Key Republican Lessons for Biden’s Global Agenda
Five former officials from the Trump and George W. Bush administrations share their foreign-policy advice for the new team.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
When President Joe Biden lays out his administration’s foreign-policy priorities this week in his first major policy address since taking office, he is expected to pivot far away from the Trump administration’s “America first” approach. But as much as the country remains divided after a bitter election and its violent aftermath on Jan. 6, the new Democratic administration should think twice before tossing out past Republican policies. At least, that’s what Foreign Policy’s panel of five former officials from the Trump and George W. Bush administration argue. Read their foreign-policy recommendations for the Biden team below.
Biden Should Move Quickly to Impose Strategic Discipline on His Team
by Michael J. Green, the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a professor at Georgetown University, and the former senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration
One of the notable first acts of U.S. President Joe Biden was the creation of many new top-level policy positions in the White House and cabinet and filling them with experienced professionals. That reflects the size of the challenges ahead: The United States has a great new strategic competitor in China, climate change threatens the planet, national unity to conquer the pandemic is indispensable, and economic recovery is a prerequisite for restoring U.S. power.
But while Biden weaves these challenges together in his speeches, it’s unclear how well his national security team will cast them into policy. Biden will need to impose strategic discipline on his team, something for which he was not known in the past. That will not be easy, given the many different and potentially conflicting priorities Biden has laid out.
The basis for achieving progress on many of Biden’s priorities is a robust system of alliances and partnerships—especially in Asia, where the strategic challenges are greatest. U.S. allies in Asia were relieved by Biden’s victory, but share a new list of quiet concerns. They remember that the Obama administration pressed its view of the global agenda onto Washington’s partners—for example, by downplaying the economic and security challenges posed by China in favor of other issues, resulting in Washington lecturing India about proliferation and Australia about climate change. After the Trump administration’s tougher line on China—with which most Asian allies agreed in principle, if not in execution—Washington’s Asian partners worry about a return to the lax China policies of the Obama years.
A few concrete examples: Will Biden’s new adviser on climate change, John Kerry, bigfoot the National Security Council and State Department to privilege Beijing in cooperation on climate change, undercutting vital efforts by the National Security Council, State Department, and Defense Department to rebuild rattled alliances and partnerships to better compete with China? Will national economic mobilization to address the pandemic and rebuild infrastructure lead to a new burst of protectionism and “buy American” policies, that sabotage the administration’s ability to restore its economic influence in a region now dominated by trade agreements that exclude the United States? Will Biden’s pledge to convene a summit of democracies alienate strategically indispensable states such as Turkey or the Philippines to the advantage of Moscow and Beijing?
Biden will need to empower National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his team to craft clear-headed regional strategies—especially for Asia—that integrate these global themes. Those working on climate policy, democracy, and the economy need to make their strategic objectives fit those regional strategies, or else different parts of the Biden administration may find themselves moving forward alone. The United States is no longer in a position to advance progress on these critical global issues without strong alliances and partnerships. This is not the unipolar moment of the 1990s. Alliances and partnerships have to be the horse that comes before the cart.
Use the Honeymoon With U.S. Allies to Frontload NATO Reform
by A. Wess Mitchell, a principal at The Marathon Initiative and a former assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia during the Trump administration
The new administration should push for an overhaul of NATO that prepares the alliance for an era of geopolitical rivalry with Russia and China. The need for this adaptation was laid out in a November report by a group of experts commissioned by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, which I co-chaired with former German Minister of Defense Thomas de Maizière. Many of the recommended changes are long overdue and urgently needed in order to clarify priorities, improve cohesion, and streamline decision-making.
The administration should frontload the more difficult reforms that may become harder once its honeymoon period with U.S. allies wears off. A good starting point would be to update NATO’s Strategic Concept, which is now more than a decade old, to reflect new geopolitical realities facing the alliance. Washington should push for the creation of a consultative body encompassing the North Atlantic Council—NATO’s main decision-making body—and European Council to coordinate the West’s approach on China, and to ramp up cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners and India. It should encourage NATO to build a North Atlantic counterpart to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to fund intra-alliance innovation and spur shared research and development.
The administration should also band with like-minded allies to discourage the European Union from pursuing what it calls “strategic autonomy” and channel European defense aspirations toward enhancing NATO capabilities. It should encourage NATO to build a center for democratic resilience to rebuff external influence in NATO democracies. This should go hand in hand with stricter barriers against military-technological relationships between NATO members and the alliance’s rivals. Finally, it should push for reform in NATO’s decision-making processes—for example, by making it harder for individual allies to use their veto power to paralyze the alliance, allowing sub-groups of allies to act under the North Atlantic Council’s authority, and limiting deliberations in a crisis to 24 hours.
This is an ambitious but urgent agenda to boost the strength and effectiveness of the alliance. The timing is auspicious, coming at the start of a new U.S. administration’s term, the completion of NATO’s own review process, and the conclusion of Brexit but before the elections this year in Germany and France. Goodwill for the Biden administration will be high, and allies will be looking for new direction in the transatlantic relationship. Moments like this are perishable and should not be wasted.
