Analysis

The United States Can’t Afford Another Vague National Security Strategy

Americans need the government to level with them about the need to stand up to rivals like Russia and China—and the costs of failure.

oe Biden addresses U.S. Air Force personnel.
U.S. President Joe Biden addresses U.S. Air Force personnel in Suffolk, England, ahead of the G-7 summit on June 9. Joe Giddens/WPA Pool/Getty Images

In Crimea, Russia engineered annexation through its little green men. In the South China Sea, China has used its paramilitary maritime militia, in concert with its Coast Guard and People’s Liberation Army Navy, to incrementally impose its diktat well beyond any accepted international notion of jurisdictional waters.

Why can’t the United States compete in the gray zone with China and Russia? It’s not outmoded military capabilities, intelligence gaps, or failed strategies. Fundamentally, it’s because the United States isn’t organized for modern great-power competition.

Failure to compete in the gray zone erodes deterrence, making the danger of miscalculation or adventurism greater. Just this June came reports indicating China added more than 100 intercontinental ballistic missile silos—around a 140 percent increase. In August, Beijing tested an around-the-world hypersonic missile now being called a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS)—surprising many defense analysts.

President Joe Biden addresses US Air Force personnel in Suffolk, ahead of the G7 summit on June 9 in Mildenhall, England.

U.S. President Joe Biden addresses U.S. Air Force personnel in Suffolk, England, ahead of the G-7 summit on June 9. Joe Giddens/WPA Pool/Getty Images

In Crimea, Russia engineered annexation through its little green men. In the South China Sea, China has used its paramilitary maritime militia, in concert with its Coast Guard and People’s Liberation Army Navy, to incrementally impose its diktat well beyond any accepted international notion of jurisdictional waters.

Why can’t the United States compete in the gray zone with China and Russia? It’s not outmoded military capabilities, intelligence gaps, or failed strategies. Fundamentally, it’s because the United States isn’t organized for modern great-power competition.

Failure to compete in the gray zone erodes deterrence, making the danger of miscalculation or adventurism greater. Just this June came reports indicating China added more than 100 intercontinental ballistic missile silos—around a 140 percent increase. In August, Beijing tested an around-the-world hypersonic missile now being called a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS)—surprising many defense analysts.

If that doesn’t serve as a wake-up call, then ponder Russia’s adventures in Ukraine, where Russia today has amassed around 100,000 troops, along with the equipment and logistic chain needed to sustain an invasion. All the while, China has been conducting increasingly provocative military operations in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea since March and leveraging cynical debt diplomacy to acquire an airport in Uganda last month

Clearly, the U.S. unipolar moment is dead. It’s past time to reorder U.S. defenses and earnestly get on with great-power competition. The next national security strategy (NSS)—due in just the next few months—must address all these threats explicitly while providing a road map for securing U.S. interests in peace. Anything less would be unserious.


This aerial photo taken on January 2, 2017 shows a Chinese navy formation during military drills in the South China Sea.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy conducts military drills in the South China Sea on Jan. 2, 2017. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Since the Obama administration, U.S. presidents have denied the security situation’s urgency with vague references to a geostrategic “inflection point” that is always merely “approaching.” In reality, that moment passed in 2015—when China’s navy became larger than the U.S. Navy and fortified its archipelago of human-made islands in the South China Sea. Washington just hasn’t come to grips with it because that would entail a jarring, comprehensive retooling of the levers of national power.

Rather, the powers-that-be have preferred muddling through with Cold War legacy organizational structures last updated by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act. Then-Sen. John McCain’s 2015 review of these structures was a serious effort but proved to be ahead of its time. The review died without much changing.

The latest presumptive attempt is what U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called “integrated deterrence” in an April speech. To date, there has been little official insight into his thinking on this seemingly new concept. More likely, it is simply a recognition that great-power deterrence requires action across a spectrum spanning peacetime competition through conflict and including military, economic, and diplomatic actions.

While the United States’ rivals in Beijing and Moscow gain ground, today’s diplomats and military leaders have allowed the nation to suffer several avoidable crises. These include the ignoble Afghanistan evacuation, limp preparation and action to mitigate supply chain disorders, and ill-conceived border policies amid a pandemic. U.S. President Joe Biden’s promise that “America is back” is ringing hollow among U.S. allies. The Afghanistan debacle in particular prompted sharp criticism from even Washington’s closest allies.

