Biden’s Eisenhower Strategy for China
The U.S. administration’s new foreign-policy doctrine is not so new.
Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, during the recent confirmation hearing for Kathleen Hicks, the Biden administration’s nominee for deputy defense secretary, pressed her on a phrase used by White House press secretary Jen Psaki—one that, in his words, “sent a shiver down my back.” The phrase in question was “strategic patience,” and it was used in reference to China. “Do you think that’s a good term that we should be using when the challenge and threat from China is immediate?”
Hicks was ready for the question. “I think our approach toward China is first to recognize that they are the pacing challenge for the defense community,” she said, “and that they present a serious alternative model, to be rejected, with regard to how they govern their society.” But she then added: “I do think there are opportunities for the United States and China to work together. … Even in the defense realm, there are confidence-building measures we should be pursuing so that we can prevent conflict between the two nations.”
It was a deft answer, one that dispelled Sullivan’s concerns with the doctrine but also signaled that she essentially agreed with it: While China is a “pacing challenge” (Pentagon argot for nations developing defense technologies intended to match America’s), the United States would confront China when required while avoiding a conflict by searching out areas of cooperation. And so the Sullivan-Hicks exchange has shed light on how strategic patience has become a stand-in for the new Biden administration’s approach to China—and the world.
Strategic patience has been used most recently to describe the Obama administration’s approach to North Korea, summarized by one defense intellectual as “refraining from actively pursuing regime change” while restraining Pyongyang’s behavior and “waiting for self-inflicted collapse.” The reason the policy failed, as Jessica J. Lee, a Korea expert at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft described it to me, was because it was a “highly risk-averse containment strategy” that relied too heavily on “economic and political pressure with no off-ramps.” But President Barack Obama’s North Korea failure wasn’t his alone. His successor, Donald Trump, doubled down on the Obama approach (vowing “fire and fury”) and then followed it by a face-to-face embrace with Kim Jong Un, which failed even more spectacularly. In fact, strategic patience predates Obama’s approach to North Korea, appearing prominently in his 2015 National Security Strategy (“the challenges we face require strategic patience and persistence”) as a way of dealing with a host of challenges—not just North Korea.
It appears the phrase first entered Obama’s vocabulary in October 2014, when the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin—now President Joe Biden’s defense secretary—used the term to describe how the United States intended to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which depended on yet-to-be-trained Iraqi forces to lead the anti-Islamic State offensive. Faced with complaints that his efforts were slow to yield results, Austin responded with a plea for more time. “We must remain focused and disciplined in our approach,” he said. “Most important, we must maintain strategic patience going forward. The campaign to destroy ISIL will take time.” Austin’s plea brought an avalanche of complaints (“It doesn’t sound like a strategy to me,” Sen. John McCain harrumphed), but Austin was right—his approach took time, but it worked: The Islamic State was routed with a minimum of U.S. ground combat involvement.
In fact, strategic patience has a longer history than is generally appreciated. Historians and hagiographers of Winston Churchill (the line between the two is thin) claim the British leader counseled then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower during a NATO conference in Lisbon (or perhaps it was in London—no one is exactly sure) that the West needed to be patient when it came to dealing with the Soviet Union, whose military forces vastly outnumbered NATO units in Europe. Eisenhower was worried. What should we do? he asked. We wait, Churchill answered. We avoid war and wait for the Soviet system to collapse, as it certainly will. Churchill made a similar point to John Colville, his private secretary, in 1953. After telling Colville that the Soviet Union would eventually implode, Colville asked when that might happen. “About when you are 75,” Churchill answered. He had it almost exactly right. Colville died in 1987, at the age of 72—two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Eisenhower adopted Churchill’s views as president, making strategic patience the centerpiece of his foreign policy. The biographer William Hitchcock (The Age of Eisenhower) argues that while Eisenhower was willing to use force to meet Soviet challenges, he focused his foreign policy on reinforcing U.S. alliances (and promoting European economic integration), maintaining a strong U.S. economy (with increased federal spending on research and development), strengthening diplomatic outreach (including to the Soviet Union), paring back excessive military spending (he cut the defense budget three times in eight years)—and choosing patience over conflict. Eisenhower might have chosen otherwise: deploying U.S. troops to save the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, supporting Hungarian rebels in Budapest in 1956, sending U.S. military forces “up the autobahn” during the Berlin crisis in 1958, or invading Cuba in 1959. Eisenhower was willing to counter Soviet aggression but never to the point of risking a global conflict. Rather, as Hitchcock notes, he was “dedicated to keeping the Cold War cold.” His was a deft calculus that focused on sustaining U.S. institutions and strengthening the country’s economy while deepening U.S. alliances and mitigating the risk of war.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Biden said much the same thing when, in a wide-ranging essay on U.S. foreign policy in the pages of Foreign Affairs back in 2020, he pledged to “strengthen the coalition of democracies,” increase investments in “research and development,” and force a confrontation with an adversary only when “the objective is clear and achievable, and with the informed consent of the American people.” Biden’s mantra was vintage Eisenhower: “Economic security is national security,” he intoned and went on to note: “We are facing adversaries, both externally and internally, hoping to exploit the fissures in our society, undermine our democracy, break up our alliances, and bring about the return of an international system where might determines right. The answer to this threat is more openness, not less: more friendships, more cooperation, more alliances, more democracy.”
In the wake of Eisenhower’s two terms, historians judged him as passive and uninvolved. Eisenhower didn’t lead; he golfed. But over the last decades, scholars have shifted this view, noting his “hidden hand” leadership—though with considerable downsides. Eisenhower deployed CIA officers to destabilize anti-American or neutral governments in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East; they armed anti-communist revolutionaries, supported right-wing dictators, and launched coups in Guatemala and Iran. Eisenhower defended the policies as far cheaper than parachuting U.S. soldiers into foreign jungles. Biden is unlikely to implement a similar program, but he has refused to rule out using force to promote similar outcomes: “There is a big difference between large-scale, open-ended deployments of tens of thousands of American combat troops, which must end, and using a few hundred Special Forces soldiers and intelligence assets to support local partners against a common enemy,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Those smaller-scale missions are sustainable militarily, economically, and politically, and they advance the national interest.” Eisenhower could not have said it better.
Yet while the two presidents have strikingly similar approaches to foreign policy, Biden is not Eisenhower—and China is not the Soviet Union. In the 1970s, the Soviets attempted to match U.S. investments in new technologies (to offset the Soviet advantage in tanks, aircraft, and soldiers) by engaging in a military spending spree. They failed: By the mid-1980s, the Soviet economy was bankrupt. China will not make the same mistake. Rather, as Biden himself has written: “China is playing the long game by extending its global reach, promoting its own political model, and investing in the technologies of the future.” China’s long game seems designed to build economic power as a means of offsetting U.S. military dominance. The numbers tell the tale: China will expend nearly the same amount of money (an estimated $1 trillion) on its Belt and Road Initiative over the next several years as the United States will spend in developing and deploying advanced nuclear weapons, additional aircraft carriers, and a larger fleet of nuclear armed submarines. Put simply, China’s leaders are betting that trade and markets are more fundamental influencers than aircraft carriers and F-35s. It’s an interesting wager. For if they’re right, the United States is investing in the wrong thing.