Defining the Biden Doctrine

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan sat down with FP to talk about Russia, China, relations with Europe, and year one of the Biden presidency.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan gives a press briefing.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan gives a press briefing.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan calls on reporters at the White House in Washington on Dec. 7, 2021. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Putin’s War

In his first major foreign-policy speech as U.S. president, Joe Biden declared to the world that America was back. The international sigh of relief was almost audible amid hopes that former President Donald Trump’s disruptive style was a relic. Biden has pursued an ambitious agenda to repair alliances and forge new ones, curb corruption, arrest democratic backsliding, and tackle climate change, all while managing the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, Russian threats to Ukraine, and escalating tensions with China. 

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. The decision to withdraw remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan precipitated the collapse of the country’s government and chaos in Kabul as hundreds of thousands of people fled the Taliban. Plans to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia, at the expense of Canberra’s submarine deal with Paris, soured trans-Atlantic relations. 

Ahead of the anniversary of Biden’s inauguration, Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon spoke with one of the central architects of his foreign policy, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, about America’s moral responsibility to the Afghan people, the role of trade in confronting China, and what really makes up the Biden Doctrine. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In his first major foreign-policy speech as U.S. president, Joe Biden declared to the world that America was back. The international sigh of relief was almost audible amid hopes that former President Donald Trump’s disruptive style was a relic. Biden has pursued an ambitious agenda to repair alliances and forge new ones, curb corruption, arrest democratic backsliding, and tackle climate change, all while managing the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, Russian threats to Ukraine, and escalating tensions with China. 

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. The decision to withdraw remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan precipitated the collapse of the country’s government and chaos in Kabul as hundreds of thousands of people fled the Taliban. Plans to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia, at the expense of Canberra’s submarine deal with Paris, soured trans-Atlantic relations. 

Ahead of the anniversary of Biden’s inauguration, Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon spoke with one of the central architects of his foreign policy, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, about America’s moral responsibility to the Afghan people, the role of trade in confronting China, and what really makes up the Biden Doctrine. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: I want to start with the immediate crisis of the Russian buildup near the border with Ukraine. Last week, we saw this very intensive round of diplomacy in Europe. But Moscow, at least publicly, is showing little sign of backing down. What’s your view? Have the talks changed the calculus for Moscow? What offramps are you looking for to avoid war? 

Jake Sullivan: Well, I’ll let Moscow speak for itself. I can only speak for the United States. And for the United States, we’re ready either way. We’re ready if Russia wants to move forward with diplomacy, and we put some ideas and proposals on the table for their consideration, and we’re prepared to continue discussions about those. But if Russia wants to go down the path of invasion and escalation, we’re ready for that too, with a robust response in coordination with our allies and partners. We have gotten ourselves prepared for further diplomacy, even as we are prepared to respond to Russian aggression. And in that way, we’ll give ourselves the best chance to protect our interests and the interests of our allies and partners. From my perspective, there is scope for meaningful progress through diplomacy on critical issues of European security that deserve detailed treatment, and that the U.S. and Russia and NATO and the EU and other partners in Europe can all sit down together and work through, and come to understandings on. But Moscow will have to make its own determinations in that regard. 

FP: The buildup has exposed this long-standing tension about NATO’s expansion. The alliance has an open-door policy, but the reality is that nobody expects Ukraine or Georgia to be admitted anytime soon. There’s lots of media chatter that the alliance needs to be more frank about this, as a potential compromise to address Moscow’s concerns. To what extent has Russia already succeeded in reframing the conversation about European security and NATO expansion? 

JS: I think the key point here is that the prospect of Russia invading Ukraine—further invading Ukraine—is not really about NATO or about something Jim Baker said or Mikhail Gorbachev said. It’s about much more fundamental questions. Does Ukraine have a right to exist as a sovereign, independent state? The U.N. Charter says yes. International law says yes. We all should, with one voice as an international community, say yes. Does Ukraine have a right to be a democracy? Again, the U.N. Charter says yes, international law says yes. And we should all say with one voice as an international community that the answer is yes. And so, from my perspective, it’s incumbent on all of us who are engaged in this to lift the conversation up to these core fundamental principles, which is what this is really about. 

Now, on the question of NATO and European security, as far as I’m concerned, the allies, the 30 allies, spoke with one voice in Brussels last week on these issues. There is no dissent on the principle. What you saw in the meeting in Brussels was rock-solid unity across the alliance. And I think that will be sustained in the days and weeks ahead.

FP: In the first few months of the administration, the phrase we heard most often was this desire to establish a “stable and predictable relationship” with Moscow. And some analysts feel the administration maybe pulled its punches a little bit on sanctions over the poisoning of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, on Nord Stream 2. Looking at it in hindsight, was that the right approach? Would Russia be pushing as hard to redraw European security if there’d been a tougher line taken in the earlier days?

JS: There is a kind of funny quality to the analysis of causation with respect to Russia’s actions. You’ve got one group of people saying it’s because the U.S., the West, NATO pushed too hard, gave too many weapons, pressured Russia too much, got too much up in their grill, and that’s why Russia is acting the way it is. Then you’ve got another school that says it’s because the U.S., the West, NATO weren’t tough enough, didn’t impose enough sanctions, didn’t take enough steps. You can make both those cases. What we have tried to do is be very clear about the types of actions that we would respond to and how we would respond and then follow through on those things. 

And so when we came into office, President Biden called President Putin and said, “I’m going to look at the SolarWinds question. I’m going to look at the issue of the use of chemical weapons against Navalny, and I’m going to look at election interference in the 2020 election. And if I determine that Russia was responsible for these things in ways that cross our lines, we will respond with economic sanctions.” And that’s precisely what we did, in a vigorous way. And not just sanctioning individuals or entities, but sanctioning sovereign debt, for example. 

Then the president said that ransomware against critical infrastructure in the United States is not merely a criminal act. It threatens our national security and strategic stability. And if it continues, we will respond. And we believe that these past few months we have seen, from the point of view of high-profile ransomware attacks against critical infrastructure, a reduction in that activity. And just recently, in the last few days, we commend the Russian government, actually, for picking up a number of criminals associated with ransomware attacks against the United States. 

FP: The former U.S. commander in the Indo-Pacific, retired Adm. Philip Davidson, said that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could come within the next six years. Do you agree with that assessment? And should or would the United States offer military support to Taiwan in the event of an attack by China? 

JS: It’s the fundamental object of our policy toward cross-strait relations, to ensure that that never happens. That is what we are intent on doing through a combination of deterrence and diplomacy, through upholding the bipartisan tradition of U.S. policy toward Taiwan, the “One China” policy, the Taiwan Relations Act, the three joint communiques, the six assurances. But fundamentally, it’s our job to use all of the instruments at our disposal to ensure that military action against Taiwan, or a unilateral change to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait, does not, in fact, occur.

FP: A central plank to the competition with China is trade and economic engagement. On the other hand, you have delineated what you’ve described as a “foreign policy for the middle class” to protect jobs and businesses here in America. Are those ideas not in conflict with each other?

JS: I don’t believe they are in conflict, in three important respects. First, the idea of a foreign policy for the middle class is fundamentally about investing in the sources of strength at home, in our workforce and our infrastructure and our innovation and competitiveness. And when we do that, we not only create a stronger American middle class, but we put ourselves in a position to compete over the long term more effectively with China. And that is exactly what President Biden has been doing over the course of his first year. And if you look at prospects for the American economy, versus prospects for the Chinese economy, coming out of COVID, we believe we are well positioned. 

Second, President Biden made clear throughout his career, including during the presidential campaign, including in office, that he believes that trading with the rest of the world is a good and important thing, and there’s nothing inconsistent with that and protecting American jobs. American workers, given the right investments and with a fair and level playing field, can outcompete anyone, anywhere. Now he’s also said the important thing was to make those investments first, before doing new-market-opening trade deals. 

But he is pursuing an international economic policy focused on things that help reinforce American economic leadership, like the global minimum tax, like the G-7 infrastructure initiative, Build Back Better World. And I think you will see over the course of this year, with Secretary [of Commerce Gina] Raimondo, with Ambassador [Katherine] Tai, with other key figures on our economic team, a deeper and more intensive economic engagement in the Indo-Pacific. 

FP: Biden has spoken at length about how he sees the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism as a defining challenge of our era. How do you, in concrete terms, support the advance of democracy around the world when countries such as China and Russia are willing to use economic coercion, or in Kazakhstan, boots on the ground, to influence states? How do you compete with that kind of clout? 

JS: There’s not a single answer to that question. It has to be an entire toolbox that includes economic support for countries that are facing the type of coercion that the People’s Republic of China has imposed on other countries. There have to be efforts made to tackle the root of the rot in some emerging democratic societies that is corruption, and we have to put a whole bunch of tools in place to reduce corruption globally. There is the work that we can do to lift up independent media and independent voices, and one of the things that came out of the Summit for Democracy was an initiative to do precisely that. 

There are steps that we can take in terms of making sure that it is democracies who are writing the rules of the road for trade and technology going forward, so that the technologies that will shape our future are more rights-respecting and less subject to authoritarian control and domination. It’s a comprehensive agenda, and you saw every element of it at play in the Summit for Democracy, which brought together more than 100 governments, as well as private sector leaders, civil society, activists. And across this whole range of effort, the United States is going to work to reinforce the strength of democracies and make sure that we show that democracy, rather than autocracy, is the form of government best suited for the challenges of our time.  

FP: I want to turn now to another central focus of this past year, which is the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Looking ahead, with 97 percent of Afghans at risk of falling below the poverty line, how are you now thinking about U.S. sanctions on the Taliban? After two decades of war, what responsibility does the United States have to the Afghan people? 

JS: We have a genuine responsibility to provide humanitarian relief to the Afghan people to try to alleviate suffering and enhance the prospects for a stable country that can deliver basic needs for its people and opportunity for its people. And we are the largest donor to the people of Afghanistan. We just, in the last few days, announced another tranche of funding to the tune of $300 million. We are working closely with the United Nations, the World Food Program, NGOs like the International Rescue Committee to try to flow as many resources as we possibly can to deal with the humanitarian situation there. We do not believe that simply writing blank checks to the Taliban, when they are not taking the kinds of measures for an inclusive government and a rights-respecting government, is consistent with the long-term best interests of the people of Afghanistan. We do believe that getting funds into the hands of independent entities and actors who can convert that into meaningful supplies in terms of food, medicine, and other basic necessities is a profound responsibility for the United States and the entire international community, and we will step up to do our part. 

FP: I take your point on humanitarian aid, but surely that’s not a substitute for a functioning economy. What needs to be done? What do you want to see from the Taliban in order to take steps to start lifting sanctions? 

JS: Well, we have been engaging with the Taliban diplomatically and laid out for them, not as public ultimatums but, as I said, a private request, coordinated with other allies and partners, the kinds of steps that we think that they should take. And I’m not going to go into detail here, because I don’t want to negotiate in public. But the broad parameters are well known. It’s about human rights. It’s about allowing Afghan allies of the United States and other countries to continue to have safe passage out of the country. It’s about treating women and girls with respect and equality. It’s about the core fundamental commitment to not let Afghanistan be used as a base for terrorism against any other country or people, so these are some of the areas that we’re discussing with them, and we believe it’s imperative that we see progress in these areas. 

FP: I’d like to zoom out and take a 30,000-foot view on what many commentators would term the “Biden Doctrine.” What do you see as being the throughline between all of the major foreign-policy initiatives that the administration has undertaken so far? What are the ideas or ambitions that underpin this administration’s foreign policy? 

JS: I would say that there are two very simple ideas that underpin both how this administration approaches geopolitical competition and how we approach the great transnational challenges of our time: climate and COVID, nuclear proliferation, economic equality, and more. First, deep investments in allies and partners so that we are addressing all of these challenges, leveraging the strength of friends, as well as our own strength. 

And second, the proposition that American power in the world is fundamentally rooted in American strength at home, and the link between foreign policy and domestic policy is a tight link. And it matters profoundly to the lives of the American people, whether it’s things like the global minimum tax or managing the supply chain crisis or dealing with climate or dealing with Chinese economic coercion. The connection between domestic and foreign policy is one that needs to be attended to rigorously, persistently. Those two basic propositions underpin the president’s overall premise that we are in a decisive decade when it comes to democracy proving that it is the form of government best suited to delivering for its citizens and for delivering against the great challenges of our time in a way that improves the lives of people. 

FP: You mentioned the importance of allies and partners. There was great anticipation in Europe following Biden’s election. But this year has had its ups and downs with Europe, with tensions over the Afghan withdrawal and over the AUKUS submarine deal. How would you characterize the state of the trans-Atlantic relationship now, almost a year into the Biden presidency? 

JS: Well, I would say my characterization of it is probably less relevant than what you’re actually seeing with your own eyes when you look at the allies, the 30 allies of NATO, speaking with one voice in the Russia-Ukraine crisis. The tight coordination between the U.S. and the European Union coming into and out of the G-20 last year, on steel and aluminum tariffs, on the global methane pledge, on the global climate summit, on the Trade and Technology Council. It has been, I think, an exceptionally powerful few months of coordination and cooperation across the Atlantic. 

And I acknowledge that it followed a period where many European leaders raised concerns about the level and nature of consultation and coordination in the early months of last year. But having come through that period, we have, I think, achieved a level of strength and confidence in the trans-Atlantic partnership that is actually really quite remarkable. And I think if you went to European interlocutors today, you would hear a very different story than you may have heard, you know, six, eight months ago. And that’s a testament to, I think, a really powerful thing, which is listening. We listened to our partners and allies. We heard what they had to say. We responded, and I think the results now speak for themselves.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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