Following the release of the 2022 National Security Strategy—highlighted by a CNAS cohosted launch event with the Georgetown School of Foreign Service featuring National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan—CNAS experts respond to the vision and stated policy priorities of this guiding document.
All quotes may be used with attribution. To arrange an interview, email Cameron Edinburgh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer:
The new National Security Strategy represents a strong, clear statement about America’s role in the world. The central geopolitical challenge today is the existence of simultaneous, indefinite competitions with both Russia and China. The NSS admirably diagnoses the nature of those contests and points the way toward success in them. It sets key priorities and emphasizes the need to work with allies and build domestic sources of strength. All good.
But there are also missing pieces and complications. The administration continues to lack an affirmative trade agenda, which damages America’s ability to compete with China. The strategy reasonably advocates collaborating with countries, including China and Russia, in areas where interests coincide. That’s far easier said than done, however; rivalry currently crowds out any cooperation in areas like climate, nonproliferation, and pandemics. Finally, the NSS establishes regional and issue priorities, but the administration faces endless tradeoffs as it balances engagement and resources across a global national security portfolio.
A National Security Strategy represents a snapshot of the administration’s understanding of the global security and economic environment, how it defines U.S. interests and values, and its broad foreign policy priorities. Not a traditional “strategy,” the NSS’s chief value is as a signaling device. The White House should now endeavor to link it to budgets and require that agencies develop specific implementation plans in their areas of responsibility. And it must stay flexible. The NSS is right that the post-Cold War era has ended. The new one is changing fast.
Lisa Curtis, Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program:
The Biden administration's National Security Strategy highlights strategic competition with China as the most consequential long-term threat the United States faces and lays out a strategy for addressing the challenge that relies heavily on cooperation with allies and partners. The advantage of waiting nearly two years into its term to release the NSS is that the administration can trumpet what it is already doing to meet challenges. The NSS describes multiple U.S. initiatives already underway, such as Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS), the Indo-Pacific Quad, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness initiative, and the Partnership for Global Investment and Infrastructure—all of which are aimed at preserving a rules-based international order.
The NSS acknowledges that democracy is at the core of American identity and that the United States has a role to play in setting an example and inspiring people around the world on the importance of governments protecting the dignity and equality of all human beings. At the same time, the NSS makes clear that Washington will not limit its cooperation to other democracies but will work with any country that respects a rules-based order and wants to join in “constructive problem-solving.”
Despite the overwhelming focus on China, the Biden administration also highlights its goal of preventing competition from devolving into conflict. The NSS states clearly that there is no change to Washington’s Taiwan policy and that the United States does not support an independent Taiwan. In remarks yesterday at an event CNAS hosted at Georgetown University, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan emphasized that there is no interest in a new cold war characterized by zero-sum calculations and that divides the world into rigid blocks. Sullivan said the Biden administration will “compete responsibly” to support a positive vision for the future.
Emily Kilcrease, Senior Fellow and Director, Energy, Economics, and Security Program:
The Biden-Harris National Security Strategy is the strongest articulation yet of why "economic security is national security." The NSS makes a compelling case for democratic governments to play a more muscular role in the economy. Free markets alone have not resulted in national economies that are resilient, growing, and equitable. The United States is leaning heavily into a "modern industrial and innovation strategy" through historic levels of government investment in critical sectors. While big questions loom over whether the government can effectively implement this new industrial policy, the NSS makes clear that strength abroad relies on strength at home. The U.S. economy is a key instrument of national power abroad.
Where the strategy falls apart, however, is how to implement this economic imperative beyond U.S. borders. The NSS declares that the United States must write the rules of the road for the global economy, but swears off free trade agreements. It touts the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) as a model for a new way to engage with partners, but fails to recognize that trading partners see limited value in dialogue that does not lead to binding trade rules and market access. It talks about reforming multilateral institutions, but omits even a mere reference to the World Trade Organization. It purports to not want a world of blocs, but does not offer a vision for how to achieve this in the context of technological decoupling with China. It says that longstanding trade rules fail to address digital trade, but completely ignores the leading role that the United States has played in creating a digital trade rulebook, including in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and with partners in the Asia-Pacific. The NSS fundamentally misunderstands—and thus underestimates—the strategic value of an active trade policy that raises global standards through rules-based negotiation. This includes raising the bar in priority areas such as labor and environment, as well as fixing structural elements of current U.S. trade policy that have led to economic displacement of U.S. workers. These objectives can only be achieved through the hard work of negotiating new standards and the mechanisms to enforce them.
Katherine Kuzminski, Senior Fellow and Director, Military, Veterans, and Society Program:
The National Security Strategy’s emphasis on the recruitment and retention of high-caliber talent is the key component of 21st century statecraft. A shift to data-driven personnel management tools, investments in professional development opportunities, and career path flexibilities will enable the federal government and the national security community to employ and capitalize on the talent the nation has to offer. The emphasis on creating more effective and efficient hiring practices, especially with respect to critical languages and regional affairs, presents an opportunity for the administration to address challenges in the clearance process timeline to ensure that Americans with in-demand skillsets, experiences, and relationships can serve the nation.
Jonathan Lord, Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program:
The National Security Strategy articulates both a sustained and sustainable vision for U.S. engagement with the Middle East. The strategy reduces the long-held reliance the U.S. has placed on the military’s posture and presence in the region, in exchange for more emphasis on non-military lines of effort to stabilize and restore communities scarred by conflict, and to advance widely-beneficial economic and political reforms. The strategy asserts that U.S. forces are likely to be needed elsewhere in the world, and the years of military sprawl across U.S. Central Command–first envisioned decades ago as a means to vanquish Iraqi Baathists–will likely recede. It substitutes the outsized U.S. military posture and presence, which has served as a barometer of U.S. commitment to its hosts, who still face threats from ISIS and Iran, with regional security integration, and the building of military capacity of partners and allies through robust assistance.