Merely acknowledging the China threat is no longer good enough. The American people need an action plan.

On Aug. 18, in an unusual move, British parliamentarian Tom Tugendhat scolded the U.S. president on the floor of Parliament. The politician echoed a sense of abandonment held by many as he chastised the president’s scapegoating of Afghans: “To see their commander in chief call into question the courage of men I fought with—to claim that they ran—is shameful.”

On the heels of the president’s poorly coordinated evacuation, he again undermined the trust of U.S. allies. In September, France was snubbed when the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia announced a plan to co-develop nuclear submarines (known as AUKUS), unceremoniously ending a multibillion-dollar French submarine deal.

AUKUS is a long shot that could see improvement in future allied military capabilities, but at what cost? At a time when every ally is a strategic asset—especially a major one like France, which has a substantial military presence in the Indo-Pacific—diplomacy around this deal should have been handled more carefully. If U.S. allies are to retain an asymmetric advantage over China and Russia, recent events can’t be repeated.

The long erosion of U.S. economic heft, ebbing dominance of soft power, and a slipping military edge have also contributed to where the United States is today. This changed geostrategic environment requires a fundamental rethinking of how the nation does national security. This is particularly important to confront China’s coordinated economic, political, societal, and military approaches.


President Biden speaks in the East Room of the White House Sept. 15, with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right).

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Sept. 15, with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right). Win McNamee/Getty Images

The events of the past few months make clear that the nation needs a serious strategy that focuses on protecting Americans and the country’s prosperity. Sadly, for too long, U.S. administrations have produced an “all things to all people” national security strategy that amounts to pages of pablum. The forthcoming NSS must focus on ends, ways, and means to assure Americans’ physical security in the near term while safeguarding future national interests. And it must be politically sustainable at home and with key allies. Getting there requires an honest assessment of some basic but important questions.

Who wants to hurt Americans? And how are enemies damaging U.S. society, its economy, and its interests? The focus must necessarily be on tangible, external threats so real actions can be taken; problems such as climate change or COVID-19 warrant attention but not as part of the NSS. After all, the Marines cannot assault a virus’s beach nor can the Air Force bomb climate change to the negotiation table. Those issues merit separate strategies; the NSS must focus on providing a military positioned for strategic success against China and Russia while bolstering its ability to operate in any environment, including when challenged by a rival. (This is not to say if a future pandemic is found to be a deliberate biological assault on the United States by a rival, it wouldn’t warrant a military response.)

Unfortunately, the president’s March 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance does little to help Americans discern the threats facing them—much less outline a strategy to respond. For example, while it devotes many pages to racial equity, climate change, and labor relations, it offers no clear plan for responding to the comprehensive threat from China. Merely acknowledging the China threat (something candidate Biden was reluctant to do) is no longer good enough. The American people need an action plan.

According to the interim guidance, the administration proposes to advance U.S. national interests abroad through the appeal of U.S. democracy. Yet the administration has already undermined this effort through misplaced apologist narratives for American history. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s March 19 comments characterizing the United States as a racist nation were certainly not helpful—nor was U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’s more recent characterization of European explorers’ arrival in the new world as “shameful” and ushering in “persistent inequity.” Such statements are hardly complete descriptions of the nation’s history and cut against any effort to hold up U.S. democracy as a beacon to freedom-loving people the world over.

Without adequate hard power, no measure of diplomacy or economic statecraft will convince China not to attack a democratic Taiwan or check Russian military adventures against a NATO member.

Likewise, misguided insurrectionist talk or entertaining thoughts of secession is nowhere near mainstream thinking despite the very visible and popularized events of Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol. More harmful has been the sustained amplification of those events and attempts to proscribe the views of those who hold a differing political viewpoint. The United States is stronger as a nation when its citizens embrace their differences and provide an example for how democracy functions through considered deliberation. Sadly, it appears debates about this event may be serving narrow domestic political goals while obscuring real dangers that are forming.

