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Two big ideas for President Biden

Two big ideas for President Biden
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When Joe Biden becomes president on January 20th, 2021, he has announced that his four major priorities will be ending the raging pandemic, repairing a struggling economy, mollifying an intractably divided nation and reducing race and gender inequalities.   

Central to economic recovery is a plan for modernizing and repairing America’s failing infrastructure that President Biden will submit to Congress. Biden has said little so far about national security other than pledging to reverse President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden administration still seizing land near border despite plans to stop building wall: report Illinois House passes bill that would mandate Asian-American history lessons in schools Overnight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he MORE’s America First policies, which have diminished the role of allies and overseas partners.

But an infrastructure plan alone will not ensure complete economic recovery. And despite the huge amounts of defense spending, national security has been weakened under Trump. Here are two recommendations to deal with these issues, expanding on my previous recommendation for a Solarium-like strategic planning process drawing on the Eisenhower administration’s example.  

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The first is for a National Investment Fund that, if properly executed, could generate a post-pandemic national economic renaissance making the United States highly competitive and prosperous for the second half of the 21st century. It should be named the 1923 Investment Fund to remind the nation that following the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu pandemic, the nation entered into the greatest economic boom in its history. 

This fund extends well beyond the infrastructure plan, investing in cutting edge and job creating advanced technologies for health care/medicine/g-nome, AI and related information areas, clean and sustainable energy and environment and cyber focusing on making 5G and broadband access universal. The Fund would be a public-private partnership capitalized to about $2-3 trillion with the bulk of investment coming from the private sector through 30-year bonds issued at 2-3 percent above prime interest rates guaranteed by the government with about $1 trillion of federal money.  

The debt would be repaid by user fees, tolls and returns on investment. Annual real growth in excess of 4 percent can be created that, over time, will help pay down the already huge public debt and stimulate an economic renaissance.

The obstacles are political. After years of profligate spending, Republicans will protest against increasing debt. Democrats will not trust the private sector to oversee the fund. But without this level of investment, the United States will not be globally sustainable and income disparities will grow greater. 

Regarding national security, the United States has a misdirected strategy; a Defense Department organized for the past and not the current century; and a failure to incorporate allies and partners as fundamental to our safety and security. The current defense strategy calls for a Great Power Competition focused on China and Russia with the U.S. military directed to “compete, deter and, if war comes, defeat the enemy.” 

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That strategy is profoundly flawed and unachievable, unexecutable and unaffordable in large measure because “compete, deter and defeat” have not been defined. As bad, no off-ramp exists to prevent a conflict such as occurred in 1914 and an earlier Great Power Rivalry. And suppose, for example, that Beijing and Moscow had the same strategy in reverse regarding the United States. How would we react. 

The Department of Defense is crippled by a stifling bureaucratic structure based on a National Security Act  first passed in 1947. This organization is incapable of timely responses in buying everything from precision munitions to personnel to pencils and bloated with regulatory oversight that prevents achieving real efficiencies and effectiveness. The Department also suffers from  a requirement for “jointness”  based on a 35-year-old Goldwater-Nichols Personnel Act that prevents assigning the right people to the right positions. And an unwieldy chain of command is required by a Unified Command Plan (UCP) of geographic and functional commanders more suited  for a Cold War world along with an analog driven command, control and management information system in a digital age.

Team Biden must correct these failings in strategy and organization.

Regarding allies, in the third decade of the 21st century, alliances and partnerships are even more critical in ensuring peace and physical as well as economic health in light of the threat of a new MAD (Massive Acts of Disruption), whether pandemics, climate changecyber or other instruments of destruction. Assigning top national security priorities to contain, prevent, mitigate and even deter these events requires a new framework and a more intimate system for international cooperation.

Words matter. Dealing with China and Russia is best done by visibly reinforcing ties with NATO and the European Union. It is also achieved by reaffirming treaty agreements with allies and friends in Asia and emphasizing all instruments of power with less reliance on the military components while making diplomacy and engagement more central. 

The Biden administration brings much needed hope to a battered nation. But only smart, effective action works. Let us hope someone is listening.

Harlan Ullman, PhD. is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His next book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New Mad: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Are Endangering, Infecting, Engulfing and Disuniting A 51% Nation.”