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Biden’s National Security Strategy Is Starry-Eyed About U.S. Allies

Managing rifts in alliances should be built into strategic planning.

By , an associate research analyst at CNA.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga walk along the Rose Garden Colonnade as they arrive for a news conference at the White House in Washington on April 16.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga walk along the Rose Garden Colonnade as they arrive for a news conference at the White House in Washington on April 16. Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

The Biden administration has touted its promise to “build back better” at home, but the administration’s interim National Security Strategy (NSS) suggests that building back better will be equally important abroad. The newest NSS announces that the United States will reclaim its role as leader of institutions and allies. But the NSS is silent on the greatest challenge the Biden administration will face abroad: alliance management.

In the NSS, a more holistic understanding of great-power relations has supplanted great-power competition—the flawed and overly Manichean organizing principle of the Trump administration’s strategic thinking. China and Russia still pose threats to U.S. interests, but the NSS acknowledges that U.S. interests may overlap with those of adversaries and cooperation may at times be beneficial. But while it’s more realistic about adversaries, it needs a sharper eye for allies.

The NSS repeatedly invokes an array of “allies and partners” as magnifying U.S. power in pursuit of U.S. interests. Democratic allies and partners stand “by our side against common threats and adversaries.” Deeper ties with NATO and Asian allies will “enable us to present a common front … and pool our strength to promote high standards, establish effective international rules, and hold countries like China to account.” With European allies, the administration plans to forge a “strong, common agenda” on the “defining issues of our time.” In each of these assertions, the NSS glosses over the interests that divide the United States from its allies and those among allies themselves.

The Biden administration has touted its promise to “build back better” at home, but the administration’s interim National Security Strategy (NSS) suggests that building back better will be equally important abroad. The newest NSS announces that the United States will reclaim its role as leader of institutions and allies. But the NSS is silent on the greatest challenge the Biden administration will face abroad: alliance management.

In the NSS, a more holistic understanding of great-power relations has supplanted great-power competition—the flawed and overly Manichean organizing principle of the Trump administration’s strategic thinking. China and Russia still pose threats to U.S. interests, but the NSS acknowledges that U.S. interests may overlap with those of adversaries and cooperation may at times be beneficial. But while it’s more realistic about adversaries, it needs a sharper eye for allies.

The NSS repeatedly invokes an array of “allies and partners” as magnifying U.S. power in pursuit of U.S. interests. Democratic allies and partners stand “by our side against common threats and adversaries.” Deeper ties with NATO and Asian allies will “enable us to present a common front … and pool our strength to promote high standards, establish effective international rules, and hold countries like China to account.” With European allies, the administration plans to forge a “strong, common agenda” on the “defining issues of our time.” In each of these assertions, the NSS glosses over the interests that divide the United States from its allies and those among allies themselves.

The NSS presents cooperation from allies and partners as natural, belying the real fissures between the United States and its allies and partners. The Biden administration’s laudable ambition to rebuild America’s alliance network depends on acknowledging that alliance is not always harmony. Allies and partners will naturally disagree over a range of issues. Patrick Porter and Joshua Shifrinson recently argued that the United States should not see allies as friends. In fact, even if allies are friends, friends can disagree and fall out. Alliance management is the art of recognizing those disagreements between the United States and its allies, and among the allies themselves, and forging compromises or accepting sacrifices where necessary.

Two examples from NATO’s membership illustrate how disagreements among allies can lead either to reconciliation or rupture. During the Cod Wars between Iceland and the United Kingdom, Iceland repeatedly threatened to leave NATO—contributing to a successful resolution in Iceland’s favor and maintained U.S.-Iceland and U.K.-Iceland relations. In contrast, France broke with NATO’s unified military command structure in 1966 over disagreements with both U.S. policy in Europe and German ambitions to make the alliance political but not autonomous, souring relations for all parties into the 1990s.

Dodging the realities of alliance management causes several problems. The NSS’s refrain of allies united by common interests fails to acknowledge that the United States recognizes as legitimate divergences of interest stemming from the domestic and international pressures allies and partners face. At worst, the Biden administration’s silence could be read as an expectation that U.S. allies and partners will fall in line behind Washington. At best, it says the United States does not think that their divergent interests are worth acknowledgement.

As Kori Schake has argued, Germany offers a clear example of this dynamic. Germany is pressing ahead with Nord Stream 2 and struggling to wean itself off lignite coal in light of domestic politics, but these positions clash with the Biden administration’s ambitions. Likewise, on democracy defense, the NSS ignores how domestic constituencies could disagree over the meaning of democracy—or even vote for authoritarians. To those inclined to dismiss European interests as minor, remember that during the Cold War, even the most powerless allies successfully pushed their own agendas on superpower patrons.

For some states, the rhetoric that “America is back” and rebuilding alliances may be concerning because America was never absent. Allies are not monolithic. For some allies, the Trump administration oversaw improved or deepened relations—indeed, “allies and partners” was a major pillar of the 2018 National Defense Strategy summary. Most notably the Quad returned during President Donald Trump’s term. Likewise, Eastern European NATO members secured commitments from the United States under Trump. For allies like Poland, the Biden NSS’s promise to reinvigorate alliances might be interpreted as an intention to return these states to second-tier ally status and sacrifice their interests to resurrect ties with traditional U.S. allies.

Finally, the NSS’s failure to discuss alliance management could hamper efforts to reestablish trust in reliable U.S. leadership. In Trump’s wake, assuaging allies will be costlier than ever, as foreign governments worry about electoral outcomes in 2024 or beyond. The United States will likely need to make deeper comprises, send costlier signals, and implement tighter institutional restraints to reassure partners that it will be unlikely to renege on its promises under a future administration. All of these will require managing the complex web of U.S. and ally interests.

The Biden administration is staffed with foreign-policy professionals with the experience necessary to craft coalitions that will advance U.S. interests. Their actions thus far demonstrate this expertise, but the Biden foreign-policy team needs to announce at every turn, to foreign and domestic audiences alike, that the administration sees alliance management as core to its strategy. This gap should also trigger a broader reckoning in Washington to spend more time and money understanding allies on their own terms.

Out of the public eye, the administration ought to realistically prioritize partners and issues. Teams on the White House National Security Council, on the seventh floor of the State Department, and in the Pentagon’s inner ring should frankly assess which constituencies, parties, or priorities can be sacrificed to achieve central U.S. objectives. Ideally, the administration should have a rational way to approach prioritization, and filling the alliance management gap in the NSS will jump-start this conversation.

The forthcoming full NSS should make coalition building, rather than coalition conjuring, the central theme. After all, alliance management is the principal challenge this administration will face as it tackles the slew of threats facing the United States. The interim NSS recognizes that Washington might agree at times with adversaries—the full NSS needs to apply the same logic to allies and admit that the United States will often disagree with them as well.

Cornell Overfield is an associate research analyst at CNA. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect his employer.

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