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A nation must think before it acts.
This is the fourth in a series on the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy. Please read our previous essays on President Joe Biden’s overall grand strategy and strategy toward Asia and the Middle East.
Once every few decades, there is a geopolitical event of such magnitude that it fundamentally reorients US national security policy. The scope of such reorientations can be measured by examining the National Security Strategy produced in the aftermath of these geopolitical shocks. 9/11 was one such shock: it put terrorism at the forefront of perceived threats to US national security and ushered in an almost two-decade-long effort to defeat it.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine earlier this year was another such shock to the system. Three documents tell the story of how quickly and how profoundly US national security policy has changed in response. These are the 2017 National Security Strategy, published by the Trump administration, the early 2021 “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” and the recently published NSS. Even a rough analysis of these three documents tells the story.
The 2017 Trump NSS was a sixty-eight-page document that mentioned Russia twenty-five times. Ten of those mentions combined it with China, appropriate for a strategy that saw great-power competition as a defining feature of the international environment, and China and Russia as America’s primary rivals. The 2021 document mentioned Russia only five times in twenty-four pages; keeping with the theme of great-power competition of the Trump NSS, three of those mentions combined Russia with China. The 2022 NSS mentions Russia seventy-one times in its fourty-eight pages, and only eleven times does it combine Russia and China. Put another way, whereas the Trump NSS mentioned Russia once every 2.7 pages, the Biden NSS mentions it almost 1.5 times per page, or about four times as often.
The language in the Biden NSS is, unsurprisingly, far more confrontational toward Russia than in other recent US strategies. Despite the change in administrations, there was more continuity than change in how the 2017 Trump NSS and the 2021 Biden Interim Strategic Guidance approached Russia. Both saw Russia as a disruptive and destabilizing power, but one with which it was important to maintain a dialogue. The new NSS sees Russia as a “profoundly dangerous” state posing “an immediate threat to the free and open international system” and sets the US policy goal as “constraining” Moscow.
Aside from confronting and constraining Russia, the main goal of the NSS in Eurasia is supporting Ukraine and assisting it in reversing Russia’s aggression against it. Ukraine appeared once in the 2017 Trump NSS; it appears thirty-two times in the 2022 Biden strategy. US goals in the region are not only about power politics—supporting democracy also plays a key role. Whereas Trump mentioned the word “democracy” only six times, Biden mentions it thirty-eight times, and in a much shorter document. For the states of Eurasia, the message is clear that their democratic development will play a key role in the level of US support they receive.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine shook the US national security establishment in a way no event since 9/11 has. It has ushered in an era of confrontation with Russia with serious efforts to constrain Moscow’s aggressive designs against its neighbors. All of this is set against a background of support for democratic development in Eurasia. As with any NSS, whether these objectives are all achievable remains to be seen.
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.