President Joe Biden has released his interim National Security Strategic Guidance to “convey my vision for how America will engage with the world.” Unfortunately, much of the document’s 24 pages are dedicated to topics such as voting rights, clean energy, climate change, and racial justice that are only tangentially related to national security. Still, it covers enough defense and foreign policy issues to give a good idea of where the new administration intends to head.
First things first: the administration deserves kudos for coming out so early with guidance. With only a skeleton crew of confirmed political appointees the administration has, in just 45 days, produced guidance designed to shape the President’s first budget requests and policy decisions until more formal reviews can be completed.
Second, and most encouraging: Seemingly gone is the naivety of the Obama era when the administration hoped for “deeper and more effective partnerships” with countries like China and Russia. Biden’s interim guidance rightly calls out China for becoming more “assertive” and identifies Beijing and Moscow as having “invested heavily in efforts meant to check U.S. strengths and prevent us from defending our interests and allies around the world.”
Areas of continuity with the Trump administration include identification of China, Russia, North Korea and Iran as potential adversaries. Alliances and allies enjoy great importance in the Biden guidance, with its call to “reinvigorate and modernize our alliances and partnerships around the world.” Unfortunately, accompanying that sound guidance are some lingering traces of campaign rhetoric, e.g., “America cannot afford to be absent any longer on the world stage. And under the Biden-Harris Administration, America is back. Diplomacy is back. Alliances are back.” Such political sloganeering seems jarringly out of place in a strategy document.
The interim guidance identifies three national priorities: protect the security of the American people; expand economic prosperity and opportunity; and realize and defend the democratic values at the heart of the American way of life. The first two—security and prosperity—nest nearly exactly with the first two pillars of President Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy and deserve top billing in any American national security document. Biden’s third priority, defending democratic values, was mentioned in the Trump strategy in a sub-section under “Advance American Influence.” But Biden affords democratic values higher prominence.
The third pillar in Trump’s National Security Strategy was “Preserve Peace Through Strength,” acknowledging how a strong military “ensures our diplomats are able to operate from a position of strength.” Biden’s guidance takes great pain to state the administration will make “responsible use of our military, while elevating diplomacy as our tool of first resort [emphasis added].” This, too, comes across as virtue-signaling, as one would be hard-pressed to think of a time when America used its military as a “tool of first resort.”
In the relatively short section discussing national defense as traditionally defined, the interim guidance contains some puzzling thoughts regarding nuclear weapons. For example, it states the administration will “head off costly arms races.” Absent is acknowledgment that our two primary nuclear competitors, Russia and China, have already embarked upon—and largely completed—modernizations of their nuclear arsenals, while the U.S. continues to rely on antiquated platforms and aged weapons. Indeed it isn’t out of a desire for an “arms race” that the U.S. is belatedly pursuing nuclear modernization; it is now a matter of preserving deterrence itself, and potentially of national survival.
The nuclear section goes on to state the U.S. will “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.” It seems rather at odds with statements made by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who testified at his confirmation hearing that nuclear deterrence is “DOD’s highest priority mission.” How can the administration reduce the role of nuclear weapons if it is the DOD’s highest priority mission? Perhaps this refers to backing off some of the new “low-yield” weapons that Trump proposed and Democrats consistently rejected as destabilizing, but with so few details we can only speculate.
Further guidance on the military reassuringly identifies investment in people as the highest priority, and that the administration will sustain readiness and “ensure the U.S. Armed Forces remain the best trained and equipped force in the world.”
Unsurprisingly, the guidance also takes up the increasingly common call for the military to “shift our emphasis from unneeded legacy platforms and weapon systems to free up resources for investments in the cutting-edge technologies….” Missing is any acknowledgement that the legacy platforms proposed for divestment would be essential to defend America from adversaries today, should the need arise. Divesting arms in hand on the mere promise of a future technology is foolhardy.
Also carried forward from the Presidential campaign is the mantra that the United States “should not, and will not, engage in ‘forever wars’ that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.” The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is performing several functions, such as advising Afghan forces and conducting counter-terrorism operations, but fighting a “forever war” is not one of them. The term “forever war” should be retired, and the decision to retain a U.S. presence in Afghanistan should be considered on the merits, not a bumper sticker slogan.
National security guidance, especially early in an administration, provides useful insight into a president’s vision and views. That it came out so quickly speaks well of the processes in the nascent Biden National Security Council.
The administration will have the opportunity to refine it when they publish the required full National Security Strategy within a year of the inauguration. Let’s hope that the full strategy will focus more on nuts-and-bolts national security and foreign policy goals and less on other topics, which, fresh off an election, clearly weigh on their minds now.
This piece originally appeared in Breaking Defense