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New Atlanticist October 12, 2022

Experts react: The hits and misses in Biden’s new National Security Strategy

By Atlantic Council experts

On Wednesday, the White House released its long-awaited National Security Strategy (NSS), which US President Joe Biden described in the introduction as “a 360-degree strategy grounded in the world as it is today, laying out the future we seek, and providing a roadmap for how we will achieve it.” So we put the call out to our experts from across the Atlantic Council, many of whom have previously served on the National Security Council, which takes the lead in drafting the document. Does this strategy deliver? What does it get right and what’s missing? How will the rest of the world view the administration’s strategic vision? Read on to find out.

William F. Wechsler: A strategy in name only, but it does better than most

Daniel B. Shapiro: The Middle East makes mincemeat of good strategy

Andrew L. Peek: A surreal strategy that doesn’t recognize reality for US power

Daniel Fried: Biden molds the US strategic tradition to new challenges

Barbara Slavin: On Iran, only vague and unsurprising pledges

Christopher Skaluba: A non-strategy strategy, but a compelling one nonetheless

Qutaiba Idlbi: A limited commitment to Syria will only push the US further to the sidelines

Jason Marczak: Why the NSS devotes more attention to the Americas than any other region

Justin Sherman: A promising vision on privacy that now needs to be put into practice

Danielle Jablanski: Cybersecurity is front and center—with good reason

Thomas S. Warrick: DHS is everywhere and almost nowhere in this strategy 

Arun Iyer: A welcome focus on conflict in the “gray zone”

Ash Jain: A success on defining core challenges, but many questions remain 

A strategy in name only, but it does better than most

In the eighteenth century, Voltaire opined that the Holy Roman Empire was “in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” Today, a similar quip can be made every four years, as one administration after another publishes a National Security Strategy that is not entirely national, not truly centered on our security, and certainly not strategic. We are far too divided at home for a single document to represent a national consensus; the definition of security is often stretched to include anything that a given administration favors; and strategies, unlike these documents, require prioritizations rather than lists of equally weighted preferences along with a clearly defined alignment between desired ends, ways, and means. These reports, required by Congress and the product of untold man-hours across the executive branch, have largely degenerated into political treatises intended for domestic audiences rather than efforts to provide guidance to those who must execute US policies. 

Given that relatively low bar, the Biden administration seems to have done better than most in drafting an internally coherent report. The emphasis on the main challenges abroad (China and Russia) and at home (economic growth and democratic institutions) all come through clearly. But as the report continues beyond these grand themes, it often confuses mere preferences with vital interests and then doesn’t consider any inherent tradeoffs that emerge. The section on the Middle East is a case in point. Let’s just focus in on one paragraph:

“This framework has five principles. First, the United States will support and strengthen partnerships with countries that subscribe to the rules-based international order, and we will make sure those countries can defend themselves against foreign threats. Second, the United States will not allow foreign or regional powers to jeopardize freedom of navigation through the Middle East’s waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al Mandab, nor tolerate efforts by any country to dominate another—or the region—through military buildups, incursions, or threats. Third, even as the United States works to deter threats to regional stability, we will work to reduce tensions, de-escalate, and end conflicts wherever possible through diplomacy. Fourth, the United States will promote regional integration by building political, economic, and security connections between and among U.S. partners, including through integrated air and maritime defense structures, while respecting each country’s sovereignty and independent choices. Fifth, the United States will always promote human rights and the values enshrined in the UN Charter.”

The five guiding principles appear straightforward at first glance to American readers but then raise further questions for those with experience in the region. Does the commitment to support countries “that subscribe to the rules-based international order” include those Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) members who recently decided to collude with Russia to raise the global price of oil and thus help finance Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression? Does the statement that the United States will not “tolerate” efforts by any country to dominate another through, among other listed means, “military buildups” mean that the United States will halt its longstanding efforts to advance its partners’ “military buildups” in the face of the threat from Iran? Presumably this can’t possibly be the case, since just a few sentences later another listed “principle” advocates for “integrated air and maritime defense structures”—a clear case of the tradeoffs inherent to a true strategy but implicitly elided in this report. Moreover, does the United States not clearly want Israel to “dominate” Hamas and Hezbollah? I’m sure the Biden administration does, which simply highlights the difference between inflated language and the realities of policymaking.  

