It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Is Biden’s National Security Strategy a Match for a Chaotic World?

The long-awaited document leaves more questions than answers about the White House’s approach to global crises.

By , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center.
U.S. President Joe Biden (C) flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (L) on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid, on June 29.
U.S. President Joe Biden (C) flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (L) on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid, on June 29.
U.S. President Joe Biden (C) flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (L) on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Madrid, on June 29. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
It's Debatable

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! I hope you are enjoying this beautiful fall morning in Washington, D.C. The air is cool, the leaves are changing color, and national security wonks are debating the Biden administration’s new National Security Strategy (NSS). It couldn’t be better timed; leaves are falling as U.S. President Joe Biden publishes a strategy for a world falling apart.

Emma Ashford: You know what else is falling apart? The United Kingdom. Prime Minister Liz Truss has resigned after only 44 days in office. But I don’t want to spend too much time on that; with the way things have been going in London, we’ll probably have another British government collapse before the next edition of It’s Debatable even gets published.

Here in Washington, everyone is talking about the new NSS and what it tells us about the Biden administration’s foreign policy.

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! I hope you are enjoying this beautiful fall morning in Washington, D.C. The air is cool, the leaves are changing color, and national security wonks are debating the Biden administration’s new National Security Strategy (NSS). It couldn’t be better timed; leaves are falling as U.S. President Joe Biden publishes a strategy for a world falling apart.

Emma Ashford: You know what else is falling apart? The United Kingdom. Prime Minister Liz Truss has resigned after only 44 days in office. But I don’t want to spend too much time on that; with the way things have been going in London, we’ll probably have another British government collapse before the next edition of It’s Debatable even gets published.

Here in Washington, everyone is talking about the new NSS and what it tells us about the Biden administration’s foreign policy.

Of course, normally the NSS is issued much earlier in an administration. This time around, they released it so late that it’s really just a confirmation of all the things observers already knew from watching the Biden team’s foreign-policy choices over the last two years. What’s the point of even having strategy documents, if they’re just written after the fact?

MK: Well, first, to make sure everyone is on the same page, maybe I should explain the what and why of an NSS. It is often a question I receive from my students.

The U.S. Congress mandates that every presidential administration publish a document laying out its approach to national security to the American people. In practice, however, there are many audiences. It communicates priorities to the rest of the U.S. government, and this can be helpful: “Hey, dummy, why are you focusing on that issue? The NSS says the priority is strategic competition with China!” It is also read closely by allies and enemies, so the document is trying to serve several purposes and balance several competing interests.

Readers may also be interested to know that It’s Debatable is apparently also being read closely by allies and enemies. Some anonymous animals—possibly from a Moscow troll farm—have been hacking into our Google Doc before the column is published.

A good strategy would have accounted for the Russia threat from the beginning. This late strategy, therefore, is a serious condemnation of Biden’s strategic foresight and competence.

EA: Matt, those weren’t Russian hackers. You just forgot to update your computer.

But you’re right about the NSS. There’s a value in forcing any administration to write down its priorities and think about it. I just object to the fact that it is now halfway through the administration and the American people only just saw something that should have been published in the first nine months or so. I’m also worried about the National Defense Strategy (NDS). The NDS is meant to be the U.S. Defense Department’s response to the NSS, explaining what kinds of defense investments and force posture are needed to achieve the nation’s strategic goals. But, by all accounts, the NDS has been ready—and circulated in classified form—for far longer than the NSS. Defense posture should flow from strategy, not the other way around!

MK: I agree lateness is a problem. People complained about the Trump administration’s incompetence, but it published its strategy 11 months into office. Biden’s is coming out nearly two years after inauguration! Its lateness is itself a condemnation of Biden’s strategy. They had it ready to go in February, and then, oops, they realized they forgot to mention Russia as President Vladimir Putin was launching the biggest land war in Europe since the end of World War II. So, they had to go back to the drawing board.

This is perhaps the biggest indictment of Biden’s strategy. It has been obvious to everyone that Russia posed a major threat to U.S. interests, even before February’s further invasion of Ukraine. Then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney named Russia as the United States’ greatest geopolitical foe back in 2012. Atlantic Council Strategy Papers have been writing about the need to deal with Russia and China at the same time for years. I have heard that early drafts of the NSS did not even list Russia among the top five national security challenges to the United States, ranking behind China and even things like COVID-19, climate change, and economic recovery. A good strategy would have accounted for the Russia threat from the beginning. This late strategy, therefore, is a serious condemnation of Biden’s strategic foresight and competence.

