Biden’s presidency is nearly half-way over, and the first National Security Strategy by his administration was finally published. In this belated report, the Biden administration answered such key questions as how the US should view the current international landscapes, how to deal with severe challenges, and how to advance its foreign strategy and safeguard its own interests. To a certain extent, this report marks the finalized design with a focus on “great power competition” in the US national security strategy. However, it also shows that the US failed to think outside the box in response to the new international landscapes and challenges, revealing three unresolved contradictions the Biden administration made when planning its national security and foreign strategies.
On March 8, 2022, after the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, the US President Joe Biden announced sanctions against Russia.
The contradiction between “strategic competition” and global cooperation
The preface of the report provokes a sense of overwhelming urgency and pressure, reiterating that the world is at “an inflection point” and the Biden administration must seize the “decisive decade” to advance America’s vital interests, position the US to outmaneuver its geopolitical competitors, and tackle shared challenges. The urgency that “there is no time to waste” is pervasive among the words and lines in this 48-page document with the phrase of “decisive decade” mentioned for as many as six times, let alone the term “competition” coined at an even higher frequency.
According to the report, the Biden administration has kept the same basic judgment and cognition of the international landscapes as its predecessor, believing that “strategic competition” is one of the most severe challenges facing the US. Competition will be the mainstream in the future with an all-round revival of geopolitics and the Great Game, a collision of great powers that are trying to roll back one another’s sphere. Moreover, the Biden administration also believes that in the early years of the “decisive decade” for the US and the world, the terms of geopolitical competition between major powers will be set while the window of opportunity to deal with shared threats will narrow drastically.
Unlike its predecessor, the Biden administration still manages to set the tone of internationalism for the report, arguing that the US must maintain and increase international cooperation on shared challenges even in “an age of greater inter-state competition.” The report listed some common transnational issues as one of the challenges that the US must deal with, including climate change, food insecurity, communicable diseases and inflation. These shared challenges are not “marginal issues” that are secondary to geopolitics; instead, they are at the very “core” of national and international security. As the White House stated in its “Fact Sheet” of the report, what the US should think about is how to seek “cooperation in the age of competition.”
While the Biden administration is endeavoring to strike a balance between “strategic competition” and transnational challenges, the report fails to give any specific path to global cooperation in the “age of competition.” “Strategic competition” essentially goes against global cooperation. This strategic design of the US is nothing but a beautiful strategic fantasy. The “strategic competition” advanced by the US centers on the competition among major powers while global cooperation significantly requires their consensus and coordination. With the US “weaponizing” globalization and dividing the world by building various “small blocs,” the trust among countries has been weakened, making it difficult to make concerted efforts in response to transnational challenges.
The Biden administration also seems to be aware of the irreconcilability between “strategic competition” and global cooperation. Despite a seemingly wise “dual-track approach” — to cooperate with its rivals that subscribe to the “rules-based international order” to address shared challenges on one track and to create a “latticework” of strong, resilient and mutually reinforcing relationships with democracies on the other track — the report does not detail the “rules-based international order.” This will simply make other countries think that the US tends to redefine the conditions of interdependence among the countries by its own rules in the true purpose of attracting more countries to join the ranks of “strategic competition,” which may push the world further toward “different camps.”
On May 24, 2022, President Joe Biden of the US, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio of Japan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia attended the “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” (QUAD) Leaders’ Summit in Tokyo, Japan.
The contradiction between “investing at home” and enduring international leadership
In response to the challenges facing the US, the Biden administration still emphasizes the significance of “investing at home,” which is in line with “a foreign policy for the middle class” proposed at the time of his inauguration. This is based on a recognition of the Biden administration that we should break down the dividing line between foreign policy and domestic policy as domestic strengths and foreign strengths are inseparable. For this reason, the report implies the concept of “America First” in the section of “Shaping the Rules of the Road” with great importance attached to establishing “fair rules,” which is essentially in the interests of sustaining its economic and technological edge and shaping a future defined by “fair competition” — because when American workers and companies compete on a level playing field, they win.
To this end, the Biden administration proposed three lines of efforts in its report: first, it will continue to improve democracy and rules-based governance at home; second, it will complement the innovative power of the private sector with a modern industrial strategy that makes strategic public investments in America’s workforce, and in strategic sectors and supply chains; and third, it will modernize and strengthen its military so it is equipped for the era of strategic competition with major powers. At the same time, the report also emphasizes that the US should turn its own strengths into enduring international leadership and leverage its national advantages and the coalition of allies and partners to transform both domestic and foreign challenges into opportunities.
The report does not clearly describe the logical connection between investing at home and transforming its strengths into enduring international leadership. One possible explanation is that the Biden administration has inherited the core of “America First” from Trump’s presidency with external strategic adjustments as a switch of policy implementation. Through pseudo-multilateralism and the revitalization of “democracy” strategies, including the implementation of supply chain “resilience” and the promotion of the “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework,” it will continue to implement “strategic competition” in order to “shape the global strategic environment” as mentioned in the report and underpin its global leadership while reinforcing its own strengths.
