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Here’s What Biden’s New National Security Strategy Should Say

Tossed and rewritten after Russia invaded Ukraine, the document still hasn’t been released.

By , the executive director of the Alexander Hamilton Society.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks before signing the agreement for Finland and Sweden to join NATO at the White House in Washington on Aug. 9.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks before signing the agreement for Finland and Sweden to join NATO at the White House in Washington on Aug. 9.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks before signing the agreement for Finland and Sweden to join NATO at the White House in Washington on Aug. 9. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After a long wait, the Biden administration may finally release the new U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) this fall. Originally scheduled for publication late last year, the document was withheld as Russian war preparations on Ukraine’s borders intensified. The invasion and its fallout then presented Washington with a new strategic situation, requiring the document to be rewritten. Its absence has left many wondering about the administration’s strategic objectives, priorities, and plans to achieve them.

The Biden administration laid out its initial impulses on national security in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, published shortly after the new team moved into the White House in early 2021. That document prescribed a heavy dose of cooperation with other powers—including the United States’ adversaries. Beijing and Moscow were presented as partners on such issues as climate change, nonproliferation, arms control, public health, and economic stability.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s unleashing of the biggest European war since 1945—as well as his Chinese counterpart’s declaration of “no limits” support—laid the administration’s ideas and intentions to waste. It is critical, therefore, that the new NSS adapts to the new reality and sets Washington on a different course to prevail in the increasingly direct geopolitical competition with Moscow and Beijing. A successful approach to the challenges posed by these adversarial regimes must involve a global strategy to counter threats, not merely manage crises as they pop up. This includes, most importantly, a substantial increase in U.S. defense spending.

After a long wait, the Biden administration may finally release the new U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) this fall. Originally scheduled for publication late last year, the document was withheld as Russian war preparations on Ukraine’s borders intensified. The invasion and its fallout then presented Washington with a new strategic situation, requiring the document to be rewritten. Its absence has left many wondering about the administration’s strategic objectives, priorities, and plans to achieve them.

The Biden administration laid out its initial impulses on national security in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, published shortly after the new team moved into the White House in early 2021. That document prescribed a heavy dose of cooperation with other powers—including the United States’ adversaries. Beijing and Moscow were presented as partners on such issues as climate change, nonproliferation, arms control, public health, and economic stability.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s unleashing of the biggest European war since 1945—as well as his Chinese counterpart’s declaration of “no limits” support—laid the administration’s ideas and intentions to waste. It is critical, therefore, that the new NSS adapts to the new reality and sets Washington on a different course to prevail in the increasingly direct geopolitical competition with Moscow and Beijing. A successful approach to the challenges posed by these adversarial regimes must involve a global strategy to counter threats, not merely manage crises as they pop up. This includes, most importantly, a substantial increase in U.S. defense spending.

A serious strategy would begin by recognizing that the post-Cold War era is over. Beijing and Moscow have thrust a new cold war on Washington and its allies, despite the West’s best efforts to embrace these two powers as partners. The new NSS must end this unrealistic and naive approach.

If the United States is to win this long-term competition and reckon with its inability to deter Russia—and potentially China—from invading their neighbors, the Biden administration must provide immediate, real, and sustained increases in the U.S. defense budget. Washington’s allies and friends should of course be encouraged to do the same. As a percentage of GDP, U.S. defense spending is at one of the lowest levels since World War II. It’s not enough for Congress to top up Biden’s budgets, as it has done. Even achieving the lowest level of Cold War-era spending of 4.5 percent of GDP, as former National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster and I suggested in Foreign Policy—let alone spending 5 percent, as incoming Republican Senate Armed Services Committee leader Roger Wicker has proposed—would require a roughly 50 percent increase or more of the budget. Hard power is not the relic of a bygone era but the foundation of any successful attempt to win what Biden rightly calls “the competition of the 21st century.”

The new NSS should clearly recognize that helping Ukraine defeat Russia is not only the strategic priority in Europe but also a key front in deterring China.

