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Biden’s New National Security Strategy: A Lot of Trump, Very Little Obama

A renewed focus on great-power rivalry ratifies a sea change in U.S. thinking.

By , a senior fellow and the director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the Summit on Fire Prevention and Control at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, on Oct. 11.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the Summit on Fire Prevention and Control at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, on Oct. 11.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the Summit on Fire Prevention and Control at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, on Oct. 11. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

“The United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China.” These words from the Obama administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy already belong to a bygone era. On Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden, who was vice president when the earlier document was drafted, released his own National Security Strategy. And it couldn’t strike a more different tone. “We will prioritize maintaining an enduring competitive edge over [China],” the document pledges, blasting China for trying “to become the world’s leading power.” Russia, too, is no longer described in rosy terms as a potential partner but as an “immediate and persistent threat” to global peace and stability. Put simply, the Biden strategy is a 180-degree turn from the last Democratic administration. Instead, the new document affirms what the Trump administration first concluded in its 2017 strategy: “[G]reat power competition [has] returned.”

The similarity of the diagnoses presented by the Trump and Biden administrations does not mean their prescriptions for U.S. policy are the same. Nonetheless, much like a medical diagnosis, a strategic one narrows the range of options available for treatment. In his first address to the U.N. General Assembly in 2009, then-President Barack Obama declared, “More than at any point in human history, the interests of nations and peoples are shared.” Obama’s first strategy, published in 2010, reported that since the fall of the Soviet Union, the “circle of peaceful democracies has expanded; the specter of nuclear war has lifted; major powers are at peace; the global economy has grown.” Against this backdrop, a strategy that emphasized engagement seemed practical. Thus, Obama’s blueprint explained, “We are working to build deeper and more effective partnerships with other key centers of influence—includ­ing China, India, and Russia.”

It’s not that the world has fundamentally changed since then. During the 2008 U.S. presidential election campaign, Obama’s Republican opponent, John McCain, already offered a very different view of the strategic landscape. McCain, like many others, already saw Russian President Vladimir Putin then as most Americans see him now. After all, Moscow had invaded Georgia only a few months before the 2008 election. McCain’s view of China was similar, and he would never have placed a democracy like India in the same category of potential partners as a pair of revisionist dictatorships. The usual explanation for the divergence in views is that McCain was a foreign-policy hawk, in contrast to Obama’s more dovish approach. Yet the hawk-dove metaphor is misleading. It presumes the two camps differ in their readiness for confrontation. However, the more profound difference is in their perception of threats—the hawks sense hostility where the doves see potential partners.

“The United States welcomes the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China.” These words from the Obama administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy already belong to a bygone era. On Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden, who was vice president when the earlier document was drafted, released his own National Security Strategy. And it couldn’t strike a more different tone. “We will prioritize maintaining an enduring competitive edge over [China],” the document pledges, blasting China for trying “to become the world’s leading power.” Russia, too, is no longer described in rosy terms as a potential partner but as an “immediate and persistent threat” to global peace and stability. Put simply, the Biden strategy is a 180-degree turn from the last Democratic administration. Instead, the new document affirms what the Trump administration first concluded in its 2017 strategy: “[G]reat power competition [has] returned.”

The similarity of the diagnoses presented by the Trump and Biden administrations does not mean their prescriptions for U.S. policy are the same. Nonetheless, much like a medical diagnosis, a strategic one narrows the range of options available for treatment. In his first address to the U.N. General Assembly in 2009, then-President Barack Obama declared, “More than at any point in human history, the interests of nations and peoples are shared.” Obama’s first strategy, published in 2010, reported that since the fall of the Soviet Union, the “circle of peaceful democracies has expanded; the specter of nuclear war has lifted; major powers are at peace; the global economy has grown.” Against this backdrop, a strategy that emphasized engagement seemed practical. Thus, Obama’s blueprint explained, “We are working to build deeper and more effective partnerships with other key centers of influence—includ­ing China, India, and Russia.”

