16 Mar 2021

National security blueprint offers the first glimpse at Biden doctrine

Dr. Kristian Alexander
16 Mar 2021

National security blueprint offers the first glimpse at Biden doctrine

Dr. Kristian Alexander

The Biden administration issued a national security blueprint on March 3, 2021. The document addresses the themes of the global security landscape and corresponding US national security priorities. The 24-page document is the first wide-ranging, formal guidance on this topic to emerge since Joe Biden was inaugurated in January. The interim National Security Guidance is expected to be followed by a formal and more substantive National Security Strategy (NSS) and a National Defense Strategy from the Pentagon that could be seen as a precursor to a “Biden Doctrine.”

The paper’s scope ranges from multi-faceted concerns, such as national security and intelligence, to specific topics, such as modernizing NATO and clean energy transformation. While many of the objectives outlined confirm the predictions made over recent months regarding the new administration’s priorities, the blueprint is the first attempt to tie together the different policy threads into a coherent strategic plan and communicate a forward-looking and upbeat tone for the new administration.

The NSS Guidance template describes the global strategic context framed by a global pandemic, severe economic downturn, climate emergency, rivalry with Russia and China, and a technological revolution, among other factors. It is optimistic about the United States’ capacity to meet the many challenges and identifies the broad goals of democracy promotion, economic development, renewed alliances, and US leadership of international institutions. All focus areas are given equal weight, not unusual for such documents, which do not always prioritize the objectives or missions they prescribe.

The NSS Guidance paper is commonly referred to as a “declaratory policy” and does not consider unanticipated disruptive changes in the global landscape. Trends do not always proceed in a linear fashion, and a certain amount of imagination has been part of the process. For the forthcoming NSS to provide appropriate guidance to the government, it must prioritize risks based on the likelihood and severity of their potential impact on national interests. [1]

A declaration of intentions: Setting the table for future negotiations

The forthcoming NSS will indeed involve the federal government’s multiple agencies, particularly the Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security. To some degree, these agencies would be behind drafting that document. This interim blueprint is meant to guide departments and agencies to align their actions, as there could be difficulties reconciling the different interests, outlooks, and capabilities of these agencies within the US government. [2]

One of the intentions behind releasing the NSS Guidance document’s unclassified form may be to inform the executive branch, Congress, the American people, and foreign audiences simultaneously. The document’s publication serves the administration as a strategic communications tool and provides it the opportunity to explain and promote its policies in the public domain.

The paper does not provide specific fiscal guidance of any sort, nor does it assign specific tasks to particular agencies. The Biden administration will still have to request the resources necessary to realize the strategy it proposes. This will require negotiations with Congress and the various departments, and budgetary allocations are usually a mix of money, personnel, and mandates. [3]

Dealing with China, strengthening democracy

One of the key themes of the document is that the US must engage with the world. The most significant geopolitical test of the 21st century is the country’s great power relationship with China. This relationship is seen as competitive, collaborative when it needs to be, and adversarial at times. Biden emphasizes the need to engage China from a position of strength. [4]

Other themes include promises to end the coronavirus pandemic, to make climate change a major focus, to prioritize diplomacy while maintaining military supremacy, to exhibit global leadership while also cooperating with foreign allies, to invest in technology, to improve the US immigration system, to battle corruption, and to stand up for human rights. The interim report emphasizes how foreign policy, domestic policy, and trade issues are intertwined. The Biden administration vows to weigh how its moves abroad affect American workers at home and promises to fight for every American job and for all American workers’ rights, protections, and interests. [5]

Another reoccurring theme is the need to strengthen democracy. The work on democracy begins at home, the document states, and the US must lead by example but will not promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force. Measures of effectiveness were not created at the time of the drafting process, as promoting democracy does not easily lend itself to the translation of such measures. Thus, a clear assessment of such goals will become difficult.

As far as the Middle East is concerned, the NSS blueprint pledges its “…ironclad commitment to Israel’s security while seeking to further its integration with its neighbors and resuming our role as a promoter of a viable two-state solution.” It also states that the US “will work with our regional partners to deter Iranian aggression and threats to sovereignty and territorial integrity, disrupt Al-Qaeda and related terrorist networks and prevent an ISIS resurgence.” [6] The document notes that the US administration will “not give our partners in the Middle East a blank check to pursue policies at odds with American interests and values.”

It seems that the Biden administration will seek to alter the US military footprint in the Middle East by right-sizing the “military presence to the level required to disrupt international terrorist networks, deter Iranian aggression, and protect other vital US interests.” Lastly, the administration intends to end the “forever wars” “…that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. We will work to responsibly end America’s longest war in Afghanistan while ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorist attacks against the United States.” [7]

For many years, the US military strategy focused on fighting outright wars and maintaining its size, force, structure, deployment, and weaponry to deter conflict or engage in battle if deterrence failed. There has been a shift in the defense budget away from conventional weapons systems toward intelligence and surveillance equipment, special forces, and counterinsurgency training. Given society’s reliance on computer systems and that the day-to-day operations of public utilities, transportation, communication, and banking rely on such technology, its vulnerability to weapons of mass disruption has increased. Cyberspace has become the new domain of warfare. [8]

Moving on from Trump

Biden’s starkest departure, from the transactional manner of the Trump approach, is his emphasis on working with partners and allies. Biden recently moved to smoothen over trade tensions with the EU by agreeing to temporarily suspend duties for four months to work out a long-term settlement.

The NSS Guidance document also suggests a US pivot away from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific. As opposed to his predecessor, Biden has pledged to “reinvigorate and modernize” the US alliance with NATO and Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea and seek to deepen relations with New Zealand, as well as Singapore, Vietnam, and other ASEAN member states.

For nearly 30 years, successive US administrations have pursued similar policies when it comes to Great Powers such as China and Russia. Not much seems to have changed with the Biden administration in this respect. However, in terms of the US-Middle East relations trajectory, the Biden administration appears to be on a different path.

Comparing and contrasting his approach to previous or recent US administrations, there seems to be another path in the making. Unlike the Bush administration’s view of seeking to democratize the region, to a penchant of retracting from the Middle East during the Obama era, and Trump’s “maximum pressure normalization” policies, one will have to wait and see if Biden’s proposed “disciplined yet collaborative” approach will have its desired effect.

While there are no significant surprises in terms of the priority areas identified in the document, the NSS Guidance is a valuable “mission statement” concerning the Biden administration’s central geostrategic aims over the next four years. It remains to be seen how these objectives will be pursued and whether the policy directions stated in the guidance can be sustained through the many challenges that the White House will face as it seeks to move beyond the Trump years.

References: 

[1] Doyle, Richard. 2007. ‘The US National Security Strategy: Policy, Process, Problems,’ Public Administration Review, Vol. 67, Issue 4, pp. 624-629

[2] Claude, Sharon. 2009. ‘National Security Strategies: Security from What, for Whom, and by What Means,’ Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Vol. 6, Issue 1, pp.1-26

[3] Stolberg, Alan. 2012. How Nation-States Craft National Security Strategy Documents. US Army War College-Strategic Studies Institute, p.30

[4]White House. 2021. Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf

[5] White House. 2021. Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf

[6] White House. 2021. Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf

[7] White House. 2021. Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf

[8]Hook, Stephen. 2019. US Foreign Policy. The Paradox of World Power. 6th edition. Sage, pp. 205-231

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