Remarkably early, the Biden administration has issued an Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. A full national security strategy document usually takes at least a year or two. The document overlaps significantly with Antony Blinken’s speech of March 3 and a report drawn up earlier by Jake Sullivan and his colleagues at the Carnegie Endowment. But after Donald Trump’s policy carnage, it’s necessary to tell government employees, the public, and other nations how the administration proposes to address national security.
The standard national security strategy focuses on how an administration sees military threats and intends to respond to them. Military equipment will be mentioned. Diplomacy and threats like climate change and pandemics each get a token paragraph or two.
That organization is upended in the Biden interim NSS. The priorities stated are:
- Defend and nurture the underlying sources of American strength, including our people, our economy, our national defense, and our democracy at home;
- Promote a favorable distribution of power to deter and prevent adversaries from directly threatening the United States and our allies, inhibiting access to the global commons, or dominating key regions; and
- Lead and sustain a stable and open international system, underwritten by strong democratic alliances, partnerships, multilateral institutions, and rules.
These words could be interpreted as they have been previously, in terms of international rivalries and weapons development, but those are not the specifics given here. After a tour of the global security landscape, with admonitions that diplomacy comes before military action, specific issues are given in this order:
- Reinvigorate alliances and partnerships
- “Move swiftly to earn back our position of leadership in international institutions,” working with the international community on the climate crisis and pandemic
- Address the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons
- “Make smart and disciplined choices regarding our national defense and the responsible use of our military, while elevating diplomacy as our tool of first resort”
- “Our trade and international economic policies must serve all Americans, not just the privileged few”
The public health and economic consequences of the pandemic loom above all. “Our strength abroad requires the United States to build back better at home.” Cybersecurity, revitalizing democracy, and rejecting politically motivated violence are part of that building back better.
The specific challenge of China is mentioned late in the report. The challenge is described as strategic competition rather than enmity or the “great power competition” so popular with neocons. That competition, however, should not preclude working with China “when it is in our mutual interest to do so.”
Change is a major theme throughout the report. Biden’s transmittal letter mentions change multiple times. At least one mention of change in the report alludes to the Obama administration, recognizing that many people in this administration served then.
The report ends with an admonition that we must not overrely on the military and a promise that other parts of the government that engage the world will be more substantially supported. Traditional separation between domestic and foreign policy has become less meaningful, which means that governmental functions must be rethought.
All this is consistent with the Carnegie report and the Blinken speech. The administration has a single foreign policy closely entwined with its domestic policy. The three documents together make a roadmap or checklist with which to monitor the administration’s actions. So far, the focus on controlling the pandemic and the American Recovery Act, expected to pass the House on Wednesday (March 10) and go to Biden for signature, has been job one, as these documents say.
New foreign policy initiatives are likely to take a back seat to rebuilding relationships and dealing with immediate issues, most notably the damage resulting from withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and the deadline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. As the pandemic comes under control, we will see more initiatives. That could be as soon as this summer.
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