Further on, this paragraph promises that US diplomacy will seek to reduce tensions “wherever possible”—does this mean that it will be normalizing with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? Meeting with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah? I suspect not. And finally, the report asserts that the United States will “always” promote human rights. Of course, notwithstanding its rhetoric, the United States has not “always” done so in this region and will not “always” do so in the future. And when it does work to advance its human rights agenda—important work that should continue, needless to say—the United States usually does not do so at the expense of advancing its vital national security interests, even when the two conflict. If it did, for instance, the United States would have insisted on human-rights conditions being included in a nuclear deal with Iran. 

For those who understand that the National Security Strategy is primarily, if not entirely, a communications effort for domestic audiences, these questions may appear to be nitpicking. But that only highlights the fact that this document, like the others that preceded it, is not a true strategy.

William F. Wechsler is the senior director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, and a former director of transnational threats on the National Security Council staff at the White House. 

The Middle East makes mincemeat of good strategy

Biden’s National Security Strategy offers sound principles to guide US policy in the Middle East, from advancing regional integration, to ensuring partners’ and allies’ security from regional and external threats, to supporting improved human-rights conditions, all without overextending US resources or taking its eye off of global priorities. But the region moves fast, and even as those words were published, events challenged the ability to implement this strategy. 

Saudi Arabia decided last week, with its OPEC+ partners, to slash oil production at a time when propping up prices assists Putin in conducting his brutal campaign against Ukraine. The move has occasioned calls from Democrats in Congress—and the president himself—for a reevaluation, or even a downgrading, of US support for Saudi security. The minimum the United States must be able to expect from its partners is that they will not act in ways inimical to core US interests vis-a-vis Russia and China. The Saudis’ blunder raises doubts as to whether there will be sustainable political support at home for the investment necessary to seize the opportunities that regional integration offers.

Meanwhile, dramatic protests against regime brutality in Iran, led by extraordinarily courageous women and girls, threaten to make the dilemma around restoring the nuclear agreement known as the JCPOA insoluble—literally impossible to reconcile a key nonproliferation objective with support for the Iranian people’s struggle against tyranny. As ever, the region makes mincemeat of strategy papers, forcing choices upon policymakers that require the most painful tradeoffs of one essential priority against an equally valid one.

Daniel B. Shapiro is a distinguished fellow at the Middle East Programs, former US ambassador to Israel, and former director for legislative affairs at the National Security Council.

A surreal strategy that doesn’t recognize reality for US power

The Biden administration’s NSS is more than a touch surreal. At its core, the document is intended to define US strategy in a world caught between autocracy and democracy. This fundamental schism, the document repeatedly explains, is at the heart of US national security interests and goals for the coming future.  

But the problem is that this is no longer 1918, or 1945, or even 2001, but rather an age when US power is—at best—stagnant. Resources are not unlimited. Inflation is near forty-year highs, and by any historic definition, the US economy is in a recession. The United States’ calamitous Afghanistan withdrawal horrified allies: No event since the fall of Saigon has more acutely illustrated US weakness—and nations noticed.  

This is the core objection: The document speaks not to the future, but to the past. It speaks nothing of tradeoffs for this world in 2022. As such, Americans are left with a well-written compendium of wants: resources for this and that, and top-level attention on them all. Any administration has only so much attention and money and priorities. In lieu of tradeoffs, there is the sneaking suspicion that everything will get less, rather than more. 

Andrew L. Peek is a nonresident senior fellow in the Middle East Programs and a former senior director for Russian and European affairs at the National Security Council. 