It is unclear if the Biden administration has the discipline and political fortitude to implement this strategy. Following an adverse OPEC+ decision, the president called for the reconsideration of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and Congress reflexively moved to block virtually all military sales and engagement with the kingdom. A week later and to great fanfare, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan debuted the administration’s long-awaited National Security Strategy, which relies on building up America’s Middle Eastern partners’ defensive capabilities to buy-down the risk of pivoting the U.S. military toward the main effort of Russia and China. A good strategy makes hard choices. After this week’s policy whiplash, America’s Gulf partners can’t possibly be convinced that Washington knows what it wants. To demonstrate his true intentions toward the Middle East, like any good strategy, the President will have to make some hard choices too.
Martijn Rasser, Senior Fellow and Director, Technology and National Security Program:
The NSS is crystal clear: getting technology policy right is essential to America’s economic and national security, and societal resilience. The document synthesizes the main thrusts of how the administration wants to promote U.S. leadership in technology and innovation: R&D investments, industrial policies, international collaboration, nurturing and attracting talent foreign and domestic, and economic statecraft.
What jumps out is the mention of the United States striving to anchor an ‘allied techno-industrial base’, the first time that phrase has been used. That is the most concrete articulation of a strategic vision for techno-democratic statecraft to date. So far, the Biden team has focused on a ‘latticework’ of relationships—U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council, AUKUS, and the Quad, among others—to build the foundation for that techno-industrial base.
Missing, however, is a broader coordinating body to tackle challenges in the complex global tech ecosystem. Just as the administration has revitalized the G7 as the steering committee of the world’s advanced industrial democracies, it should initiate a grouping of key tech-leading democracies to shape the rules of the road for technology.
Jacob Stokes, Senior Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program:
The Biden administration’s National Security Strategy reaffirms several of the established pillars of its China policy. The strategy assesses that China is the only state with both the power and the intent to revise the rules-based international order, and that Beijing seeks to establish a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific. The document further asserts that the China challenge will be most difficult during this “decisive decade,” that China and Russia are “increasingly aligned,” and that Beijing is “exporting an illiberal model of international order.” In response, the strategy calls for the United States to build what National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called “situations of strength” across three areas: investing in domestic renewal, aligning with coalitions of like-minded allies and partners, and competing responsibly with China to shape the international landscape across the fields of diplomacy, security, economics, and technology.
Nearly two years in, the administration has made impressive progress on revitalizing alliances and partnerships and investing in the wellsprings of American power at home. But the objective of deterring PRC aggression—especially toward Taiwan—is likely to prove more difficult over time given Xi Jinping’s ambitions and the rapid pace of People’s Liberation Army modernization. Moreover, Beijing’s willingness to act like a responsible major power, including through engaging in strategic risk reduction and coordinating on transnational challenges, appears partial at best. That reality is already alienating many third countries and making them more receptive to Washington’s outreach, while simultaneously increasing the risk of instability or conflict. It is in these areas that the Biden team’s strategy will face its toughest tests.
Joshua Fitt, Associate Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program:
The "free, open, secure, and prosperous" formulation that appears several times throughout the 2022 National Security Strategy in a global context has its origins in the Washington Post op-ed that the Quad leaders published in March 2021 to outline their collective vision for the Indo-Pacific. The use of that phrase in a broader application shows how, in many ways, the Indo-Pacific is the cornerstone of the administration’s strategic thinking. This idea is further supported by the new National Security Strategy, as the document does not shy away from placing enormous emphasis on out-competing China.
Some experts have claimed that the strategy is too ambitious and wants to accomplish too much. However, this document is supposed to cover the entirety of the U.S. government’s national security strategy. Approximately one sixth of the U.S. federal budget goes toward national security. Whether the United States is still experiencing a unipolar moment or not, that’s going to encompass a comprehensive set of objectives. Still, it is reasonable to wonder how the Biden administration will accomplish all it has set forth with limited resources, one sixth of the budget or not. And after all, these policies exist in neither domestic nor international political vacuums. Still, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, the Biden administration has set some potentially game-changing initiatives in motion, such as AUKUS, the Quad, and IPEF. These initiatives are new enough that they still need to demonstrate they can deliver on their promises. However, they are a symptom of the ambitious strategic thinking that has the potential to show that the United States can indeed respond to and overcome all of the challenges of the 21st century.
Hannah Kelley, Research Assistant, Technology and National Security Program:
The freshly minted U.S. National Security Strategy is ambitious, to say the least. But if the Biden administration can pull off shifting mindsets in its direction, it could reinvigorate U.S. leadership in technology for generations to come.
Of particular note is the administration’s commitment to “implementing a modern industrial and innovation strategy.” Using the term "industrial strategy” would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, to avoid any association with the PRC's approach of placing China’s “private” industry at the mercy of the party, under the auspices of its military-civil fusion strategy. But industrial policy is not new to the United States—we’ve been employing it for centuries. Reclaiming the term under the democratic model is critical to outperforming China in this era of strategic competition.
The Biden administration is making a statement with this inclusion. National security and economic security cannot be siloed. As the primary driver of innovation and a key player in informal diplomacy, industry can no longer be dismissed as a bystander to U.S. national and economic security dynamics. Making “strategic public investment” to support industry in responding to rapid technological change, precarious supply chains, the climate crisis, and economic coercive measures from competitor states, while safeguarding organic competition, is a uniquely democratic approach—a uniquely American approach—which the United States has long been perfecting. The time has come to do the hard work of renewing this strength.
All CNAS experts are available for interviews. To arrange one, contact Cameron Edinburgh at email@example.com.