President Joe Biden speaks at the Pentagon, February 10, 2021, in Washington, DC.

President Joe Biden speaks at the Pentagon, February 10, 2021, in Washington, DC. ALEX BRANDON/POOL/AFP via Getty ImagesDrRave via Getty

Biden’s Interim National Security Guidance Is a Good, If Small, First Step

Next come the big questions: what is America’s current status, and where do we want to go?

The 7,000-word Interim National Security Strategic Guidance issued March 3 by the Biden White House is, first and foremost, a stopgap political statement designed to reassure the general public that mindful professionals are back in town, here to rescue us from the mindless amateurs who preceded them. It reminds us, without intending to do so, that a strategy document, an assemblage of words conveying a point of view, isn’t necessarily a strategy, a coherent architecture for shaping the future; and a strategy, in turn, isn’t necessarily strategy – systematic, disciplined thinking about the conduct of statecraft.

That said, the document has the basic elements of a proto-strategy that conceivably could grow into a bona fide strategy based on strategic thought by the time the administration issues its first required national security strategy report by early June. Strategy is, in important measure, a philosophical roadmap to the future; and this interim statement is philosophy in a minor key. It is full of “wills” and “musts” that seek to portray the administration’s planned approach to the world around us (“We will demonstrate.” “We will strengthen.” “We will recommit.” “We will renew.”) It is, however, largely free of “hows.”

Written in the generally mature language one ideally expects of professional practitioners of statecraft, the document avoids pedantic bureaucratese like “ends, ways, and means,” “soft power and smart power,” “warfighting and warfighters,” and “DIME.” It thankfully makes no mention of “Great Power Competition,” nor even of “great powers,” though it hints at a continuing embrace of the increasingly embedded received truth that the United States faces strategic competition from “antagonistic authoritarian powers” (China, most notably; Russia to a grudgingly lesser extent.)

To affirm its establishmentarian bona fides, it bows semantically to such canonical precepts as “vital national interests” (as if such things are objectively knowable), “deterrence” (as if it is clear what actually dissuades others from unwanted acts), “military readiness” (to accomplish just what isn’t clear), and technological innovation (as a failsafe ultima ratio for strategic progress and advantage). And not until the 11th page do we see “build back better,” the administration’s bumper-sticker recognition that restoration of pre-Trump norms and practices isn’t enough for future success.

In the interest of relieving the public of the fear, anxiety, and doubt most immediately afflicting us, the document offers reassurance of the administration’s near-term commitment to addressing the hottest of hot-button issues we face today at home: the COVID pandemic, racial injustice, domestic violent extremism, and external and internal threats to American democracy. Beyond this, though, it is the range of positions outlined in the document as a whole that offers promise of – or hope for – a grander strategic vision ahead. Among the more noteworthy features of this inchoate strategic vision are the following:

  • Recognizing the robust array of threats (beyond just China and Russia first; Iran, North Korea, and violent extremism second; then nothing else) facing the United States and others: pandemics and other biological risks, climate change, cyber and digital threats, international economic disruptions, humanitarian crises, violent extremism and terrorism, and WMD proliferation, among others, plus specific reassurances that the Western Hemisphere, the Middle East, and Africa can’t – and won’t – be ignored.
  • Accepting an inclusive conception of security that transcends defense, with specific mention of economic security, environmental security (including food security and water security), health security, and cyber security.
  • Reaffirming our unconditional preference for international engagement, cooperation, and collective action over arrogant unilateralism – stopping short, however, of expressing a willingness to relinquish any national prerogative for some greater collective good.
  • Reinstituting America’s commitment to international institutions – from the United Nations to the World Health and Trade Organizations to NATO – and agreements – the Paris Climate accord and the Iran nuclear agreement, most notably (though without comparable commitment to more-permanent treaties as the law of the land).
  • Acknowledging the inextricable link between the domestic front and the international front – the point being that how we comport ourselves at home affects how we are seen abroad, and what happens abroad has demonstrable impacts on our well-being at home.
  • Reemphasizing a coordinated, unified “whole-of-government” (federal-local, public-private, national-international) approach to the affairs of state (admirably avoiding the cumbersome term itself).  
  • Undertaking necessary organizational and institutional reforms, nationally and internationally, thereby implicitly acknowledging the circular relationship that exists between how we organize on the one hand and how we think and operate on the other.
  • Relying on the orchestrated employment of the multiple instruments of power at the country’s disposal – non-military and military, to include “leading by the power of our example” – to achieve our aims and protect our interests and values.
  • Emphasizing the use of military force as a last – rather than a first or early – resort, deferring by design to diplomacy, development, and economic measures as preferred instruments of power, though offering seemingly contradictory promises to “never hesitate to use force when required to defend our vital national interests” and “maintaining the proficiency of special operations forces.”
  • Promising to “prioritize diplomacy and development in our national security budget” so as “to avoid overreliance on the U.S. military,” though not proffering countervailing reductions in or redirections of arguably gluttonous defense spending. 
  • Reducing “the existential threat” of nuclear weapons and “their role in our national security strategy,” though identifying no concrete measures to actually do so.  

All things considered, this initial statement of strategic intent by the Biden administration offers reassurance and promise: reassurance that we are leaving behind the past four years of incoherence, impulsivity, and pedestrian ineptitude; and promise that the seeds have been planted for a more fulsome articulation of strategic direction we might eventually be proud of.

But the words in this document are just that: words. It remains to be seen how these words will be further explicated and expanded upon, whether the administration’s words will be translated into action, and whether such action stands to be transformative or simply the cautious, tactically oriented incrementalism we have come to expect from politicians posing as statesmen.

An indispensable first step in turning this proto-strategy into a full-fledged strategic architecture will be for the Biden team to accurately assess where we are now. One might easily conclude that we don’t even know for sure who we are – a superpower, a great power, just another garden-variety major power – much less what we want to be or where we want to go. Are we willing to face up to the realization that the strategic effectiveness we ought to be seeking may actually be undermined by our go-it-alone, rearview-mirror-looking, militarily-dominant approach to national security affairs – producing provocation and insecurity where reassurance and security ought to be?

Wherever or whoever we are, where do we want to go – to be Number 1, or more modestly, an equal among other responsible, self-respecting equals? To be more precise, where should we want to go – to a place little different from the anarchic, violent pseudo-peace of the present or a totally new place of enduring stable peace? And how should we go about getting there, wherever we decide there is – possibly through global integration, global democratization, global standards of conduct, and global demilitarization, all as a self-motivating reflection of the non-coercive power of our own example?

If the Biden administration can move beyond the proto-strategy it has just formulated to provide answers to questions such as these and others like them, it will place the United States on sounder strategic footing than we have ever before experienced in our lifetimes.

Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the National Defense University, a West Point graduate, and a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War.