Joe Biden needs a Project Solarium

When Barack Obama and Joe Biden assumed office in January 2009, both were dealt the worst hand of any president since FDR in 1933. The financial crisis of 2008 created an economic meltdown. And the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were unwinnable quagmires.

When Biden becomes president on January 20th, he faces an even worse hand. A pandemic is raging. The nation seems intractably polarized. An economic relief package is vitally needed. China and Russia are openly hostile. America’s international standing and reputation are in tatters. And Congress still cannot agree on a second relief bill. 

Regarding foreign and national security policy, the Pentagon has been without consistent civilian leadership since Jim Mattis resigned as secretary of Defense. The State Department and Foreign Service have been obliterated. And the intelligence agencies were battered by attempts at politicization. 

Biden’s first tasks must be to respond immediately to these realities. He must appoint his Cabinet and key staff. Some will draw fire during confirmation.

But his team is at least four years out of office. A Republican Senate could complicate a long confirmation process that normally takes well in excess of six months before a full administration is in place. And this transition must be done “virtually” in light of COVID-19.

One can assume that the new administration, presumably under the national security adviser, will begin a formal inter-agency foreign policy review. In normal times, this process takes about a year. But today is far from normal, and a profound re-examination of America’s global role is long overdue. Recommending change on the margin will not work.

My proposal for Biden is to follow President Dwight Eisenhower’s example by creating a Project Solarium: a no holds barred examination of foreign and national security policy. Solarium was also the name used by the Cyber Commission that issued a hard-hitting and sadly under read report earlier this year. 

After taking office in January 1953, Ike’s priority was to end the Korean War. But Stalin’s death in March, with a Cabinet already divided over the Soviet Union, demanded a thorough reexamination of Kremlin policy. Eisenhower also harbored grave concerns that overly militarizing the Cold War would drain the economy. Solarium was Ike’s answer. 

Named for the top floor of the White House, Solarium was conducted under the cover of a policy review at the National War College at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington. Three teams were convened. The conclusions led to the policy of containment and directive NSC 162/2, which set direction for much of the Cold War and reinforced what would become Ike’s “strategic new look” emphasizing nuclear deterrence and “massive retaliation.” And the option of more aggressive actions such as “roll back” of Soviet control of satellite states was rejected. 

Solarium took six weeks, completing in July 1953. Members were largely serving military officers who fought in World War II and Korea and some in World War I. All were white men and did not reflect what would be later called the inter-agency process.

In a 2020 Solarium, four teams should be convened with members drawn from the private sector. The objectives are to challenge “conventional wisdom” by re-evaluating the relevance of Great Power Competition as the foundation for current strategy; to identify and prioritize possibly existential and other major security challenges and threats including failed government, climate change and future pandemics; and propose policy responses. A deadline of two months should be set. 

Team A would be chartered to analyze and critique great power competition with emphasis on China and Russia; Team B on the government’s organization and ability to provide for national security; Team C to identify possible existential and major threats to include climate change, pandemics, debt and other disruptors; And Team D to identify the relevant role of alliances, partnerships and international and non-governmental organizations. 

The results of the new Solarium could be used for immediate decisions and as the basis for challenging the longer-term inter-agency process to overcome the bureaucratic tendency for producing compromised and watered-down strategies. The Foreign Affairs, Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees of both Houses of Congress should be invited to provide inputs as well.

The reasons for urgency are evident. The nation is in crisis at home and abroad. Many current policies and strategies are not working, and government is gridlocked. 

Under these circumstances, the new administration must apply creative, innovative and bold strategic thinking if the nation is to be made safer, more secure and prosperous.  Using the model of Eisenhower’s Project Solarium is an ideal place to start.

Harlan Ullman, PhD, is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and UPI’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist. He is finishing a new book titled, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD—How Massive Attacks of Disruption Endanger, Infect, Engulf and Disunify a 51% Nation” due out next year.

Tags Barack Obama Cold War Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive branch of the United States government Joe Biden NSC 162/2 Project Solarium Solarium United States foreign policy

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