It’s not that the world has fundamentally changed since then. During the 2008 U.S. presidential election campaign, Obama’s Republican opponent, John McCain, already offered a very different view of the strategic landscape. McCain, like many others, already saw Russian President Vladimir Putin then as most Americans see him now. After all, Moscow had invaded Georgia only a few months before the 2008 election. McCain’s view of China was similar, and he would never have placed a democracy like India in the same category of potential partners as a pair of revisionist dictatorships. The usual explanation for the divergence in views is that McCain was a foreign-policy hawk, in contrast to Obama’s more dovish approach. Yet the hawk-dove metaphor is misleading. It presumes the two camps differ in their readiness for confrontation. However, the more profound difference is in their perception of threats—the hawks sense hostility where the doves see potential partners.

In their perception of threats, the Trump and Biden strategies converge fully on the pivotal issue of great-power rivalry. But there are many ways to deal with the same threat, as illustrated by the wide range of Cold War-era strategies that all fell under the heading of containment. But even on the level of policy, Biden’s 48-page strategy provides surprisingly few indications of whether and how his approach will differ from former President Donald Trump’s. Nor did the Trump strategy, which ran across 68 pages, map the course of his policies clearly. The reasons for this ambiguity are structural: Every National Security Strategy of the post-Cold War era reads more like a list of aspirations than a disciplined exercise in matching courses of action to achievable objectives—and this is the most one should expect from a public strategy that will be read by critics at home and adversaries abroad. More specific decisions would give opponents a chance to mobilize before a policy is put into action. Building consensus within the administration for a detailed global plan of action would also require the adjudication of countless disagreements across departments and the various national security factions. These are incentives for ambiguity.

There are still plenty of markers indicating that this is the strategy of a Democratic president, not a Republican.

The three pillars of Biden’s strategy toward China therefore remain ambiguous. The first is “to invest in the foundations of our strength at home—our competitiveness, our innovation, our resilience, our democracy.” Who could disagree with this political version of motherhood and apple pie? The second pillar is “to align our efforts with our network of allies and partners.” This appears, at first, like a departure from Trump, who seemed to delight in antagonizing many U.S. friends and partners—until you remember that during 70-plus years of NATO history, squabbles have been the norm. Finally, the strategy says the United States will “compete responsibly with [China] to defend our interests and build our vision for the future.” This is like saying the strategy is to have a strategy.

Tension between presidents and their staff may also render written strategies an unreliable guide to actual policy. Trump’s public statements, especially the joint press conference with Putin in Finland in 2018 that shocked much of the Western world, stood in stark contrast to what Trump’s staff had written in the 2017 strategy, which asserted that Russia wants “to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.” Meanwhile, Biden’s own staff has now corrected him four times following unscripted pledges to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, which is not official U.S. policy. The staff position on Taiwan prevails in the new National Security Strategy, but there is no reason to believe that has resolved the dispute.

While the Trump and Biden strategies may offer nearly identical diagnoses of the most serious threat facing the United States, there are still plenty of markers indicating that this is the strategy of a Democratic president, not a Republican. There is the traditional warmth, not skepticism, toward the United Nations and the full range of multilateral institutions. Similarly, Biden’s strategy includes 20 references to climate change and 11 more to the climate crisis, whereas Trump’s mentioned the business or investment climate more frequently than climate policy, which only got one mention. Biden has already shepherded $370 billion in climate spending through the U.S. Congress. Still, there is a sense of discouragement about the role of climate diplomacy in foreign relations. In the interim security strategy released shortly after Biden took office, the White House balanced tough language on China with a readiness to “welcome the Chinese government’s cooperation on issues such as climate change … where our national fates are intertwined.” The new document, in contrast, has sharp words for China’s “massive coal power use and build up”—which, as critics would note, was plainly apparent long before Biden took office.

It is perilous to read too much into any National Security Strategy. Their importance is that they set the tone for U.S. security policy and indicate its direction. Therefore, when a Democratic administration offers a diagnosis that aligns so fully with the views of its Republican predecessor—and is so different from that of the last Democratic White House, from which so much of the current administration hails—it indicates a sea change in U.S. thinking. But if you think there will now be less partisanship in U.S. foreign policy—where conflicts are often said to stop at the water’s edge—you’d be mistaken. As a quick glance back to the Cold War shows, the question of how to deal with a mutually acknowledged threat can be just as divisive.

David Adesnik is a senior fellow and the director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @adesnik

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