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Foreign Policy

Biden Strategy Takes Shape

Apr 15, 2021
  • Chen Jimin

    Guest Researcher, Center for Peace and Development Studies, China Association for International Friendly Contact

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden published its interim national security guidance document on March 4, in which it detailed the U.S. stance and perspectives on global security, national interests, chief threats and strategic means. As a streamlined national security strategic report, it offers a snapshot of a full national security strategy.

The Biden team believes the U.S. is faced with multilayered challenges consisting of unconventional security challenges, such as climate change, pandemics and traditional security threats to the U.S. posed by power competition — China, Russia and Iran — as well as by the political ideas of populism, nationalism, localism and the decline of democracy. But the administration is convinced that the U.S. can prevail over these challenges and unlock new opportunities for development.

Against this backdrop, the Biden team defines U.S. core national interests as safeguarding American strength, promoting power sharing for U.S. advantage and upholding a stable and open international system. In a departure from the previous two administrations, Biden has consolidated U.S. national security into three key aspects, with the primary goal of safeguarding U.S. security and national strength. It indicates the key strategic goal of the U.S. is to restore national strength and internal order, which is warranted given the dilemmas it faces and the inadequate capacity it has to deal with them.

To achieve this goal, the U.S. will undertake a number of strategic steps, such as strengthening relations with allies and partners, promoting economic prosperity at home, making efforts to shape trade rules globally, maintaining a strong military presence, playing a leadership role in international diplomacy and leading by the example of its democracy.

The Biden administration aims to build capacity that matches its national security strategy to pursue national security goals. In fact, from the Obama administration onward, the U.S. has been trying to balance strategic interests with real capacity. Biden’s approach is guided by “confined internationalism,” whereby the U.S. stays engaged but retrenches strategic goals as it sees fit, while encouraging allies and partners to take on more responsibility.

Compared with Donald Trump’s national security strategy, Biden’s is more focused and more ideologically driven. It is informed by four pillars:

• Strategic challenges from China and Russia, with more focus on China

Climate change is high on Biden’s agenda, with relatively less attention on the DPRK and Iran nuclear issues and terrorism.

• Focus on key areas

The U.S. has traditionally made its priority the Western Hemisphere, Europe, the Indo-Pacific and the Middle East. But the Biden administration is providing a new order of emphasis — to the Indo-Pacific, Europe and the Western Hemisphere, with relatively less attention on the Middle East.

• More focus on strategic means

The Biden administration puts a premium on diplomacy, with less emphasis on military means. It will reassess U.S. global deployment and divert resources from peripheral areas to key areas such as the Indo-Pacific and Europe, as well as to key technological and capacity-building endeavors.

• Focus on core infrastructure

The Biden administration will uphold the idea that economic security is national security, and it sees domestic renewal as a prerequisite for advancing its foreign interests. A focus on national development primarily includes economic growth aided by more equal distribution, social cohesion, tech innovation and higher quality of education to gain durable strength for the long term.

The administration puts democratic values at the heart of national security strategy. It intends to rebuild the U.S. as an example of democracy and promote democracy overseas, with a warning to Western countries against the decline of democracy and its severe consequences. It is calling for a summit of democratic countries to counter the growing global influence of authoritarianism. The guidance claims that the world is at a crucial turning point, where the prospects of freedom and authoritarianism as two systems are competing fiercely.

Faced with the aftermath of the Trump era, the Biden administration is putting domestic renewal high on its agenda. The administration is determined to correct the wrongs and speaks forcefully about the pressing needs of domestic renewal.

The rebalancing strategy of the Obama administration was aimed at recalibrating international strategy and rebuilding the economic system, while the renewal agenda under the Biden administration is a broad, systemic task that covers the sectors of politics, economics, social justice and values.

It is rather a process of rebuilding the country, with two key processes at play:

First is to restore the U.S. to its pre-Trump status, getting the pandemic under control, restoring faith in democracy and U.S. credibility, reshaping common values in the U.S. and maintaining social cohesion. The second process looks forward to maintaining the U.S. competitive edge in a durable manner.

But the rebuilding process is beset with a lack of consensus, as U.S. political dynamics — left, right and center — are fractured. The centrists seem to be in decline, while far left and far right are gaining traction, with more cutthroat rivalry. The 2020 presidential election presented a 50/50 picture of left and right, heralding possible resistance to the Biden administration from the Republicans in office and in nongovernmental domains. Faced with a divided U.S. in disarray, the Biden administration may struggle to find the means in its tool box to rise above the challenge. 

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