The Biden administration has had plenty of time to rethink its national security strategy. Will it?
The Biden administration has managed to release a national strategy for hunger and nutrition and another on climate change. But thus far the ability to produce a strategy to protect national security has eluded them.
Last Tuesday the administration announced that its long-delayed national security strategy is “coming soon.” Before you get your hopes up, recall that we have heard that before. In December we heard the strategy would be released “early in the new year.” In February, Russia’s impending invasion of Ukraine was cited as a reason to pause the strategy.
By law, the administration is required to send the strategy to Congress at the same time it submits its proposed budget. That happened on March 28, but the strategy was nowhere in sight.
While the delays are lamentable, what matters more is what the strategy document says. Unfortunately, there is little reason to hope it will represent a clean break from prior Biden administration security policy. The president’s coordinator for defense policy and arms control recently predicted that the final national security strategy’s themes will be “largely unchanged” from Biden’s March 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.
Why is that so troubling? Because that interim document was a mashup of warmed-over campaign slogans, climate change ideology and a litany of dangers from systemic racism. Insights as to how the Biden team intends to protect and defend U.S. national interests were largely absent.
After declaring “America is Back. Diplomacy is Back” and that “America cannot afford to be absent any longer on the world stage,” the interim guidance proceeded to discuss the climate crisis 27 times, while mentioning Russia five. Extremism was described as a threat five times, while North Korea, just once. The Army, Navy, Space Force and Air Force? Sorry, no mention at all. As a signaling document for progressive issues, it was a “touchdown,” but for those seeking guidance on national security, it was more a “touchback.”
Like the administration’s early statements about Ukraine, the interim strategic guidance talked more about what the administration would not do, versus what it would do. The guidance pledged to avoid costly arms races and to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. Absent was any mention of what might happen if adversaries such as Chinese President Xi Jinping inconveniently embark on a breathtaking program of nuclear weapons breakout or if Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly threatened the use of nuclear weapons. Promises of what we will not do are unlikely to deter the ambitions of Putin or Xi.
The interim guidance promised to “responsibly end America’s longest war in Afghanistan” and to ensure “Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorist attacks.” Today, the Taliban controls more of Afghanistan than it did before 2001.
The COVID-19 pandemic consumed much room in the interim security guidance, mentioned 12 times, while guidance on how to deal with a nuclear-armed North Korea warranted a single sentence.
As the old saying goes, when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. When, as Biden’s interim security guidance asserted, climate change, food insecurity, racism, extremism, COVID-19, LBGTQI+ rights and women’s empowerment all assume the status of national security issues, then destabilizing military threats such as those from China, Russia and North Korea are relegated to mere afterthoughts.
By now the scales should have fallen from our eyes. Seven months after Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and one month after Xi sent his warships and planes into Taiwan’s air and sea space to protest the shear audacity of the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) visit, America does not have the luxury to produce “feel-good” national security strategies that gratify certain interest groups but fail meaningfully to advance U.S. security.
By all accounts, America today is beset by danger. Iran is refining uranium to 60 percent, close to weapons-grade fissile material. China is building navy ships at a rate equivalent to the U.K.’s fleet every four years. The Russian president is openly threatening the use of nuclear weapons if challenged. North Korea remains a nuclear-armed wildcard.
To counter these dangers, America needs a national strategy that clearly articulates our national security goals. It must present a clear-eyed appraisal of these threats, describe realistic ways to counter these challenges and muster the necessary resources to make it all work. What we have seen thus far from this administration does not rise to this level.
Let’s hope the final product gets it right.
Thomas Spoehr, a retired U.S. Army Lt. General, is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.