EA: Yeah, that’s the ostensible reason for the delays: The administration felt it had to rewrite the strategy to reflect Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And I think there’s probably an argument to be made that the administration underestimated Russia—or at least Russian intentions—while focusing excessively on China.

Unfortunately, from my point of view, the published document now swings too far in the other direction, resulting in an unfocused, overextended strategy. The NSS clearly highlights China as the United States’ main strategic priority but spends much of its time talking about Russia. In general, I found it to be a bit of a smorgasbord: They tried to cover everything and ended up failing to produce a coherent, targeted strategy. What was your take?

MK: Well, usually these documents are not real strategies. They are written by a committee, so every part of the U.S. government wants to place its ornament on the tree. There is a temptation to make it a laundry list of everything the administration is doing, whereas real strategy requires setting priorities.

EA: You put laundry on your Christmas tree? Perhaps you should pick one metaphor and stick with it!

MK: I thought this one was pretty good. I give it a B+. On the positive side, it gets several key themes right: the need to prioritize competition with China, the superiority of democracies in great-power rivalry, and the need to stitch together U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia.

On the negative side, there is too much focus on amorphous global challenges such as climate change and COVID-19 over concrete security threats such as Iran’s nuclear program; it is too optimistic about cooperation with China; and the section on strengthening the United States for strategic competition includes too many divisive domestic political issues. Exactly zero Republicans think that Biden’s Orwellian-named Inflation Reduction Act is the key to winning strategic competition with China.

EA: Look, you’re right that these documents are always full of bureaucratic add-ons. But I think the problem with this one runs deeper. As you point out, there’s a focus on both strategic competition and on solving transnational problems via cooperation. The NSS argues that the United States can compete with China and remain heavily involved in Europe. It refuses to make choices. This is a return to the pre-Trump internationalist status quo in U.S. foreign policy: the United States as the world’s police, favoring continued control and direct U.S. presence over allied capacity. The document even points out many of the problems that will make it harder for the United States to assert itself in a newly multipolar world—but then largely ignores them! I give it a C, perhaps a C-. Does that still get you college credit or not?

I think the NSS is mostly saying the right things, but you look at the administration’s budget, and the resources are not aligned.

MK: It is a passing grade but one that will place you near the bottom of the class. It is interesting that you say “pre-Trump” status quo. In many ways, such as the focus on competition with China, I see it as a continuation of former President Donald Trump’s strategy.

I also worry about a “say-do gap” in Biden’s strategy. I think the NSS is mostly saying the right things, but you look at the administration’s budget, and the resources are not aligned. The United States does need to be engaged in Europe and Asia. But, after inflation, Biden is making real cuts to defense spending.

And what about this big theme on cooperation with global powers, including China, to solve shared challenges such as COVID-19 and climate change? China’s bad behavior allowed its outbreak to snowball into a pandemic, and it is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. It is like saying we will cooperate with arsonists to stop house fires. Are you persuaded by this theme?

EA: Well, you can’t solve these problems without China, either. There has to be some role for cooperation in U.S. foreign policy, even if it’s only on issues like arms control or global health. But I remain skeptical in practice that cooperation on climate change or other tricky issues is possible with China at the same time as the United States is actively trying to compete with China and even undermine it economically.

It’s interesting that neither realists like myself nor hawks like you seem to be particularly happy with the strategy. The realists mostly think it’s too ambitious, refuses to make tough choices based on resource constraints, and is therefore likely to fail. The hawks mostly think—as you say—that the strategy is fine but the resources aren’t there. And that’s because the NSS fails to meet the basic requirement for good strategy: It doesn’t reconcile scarce resources with the ends that Washington is trying to achieve.

The United States isn’t the only country thinking about its strategy for the coming decade. China’s 20th Party Congress began last weekend. Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping will be selected for a third term, and we are likely to learn more about Chinese foreign and economic policy plans. What are you watching to see?

For the United States and its allies, the relationship with China is likely to get worse before it gets better, and they need a serious long-term strategy for dealing with it.

MK: As widely expected, Xi will receive an unprecedented third five-year term as China’s leader, possibly setting him up to be dictator for life. This means that we will likely see a continuation of Xi’s efforts to assert personal control over China’s domestic politics, economy, and foreign policy, in a way that ultimately weakens China. It also likely means that we will see a continuation of Xi’s assertive foreign policy.

