Commentary on the Biden Administration’s “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance”

by NESA Professor Richard L. Russell

17 March 2021

The Biden administration has released an “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.”[1] This interim report is intended to bridge the gap until the administration’s full national security strategy is published in the months ahead. Each presidential administration uses these national security strategies to share a general philosophy or worldview domestically with Congress, the American public, and executive branch officials, as well as for foreign audiences, to include friends and foes. Publishing an interim national security guidance makes a great deal of sense in light of the daunting American domestic challenges stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, which in the near term are going to take the lion’s share of the Biden administration’s time and energy.

The publication of national security strategies is a prudent measure to guide American statecraft, but they often are overtaken by rapidly changing world events and crises. As the old adage has it, in waging war the “enemy gets a vote.” The George W. Bush administration, for example, came into office wanting to get the US out of the practice of doing “nation-building” military interventions, the likes of which the Clinton administration had done in the Balkans during the 1990s. Bush administration officials wanted to focus national security on major nation-state rivals such as China and Russia. But those plans were dramatically derailed by al Qaeda’s attacks on 11 September 2001. The Bush administration soon found itself engaging in international nation-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the largest such efforts undertaken since World War II.

Nevertheless, the Biden team’s “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance” features a great many ideas and perspectives that were staples of candidate Biden’s campaign as well as in his early days in the White House. The interim guidance discusses, for example, the importance of diplomacy, democracy, human rights, climate change, international institutions and security partnerships as well as the formidable challenges posed by a rising China, an unchallenged Russia, and the need to “responsibly” end the war in Afghanistan. The interim guidance also emphasizes the importance of US formal alliances in both Europe and Asia, which astute observers assess were neglected during the Trump administration. Public opinion polling in September 2020 by the reputable Pew Research Center backs-up those assessments. The polling showed a steep decline in global approval of the United States. Among key NATO member states, Pew found that only 41% of British, 31% of French, and a meager 26% of Germans held a favorable view of the United States.[2]

President Biden himself commonly refers to these issues in his public pronouncements, which gives the interim national security strategic guidance an authoritative footing both at home and abroad. It shows American national security officials, Congressional members, the American public, and world leaders that Biden is setting the agenda, prioritizing key issues, and has a measured consistency that many viewed as missing from the Trump administration. While the Trump administration’s national security strategy was well-crafted and rightly warned of the growing nation-state threats stemming from China and Russia, President Trump rarely made public references to his own national security strategy. And President Trump certainly never spoke of Russia as a political-military threat as did his own national security strategy.

Although the Middle East seems to have a lower profile in the interim national security strategic guidance than Europe and Asia, the Biden administration has laid out some important points of reference regarding the region. It speaks of the firm American security backing of Israel while reaffirming the US interest in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It acknowledges the Iranian threat to the region while promising to “right-size” the US military presence in the Gulf. With the Biden administration’s attention to rising Chinese power in Asia, one might expect to see US aircraft carriers more operationally focused in the Pacific Ocean, the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea than in the Arabian Sea or Gulf.

Biden efforts to “right-size” the US military presence in the Middle East, however, could get derailed by regional contingencies. A renewed Iranian push for nuclear weapons or an Iranian-Israeli conflict, for example, could keep the US military footprint in the region from shifting over to Asia. One should recall that the Obama administration’s withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq in 2011 had to be later backfilled by forces to counter the Islamic State’s military campaign that came roaring out of Syria into Iraq and to the gates of Baghdad. In the final analysis, we will have to wait to see how well the Biden administration’s desired approach to national security fares against the harsh, fast, and churning realities of world politics.

[1] President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” The White House, March 2021. Available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf

[2] Richard Wike, Janell Fetterolf and Mara Mordecai, “U.S. Image Plummets Internationally as Most Say Country Has Handled Coronavirus Badly,” Pew Research Center, 15 September 2020. Available at https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/09/15/us-image-plummets-internationally-as-most-say-country-has-handled-coronavirus-badly/


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