On Oct. 12, the Biden administration released its first full National Security Strategy, which lays out the future the United States seeks to achieve and provides a road map for how to get there. Called a “360-degree strategy” by President Joe Biden, the NSS is designed to address dual challenges: winning the strategic competition with major powers that shapes the international order, while addressing global challenges such as climate change, the spread of pandemics and food insecurity, in order to maintain U.S. global leadership.
To this end, the Biden administration has proposed specific policy paths. The first is to invest in U.S. strengths in three dimensions:
• Investing in U.S. national power to maintain a competitive edge. The United States will advance this process by pursuing a modern industrial and innovation strategy, investing in the American people and strengthening American democracy.
• Using diplomacy to build the strongest possible coalitions. This includes strengthening the existing network of allies and partners and building multi-stakeholder and fit-for-purpose coalitions.
• Modernizing and strengthening the U.S. military. The NSS clarifies when the United States will use force and stresses the need to increase investment in cutting-edge technologies, enhance strategic nuclear deterrence, pursue integrated deterrence and improve the capabilities and well-being of military personnel.
It also identifies three global priorities:
• Out-competing China and constraining Russia;
• Cooperating on shared challenges with a focus on climate and energy security, pandemics, biodefense, food security, arms control, non-proliferation and terrorism;
• Shaping the rules of technology, cyberspace, trade, and economics.
The strategy outlines the U.S. approach by region, including the Indo-Pacific, Europe, Western Hemisphere, Middle East, Africa and the Arctic, as well as sea, air and space.
Much of the strategy is devoted to competition with major powers. Although it lists China and Russia as major adversaries, there are differences in their positioning. It recognizes that China presents America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge, noting that “The PRC 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.”
If the Biden administration, in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, examined the full range of challenges posed by China to the United States primarily from a power perspective — noting that China “is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system” — then the NSS takes China’s strategic will into account. The combination of strength and will could bring about changes in the outcome, which is more in line with the meaning of “consequential.”
Moreover, while the Biden administration did not define China as a “revisionist state” in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance — as the Trump administration had done — the NSS does use the term “revisionist,” which clearly points to China. The document states: “The most pressing strategic challenge facing our vision is from powers that layer authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy.”
As can be seen, there is further convergence in the U.S. bipartisan definitions of China’s strategic identity as the only competitor capable and willing to pose a substantial challenge to the U.S.-dominated international order. However, given that the PRC is also central to the global economy and has significant influence in addressing global challenges, the strategy states that it is possible for the United States and the PRC to coexist peacefully and contribute to human progress together. For human progress, the United States will responsibly compete with China long into the future to ultimately win.
In light of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the United States views Russia as a direct and imminent security threat. As a result, the U.S. strategy is designed mainly to constrain Russia — that is, to limit Russia’s territorial expansion and position of power and to restrain and deter Russia from possible extreme behavior (such as attacking the United States or using nuclear weapons).
The NSS highlights the following four points:
First, it reflects a strong sense of urgency and anxiety of the United States. It repeatedly states that the world is at an inflection point (four times) and the next decade will be a decisive decade (seven times). The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy did not say anything like this.
The Biden administration has emphasized that current U.S. policy choices will affect the nature of the future international order and the global status of the United States. The U.S. must therefore make serious strategic choices and advance them with urgency. The strategy concludes with the phrase, “There is no time to waste,” which fully demonstrates the sense of urgency felt by the United States and, to a certain extent, its anxiety.
Second, the strategy focuses on key challenges and reallocates global strategic resources. It zeroes in on the long-term strategic challenges posed by China and the immediate and urgent real challenges posed by Russia.
In the eyes of the United States, both China and Russia seek to change the nature of the international order, but the U.S. sees China as its most significant competitor — one that could change the nature of the international order. In other words, Russia’s challenge is a relatively minor problem, while China’s challenge is major. For this reason, the U.S. has made the Indo-Pacific region its highest priority in its global strategy and the focus of its strategic resource deployment. The European region follows.
This is a major shift in U.S. regional strategy after the Cold War. The U.S. has also adjusted its strategic objectives in the Middle East, moving away from forceful intervention and regime change as the primary objective and focusing instead on promoting a de-escalation of tensions and integration — “while enabling our partners to defend their territory from external and and terrorist threats.” To some extent, the U.S. is asking its partners to take greater responsibility for security, which means that the U.S. may further reduce its resources in the region.
Third, the NSS is strongly ideological. The Biden administration sees the battle for the international order in the next decade as a contest between democracy and autocracy, emphasizing that “[d]emocracies and autocracies are engaged in a contest to show which system of governance can best deliver for their people and the world.”
The document uses the words “authoritarian” or “authoritarianism” four times each, “autocracy” twice, “autocracies” six times, “democracy” 38 times and “democracies” 16 times — far more than the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, which used “democracies” twice, “democracy” six times, “authoritarian” six times, and “autocracy” zero. Clearly, the Biden administration’s strategy is much more ideological.
However, the Biden administration is cautious about the promotion of democracy. For the United States, the key task now is to rebuild confidence, both in the United States and in the international community, in democratic values. The Biden administration emphasizes the need to “continue to defend democracy around the world,” which means to a certain extent that the U.S. is in a defensive position when it comes to promoting democracy.
Fourth, the NSS highlights the interaction between international and domestic strategies. The Biden administration realizes that the line between domestic policy and international strategy has been blurred and that the two are mutually influential and closely linked. U.S. leadership in the world depends on the development and revitalization of U.S. domestic businesses and popular support. In turn, domestic development and revitalization will further strengthen and consolidate U.S. leadership in the world. The strategy declares: “We will be guided by the indisputable fact that the strength and quality of the American project at home is inextricably linked to our leadership in the world and our ability to shape the world order.”
Therefore, the Biden administration will evaluate and reevaluate the NSS to “ensure we are best serving the American people” — the primary criterion being to make life “better, safer, and fairer for the people of the United States.”
To maintain its leadership position, the United States must take into account the global impact of the strategy. The second indicator is whether it “lifts up the countries and people around the world who share our vision for the future.” From this perspective, the Biden administration’s strategy might be characterized as “America first, while considering international interests.”