However, contradictions and risks are pervasive in the linkage between the foreign strategy and domestic policy under the Biden administration. After the release of the report, some American scholars criticized it for putting the cart before the horse without enough emphasis on “a foreign policy for the middle class” or true efforts to promote diplomatic strategies in the domestic interests. If the Democratic Party loses control over one house or even two houses of Congress after the midterm elections, the Biden administration will face the unfavorably “divided governments” at home under greater pressure of “boosting domestic capabilities through foreign policy” and be more likely to witness its foreign policy with domestic political “strings” attached. In particular, once the Republican Party enters the field in the second half of Biden’s presidency, the President will have to make some concessions in his foreign policies. At that time, the competence of the US in international leadership will again be severely challenged.
In the longer run, once the US foreign policy closely binds with domestic politics in the midst of increasingly polarized domestic politics and intensified bipartisan struggles in the US, other countries, especially its allies, will have more suspicion over the durability and stability of the US foreign policy and worry about the adjustments to the US diplomacy after the change of political power, which will waver on the US goal of building a stronger alliance and damage the interests of its allies again. European countries, as the allies of the US, for example, are extremely concerned about the politic dynamics in the US. Some European strategists are worried about another blow on transatlantic relations if Trump makes a comeback after 2024. Therefore, they call on Europe to keep a distance from the “strategic competition” promoted by the Biden administration and avoid any deep involvement.
The contradiction between “binding” China and Russia and treating them discriminately
Russia and China are two countries mentioned most in the report, among which Russia ranks first with 71 times, followed by China, 57 times. The reason why Russia was mentioned more often may be explained by the escalation of the Ukraine crisis since February. The Biden administration believes that Russia and China pose shared yet, in important ways, distinct “challenges” in the midst of “strategic competition” to be dealt with discriminately. It regards China as a more powerful “competitor” in the longer run while taking Russia as a short-term but immediate “challenger” in more urgent need of response.
In light of different “challenges,” the Biden administration finds itself in a “dilemma” when it comes to the policies toward the two countries. On the one hand, the US tries to distinguish strategies on “challenges” between China and Russia, with its policy toward China defined as to “out-compete” and Russia, to “constrain” — just a step away from “containment.” In other words, the US will prioritize maintaining “an enduring competitive edge” over China while constraining “a still profoundly dangerous Russia.” Therefore, the report followed the strategy toward China since Biden’s inauguration to suggest a more complex “way of competition,” including investment in domestic strength, coalition with foreign allies and partners, and “responsible competition” with Beijing. The report also stated that competition with China is most pronounced in the Indo-Pacific, but it is also increasingly global. Around the world, the contest is playing out in every region and across economics, technology, diplomacy, development, security and global governance. Against Russia, the US strategy is more direct with confrontation at its core and maintenance of contact and interaction where necessary.
But on the other hand, after the escalation of the Ukraine crisis, the US has continued to “hype and exaggerate” the so-called “China-Russia binding theory” in the hope of uniting other countries in the great power competition against China and Russia. According to the report, it is difficult for the Biden administration to make a refined strategic design or distinction of policies from China and Russia. In most cases, it “binds” China with Russia in an attempt to stir up the confrontation or even “decoupling” of the two counties in the midst of an escalated Ukraine crisis. It is clear to see a divide in the strategic positioning of and strategic means toward China and Russia compared with those in the past.
There is a larger geostrategic conspiracy by the Biden administration behind the “China-Russia binding theory,” namely to take the joint response to the “challenges” from China and Russia as a “key” to open up the linkage between the “Indo-Pacific” and Europe and “suck” the two as one to the US track of “strategic competition” in line with the earlier statement by Kurt Campbell, Coordinator for “Indo-Pacific Affairs” on the US National Security Council over “two major geopolitical zones and one operating system.” On this basis, the report proposed that the “intertwined” fate of the two regions has highlighted the strategic ambition of the US to “rebalance” in Europe under its “strategic eastward shift.” However, whether it is out of the understanding of China and Russia or the pursuit of regional development, we can see that the “Indo-Pacific” and Europe have their own interests and concerns as well as policy logics and priorities, thus unwilling to blindly follow the US in the “strategic competition” against China and Russia.
Generally, there is no major breakthrough in the contents of this belated National Security Strategy by the Biden administration, following Trump’s philosophy in domestic policy and foreign policy with a focus on serving “strategic competition.” Nevertheless, this report still has its unique value among others by successive US governments. It basically positions the main direction and paths of the US national security strategy for the next decade dominated by “competition.” Despite the so-called idealism and internationalism somehow added by the Biden administration to this report, the fundamental understanding and countermeasures of the US government in response to international landscapes remain unchanged. In the future, there may be more contradictions or conflicts between the US foreign strategy and its domestic policy to drift it away from its stated strategic goals.
（This article was first published in World Affairs on November 18）