Biden molds the US strategic tradition to new challenges

The new US National Security Strategy is a solid application of the liberal internationalist tradition in US foreign policy. In that view, the United States seeks to advance a rules-based international order that favors democracy not out of charity or abstract idealism but because this will advance US national interests as we have defined them since 1945. This American grand strategy was formulated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (see the Atlantic Charter of 1941), implemented by President Harry Truman, and advanced one way or another by just about every US president since then (Donald Trump excepted). It means rallying like-minded democracies and building out to include other nations willing to work in common fashion.

The new NSS seeks to update that strategic tradition to fit current challenges: the rise of revisionist authoritarian powers China and Russia—especially the present threat from Putin’s Russia—and global challenges, such as climate change. In substance and even style, it is non-partisan, employing ideas and even language from previous Republican as well as Democratic administrations, e.g., great-power competition from the Trump NSS (which was produced by some of the more responsible Trump administration people who Trump himself didn’t seem to understand) and “transformative cooperation”—transformational diplomacy being a favorite word from George W. Bush foreign policy. That is to the credit of the Biden NSS.

The bad news? Like op-eds, strategies are easier to write than to implement. Drafters can bridge competing interests but cannot make them go away in reality. Second, not even the best NSS can protect against blunders of application. Truman’s grand strategy of containment of Soviet power was in the end a success, but its application included the Vietnam War. Third, the bad guys, starting with Putin, will act in ways expected and unexpected to thwart US objectives and values. But a good policy framework can help the US think through the miserable problems it faces, together with its friends and allies, and will face in the future.

Daniel Fried is the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and former National Security Council senior director under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

On Iran, only vague and unsurprising pledges

The security strategy contains no surprises on Iran. It emphasizes working with allies to “deter and counter Iran’s destabilizing activities” and states that diplomacy is the preferred means of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, while asserting that the United States is “prepared to use other [unspecified] means should diplomacy fail.” 

The strategy’s promises to respond to “threats against US personnel as well as current and former US officials” and to “stand with the Iranian people striving for basic rights and dignity” are similarly vague. Perhaps the most important line when it comes to Iran—and other US adversaries—is at the beginning of the document: “We do not, however, believe that governments and societies everywhere must be remade in America’s image for us to be secure.” 

Barbara Slavin is the director of the Council’s Future of Iran Initiative.

A non-strategy strategy, but a compelling one nonetheless 

On the whole, the NSS presents a nuanced vision of the complex world that exists and the one that is on the horizon. The vision is compelling, convincingly understanding the interconnectedness of domestic and foreign policy and of the many regional and functional challenges facing the United States. It sees the United States as the necessary leader of a faction of democratic and like-minded nations against a bloc of revisionist and autocratic spoilers led by an ascending and self-assured China and a descending and hell-bent Russia. At its core, then, the NSS reflects an administration confident in its worldview and in the United States’ indispensability as a global actor for good. 

At the same time, the NSS text is didactic, bordering on epistemological, in a way that undermines its utility as a strategy typically comprised of ends, ways, and means. There is a density to the document that makes it hard to zero in on the most important aspects and that makes prioritization unclear (despite a section titled “Our Global Priorities”).  

On the transatlantic relationship and NATO, the NSS is entirely constructive, reasonable, and predictable, no more and no less. That may be a window into my overall critique of the document: It is really an argument, unsurprisingly, for everything the administration is already doing. The problem with releasing a NSS halfway through a presidential term is that it does not have the ability to set an agenda or surprise us with new ideas. As much as this NSS talks about the decade to come, it is essentially an explanation of the administration’s status quo program. In this sense, it is more autobiography or apologia than strategy, written as much to convince the administration itself of the rightness and coherence of its policies as it was written to provide a rallying cry or a warning to external audiences. 

Christopher Skaluba is the director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Transatlantic Security Initiative and has held several roles in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. 

