At long last, the Biden administration has finally dished out its National Security Strategy, nearly halfway through its term. Based on the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance released in March last year, the NSS has been structured and extended into a systematic whole. The 48-page report is relatively concise by comparison with past volumes, while the content is clearer and more compact. It attempt to explain to both a U.S. domestic audience and the world the simple logic of interpreting affairs through the lens of competition between democracies and autocracies. With this central idea threading through the whole document, the report intends not only to help conceptualize but also to realize a strategy that can be successful at the current global inflection point and in “the decisive decade” to come.
In framing the strategic environment that faces the U.S. and the world at large, the report points out two challenges. One is that the post-Cold War era is “definitively over and a competition is underway between the major powers to shape what comes next.” With this, the Biden administration tries to make a historic demarcation of the years to come as “a competitive era between major powers” versus “the post-Cold War era,” when the U.S. was dominant and there was a relatively cooperative relationship between major powers with anti-terrorism as the priority task. The other is that the world must cope with the effects of shared challenges that cross borders, such as climate change and food security, which are at the core of national security “and must be treated as such.”
Given these, the report insists that achieving a better future — “a free, open, secure and prosperous world” — is its sole purpose, and the U.S. must lead the strategic competition to shape the future of the international order. To this end, the report puts forward three lines of effort: First is to invest U.S. strength and influence; second is to build “the strongest coalition”; and third is to modernize the military. In a word, the approach is to encompass all elements of national power to achieve the stated goal.
Pondering the new NSS report, one can see two impressive characteristics that standing out from the past. First is its way of thinking about China and how to deal with it. It was in 2017 that the Trump administration first declared that the strategic focus of U.S. national security strategy had shifted from anti-terrorism toward great power competition. China became America’s foremost adversary, along with Russia. Biden inherited this framing of the issue, yet his choice of words is slightly different.
The report refers throughout to the “PRC,” rather than “China,” as America’s “most consequential geopolitical challenge.” This can be interpreted as having two underlying meanings. On one hand, PRC is a reference to China under the Communist Party of China. Taiwan has never been officially recognized by the U.S. as a part of the PRC. On the other hand, it also distinguishes the CPC government from the Chinese people. Trump was blunt enough to list this openly as part of his China policy, while Biden is more delicate and indirect.
Compared with Trump’s version, Biden’s strategy also draws a distinction between the seriousness of the threat posed by China versus Russia. Although Russia’s threat is more dangerous, the country is seen as being in decline. China, by contrast, is “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and the power to do it.” The U.S. aim is to outcompete China and constrain Russia.
President Joe Biden’s way of dealing with China now is a little more relaxed not only compared with Trump but also relative to the interim guidance last year. In his first year in office, Biden put forward a three-track approach ranging from confrontation, competition and cooperation with China, but this was not well-received. Now, with the idea that shared interests in transnational challenges are equally important, Biden is trying to strike a balance between competition and cooperation, leaving out the more provocative “confrontation” part.
Another important feature of the document is its emphasis of economic. Trump first declared in his NSS that economic security was a part of U.S. national security. Biden’s view evolved, with a picture of a thorough economic strategy to “outcompete” China. He frequently says that the competition with China is an economic one. In the recent NSS, he advocates pursuing a modern industrial and innovation strategy to help maintain the U.S. competitive edge, securing critical infrastructure and supply chains, advancing cybersecurity and more. He also emphasizes the need to update the rules of the road for technology, cyberspace, trade and economics.
Whether for the purpose of investing U.S. strength, outcompeting China, handling so-called shared challenges, forming new norms in the global order, the backbone of everything is resuming or consolidating U.S. preeminence in the global economy.
As usual, there are many imperfections and self-contradictions in the latest NSS. It takes effort to establish a progressive image of seeking fairness and justice for the world and mankind. But how does one balance a strategy that tends to put the domestic interests and well-being of Americans first — ahead of the broader world interest? Democratic causes can easily be compromised when it comes to the Middle East’s “undemocratic” partners, for example, if it wants to lead an global anti-autocratic war. To label China and Russia as ideological enemies is a dubious strategy that reveals true intent.
Moreover, balancing competition and cooperation with both China and Russia without persuading the latter of the importance of a global vision undermines other, more vital, strategic and fundamental interests such as sovereignty, economic and technological development, as well as the security of the political system? These are all relevant questions to answer.