Just this year alone, the nation has suffered an oil crisis caused by a cyberattack and historic shipping backlogs snarling the nation’s logistics. Meanwhile, the cost of living has increased. Gas prices are up 40 percent since January. The current U.S. consumer price index is 6.8 percent higher than in November 2020 due to poor pandemic and supply system responses.

The president proposes to employ economic statecraft but has not said what that would look like—especially now, in an era when China is viewed by too many investors as a more lucrative option than investing in the United States.

Missing in action is how the levers of U.S. influence will come together, combined with military strength, in a meaningful way—one that deters bad actors like Russia, bolsters alliances, and builds the capacity to deter or fight a major war with China if need be.

When push comes to shove, a nation’s security rests on hard military power, which can be applied most effectively when combined with effective diplomacy and economic statecraft. This is nothing new and requires no new catchphrase like “integrated deterrence” to be actualized; what’s needed is a commitment to the tools of the trade.

Without adequate hard power, no measure of diplomacy or economic statecraft will convince China not to attack a democratic Taiwan or check Russian military adventures against a NATO member. Given China’s military expansion and Russia’s active military posture from Ukraine to the Pacific Ocean, a new paradigm is needed. There is urgency, as well, if Adm. Philip Davidson’s assessment is believed. In March testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he stated China is preparing for war over Taiwan by 2027. Even more pressing is the administration’s public acknowledgment that Russia is amassing troops and preparing for an invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.

Given these requirements and the president’s interim guidance, the next NSS must provide a plan to counter several pressing challenges in the near term. First, it must address China’s increasingly aggressive military posture around Taiwan and in the South China Sea. It must also fill the gaps in U.S. diplomacy and military capacities to address Russia’s June naval exercise close to Hawaii, undo its annexation of Crimea, and prevent further loss of Ukraine’s territorial integrity as well as diminish its support of hostile proxies in Syria and Libya, to name a few of Moscow’s provocative adventures.

Lastly, it must explain how the military will be used to protect Americans from resurgent international terrorist threats like al Qaeda given the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. Platitudes about “over-the-horizon” capabilities are not enough at this point.


British armed forces work with the U.S. military to evacuate civilians and their families out of Kabul, Afghanistan on August 21, 2021.

British armed forces work with the U.S. military to evacuate civilians and their families out of Kabul on Aug. 21.Ministry of Defence via Getty Images

For too long, a national bureaucracy stove-piped and in competition with itself has not been responsive to comprehensive Chinese economic, societal, diplomatic, and military competition. Although having fully qualified and trusted nominees approved and in place quickly is important, the issue is actually foundational; the problem is the way government is organized.

Recent jockeying between the U.S. secretaries of state and defense when called to testify before Congress on the botched Afghanistan evacuation undermines confidence that coordination between the two departments is up to the task. While some progress in interagency coordination has been made in recent years, adapting the country’s institutions for today’s threats must become a priority.

The good news is the nation has adapted to a fundamentally changed security environment before, and it can do so again. The 1947 National Security Act created a stronger civilian-led military and the CIA. Both were vital to Cold War containment of the multifaceted Soviet threat.

When the Soviet Union exceeded U.S. conventional deterrence due to its overwhelming advantage in Europe-based conventional forces, Washington addressed this vulnerability by turning to long-range precision weapons and joint operations—which were put on display during the 1991 Gulf War. Then, in 1986, the Goldwater-Nichols Act restructured the military to address shortcomings in military operations that were evident in the 1983 Grenada invasion.

The structures put in place in 1986 served the United States adequately both in the unipolar moment following the Cold War and during its global war on terror. But it is increasingly evident that those Cold War structures are no longer up to the task, especially in dealing with China.

The United States has the capacity to compete and win the day-to-day competition with China and Russia while deterring lesser adversaries; it just isn’t doing it effectively or sustainably. Examples of this include the United States’ failure to anticipate and blunt Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its failure to take seriously China’s 2013 South China Sea island-building campaign before it was completed in 2015.

Both Crimea and the South China Sea have eroded the U.S. military’s positional advantage and raised doubts about its military capacity to honor treaty obligations with the Philippines and NATO. Yet, recent improvements in defense budgets and a sustained forward naval presence in the Black Sea and South China Sea have halted this trend—so far.

