An F-22 Raptor assigned to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, in Alaska, intercepts a Russian Tu-95 Bear on June 9, 2020.

An F-22 Raptor assigned to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, in Alaska, intercepts a Russian Tu-95 Bear on June 9, 2020. U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command

How Biden Would Wage Great Power Competition

Part 3: While Trump chooses go-it-alone, Biden wants allies and partners “at the forefront” of U.S. foreign policy. But his options to renew old agreements are limited.

If you are looking for a sense of the future of the Pentagon after the November election, don’t watch the horse-race polls between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden. You can ignore the pundits and even much of the news. Just read the last National Defense Strategy, which has served as the Pentagon’s bible for investment, research, and training since former Defense Secretary James Mattis unveiled it in 2018. The strategy describes a future environment of great power competition with the U.S. pitted against China and Russia in a long-term race for innovation, influence, and advantage. No matter who is elected president, that is unlikely to change. Where Biden may part from Trump, is how the United States goes about it. 

The defense strategy is an extension of the White House’s wider 2017 National Security Strategy. Both are products of the Trump administration, but they are also a continuation of policy and budget moves that began under the Obama administration, especially the “pivot to Asia.” Mike Carpenter, managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania, says that Biden would create his own strategy, but that great power competition still would be the primary focus. More importantly, he argues, a Biden administration would actually get to work executing it much more robustly. 

“I think the gap between the rhetoric of the Trump National Security Strategy and the practice of his administration is enormous,” said Carpenter, who was a White House advisor to Biden, Russia policy director at the National Security Council, and served in the Pentagon as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, the Balkans, and conventional arms control. “The Obama administration recognized the need to compete against great powers by working together with allies and partners. The Trump administration has taken a go-it-alone approach and neglected our alliances, which has greatly weakened our position vis-a-vis Russia and China. Look for example at Trump's withdrawal of troops from Germany and his questioning of the U.S. commitment to defend our allies. My sense is that a Biden administration would put our democratic allies and partners at the forefront of its foreign policy.”

Part 1: What if Joe Biden Wins?
Part 2: Biden’s China Policy Starts With Building a Stronger America

Part 3: How Biden Would Wage Great Power Competition
Part 4: ’How Much and How Fast’: Biden Watchers Anticipate Defense Spending Crunch

Trump’s commitment to great power competition is a matter of debate. He’s claimed that he’s been “tough on Russia” by agreeing to send lethal aid to Ukraine, a country fighting a war of defense against Kremlin-backed forces. The administration placed new sanctions on Russia for the 2018 assassination plot against Sergei Skripal that involved releasing neurotoxins in a civilian neighborhood in the UK. After withdrawing from the INF Treaty, the administration began to develop missiles with ranges that extend beyond what the treaty had allowed, a move aimed at countering Russia and China. And under Trump, the Pentagon has increased U.S. troops, training, and firepower in Eastern Europe. NATO countries have responded to his demands for increased defense spending, and are now organizing against Russian-based non-traditional threats, like cybersecurity and information warfare. 

But the administration’s actions contrast starkly with the president’s words, particularly on Russia and President Vladimir Putin. Trump has extolled Putin as a “terrific” person, has declined to criticize Russia’s human rights and voter suppression record, and has applauded the Kremlin’s attacks on journalists as a sign of ‘leadership.’ Almost as soon as he came into office, Trump looked for opportunities to remove sanctions that the Obama administration had placed on the Kremlin for its election interference activities. He’s publicly slandered the U.S. intelligence community consensus that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election on his behalf. Trump has said multiple times that he is seeking a warmer relationship with Russia but has not personally put any conditions on that rapprochement. He was pushing for Russia to rejoin the G7 even after intelligence community officials briefed him on possible Russian bounties paid to the Taliban for the deaths of U.S. troops, according to multiple reports. He has routinely insulted NATO, undercutting allied states and leaders. Over the last several months, Trump has purged the National Security Council of respected Russia hawks. He picked an inexperienced but fiercely loyal Texas congressman, John Ratcliffe, as director of national intelligence. 

Most recently, Trump installed Michael Pack, another staunch loyalist, at the helm of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees a host of independent, government-funded tv, radio and digital news organizations that many see as essential for countering Russian interference and disinformation. Under allegations of improper political interference, leaders at Voice of America resigned last month. Days later, despite assuring the Senate in his confirmation hearings that he would honor the independence of the agency’s media organizations, Pack fired the heads of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Office of Cuba Broadcasting, and the Open Technology Fund. Veteran diplomats are suing the government in response. 

Likewise with China, Trump has avoided criticizing President Xi Jinping, celebrating the leader’s 2018 consolidation of power to be “president for life,” and saying, “I think it's great. Maybe we'll have to give that a shot someday.” Instead, Trump and Republicans began targeting their criticism at the Chinese Communist Party specifically, and most recently for its role in suppressing information about the COVID-19 virus and infection rates. Beyond that, Trump has declined to condemn or sanction Xi’s regime for its mass detention of Uighurs. He resisted advice to condemn China’s crackdown on the Hong Kong protests. In fact, when Trump effectively ended Hong Kong’s special trading status in May, he essentially lumped it in with the rest of China, which critics say is what China wants. Perhaps most importantly, Trump pulled the United States out of the multilateral Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, a multi-party free-trade agreement comprising some 40 percent of the global economy. That withdrawal gave those remaining countries less collective bargaining power against Beijing. Many have argued the pullout was a massive boon to China.

