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A nation must think before it acts.
This is the first article in a series on the Biden administration’s new National Security Strategy.
In March 2022, as we awaited the release of the first National Security Strategy (NSS) of the Biden-Harris administration, I assembled some observations about the role and function of such documents. I noted that a “national security strategy … is supposed to provide strategic guidance for the entire federal government” and that it is “released in the President’s name and is supposed to encapsulate his thinking, perspective, and worldview.” At the same time, the final document can often represent “an exercise in satisficing between different bureaucratic and policy interests of the various departments of government and the political factions that make up his administration.”
On October 12, 2022, the White House released its National Security Strategy. It is quite comprehensive in its scope and ambitions. It envisions containing the world’s leading revisionist powers (among them China and Russia) while forging new broad international coalitions to tackle a broad away of transnational threats, starting with climate change. The document lays out aspirations to regenerate the American domestic industrial base along Fourth Industrial Revolution lines while forging new economic partnerships with like-minded members of the democratic community of nations. Finally, it calls for the United States to play a leading role in creating and sustaining regional security architectures in every part of the world.
And yet, since the NSS is designed “to serve as the foundation for the strategic documents and policies” of every department of the US government, this latest iteration, while serving as a “first draft of what the administration sees as its strategic priorities,” still leaves some unanswered questions, which must be addressed in the coming weeks and months if this document takes the next step from presenting “broad, aspirational language” towards more operational guidance.
At several points in the NSS, the point is stressed that the bright dividing line between “foreign” and “domestic” policy has broken down, what Politico‘s Nahal Toosi has described as “omnipolicy“: collapsing the bureaucratic silos around such issues as “energy” or “climate.” And yet an omnipolicy approach requires a much higher degree of coordination and harmonization among the different parts of the US government where responsibilities for discrete portions of a particular policy initiative reside. This moves beyond the challenges of reconciling differences within the national security establishment between geographic and functional portfolios to also bring into the conversation a whole host of domestic regulatory questions and priorities.
In his message of transmission, the president indicates that foreign challenges have often been the spur to domestic reform and innovation. Yet who will be in the driver’s seat—and where will inevitable disputes be brought to resolution? As we have seen in just the last month, “domestic” decisions on how to allocate tax credits for electric vehicles or the release of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve—meant to bolster and address domestic concerns and interest groups—have also led to friction in US relationships with key partners like South Korea and Saudi Arabia. At the same time, cabinet departments—such as the Department of Commerce under Secretary Gina Raimondo—have played a much more leading and upfront role in some of America’s major foreign policy initiatives—in this case, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity.
The appointment of Ambassador Susan Rice to head the Domestic Policy Council seemed to suggest that the Biden administration understood that an omnipolicy approach might benefit from having a seasoned member of the foreign policy community to head the principal White House interagency process for domestic issues, while the designation of Jake Sullivan, who had done so much work on economic statecraft (and helped to formulate the “foreign policy for the middle class” tag line) as national security advisor, heralded the creation of a National Security Council process that would not just consider the international environment, but domestic considerations, in the formulation of US strategic options. If this NSS is to assist in developing implementable options, however, it suggests that a much closer fusion of the Domestic Policy Council and National Security Council staffs and interagency working groups will be required.
The NSS also lays out that the United States must be able to navigate among two broad sets of challenges—containing revisionist powers while promoting cooperation—and to do so in ways that balance US interests and obligations in different regions of the world as well as address domestic concerns and constituencies. While the president invokes an optimistic, can-do spirit (“There is nothing beyond our capacity”) the reality is that there are always competing clusters of interests and values. In keeping with President Bill Clinton’s dictum that “we don’t have to choose,” US strategic documents are usually loath to spell out the criteria for trade-offs, and this NSS is no exception. Nevertheless, the strategy contains within it distinct and separate imperatives that could contradict each other. Climate change is an existential issue, but the NSS stresses the importance of “out-competing” China; rejuvenating American domestic industry and manufacturing is a sine qua non for the maintenance of American power, but so is deepening trade and economic integration across the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean basins. The strategy envisions an entire plethora of overlapping coalition partners but many of these partners also have important and critical differences with each other.
Just to note a few of the challenges the United States is grappling with in real time. Washington wants India as a linchpin for its strategy for a free and open Pacific, but also want New Delhi to dramatically reduce its energy imports from Russia in order to deprive Moscow of revenue that helps support its malign activities, including the invasion of Ukraine. But deepening America’s relationship with European allies is also a priority, and part of that is helping to ensure their energy security as they decouple from Russia, which means helping to facilitate alternate sources of supply—which pivots cargoes away from India. North America could supply more energy in theory, but both production and constructing the export infrastructure create environmental issues amidst concerns that increasing short-term supplies of hydrocarbons retards the necessary shift to greener forms of energy down the line. Green energy is part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an area where the United States wishes to retain advantages vis-à-vis its competitors, especially China, but does that include areas such as energy that have climate impacts? Finally, of course, any international policy that significantly raises domestic energy prices will run into considerable political resistance. All of a sudden, one precipitating event—India’s decision over the last seven months to increase its energy purchases from Russia—has no one response that successfully meets all the goals of the strategy.
Ultimately, the president is the decider—but the reality of the so-called rule of ten and fifty means that Joe Biden—or any other chief executive—can only concentrate on a handful of issues at any one time. Senior figures around him can tackle a larger number, and depending on their personal access and whether they hold the president’s confidence, they might be able to act as his alter ego. More often than not, competing imperatives in the strategy will lead to satisficing compromises at lower levels of the interagency, or will lead to certain aspects of the strategy being pushed “down the calendar.” Already we’ve seen in the last year, since COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, how many of the longer-term climate promises have been suspended or abrogated in favor of shorter-term economic needs, including a resumption in the use of coal-fired plants to generate electricity.
To the extent there is a clear prioritizing principle, it might be “climate geopolitics”: reducing dependence on authoritarian states for natural resources for fueling Western economies, which can spur domestic technological innovation and also spur movement towards a green energy revolution while giving new purpose to Cold War alliances that move beyond military cooperation towards closer technological and economic relationships that will benefit their middle classes. Yet even that perspective still requires further operationalization. In sending this signal, the next step will be to see how the various “lower level” strategies of the US government decide to further define and clarify these questions.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author 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.