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Reality Check

June 14, 2021

Reality Check #7: Red-teaming the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance

By Emma Ashford

Key points

  • The Biden administration has released an Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (INSSG), a stepping-stone to a full National Security Strategy (NSS). Although this document presents a more realistic vision of the world than the Trump administration’s NSS did, the INSSG still contains some questionable assumptions.
  • These assumptions include: 1) that the United States should be central to solving most major global problems, 2) that protecting democracy abroad requires a united global front among democracies, 3) that distinctions between domestic and foreign policy are rapidly becoming less relevant, and 4) that the United States should seek to out-compete China.
  • Reexamining these assumptions might lead to different and better policy outcomes, such as an increased reliance on US allies in areas where they have more expertise and a more flexible, less ideological response to the China challenge.

What’s the issue?

In March, the Biden administration took the unusual step of releasing an Interim National Security Strategic Guidance document. Although presidents are required by law to produce a National Security Strategy, such documents normally take a year or more for an incoming administration to produce. That the Biden team produced this document so quickly strongly suggests that the team felt the need to inform government agencies of changes from the last administration. Indeed, the INSSG lays out a Biden foreign policy vision that is very different from the one embraced by former US President Donald Trump—one that moves from “America First” to an America fully engaged with the world. The INSSG suggests that the Biden administration’s foreign policy will seek to reclaim the United States’ role as world leader and will be far more friendly to allies and partners than its predecessor.

Reclaiming the leadership mantle will be challengingperhaps impossible. Much has changed in the last four years. Though America retains core strengths in arenas such as human capital and innovation, the presidency of Donald Trump and the coronavirus have also highlighted America’s domestic structural weaknesses. Meanwhile, many broader trends—including the rise of China, the COVID-19 crisis, and a relative decline in American power—are reshaping the global landscape.

The document, which acknowledges some of the ways in which US foreign policy has become problematic in recent years under both Democrats and Republicans, does contain several positive proposals. These include its suggested approach to the Middle East: “We do not believe that military force is the answer to the region’s challenges, and we will not give our partners in the Middle East a blank check to pursue policies at odds with American interests and values.” This is a marked change from the outlook of the prior two administrations, both of which expressed ambivalence about America’s Middle East presence, but nonetheless retained a substantial troop presence there. It is also an acknowledgement that America’s Middle East policies have become overmilitarized and often counterproductive. Likewise, turning to China, the INSSG notes that “strategic competition does not, and should not, preclude working with China when it is in our national interest to do so.” Again, this is a notable difference from Trump’s general approach to negotiating with less-friendly states, which tended to prioritize pressure and competition over cooperation. The Biden’s administration’s INSSG also is a far more realistic approach to a world where decisions on challenging issues are not always clear-cut.

Nevertheless, the INSSG also contains some questionable assumptions on issues such as the scope of America’s role in the world and the connection between domestic and foreign policy. As with the US intelligence community’s concept of a red cell, whose core mission is typically to “provoke thought” among policymakers, a core element of the New American Engagement Initiative (NAEI)’s role is to test big picture assumptions about US foreign policy, examining them critically to see whether they are accurate or misleading. In that spirit, NAEI suggests that four key assumptions from the INSSG merit a second look from the administration as it crafts a full National Security Strategy.

The assumptions

Assumption #1: “Many of the biggest threats we face . . . must be met with collective action . . . none can be effectively addressed with the United States on the sidelines.”

The interlocking crises in global health and economics of the last eighteen months have clearly shown that some problems require international collective action. At a minimum, collective action on issues like health, climate change, and other transnational threats is likely to produce better outcomes than when countries go it alone. This does not mean, however, that all crises require direct US involvement. Washington has substantial leverage in certain conflicts—like the recent violence between Israelis and Palestinians or the Saudi-led war in Yemen—and may be able to push participants to the negotiating table. In other situations, however, allies or neighboring states are better equipped and more likely to succeed than the United States is. In some cases, US involvement is likely to exacerbate tensions. Consider the question of data protection, where the United States is taking a back seat to its European partners. As the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and other regulatory measures highlight, the European Union is in many ways better suited to shape and define global standards than the United States. In short, cooperative action is good, but with so many capable allies and partners out there, Washington should not assume that it must always be in the driver’s seat.  

Assumption #2: “We must remain committed to realizing and defending the democratic values at the heart of the American way of life . . . including by uniting the world’s democracies to combat threats to free societies.”

