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How to See the World Like the Biden Administration

The new U.S. National Security Strategy is a guide to protecting a liberal world under chronic threat.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speak with a guest before a Medal of Honor ceremony for Army Colonel Ralph Puckett in the East Room of the White House on May 21, 2021 in Washington.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speak with a guest before a Medal of Honor ceremony for Army Colonel Ralph Puckett in the East Room of the White House on May 21, 2021 in Washington.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speak with a guest before a Medal of Honor ceremony for Army Colonel Ralph Puckett in the East Room of the White House on May 21, 2021 in Washington. Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

The Biden administration has just published its National Security Strategy (NSS). This is a distinctively American document that allows each new administration to express a worldview different from, and often directly hostile to, its predecessor. Elsewhere in the democratic world, professional diplomats and national security officials generally ensure the continuity of foreign policy. In the United States, the conduct of foreign affairs has been intensely partisan and ideological at least since the Vietnam War.

To take only the 21st century’s former U.S. presidents as an example, George W. Bush used his national security document to repudiate predecessor Bill Clinton’s blurry doctrine of “democratic enlargement” in favor of an almost messianic campaign to advance “liberty and justice” around the globe through diplomacy and arms. Barack Obama called on the United States to “live” rather than preach its values by rejecting George W. Bush’s embrace of torture. Donald Trump made hash of Obama’s call for global cooperation by pledging to “protect American sovereignty,” a vow that all of his predecessors would have considered superfluous as well as dangerous. Biden has now interred Trump’s “America First” strategy with a shovel marked “rules-based international order.” This head-snapping inconstancy is the despair of the United States’ allies but an ineradicable feature of its politics.

These documents are, of course, shaped not just by a priori views but by events in the world; that’s why in 2010, the Obama administration promised to build “deeper and more effective partnerships” with China and Russia, whereas both Trump and Biden spoke of both countries as rivals and adversaries. Great-power rivalry is the preeminent issue of the day; terrorism, a consuming question for George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump, comes in last among the “global threats” that Biden treats. Obama regarded globalization and free trade as benign forces; Biden writes that the rules of free trade agreements have been “designed to privilege corporate mobility over workers and the environment.” Obama, too, may now believe that; the world, and people’s beliefs about it, have changed a great deal over the last decade.

The Biden administration has just published its National Security Strategy (NSS). This is a distinctively American document that allows each new administration to express a worldview different from, and often directly hostile to, its predecessor. Elsewhere in the democratic world, professional diplomats and national security officials generally ensure the continuity of foreign policy. In the United States, the conduct of foreign affairs has been intensely partisan and ideological at least since the Vietnam War.

To take only the 21st century’s former U.S. presidents as an example, George W. Bush used his national security document to repudiate predecessor Bill Clinton’s blurry doctrine of “democratic enlargement” in favor of an almost messianic campaign to advance “liberty and justice” around the globe through diplomacy and arms. Barack Obama called on the United States to “live” rather than preach its values by rejecting George W. Bush’s embrace of torture. Donald Trump made hash of Obama’s call for global cooperation by pledging to “protect American sovereignty,” a vow that all of his predecessors would have considered superfluous as well as dangerous. Biden has now interred Trump’s “America First” strategy with a shovel marked “rules-based international order.” This head-snapping inconstancy is the despair of the United States’ allies but an ineradicable feature of its politics.

These documents are, of course, shaped not just by a priori views but by events in the world; that’s why in 2010, the Obama administration promised to build “deeper and more effective partnerships” with China and Russia, whereas both Trump and Biden spoke of both countries as rivals and adversaries. Great-power rivalry is the preeminent issue of the day; terrorism, a consuming question for George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump, comes in last among the “global threats” that Biden treats. Obama regarded globalization and free trade as benign forces; Biden writes that the rules of free trade agreements have been “designed to privilege corporate mobility over workers and the environment.” Obama, too, may now believe that; the world, and people’s beliefs about it, have changed a great deal over the last decade.

All previous such documents presupposed the persistence of the existing system of order; Biden’s is the first one whose subject is the struggle to preserve it. The introductory chapter is titled, “The Competition for What Comes Next.” Biden has come to office at a moment when the liberal order—or the “rules-based order” in the document’s less contentious formulation—is threatened as it has not been since the end of the Cold War. From his time as a candidate, Biden has spoken of the contest between a democratic and an autocratic model of world order. Yet it is plain that he has learned the danger of drawing lines in the sand. “Some parts of the world,” the document’s authors concede, “are uneasy with the competition between the United States and the world’s largest autocracies.” Many developing nations will choose a “new nonalignment” rather than take either side.