A suitable strategy would recognize that China is the primary threat to the United States. To deter China from the use of force against Taiwan or its other neighbors, the United States must urgently arm its allies and partners (like it is now, belatedly, doing in Ukraine), as well as bolster its own deterrent capabilities. Should China attack Taiwan, U.S. and allied forces must be capable of quickly reinforcing the island and rapidly attriting China’s attacking of naval and air assets. This hinges on U.S. investment in areas that would allow Washington to quickly counter Beijing’s navy. It also requires expanding integrated joint and combined operations capability, forward basing, economic integration, and multilateral engagement through organizations like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad)—a U.S. quasi-alliance with Australia, India, and Japan. As the Cold War has taught us, success means deterring an attack, not merely responding to one after it occurs.

This isn’t only about defense. Deterring China and Russia in the military sphere will ensure—not undermine, as some contend—the preconditions for broad, shared economic prosperity at home.

The United States and its allies must stop facilitating the growth of Chinese and Russian economic power—and must enhance their own instead. The United States cannot continue to enable China’s economic and technological rise—both absolute and relative—and simultaneously meet the challenge of a long-term competition. The first priority must be to end those forms of engagement that mostly advance Beijing’s national security goals and economic strength while weakening Washington’s. This will require a strategic, selective economic decoupling from China. From restructuring supply chains to reshoring production of high-end manufactured products to better monitoring and regulation of technology and capital flows, the NSS must make reducing the economic leverage held by America’s adversaries a priority. Europe’s extreme energy dependence on Russia—which Putin is now turning against countries supporting Ukraine—demonstrates where that leverage leads.

The Chinese leadership is paying close attention to the war in Ukraine. The new NSS should clearly recognize that helping the Ukrainians defeat Russia is not only the immediate strategic priority in Europe but also a key front in deterring and weakening China—which has made it abundantly clear that it seeks global, not merely regional, power and influence. As part of its Europe strategy, the administration should make sure NATO allies, such as Germany, follow through on their new commitments to spend the NATO minimum of 2 percent of GDP on defense—and support them as they enhance Europe’s defense. The NSS should also commit Washington to help Europe diversify energy supplies and turn away from its dependence on Russia.

While the United States no longer relies on the Middle East for energy, many of America’s allies and partners still do. In tandem with increasing U.S. energy production and export capacity, the NSS should prioritize cooperating with major Arab oil producers to undercut Russian energy blackmail against Europe and use China’s energy vulnerabilities to weaken it. Biden’s pledges to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” and consign fossil fuels to history created a chasm between the United States and its major Arab energy-producing partners—a chasm that helped fuse the Saudi-Russian oil cartel and create an opening for China. Building on the Abraham Accords and other regional groupings, a smart NSS would recognize and respond to the growing security cooperation between China, Russia, and Iran. This week’s news of a Russian-Iranian oil swap to bust Western sanctions is a case in point. The administration should abandon any effort to use a nuclear agreement with Tehran to reintegrate Iranian oil into the marketplace, which would only finance the regime’s continued assaults—and lead America’s Arab partners to hedge against U.S. credibility by seeking better relations with Russia and China. U.S. presence and leadership in the Middle East is essential to—not a distraction from—geopolitical competition with Beijing and Moscow.

In releasing the new strategy, the Biden administration has an opportunity to take stock and change course. Indeed, there are ample precedents of other Democratic administrations making such a pivot amid geostrategic shifts. In 1950, President Harry Truman and Congress reacted to the shock of the Korean War by doubling the defense budget, which brought to an end the post-World War II shrinking of U.S. forces. In 1979, the Carter administration underwent a similar transformation: Spurred by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and other geopolitical challenges, President Jimmy Carter ended a failed strategy of accommodation with Moscow and began a sustained boost of U.S. defense spending, which eventually put the Soviets back on their heels. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine should serve as such a wake-up moment for Biden. By producing an NSS that reinvigorates U.S. power and deterrence, the Biden administration has the opportunity to set America on a course to prevail in the geopolitical competition that will determine the future of the United States and the world.

Paul Lettow contributed to this article.

Gabriel Scheinmann is the executive director of the Alexander Hamilton Society and co-chairs, with Paul Lettow, the Forum for American Leadership’s strategic planning working group. Twitter: @GabeScheinmann

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