with the goal of overturning key elements of the international order.” The war in Ukraine features prominently in the document’s analysis. China is presented in some ways as an even more difficult challenge. China also potentially wants to overturn an American-led global system, but, largely unlike Russia, it increasingly has the range of means necessary to do so. The strategy warns, “The PRC is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.” Moreover, China is not just a geo-strategic threat and an economic competitor, it is also a potential partner in some areas, climate change for example.

What does the strategy say about regional policy?

In Asia, the strategy focuses primarily on marshalling our allies and friendly countries like India in the competition with China, as well as on promoting economic exchange and fighting Covid-19 and climate change. In Europe, countering Russian aggression in Ukraine and beyond is job one, with renewed commitment to the NATO alliance a prime element. In Latin America, the Administration seeks to advance on all of its major issues, from economic prosperity to climate change, with migration being a specific concern with close connections to US domestic politics.  In the Middle East, the strategy deemphasizes the use of military force (like the Bush-era intervention in Iraq) for a policy that promotes diplomacy and coalition building while maintaining defense against primary threats like Iran. The strategy makes clear that the Biden Administration, unlike its predecessor, supports a two-state solution in Israel. In Africa, the focus is on “partnership”, on economics and democracy, climate change and pandemics. Regional efforts to resolve crisis – by the African Union or regional groupings – are an important focus. The document also includes both the Arctic region and space as areas of concern for US foreign policy.

What’s surprising about the strategy?

There is one fairly surprising element of continuity between Trump and Biden. The Biden strategy couldn’t be more different in tone than the Trump strategy, and many of Biden’s priorities, on climate change for example, couldn’t be farther from Trump’s. And yet, at the heart of Biden’s strategy are the same two countries – Russia and China – that we find in the Trump-era strategy. Trump’s language on China, in particular, sounds very similar to what we find in the Biden document:

Although the United States seeks to continue to cooperate with China, China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda. China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations. Its efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability.”
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