A limited commitment to Syria will only push the US further to the sidelines 

The messaging on Syria in the NSS, on one hand, echoes the Biden administration’s Syria policy review that concluded earlier this year, which focused on maintaining ongoing efforts to counter and prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), sustaining de-escalation and local territorial control, and continuing humanitarian support. On the other hand, the NSS emphasized working with and through local partners, further limiting the United States’ engagement in Syria to areas of the northeast under the Syrian Democratic Forces’ control, without an indication of commitment to solve the conflict. The limited commitment to establishing a thorough strategy for the almost twelve-year-long crisis will likely encourage more normalization efforts by regional governments and further collaboration among Russia, Iran, and Turkey to challenge the US presence in northern Syria and assert more influence over the political outcome of the conflict. It’s a reminder of Syria’s diminishing significance in the United States’ national-security priorities. 

Qutaiba Idlbi is a nonresident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs, where he leads the Syria portfolio. 

Why the NSS devotes more attention to the Americas than any other region

The regional section of this National Security Strategy appropriately dedicates more attention to the Americas than to any other region. This reflects a push from inside the White House and across the government on the need for a greater focus on stability and prosperity close to home. After all, a prosperous hemisphere provides security for the United States within a larger global context—especially with an increasingly volatile world outlook. The NSS reflects that prioritization in its opening Western Hemisphere sentence.  

While the Western Hemisphere section importantly addresses the issues of migration, health security, economic growth, climate changes, democratic stability, and security, what is still needed is a focused plan to address these multiples challenges in a mutually reinforcing way. The strategy lists three priorities: expanding economic opportunities, strengthening democracy, and building security. These priorities should be translated into overarching goals of US engagement in the Western Hemisphere.  

As I wrote last year in a partnership strategy for the region in coming out of COVID-19—a report that was informed by vast consultations—”at the broadest level, the goal of the United States should be to: a) facilitate inclusive economic prosperity with free market economies that spur development and are conducive to US economic partnership; b) promote security so that the United States and countries in the region can partner in confronting transnational crime, illicit flows, and threats to the rule of law; and c) revitalize democracy and good governance.” Together, these broader goals should address migration and the disproportionate effects of climate change. A follow-up to the NSS should be to outline both how the United States will seek to accomplish its hemispheric goals in the short and in the long run with concrete agenda items that match the budgetary priorities of the administration. 

Jason Marczak is the senior director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center

A promising vision on privacy that now needs to be put into practice

The strategy is laudable for calling out the dangerous exploitation of Americans’ data and the threats posed by commercial spyware and surveillance technologies. Simultaneously, many US companies have enabled undemocratic, harmful surveillance at home and abroad—from encouraging and facilitating uses of racist, sexist, invasive facial recognition domestically; to packaging Americans’ sensitive data and selling it on the open market; to providing surveillance technologies to repressive regimes overseas. The strategy is right to say that countries around the world must work together to combat dystopian surveillance practices. Hopefully, that vision includes the need for strong regulation at home and overseas, better protections for Americans’ privacy, and centering the communities harmed most by these surveillance activities, rather than continuing to ignore privacy under the false belief that it constitutes a direct tradeoff with US competitiveness.

Justin Sherman is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative.

Cybersecurity is front and center—with good reason

It’s a relief to see cybersecurity mentioned so many times in the Biden administration’s NSS. Without emphasizing the risks and consequences posed in the cyber domain to national and economic security, no progress will be made in future generations to secure the services, goods, and resources that matter most for daily life, health, and safety. Clear and consistent baselines for tackling the myriad of challenges that exist—insecure code, supply-chain challenges, lack of visibility, the growing threat landscape, etc.—are emerging.  

Achievable, sustainable, and inexhaustive policy in partnership with industry is paving the way forward. If US critical-infrastructure sectors are priced out of business by extensive cybersecurity requirements that are out of scope and out of budget, the country would hamstring competitive markets and create single points of dependence and potentially national failure. Responding swiftly to actors who threaten to disrupt or degrade vital national functions or critical infrastructure—and building the cyber workforce for both information technology and operational technology systems that the United States relies on—is crucial to protect and defend the democratic values that Americans hold dear. 

Danielle Jablanski is a nonresident fellow in the Cyber Statecraft Initiative. 