Since January 6— when a mob of violent supporters of the losing presidential candidate stormed the US Capitol—Washington’s foreign-policy community has engaged in endless rounds of debate over whether the United States should continue to promote democracy abroad while rebuilding it at home. The INSSG’s assumption, however, is slightly different: It is the idea that defending democracy at home requires cultivating common cause with other democracies. Revitalizing America’s democratic values and system will be challenging enough for the Biden administration. Building a coalition of democracies will be substantially harder, particularly given that even close US allies often conceive of free societies—and the threats to them—differently. France’s approach to religion in public life, for example, is anathema to American constitutional principles. Germany clearly does not consider the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to be a foreign policy threat, while the US Congress considers it to be so great a threat as to merit sanctions on a close ally. In other words, the appeal of a grouping of “like-minded” states is clear in theory but hard to channel into action. The INSSG largely ignores this problem, leading one critic to argue that the INSSG could be read at best “as an expectation that US allies and partners will fall in line behind Washington.” Other authors have highlighted the inherent difficulties in trying to pull together a summit or coalition of democracies, each of which has differing foreign policy interests and domestic constituencies to please. Ultimately, this approach would require Washington to make self-imposed sacrifices, potentially hurting US relations with friendly, semi-democratic or authoritarian states for little gain. Meanwhile, this proposal poses a high risk of hardening the nascent US-China competition into a more stark and dangerous ideological conflict.

Assuming that America’s goal is to prevail over China—rather than to prudently manage the competition—is potentially dangerous because this mindset can drive the United States toward policies that could increase the likelihood of war.

Assumption #3: “ . . . traditional distinctions between foreign and domestic policy . . . are less meaningful than ever before.”

This is far from a throwaway line. The INSSG describes a US foreign policy that is intrinsically linked to domestic policy, from nods to the Biden administration’s “foreign-policy-for-the-middle-class” mantra to discussion of the domestic threat from transnational authoritarian or kleptocratic actors. There is a perception that US foreign policy has become both unpopular—i.e., a majority of Americans now disapprove of Middle Eastern wars—and disconnected from the economic realities of Americans, most of whom also want to prioritize domestic spending over defense spending. On the economic side, old anti-globalization arguments have resurged, with politicians on both the left and right attributing America’s growing economic divisions to the offshoring of manufacturing jobs or the impact of trade agreements. Nevertheless, while domestic policy has been systematically undervalued in foreign policy deliberations in recent years, overvaluing it could be equally problematic. Not every foreign-policy problem is linked to domestic policy, and these domains often come into conflict, as with the clash between obtaining energy security and achieving domestic climate policy priorities. The INSSG implies that creating core domestic–foreign policy linkages will be a win-win; in reality, the administration is going to have to make difficult choices, such as whether to prioritize trade protections over good relations with allies and partners.

Assumption #4: “This agenda will . . . allow us to prevail in strategic competition with China or any other nation.”

Most analysts agree that the world is becoming more competitive, with states like China and Russia increasingly willing to challenge the United States—and Washington responding in kind. This is the unfortunate but inevitable conclusion to three decades of largely unchallenged US power and a recognition that the world is shifting toward multipolarity. The INSSG sets a goal for the United States during this coming period of strategic competition: to prevail. At other times, it states that Washington should aim to “out-compete” China, building domestic infrastructure and human capital to do so. Yet the assumption that the United States can prevail in strategic competition is questionable. Perhaps driven by memories of the unusually peaceful way in which the Cold War finally ended, this assumption suggests that geopolitical competition will have a clear winner and endpoint, with the United States or China emerging in a dominant position. Yet periods of great-power competition often do not end as peaceably as the Cold War did. History demonstrates other unpleasant potential outcomes, including a protracted period of rivalry or even a major war. Assuming that America’s goal is to prevail over China—rather than to prudently manage the competition—is potentially dangerous because this mindset can drive the United States toward policies that could increase the likelihood of war.

What is the solution?

Policymakers should routinely scrutinize how their core beliefs shape US foreign policy, as well as the best ways to advance American interests. The Biden administration’s INSSG is a good step in the right direction. It challenges some long-held Washington foreign policy orthodoxies and acknowledges that many voters have become disenchanted with America’s current approach to foreign policy. At the same time, it also includes some major assumptions that should be more thoroughly examined in the process of building a full national security strategy; rethinking these assumptions might produce different policy prescriptions. Policymakers should: 

1 Reexamine the notion that the United States should always take the lead in world affairs; rethinking this belief might lead to more effective strategies that encourage allies with local knowledge and capacity to take the lead on some issues.

2 Reconsider the proposal that Washington rally a global community of democracies; avoiding ideological frameworks will allow policymakers to maintain a more flexible set of coalitions going forward.

3 Reevaluate the extent to which domestic and foreign policy should be integrated; although domestic–foreign policy linkages are important, avoiding excessive reliance on domestic policy as a driver of foreign policy will help policymakers steer clear of self-inflicted tradeoffs in foreign policy down the road.

4 Rethink the argument that the United States should seek to “win” a competition with China; avoiding absolutist thinking in Washington’s China policy can help to keep tensions low and avoid unnecessary confrontation.

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Image: U.S. President Joe Biden walks with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, as he arrives for the final session of the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, Britain, June 13, 2021. Doug Mills/Pool via REUTERS