Moreover, despite suffering defeats, Russia’s proxies in Libya and Syria remain active. And China has reneged on a treaty with the United Kingdom without consequence, effectively subjugating Hong Kong’s autonomy before 2047. Business as usual is not tenable.


Philippine marines disembark from their landing ship as security responders during a simulation of a disaster drill as part of a joint Philippines-US military exercise in Casiguran town, Philippines on May 15, 2017.

Philippine marines disembark from their landing ship during a simulation of a disaster drill as part of a joint Philippine-U.S. military exercise in Casiguran, Philippines, on May 15, 2017. TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images

Rather than bold statements of ideals and objectives, the NSS must articulate new countermeasures against gray zone operations. The combination of a forward naval presence and diplomacy works. When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated in November that Washington would honor defense treaty obligations should China attack Philippine vessels conducting a resupply at the Second Thomas Shoal, there were two carrier strike groups and an amphibious ready group nearby. China backed down, and the Philippines has since conducted a resupply of its base in the South China Sea. Perhaps this is what Austin had in mind when he called for “integrated deterrence,” which must merge diplomacy with the military and, increasingly, the economic levers of power and influence.

In 2018, the Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act was passed with high expectations that it would provide an alternative to Chinese Communist Party largess: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is a danger not only for its documented corrupting influence on foreign governments’ policymaking but also for its capacity to set longstanding infrastructure standards on everything from rail line gauges to 5G cellular service.

Ceding markets to standards set by Chinese state-owned industries puts in place longstanding impediments to incompatible U.S. products. In an attempt to provide an alternative to the BRI, Congress passed the BUILD Act to further U.S. foreign-policy interests. Sadly, the act has not adequately compelled the U.S. Development Finance Corporation to invest in infrastructure projects in ports and airports important to Indo-Pacific nations and the U.S. military. If this cannot be achieved unilaterally, it is hard to believe the G-7’s June commitment to a global “Build Back Better World” campaign will deliver any meaningful results relative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

For integrated deterrence to have any hope of success, it must include economic statecraft and counter Chinese information campaigns at home.

For integrated deterrence to have any hope of success, it must include economic statecraft and counter Chinese information campaigns at home. In 2017, Sarah Cook, Freedom House’s senior research analyst for East Asia, testified before Congress on U.S. media outlets’ self-censorship due to their desire for access to Chinese markets. Hence, pro-Beijing placements in U.S. media is almost unnoticeable: for example, the controversial South China Sea nine-dash line in a map in the children’s movie Abominable and the removal of an offending patch from actor Tom Cruise’s flight jacket in Top Gun: Maverick.

Then there’s the paid-for propaganda the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has inserted in mainstream news media. Its China Watch column has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. The competition for minds and market share is being lost as long as journalists in China are harassed, intimidated, and assaulted while the CCP has easy access to U.S. media.

The U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center was intended to push back on CCP propaganda. Unfortunately, with limited interagency support and funding—in 2017, it received $19.8 million to compete against the CCP’s estimated $10 billion—it’s a very uneven battle. The list of threats and acts of intimidation against those the CCP views as problematic is long and alarming.

Matthew Pottinger, who served nearly four years on the U.S. National Security Council, details a glaring gap of today’s bifurcated approach. In “Beijing’s American Hustle,” Pottinger reveals how billions of dollars in U.S. retirement accounts are funneled to China’s military via opaque listings of Chinese state-owned companies on U.S. stock exchanges.

A good first step, Pottinger argues, is the enforcement of the 2020 Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act and delisting of Chinese companies failing to meet U.S. accounting standards. Furthermore, no new Chinese stock listings should be approved by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that do not meet U.S. standards of transparency—a fair price of entry for the proper functioning of a democratic capitalist economy.

The dangerous reality Americans now live in requires a paradigm shift in how Washington conceptualizes and acts on national security. The next NSS offers an opportunity to begin telling voters how its leaders will rise to the challenge and the cost of meeting rivals’ challenges to voters’ security, way of life, and prosperity. True leadership requires communicating this to the electorate. Another unserious NSS packed with meaningless words will only further anesthetize the public and delay action beyond any hope of deterring a disastrous war.

Brent D. Sadler is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. He served in the U.S. Navy for 26 years with numerous operational tours on nuclear powered submarines. Twitter: @brentdsadler

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