Don’t Abandon Trump’s Achievements
by Amanda J. Rothschild, a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, special assistant to the president, and senior national security speechwriter during the Trump administration
The Biden administration should capitalize on the Trump administration’s gains in strengthening U.S. alliances and forging new partnerships in critical regions. NATO’s free-riding problem—the result of key U.S. allies’ systematic underinvestment in their military capabilities—is not only unjust, but also increasingly dangerous, as the United States needs to focus its precious resources on countering China’s growing power and influence. The rich nations of Europe are capable of balancing against Russian military and economic power, and they must take greater responsibility for protecting this flank of our collective transatlantic security. But their responsibility isn’t just military: A crucial part of their commitment to a common defense will be to forgo energy dependence on Russia.
In the Middle East, the Trump administration helped forge a truly historic alignment of Arab nations and Israel in opposition to the Iranian regime’s bid for regional hegemony and nuclear weaponry. Because of Iran’s destabilizing actions across the region, countries that were once locked in conflict are now partnering for peace. The Biden administration should recognize that such a previously unthinkable development only underlines the objective danger posed by the Iranian regime. Any future nuclear deal with Iran must be much stronger than the 2015 agreement, which the Trump administration rightly abandoned.
In the Indo-Pacific, the Biden team should likewise continue its predecessors’ efforts to encourage strong, sovereign, and independent partners that remain resistant to Beijing’s gravitational pull. In the heated political climate of the last few years, many of the successful and strategically vital initiatives to bolster and expand U.S. partnerships in the region did not receive the acclaim they deserved. The Biden administration would do the country’s security a great disservice if it abandoned these policies and failed to build on their successes.
Biden’s Pivot to Domestic Issues Shouldn’t Undercut Security
by Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute and a former official at the State Department, at the Defense Department, and on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration
My advice to the Biden administration would be to avoid making defense so subservient to domestic goals that Americans—and the administration—lose sight of its purpose. Biden’s early emphasis has been on issues of inward social importance rather than outward defense strategy. I’m not objecting to the issues of social importance; I’m suggesting it would serve the administration well to balance them with other messages on defense strategy and policy that project the power and purposes of the force.
Since being confirmed by the Senate as secretary of defense, most of Lloyd Austin’s public statements have been about his race, his pride, transgender service, sexual harassment prevention, calls with allies, praise for newly appointed subordinates, first lady Jill Biden, and his packing care boxes for troops. These are all good things. But what’s missing is an emphasis on the reason the United States has a military in the first place—and why the country splashes out 4.5 percent of its GDP on it. Austin’s day-one message did emphasize the safety of the country as “job one” and described his job as making the armed forces more effective at doing theirs. But more than a quarter of his message was about “helping our country get control of the pandemic,” a job the Pentagon has almost nothing to do with in Biden’s plans. So Austin’s social media effort begins to project an image of domestic politics.
Which is fine—until the moment the country needs to wield the bristling threat of its military excellence. Perhaps Austin’s team is overcompensating to show how civilian the secretary is. But you don’t have to be a recently retired Army general to wield the threat of military force effectively. And I worry the Biden administration is projecting a defense policy that is as domestically focused as its other priorities, rather than on fighting and winning the nation’s wars.
Leverage America’s Democratic Edge to Undercut Authoritarian Rivals
by Daniel Twining, the president of the International Republican Institute and a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff during the George W. Bush administration
Biden’s foreign-policy team includes principled professionals whom this Republican admires. Most served in the Obama administration and reject former President Donald Trump’s impoverished view of international leadership. But it would be a mistake to look backwards. The new team needs new approaches to shaping a free and open world that remains safe for the American way of life.
What differentiates the United States from its strategic competitors, and gives it its greatest advantage, is its network of alliances and partnerships around the globe. But these alliances require renewal and modernization. China and Russia have very few friends, but they deploy “sharp power” to coopt, coerce, or neutralize U.S. allies around the world. The good news is that the United States has the right allies: the rich democracies in Europe and East Asia, as well as a rising India. But these partnerships, embedded in traditional military alliances, are not geared for the political, economic, technological, and information contests that pit open systems against China’s bureaucratic despotism, on which U.S. alliance management must focus.
U.S. interests require stewarding like-minded coalitions to tackle new challenges. To protect open technology while countering authoritarian surveillance and digital subversion, the United States should lead a D-10 coalition of technologically advanced democracies. To strengthen an international economy based on rules rather than predatory Chinese mercantilism, Washington should negotiate to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a way to generate prosperity—as a corollary to domestic support for U.S. workers displaced by globalization and the economic effects of COVID-19. The United States should institutionalize the fledgling Quad alliance with Australia, India, and Japan to sustain U.S. leadership in and access to the Indo-Pacific, the emerging center of global economic gravity and potential geopolitical instability.
Finally, the Biden administration should operationalize incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s maxim that renewing American democracy at home and supporting democracy abroad are two sides of the same coin. The realist approach to foreign policy suggests that Americans check their values at the door of great-power competition. In fact, prevailing over authoritarian rivals requires the United States to be more American: standing for freedom and human dignity abroad by supporting accountability, transparency, and anti-corruption efforts everywhere. The strategic Achilles’ heel of the United States’ geopolitical adversaries is their leaders’ fear of their own people.
Michael J. Green is the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. He served as the senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @JapanChair
A. Wess Mitchell is a principal at The Marathon Initiative and a former assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia during the Trump administration.
Amanda J. Rothschild is a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, special assistant to the president, and senior national security speechwriter during the Trump administration.
Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake