Does the New U.S. National Defense Strategy Make Any Sense?
The Pentagon is scrambling to deter China while adjusting to war in Europe—but does its new approach amount to more than just rhetoric?
Emma Ashford: Hello, Matt. I hope you’re enjoying Washington’s wet and blustery spring weather?
Emma Ashford: Hello, Matt. I hope you’re enjoying Washington’s wet and blustery spring weather?
Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma. I just returned from Brussels for meetings at NATO.
The dreary weather, unfortunately, fits the news of the day, with war continuing to rage in Ukraine and credible evidence of Russian war crimes in Bucha. Given that I doubt we disagree on that issue, we should probably choose another subject for this week’s exchange.
EA: There’s certainly nothing to debate when it comes to war crimes. And the tragic images coming out of Ukraine this week are a reminder that war is truly a horrifying thing. I hope that the two parties can find a peace deal sooner rather than later and end this war.
Have you been following the presidential race in France? The first round of elections for president will be held this weekend, and while Emmanuel Macron is currently favored to win, no French president has been reelected to office in nearly 20 years!
MK: My French colleagues were assuring me Macron would win several weeks ago, but it looks like this is going to be a close race. Do you expect a major shift in French foreign policy if Marine Le Pen, Macron’s conservative challenger, manages to win the race?
EA: Well, I still think they’re right that Macron is likely to win. As a reminder, France has a two-stage voting system. In the first stage, where there are a dozen potential candidates, the race between Macron and Le Pen is quite close, but when the top two candidates move to the runoff stage, that gap could widen substantially. Equally, it might not: Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a left-leaning candidate, is in third place and unlikely to make the runoff, but he’s appealing to a similar subset of society, with similar policies to Le Pen. The primary difference between the two is on immigration; it’s not entirely improbable that some of his supporters might choose to back Le Pen in the runoff.
So it’s definitely worth taking a look at Le Pen and her foreign-policy stances, particularly as she reflects some broader trends in French political life. Indeed, one reason why she’s doing so well in this election is that Éric Zemmour, a more right-wing candidate, is allowing Le Pen to portray herself as a moderate in comparison. The other, of course, is that inflation is rampant and French citizens are starting to feel the financial pinch.
Le Pen is a nationalist and a populist, and her top priorities are preventing immigration and protecting traditional French culture and language from immigrants. On foreign policy, she is somewhat hawkish, is skeptical of the European Union (to the extent that she was openly supportive of Brexit!), and has previously been friendly with autocrats or semi-autocrats such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orban.
MK: I can’t imagine that a pro-Putin stance would go over very well given the images of the war. Le Pen already faced controversy after her party printed over 1 million campaign leaflets featuring a picture of her shaking hands with Putin and has slightly backpedaled on her previous friendly rhetoric about the Russian leader.
EA: Le Pen has done a lot in the last 15 or so years to paint herself as more moderate than her father was, emphasizing her femininity and her policies that might appeal to the left, in what’s known as de-demonization. Her father, the politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, had a lot of unpleasant baggage—particularly related to his involvement in atrocities during the French war in Algeria—that really turned off the voters. But it’s an open question whether the junior Le Pen is actually more moderate than her father, or whether the acceptable political space has simply widened since his time as a candidate.
The rise of Zemmour in that context has been particularly interesting. He’s a Jewish far-right candidate—in a country where the far-right has a long history of virulent antisemitism. He routinely traffics in Islamophobic rhetoric and appeals to voters who are unhappy with their economic lot. Indeed, other than Macron, the top challengers for the presidency are all vaguely populist: Le Pen, Zemmour, and Mélenchon. They differ on issues like immigration, but not as much on economics; it’s difficult to predict how their voters will split in the second round.
So this could be a lot closer than anyone thinks, particularly with the impact of the war in Ukraine on global food and commodity prices hitting voters all over the world where it hurts. That’s the kind of pain that historically leads to electoral upsets. If Macron is reelected, he will be lucky that his election fell early enough in this crisis that the economic impacts haven’t yet made too much difference.
MK: A flood of refugees from Syria transformed the domestic politics of Europe several years ago, and I suspect the war in Ukraine, with its refugee flows and disruptions to energy supplies, might have a similar effect. Indeed, this is likely an intentional part of Putin’s strategy, to flood Europe with refugees, as in 2015, and destabilize governments as a result once the backlash sets in.
But can we shift to U.S. defense strategy? A classified version of the new U.S. National Defense Strategy was briefed to Congress last week, and a short fact sheet was released by the Pentagon, setting off a wave of debate about several issues, including U.S. defense spending.
What are your thoughts?
EA: It’s an overhyped bowl of word salad! I sincerely hope that the classified National Defense Strategy is better than the fact sheet at explaining what America’s defense strategy is, because I have pored over this document and cannot find a strategy.
Here’s one example: the document defines the Department of Defense’s new concept of “integrated deterrence” as “developing and combining our strengths to maximum effect, by working seamlessly across warfighting domains, theaters, the spectrum of conflict, other instruments of U.S. national power, and our unmatched network of Alliances and partnerships.”
I’m really not sure what that means, unless it’s simply saying that integrated deterrence is everything the U.S. government does?
MK: Maybe I’ve spent too much time studying Pentagonese, but I can translate that sentence. It is trying to say that in order to deter enemies, like Russia and China, the United States needs to integrate different types of weapons (e.g., conventional, nuclear, cyber, space) with nonmilitary tools (like sanctions and diplomacy), better incorporate the capabilities of our allies, be ready at both low (like cyberattacks and gray-zone tactics) and high levels of conflict, and do so globally.
EA: I’m sure you’re right, but I’m still not sure about the utility of a strategy document that in effect just says, “We’ll do everything.” It seems to fail the most basic strategic principle of placing means and ends in balance—not to mention the basics of good writing and concise prose. It would give any decent op-ed editor a heart attack.
MK: In theory, I think “integrated deterrence” is the right idea. The difficulty is doing it in practice. And, moreover, I do worry that what “integrated deterrence” really means is that President Joe Biden wants to rely more on nonmilitary tools (like sanctions, cybersecurity, and diplomacy) to deter enemies. I think that would be a mistake if taken too far. Old-fashioned hard power remains the most potent deterrent.
EA: Now that would be an interesting shift. And I am mostly supportive of the Biden administration’s attempts to rebalance the use of our various tools of statecraft away from military tools toward other avenues. There are a lot of problems you can’t solve with pure militarized deterrence! Everything from nuclear nonproliferation to trade requires a broader toolkit. But, again, I don’t see much of that here. I mostly see an attempt to shoehorn everything they already do into a new concept.
MK: In theory, Washington should be doing all these things, but I am not sure the U.S. interagency process actually works all that well together in practice.
Some in the administration have said that “integrated deterrence comes out smelling pretty good” in Ukraine, because they are using every tool other than direct military intervention to repel the Russian invasion. But I think this is a bad example for the concept. After all, Ukraine was a deterrence failure. Biden tried to deter Putin with threats of sanctions and arms to the Ukrainians, and it didn’t work. Putin invaded anyway. So, again, I think deterrence requires hard power at its core.
EA: I actually don’t think you’re wrong there: Deterrence does fail sometimes! And Ukraine was a failure of potential sanctions as a deterrent. After all, the administration leaned pretty heavily on promising that it’d roll out heavy sanctions if Russia invaded—a clear deterrent threat—and that didn’t succeed in preventing the invasion. The fact there are sanctions in place now shows that deterrence failed; the best the West can hope for now is that the sanctions coerce Russia to negotiate a peace deal or that they punish the Russians for their actions in Ukraine.
Of course, Ukraine wasn’t a failure of military deterrence, because Washington never suggested that it would use military means. But, again, I want to see more on integrated deterrence in the final unclassified National Defense Strategy document. I’m not convinced at this point that it’s anything new or unique.
On the other hand, something I do think is excellent in this document is the clear and concise presentation of U.S. interests and defense priorities, in particular the fact that the document seeks to prioritize the Asian theater over Europe in defense planning. China is still the main threat to the United States: a rapidly growing peer competitor with the potential for regional hegemony in Asia. Russia may be showing that it’s an aggressive revisionist actor in Europe, but this war is also showing that threat is limited; after all, the Russians are barely holding their own against Ukraine! There needs to be more prioritization in U.S. foreign policy, and it’s heartening to see the administration embrace this kind of language, despite the ongoing war in Ukraine.
MK: They are right to prioritize China. They were also correct to hold back the document a few weeks to incorporate lessons from the war in Ukraine. Russia now features as the second-biggest challenge in the released materials. In earlier drafts, it was like sixth, after climate change and pandemic recovery. Rising temperatures are a problem, but, unlike Russia’s nuclear weapons, climate change cannot possibly kill us all before we finish this column.
U.S. defense strategy was in the news this week because the Biden administration released its defense budget. It calls for a $30 billion increase in defense spending, but many critics (including me) think it is not enough.
EA: Really? The administration is already proposing an eye-watering 4 percent increase in the defense budget, building on similar large increases in recent years. And the defense budget overall is now headed toward $800 billion, which is a massive amount, far more than most of our allies or our supposed peer competitors. Simply increasing spending isn’t a substitute for strategy, and it seems like this is just throwing money at the Pentagon’s many problems: an overreliance on overpriced contractor firms, an inability to do procurement efficiently, and a complete lack of budgetary discipline.
MK: The Defense Department is a big government bureaucracy, and, as with most government agencies, there is waste, fraud, and abuse that should be cleaned up.
But I strongly disagree on the size of the U.S. defense budget. Washington only spends about 3 percent of GDP on defense. By that metric, it is at historic lows. During the Cold War, Washington spent an average of 7 percent of GDP on defense. It was able to cut back due to the peace dividend of the 1990s and 2000s, but now that Washington is entering two new cold wars, it is time for a massive increase in defense spending.
With inflation running at 8 percent, Biden’s 4 percent increases are actually cuts in real terms. I agree with the Republicans in Congress who argue that Washington should be aiming for 5 percent real growth—that is, 5 percent over and above inflation.
EA: I find those parallels problematic for a couple of reasons. One is that those Cold War averages include periods of large-scale war like Korea and Vietnam. Another is that the early Cold War period was characterized by a ruined Europe and Asia, requiring the United States to bear a substantial military burden in order to maintain security in both regions.
The situation today isn’t even remotely that dire: Washington’s counterterrorism campaigns in the Middle East continue, but the United States isn’t engaged in a major war, and its allies in Europe are in some ways richer and more prosperous than Americans! So I don’t think simply pointing at the Cold War and saying “let’s do the same” is particularly persuasive, especially when you bear in mind that the U.S. economy today is substantially less robust than it was during that earlier period.
The bigger problem, of course, is that increased budgets are also an attempt to avoid thinking about hard strategic choices. If you throw enough money at the problem, some folks think, then you can avoid having to prioritize certain regions or to choose certain goals over others. That’s just folly. Perhaps it will work for a while, but eventually the country won’t be able to sustain that kind of consistent spending increase.
MK: Exactly. A good strategy starts with clear goals. And Washington’s goals should be to maintain peace and stability in Europe and Asia. That requires deterring Russia and China at the same time.
So, then the question becomes: Can the country resource that strategy? Fortunately, the answer is yes. Washington can comfortably increase defense spending. Why make hard choices if it is not required?
If you don’t like the early Cold War analogy, let’s take Ronald Reagan’s buildup in the 1980s. He spent between 5 and 6 percent of GDP on defense. The United States was at peace (other than a short war in Grenada), and its allies were already rebuilt. That defense buildup was essential to winning the first Cold War. To win these new cold wars, Washington should follow a similar approach. Looked at in that light, a 5 percent real increase above current levels is quite modest.
And why is the U.S. economy less robust than in the 1980s? To paraphrase Winston Churchill, America possesses the least robust economy on Earth today, except for all the others.
EA: Well, compared to the 1950s when there was routinely GDP growth of 5-7 percent per year, yes, the U.S. economy is less robust. But at the end of the day, every dollar spent on defense is a dollar that is taken out of the hands of Americans, whether you believe it should go to domestic spending instead or simply be left in the hands of citizens through lower taxes.
Excessive spending on defense can hurt the economy more broadly. And so, while defense is important, policymakers also have a responsibility to the public to keep spending at an acceptable—not overblown—level. And there are so many boondoggles in this new budget proposal, most notably the extra $50 billion the administration is throwing at largely unnecessary nuclear modernization projects.
MK: Literally the first line of the constitution says that the government will provide for the “common defense.” This is a top priority. If the government doesn’t keep the American people safe, no other entity can or will. Fighting a war with Russia and/or China would be much more costly than simply deterring it in the first place.
And you’re wrong on nukes; my biggest complaint about the new defense strategy is that it cut an essential nuclear weapon, the SLCM-N. This was a weapon designed specifically to deter Putin, and now the U.S. government is cutting it at a time when Putin is invading neighbors and making nuclear threats? It doesn’t make sense.
EA: Hard to see how a weapon that’s not even deployed yet could be utterly essential, but I suppose that’s a debate for another time.
MK: Deal. In fact, I challenge you to a live debate on nuclear weapons very soon! How about an FP Live event next week? I hope to see you on Tuesday, April 12, at 12 p.m. EST, and I invite all of our dear readers to please join us.
Emma Ashford is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford
Matthew Kroenig is a columnist at Foreign Policy and vice president and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig
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