Biden’s approach to great power competition likely would begin with a return to the multilateral consensus and agreements that Trump has dismantled throughout his presidency’s “America First” approach. Biden has said since July 2019 that if elected he wanted to convene a summit of the leaders of world’s democracies in the first year of his presidency. The goal would be to restore the influence of multilateral institutions in global affairs. Biden has made a career of shaping and building such institutions and partnerships, including the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, the TPP, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, otherwise known as the Iran Deal, on nuclear weapons. 

Some of Biden's goals are more achievable than others. It might be possible to restore something like the Trans Pacific Partnership. The TPP countries have moved forward with their own partnership, dubbed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, so the bones are there for a wider agreement that could include the United States. 

“I would insist that we renegotiate pieces of that with the Pacific nations that we had in South America and North America, so that we could bring them together to hold China accountable for the rules of us setting the rules of the road as to how trade should be conducted,” he said during the second primary debate last July.

Biden has said that he would like to re-enter the Iran deal as long as Iran recommits to all of its obligations. But that would require a willing partner in Tehran and return to vigorous nuclear site inspections, which seems unlikely in the current climate. Biden criticized Trump for the U.S. airstrike killing of Iran's Qassem Soleimani as reckless, although he has recognized Iran as a sponsor of terrorism targeting U.S. troops. He has said that he wants to involve law-makers in decision-making on issues like Iran. He’s signaled that he is willing to keep some troops in the Middle East, though he hasn’t said how many or exactly what they would be doing. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic Biden suggested loosening sanctions on Iran for humanitarian purposes. The campaign says that the sanctions related to nuclear issues would remain in place.

The Technology to Do It

On defense spending, Biden criticized Trump in November for large military budgets he described as “dominated by investments in aging legacy capabilities.” But he’s also hinted that he would not necessarily drastically cut the Pentagon’s budget. It “is not how much we invest — it’s how we invest,” he said, in answers to a Military Times candidate questionnaire. That’s a common theme emerging from current and former Obama-Biden defense advisors, who argue the Pentagon is under-invested in new technology and America’s national security-related tech workforce. Trump’s own Pentagon leadership (and the Joint Chiefs) already have begun to shift the service branches away from older, big-war weapons and toward newer technologies for 21st-century conflicts, but Biden supporters argue it hasn’t been enough. That could be a clue as to Biden’s spending on controversial and traditional big ticket items directly related to deterring and fighting a great power conflict — but just what “legacy” capabilities does Biden view as expendable?

The United States is in the process of updating its Cold War-era arsenal of nuclear bombs and delivery vehicles. Biden has boasted about the money that the Obama administration put toward nuclear modernization. But he’s also talked about the need to seek and preserve arms control agreements, renew the New START treaty, maintain a moratorium on nuclear testing, and he’s opposed to low-yield nuclear weapons. In all, it suggests Biden might spend less on nuclear weapons than would another Trump administration, but not by much.

The Air Force was already in the process of cutting costs for some of its older aircraft, such as F-15s and F-16s, non-nuclear bombers, A-10s, aerial refueling tankers, and C-130H gunships, useful in places like Iraq and Afghanistan but not well equipped to fly into Chinese or Russian air-space, (or any space operating an advanced Russian air defense system like the S-400.) The Air Force already is moving away from some relatively new unmanned planes such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk, which are similarly vulnerable to Russian or Chinese defenses. 

The Army, too, is in the process of gradually divesting itself of legacy equipment like CH-47 Chinook helicopters and Bradley fighting vehicles. And the Army is in a multi-year modernization effort, moving toward new unmanned ground combat vehicles, modular drones and helicopters, communications, missiles, and more.

Biden hasn’t spoken much on how he would adjust Navy or Marine Corps spending but if the goal is to move toward a policy of better countering China, the Navy will play a big part. In February, then acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said that the Navy had recently completed an assessment and determined that it would likely need more than 355 ships, as previously forecast, and that new technologies like automation would not offset that number. 

No matter who is president, more money will continue pouring into things like hypersonic missiles and next-generation aircraft like the F-35, which Biden has described favorably. Biden also has signaled a willingness to spend more on key areas of defense he has described as overlooked, including “cyber, space, unmanned systems, and artificial intelligence." But these areas, too, have seen large budget increases under Trump. The current administration has tried hard to keep that spending safe. The very wording of the fiscal 2021 budget, which “supports the irreversible implementation of the [National Defense Strategy],” makes clear that any change of administration won’t automatically throw the Pentagon off course. 

Perhaps the biggest change to come for America’s stake in great power competition is that Biden has called for a larger investment in the “other elements of national power,” such as diplomacy and trade. “We have become over-dependent on the military to advance our security interests overseas — and underinvested in other tools including diplomacy, economic power, education, and science and technology.”

So far, nobody knows just how robust that security effort will be, what it will cost, or where the money will come from.