The Biden strategy document instead organizes nations into concentric circles: a “core” of “democratic allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific” that fully share U.S. values; democracies that “share much of our vision for regional and international order” but “do not agree with us on all issues,” a euphemism for countries like India or South Africa that have largely remained on the sidelines during the war in Ukraine; nondemocratic states that welcome a “rules-based international order,” and the bad guys, who seek to disrupt that order.

This is no idle pastime. The most original element of the Biden document is the complex interplay it describes between the two great challenges of the time—the threat to the liberal order and the transnational problems of climate change, public health, food security, and the like. These problems cannot be solved without all of the actors, yet the challenge that the adversaries pose to the liberal order has itself endangered the effort to address them. As the strategy document states, “geopolitical competition changes, and often complicates, the context in which shared challenges can be addressed while those problems often exacerbate geopolitical competition.” On the first count, think of the way Russia’s war in Ukraine has created severe shortages of food and energy; on the second, imagine the way that climate change or migration has intensified conflict in Central America or the Sahel. Each problem makes the other harder to solve.

The United States can’t give a pass to revisionist actors in the hope that they will pitch in on global problems—both because it can’t trust them to do so and because their transgressions can enfeeble the institutions the United States has developed to address those problems. (In what must have been a very last-minute response to the OPEC decision to cut oil production, the document blames the crisis in energy supply on Russia’s “weaponization” of oil and gas, “exacerbated by OPEC’s management of its own supply.”)

What then? The authors make the dutiful assertion that the United States must keep working where it can with Russia and China, but the emphasis throughout the document is on alternative mechanisms that are not subject to autocratic whims or vetoes—the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in the Indo-Pacific, for example, or the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity in Latin America. The fact that few readers will even have heard of some of these efforts or bodies—raise your hand if you can describe the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal—provokes some skepticism about their likely effectiveness. But again, the document makes the point that these and other grouplets are open to “any country that supports a rule-based order.” You do not have to practice democracy to insist that countries supply timely and accurate information about pandemics to the World Health Organization.

Of the revisionist powers, the authors regard China as the greater menace. Although Russia “poses an immediate threat,” China is “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective.” This focus shapes the document in several important ways. If Russia were deemed the greater threat, military strategy would be uppermost; in fact, the document does not even address the military until halfway through. Because the greater danger is China, the response must be economic and diplomatic first. It is instructive to compare this to the Trump document, whose very first priority action was “enhance missile defense.”

The idea that American strength begins at home is a standing feature of the genre, like the heroic quotations from the sitting president that head up each chapter. For Biden, however, (as for Trump, to be sure) the issue has been fused with that of geopolitical competition. The United States must “outcompete our strategic competitors”—which is to say, China. The United States can no longer count on an unleashed marketplace to guarantee victory against a rival that manipulates the marketplace to its own advantage; it needs an industrial policy, in part because China has one too. Anyone who read FP’s 2020 piece on geoeconomics by Jennifer Harris of the Brookings Institution and Jake Sullivan, soon to become Biden’s U.S. national security advisor, will recognize Sullivan’s handiwork here.

Biden’s foreign policy for the middle class does not make an appearance here by name, but that is what the NSS’s authors have in mind when they write that “we have broken down the dividing line between foreign policy and domestic policy.” Not only must foreign policy serve the interests of ordinary Americans rather than globalized firms, but domestic policy must help America “outcompete” its chief rival—thus the need for a “modern industrial and innovation strategy” on critical technologies like computer chips as well as on reshoring key products to protect them from disruptions abroad. The document implies that, as in the depths of the Cold War, the United States must win the battle of models by proving that its model works better. Democracies must “deliver.”

Despite the sense of epochal struggle, the tone of Biden’s national security strategy is optimistic (another obligatory feature). “Our rivals’ challenges,” the authors assert, “are associated with the pathologies inherent in highly personalized autocracies and are less easily remedied than ours.” The United States, by contrast, transforms such challenges into “opportunities to spur reform and rejuvenation”—another Sullivan touch. The first claim is an important reminder; the second is a statement of faith. Too many of Biden’s predecessors have used this exercise to release marvelous hot air balloons that have quickly fallen back to Earth for Americans to share his optimism.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1

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