Original Assessment: “While administrations may change, fundamental U.S. interests have not.” Thus, while emphases, tone, and focus may differ from one administration to the next, we would expect a high—if unsung—degree of continuity in how presidents continue to articulate national strategy.
What Is New? On March 3, 2021, the Biden administration released its “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.” Two months into the new Chief Executive’s tenure, President Joseph Biden’s national security team wished to supersede national security guidance documents, beginning with the 2017 National Security Strategy, which had been developed and promulgated during President Donald Trump’s tenure. The implication is that the “interim guidance” marks a significant break with the approach and direction of the preceding administration, to the extent that the new team wishes to purge the national security establishment’s “operating system” of any code developed by the Trump national security team. It is also a way to guide budget development for the next fiscal year that begins on October 1, 2021.
In keeping with the assessments made by Derek Reveron and Nikolas Gvosdev in their original Orbis piece, how significantly different is this interim guidance—and does it validate their conclusion that U.S. national strategy exhibits an understated but very real degree of continuity?
Nikolas Gvosdev: What I find striking in reading this document is the continuity, not only in the definition of fundamental U.S. interests, but also some of the critiques that both Donald Trump, and to a lesser extent Bernie Sanders, levied against the pre-2016 U.S. approach. The document explicitly rejects any notion of “restoration” to a pre-2016 condition; promises to terminate so-called “forever wars” in places like Afghanistan; and reiterates a commitment to a U.S. role in the world—including in its advocacy of fair trade with other states—that defends the interests of American workers and middle class families. It is a much more polite document, in that it repudiates the brash language of “America First” and the much more explicit transactional approach that we saw in the Trump years. The guidance stresses the importance of allies and partners in finding joint, collective solutions to global problems that impact American security—but also suggests that, in building back American leadership in international institutions, the United States will not be writing blank checks. President Biden wants America to lead, but the document’s explicit linkage that the U.S. role in the world is connected to and must support the domestic U.S. economic recovery highlights that the Biden administration is well aware of the importance of connecting what happens overseas to the doorstep of average Americans.
Derek Reveron: Despite what some commentators may suggest, there is a high degree of continuity on the importance of international cooperation and partnerships from administration to administration—as well as the rationale for those efforts. Even during the Trump administration, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization added two new allies, international military coalitions persisted in the Middle East and Central Asia, and efforts were made to institutionalize cooperation with Japan, Australia, India, and the United States known as the “Quad.” President Biden, with clear differences in style, wrote, “When we strengthen our alliances, we amplify our power and our ability to disrupt threats before they can reach our shores.” President Ronald Reagan said something similar in 1982: “Security assistance is a vital, integral component of our national security strategy. . . . Security assistance programs are a most cost-effective means of enhancing the security of the United States.” Forty years, different parties, and changed worlds did not change the fact that interest-based national strategy echoes across administrations. I see this with respect to countries that struggle with their own national security and seek U.S. assistance. In his 2017 National Security Strategy, President Trump said: “We will give priority to strengthening states where state weaknesses or failure would magnify threats to the American homeland.” This could have been taken from President Obama’s 2010 strategy: “Fragile and conflict-affected states incubate and spawn infectious disease, illicit weapons and drug smugglers, and destabilizing refugee flows.” All see security cooperation as a key pillar of U.S. foreign policy and defense strategy.
Gvosdev: In our 2015 article, we identified what we saw as some of the core, enduring U.S. national interests—such as defending the U.S. homeland, preventing either security vacuums or rising and resurging great powers from threatening the United States, promoting the flow of resources and goods to the United States, and securing America’s trading relationships. This document gives a degree of reweighting and reconceptualizing those interests and how best to defend them. Thus, we see that this interim guidance—in contrast to its predecessor—gives greater weight to diplomacy as a preferred tool of U.S. action; sees in pandemics and climate change rising existential threats to the United States; and emphasizes the importance of Latin America and Africa, without discounting the continued importance of the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic regions and the Middle East.
Reveron: And for obvious reasons (as the co-author of Human Security in a Borderless World), I like formal recognition of “the biggest threats we face respect no borders or walls, and must be met with collective action. Pandemics and other biological risks, the escalating climate crisis, cyber and digital threats…” The impact of COVID-19 and recognition of a changing climate underscores the limits of national security. A real test for the Biden administration will be to fuse traditional understanding of national security with human security to make sure government’s actions positively impact individuals.
Gvosdev: And for all the talk that Trump represented a “realist” approach while Biden supports a “liberal” take, it is critical to note that the interim guidance still preserves some elements of “great power competition” that marked not only the Trump era but was also a theme being sounded in the second term of the Obama administration. Also, with echoes back to the George W. Bush administration and its formulation of a “balance of power that favors freedom” is the dictum that the United States must “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.” This will be done not only by military force but also by highlighting the economic and technological advantages of partnering with the United States (rather than competing against it); the resulting “favorable distribution of power” is meant to incentivize rivals to want to find ways to cooperate with us.
Reveron: This statement could have been lifted almost verbatim from any document on great power competition issued during the Trump administration: “By bolstering and defending our unparalleled network of allies and partners, and making smart defense investments, we will also deter Chinese aggression and counter threats to our collective security, prosperity, and democratic way of life.” Yes, there may be more nuance or a shift of emphasis—“The most effective way for America to out-compete a more assertive and authoritarian China over the long-term is to invest in our people, our economy, and our democracy”—but watch defense budgets and what we will end up training and equipping our military for. I think what started as “America’s century in the Pacific” in 2011 evolved into great power competition over the last decade as China pursued its foreign policy in spite of U.S. objections on territorial expansionism, trade, cyberspace operations, and human rights. With its national strategic guidance, the Biden administration is signaling (backed by global public opinion) that the United States will compete when we can, cooperate when we should, and fight when we must.
Reveron and Gvosdev: Rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, signaling the United States would re-engage Iran in nuclear talks, and supporting United Nations bodies are first signals that President Biden will pursue a different foreign policy than his predecessor. Yet, he also is sustaining support for the Abraham Accords in the Middle East, committing to end military commitments in Afghanistan (including preserving Ambassador Khalilzad as the U.S. envoy for Afghan reconciliating), attacking a militia in Syria as first use of force, and retaining a great power competition lens to confront China. While the value of the strategic guidance is often dismissed by academics and policy wonks and used as a starting point on Capital Hill for budget discussions, the guidance is just that—guidance. However, it remains an important articulation of how the administration sees the world, its inclinations to guide the Executive Branch, and its signals to domestic and foreign audiences.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities, nor of the Naval War College or the U.S. government.