The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 mandated that the White House produce for the Congress an annual report on its national security vision. The National Security Strategy (NSS) is supposed to discuss all facets of U.S. power that can achieve the nation’s security goals. The NSS must discuss U.S. commitments and objectives, along with defense capabilities to deter threats and implement plans. For the most part, the report is a boilerplate document. The Trump administration ignored the requirement for four years, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine led to delays in producing President Biden’s first NSS.
The report that was released two weeks ago is a predictably superficial rendering of U.S. plans for global cooperation, but contains no original ideas for the U.S. role in doing so. There is nothing in the report that suggests the Biden administration has any ideas for reversing the downturn in relations with China—our most important bilateral relationship—which points to increased bilateral tensions and greater defense spending. There is no indication that we have learned important lessons from the isolationist step of withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the militaristic policies in the Middle East and Southwest Asia that depend on use of force.
Military spending accounts for more than half of discretionary federal spending, and the NSS doesn’t suggest that the Biden administration will change the U.S. approach to the global environment in order to reduce spending. Ever since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has relied on increased military power to advance its international interests, spending more than $6 trillion in fighting counterterrorism wars. We have more people working in military grocery stores or marching in military bands than we have diplomats. Biden’s NSS presents no alternatives for curbing our military deployment in more than 100 countries or for returning arms control and disarmament to the national security dialogue.
The report relentlessly focuses on the confrontations with both China and Russia. The most worrisome aspect of Biden’s NSS is the view that we have the resources to challenge both Russia and China, even in their respective zones of influence. With the release of the NSS, President Biden proclaimed that we would be “outcompeting China and restraining Russia,” even though the real challenge to the United States is the current perilous state of our democracy.
In a typical exaggeration of the threat, Biden said that China was the “only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and increasingly, the economy, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective.” Last week, the Washington Post referred to China’s security presence as “increasingly visible around the world,” and that Xi will “probably test the country’s willingness to compromise with the existing global security order.” Biden and the Post are talking about a country [China] that has not used military force outside its borders for more than 40 years, and has only one military facility [Djibouti] outside its zone of influence.
It should be Geopolitics 101 that the United States cannot simultaneously confront two nuclear superpowers, particularly at a time when Moscow and Beijing have their closest political and military relationship within memory. There is an assumption that we can build strong alliance partners in the European and Asian arenas to join this confrontation, but there are numerous countries that don’t want to be part of a U.S.-sponsored revival of the Cold War. The NSS doesn’t acknowledge that the United States has choices regarding Russia and China, particularly in view of the rapidly declining power and influence of Putin’s Russia and the Asian resistance to China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Meanwhile, Sino-American cooperation on the climate crisis and the Russian-American dialogue on arms control have come to a halt.
Typically, the National Security Strategy is followed by the National Defense Strategy and a nuclear posture review. We will soon learn what Biden means by his emphasis on a “speedier modernization” of the military. Bipartisan support in the Congress for increased spending can be expected.
The NSS provides no indication that the Biden administration recognizes the limits to American power, particularly in the current age of uncertainty. Various administrations have tried the same policies vis-a-vis Venezuela, Syria, and North Korea, but Nicolas Maduro, Basher al-Assad, and Kim Jong-un have not bowed to U.S. demands. U.S. pressure against Cuba and Iran over several decades has not altered their policies to accommodate the United States. President Biden even raised the possible use of force against Iran during his trip to the Middle East in August. The NSS provides grand objectives, but fails to take account of operational realities.
We need a national security strategy that relies much less on military spending and deployment, and far more on diplomacy and economic development. We need a Congress that is more supportive of arms control and less supportive of modernizing nuclear weapons. And we need a president and a public that endorses restraint in force deployment and rebuilding the role and influence of the Department of State and the Foreign Service.