DHS is everywhere and almost nowhere in this strategy 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is everywhere and almost nowhere in the 2022 NSS. Unlike the Department of Defense and State Department, which get called out repeatedly, DHS is mentioned explicitly only once, on page 46, for a 2021 program to hire and retain cybersecurity talent. More striking, though, is the importance the strategy gives to the non-military security missions that DHS and other civilian departments have in making the US economy strong and resilient and especially in protecting American democracy from forces trying to undermine it—whether from overseas or here at home. 

Much of what the strategy calls for in cybersecurity, border security and immigration, domestic counterterrorism, and protection of critical infrastructure from climate change will fall to DHS to implement, even if DHS gets fewer call-outs than State or Defense. Strengthening democracy is one example: DHS’s efforts during the Obama and Trump administrations to get state and local election officials to require paper ballots ensured the objectivity of recounts that established the security and integrity of the 2020 election. After what promises to be a difficult 2022 midterm election, election security will need additional resources in 2024 and beyond. 

Thomas S. Warrick is a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense practice and a former deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy at the US Department of Homeland Security. 

A welcome focus on conflict in the “gray zone” 

Biden’s NSS could be reasonably critiqued for its delayed timing, but had it been released anytime earlier than February 24, 2022, it could have been viewed as an incomplete or obsolete view of the world’s situation. The updated picture allows for a consistent treatment of China as the pacing strategic competitor to the United States and a more novel view of Russia as a dangerous aggressor that should be “constrained” to limit damage to global security. This realism informed by Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” coupled with the breadth covered in this NSS serves as an invitation for the US national-security community and allies on multiple fronts. 

The broad range of areas where the United States can and must compete for its enduring vision feed the Integrated Deterrence described within the NSS and, by extension, serve as an invitation to improve strategic and coordinated utilization of the “gray zone.” Operations, activities, and actions below the threshold of active armed conflict, including offering incentives/disincentives in non-military  domains (economic, technological, and information) can and should be leveraged to “convince potential adversaries that the costs of their hostile activities outweigh their benefits.” 

As covered in the NSS, the myriad of challenges facing the United States and its allies, beyond just China and Russia, illustrates the value and, frankly, the necessity of strong alliances built on shared values and interests. While this has been consistent throughout this administration, the context of Russian aggression in Ukraine makes leveraging alliances and partnerships far more compelling to a broader national and international audience. 

Arun Iyer is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and served in a variety of operational and operational leadership assignments in the US Department of Defense. 

A success on defining core challenges, but many questions remain 

If the purpose of a national security strategy is for an administration to identify what it views as the core challenges facing the United States and lay out its top foreign policy priorities, the Biden administration’s recently issued NSS is a success. It states that the United States has entered an era of strategic competition with China and Russia, and that this competition is rooted in alternative visions for the world between democracies and revisionist autocracies. It suggests that transnational threats, such as climate change, constitute a second critical set of challenges requiring concerted action. And it proposes that the most effective way for the US to succeed on both fronts is to deepen cooperation among democracies, while seeking the broadest coalition possible to tackle any given issue. 

But as it seeks to implement this strategy, the administration will need to grapple with several key questions. The first is whether it is possible to successfully pursue competition and cooperation at the same time, especially if China or Russia seek to condition their cooperation on issues like climate change with the United States lifting sanctions or offering other concessions. The second is how to gain the cooperation of democracies in the Global South, when many, such as India, prefer to remain “non-aligned.” And third is how to ensure that US efforts to cooperate with autocratic partners do not result in overlooking or tolerating serious violations of democracy and human rights. 

Ash Jain is the director for democratic order with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He previously served on the US secretary of state’s policy planning staff. 

Further reading

Related Experts: William F. Wechsler, Daniel B. Shapiro, Daniel Fried, Justin Sherman, Barbara Slavin, Christopher Skaluba, Qutaiba Idlbi, Andrew L. Peek, Jason Marczak, Danielle Jablanski, Thomas S. Warrick, Arun Iyer, and Ash Jain

Image: U.S. President Joe Biden walks to board Marine One helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington before his departure to Colorado on October 12, 2022. Photo by Yuri Gripas/ABACAPRESS.COM via Reuters