In just one example, on Sunday in Manchester, England, a protester was physically dragged into the Chinese Consulate’s grounds there and assaulted. At the Party Congress, Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu said, “Dare to fight and be good at fighting are [part of] the fine traditions and spiritual character of China’s diplomacy.” I guess he meant that literally!

For the United States and its allies, the relationship with China is likely to get worse before it gets better, and they need a serious long-term strategy for dealing with it.

So, for the United States and its allies, the relationship with China is likely to get worse before it gets better, and they need a serious long-term strategy for dealing with the threat from China—as is called for in Biden’s NSS.

What do you make of the Party Congress?

EA: I’m not so interested in Xi’s personal success; I’ve been assuming that both he and an assertive Chinese foreign policy are here to stay for a while now. But I was extremely interested in his speech to the Party Congress on certain key economic and political issues, which has implications for the health of the Chinese economy in coming years.

One of the big questions prior to the Party Congress was whether China would continue with its zero-COVID policy. It has been ruinously economically expensive for the country, particularly as most of the rest of the world reemerges into a form of post-COVID normality. But Xi continued to back the zero-COVID policy. I know a lot of folks have pointed to the Chinese government’s decision to delay the release of key economic data as worrying. It’s certainly suspicious, but I think the zero-COVID policy is the more worrying point. Chinese economic data is always more of a target set by the government than an actual record of what’s happening in the economy. But the refusal to back down from zero-COVID implies we’re not getting back to a “normal” Chinese economy anytime soon.

And in general, the speech was extremely dark: It portrayed a China that is surrounded by enemies and beset by pressure from the United States. It seems highly likely that the Chinese government will continue to boost its policy of “dual circulation,” which emphasizes the domestic market, rather than foreign markets, as the core driver of Chinese economic prosperity.

That will be extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to implement in reality. But particularly in light of the Biden administration’s recent move to put high-level export controls on various kinds of advanced chip technology, it’s not hard to see why the Chinese want to insulate themselves from the possibility that Western economic pressure will be used against them more assertively in the future. I worry that this reflects the new international environment: Policymakers are already so far into the “competition” mindset that they risk making international rivalries worse.

MK: I disagree. China is the one making the rivalry worse, and Biden’s export controls are prudent measures to deal with that reality. After all, China’s dual circulation strategy predates those measures. And I would describe dual circulation differently; it has a dual purpose. First, to make China as economically independent as possible. And, second, to make the rest of the world as dependent on, and vulnerable to, China as possible by, for example, monopolizing the world’s supplies of rare-earth elements.

The free world should not play China’s game, and it does need a harder economic decoupling from China in sensitive national security areas. This week, for example, the Washington Post reported that U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing U.S. tech firms that then export software to China that helps the People’s Liberation Army build hypersonic missiles to potentially kill Americans. It makes no sense!

EA: It’s a lot more complicated than that. Yes, the Chinese have been able to benefit from U.S. technology in order to build up some of their own military capabilities. Policymakers in Washington need to be taking a long, hard look at how to insulate advanced U.S. technologies so that the country retains its qualitative technological edge.

But as is always the problem with arms control and sanctions regimes, lots of things are dual-use. The Russians are today engaged in a campaign to pull chips out of household appliances like washing machines in order to use them for military purposes. The restrictions on advanced chips the Biden administration has put forward are probably a bit too broad and sweeping, but at least they attempt to make a distinction between critical, hard-to-replicate technologies and ones that are broadly used in trade of all kinds. It’s easy to say, “Let’s decouple from sensitive areas only,” but in reality, all trade is intertwined.

And if you want an example of how hard it can be to cut off military capabilities through these kinds of sanctions, you need look no further than Iran. The country has been under various kinds of restrictions on military equipment—and even civilian technologies—since the 1979 revolution. Yet the Russians are now importing Iranian-made drones to bomb Ukraine. There’s simply a limit to what you can do to prevent a large country like China or an oil-rich one like Iran from building military technology.

MK: Iran has drones, but it lacks an air force (and really a normal army or navy for that matter). So, international sanctions have constrained Iran’s military capabilities, and I would like to do the same to China.

For me, the Iranian drones show that the new axis of evil among Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing is growing closer. It also shows that Putin is desperate. Unable to win on the battlefield, he has been reduced to victimizing Ukrainian civilians in what will be a failed bid to break the Ukrainian will to fight.

EA: I just can’t believe you unironically used the phrase “axis of evil.” Are we suddenly back in the mid-2000s? In that case, I better run. I have a movie I need to return to Blockbuster. Ping me later on Myspace!

Matthew Kroenig is deputy 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

Emma Ashford is 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

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