March 05, 2021

CNAS Responds: Assessing Biden's Interim National Security Strategy

By Richard Fontaine, Lisa Curtis, Chris Dougherty, Martijn Rasser, Dr. Nina Kollars, Michael Kofman, Becca Wasser, Nathalie Grogan, Katie Galgano, and Jennie Matuschak

This week, the White House released its interim national security strategic guidance, signaling a clear focus on diplomacy and alliance-building as lead elements for the Biden administration. In the advisory below, CNAS experts unpack the key developments and possible outcomes for journalists to watch for.

  • Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer: "National Security Strategies do more signaling than strategizing. They resemble not true strategies so much as really long speeches, taken as canonical by everyone except actual policymakers. Often imposing a post hoc logic chain on disparate policies and actions, NSSs work most effectively as messages about priorities and intent. As a result, the new administration is fairly ingenious to issue this “interim guidance” so early. By doing so, it emphasizes the signaling without the faux strategy.

    "Readers, particularly in foreign governments, tend to treat such documents as scriptural, discerning after careful exegesis subtle hints contained in word choice, phrase order, and adjectival variegation. This interim guidance should instead be considered in context: as a combination of themes and trends, articulated by a new administration still staffing up and yet to deal with a major foreign crisis. Take it seriously, in other words, but not literally. There will be more to come."
  • Lisa Curtis, Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program: "The interim strategy rightly centers on the core national security threat from China to a free, open, and rules-based international order. It acknowledges that the United States must proactively counter the forces of authoritarianism by promoting democratic values and institutions throughout the world in close partnership with countries like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and India. The strategy is clear-headed about the urgency of countering Chinese efforts to shape an illiberal world order through “weaponized corruption,” disinformation, high tech illiberalism, and “infrastructure coercion.” It makes clear America will continue to defend allies, like Taiwan, and stand up for human rights in Xingjian, Tibet, and Hong Kong."
  • Chris Dougherty, Senior Fellow for Defense: "The biggest takeaway is the timing and interim structure. Developing these documents typically takes a year, leaving administrations without a policy framework for a quarter of their term. Pushing an interim NSS quickly speaks to this team’s experience, and the urgency of the problems.

    "Eschewing the “axis of lesser evils” to focus on China is also encouraging. Combined with emphasizing favorable balances of power and supporting Taiwan, this assuages concerns about the administration’s approach to China.

    "Three areas are concerning. First, promoting human rights is laudable, but in practice it often results in ill-conceived uses of military force. Second, developing capabilities to compete with and deter “gray zone” activities misunderstands the character of these competitions—it’s less a contest of capabilities than a question of will. Finally, if ending the war in Afghanistan without allowing it to become a haven for terrorists were possible, it would have happened by now."
  • Martijn Rasser, Senior Fellow for Technology and National Security: "The interim guidance is the most detailed articulation yet of how the administration views technological leadership as being central to American economic competitiveness, national security, and safeguarding American values. It is also clear-eyed in that much work lies ahead to shape the technological future such that it is beneficial for the United States. President Biden, for example, reaffirms the need for greater investments in R&D and STEM education and attracting foreign talent. Most striking is the emphasis on multilateralism: from remapping supply chains to countering digital authoritarianism, renewing and reimagining America’s alliances and partnerships will be key."
  • Dr. Nina Kollars, Adjunct Senior Fellow for the Defense Program: "Climate change and cyber security are at the forefront of the Interim National Security Strategy. What few realize is that these two issues are fundamentally intertwined. Greener approaches usually mean adding more 'smart' systems, and those systems naturally increase our cyberattack surface. Going forward the administration has an opportunity to demand that security be baked into whatever infrastructural changes and investments we need to meet our climate goals. Getting this right at the outset, will be key to ensuring resilience for the nation and her allies."
  • Michael Kofman, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Security: "The Biden administration’s interim national security guidance offers sound vision and principles, even if some choices remain less defined. The approach is balanced, seeking to modernize alliances, restructure our military, and pursue a favorable distribution of power, while engaging in meaningful dialogue with adversaries on strategic stability, and arms control. However, a laudable emphasis on China relegates Russia to the role of disruptor, rather than recognizing it as a distinct and enduring challenge in its own right. Demonstrating that the administration takes the Russia problem set seriously long-term would help sustain attention, galvanize efforts, and reassure allies in Europe."
  • Becca Wasser, Fellow for the Defense Program: "The interim national security strategic guidance previews changes to the U.S. global military footprint expected in the Department of Defense’s forthcoming Global Posture Review. Recognizing China as the top strategic competitor America faces and noting Russia as a secondary challenge, the guidance calls for an enhanced force posture in the Indo-Pacific and Europe. But bolstering the U.S. footprint in these regions means balancing finite resources, necessitating a reduction in forces and assets in the Middle East and Afghanistan. How the Biden administration intends to end the “forever wars” to alter force posture remains to be seen, but setting clear geographic priorities is an important first step to meaningfully alter the U.S. military footprint."
  • Nathalie Grogan, Research Assistant for Military, Veterans, and Society: "The Biden administration’s declared commitment to healthy civil-military relations is worth significant attention, yet its inclusion in the Interim National Security Strategy signifies the extent to which our long established civil-military norms have been ignored and violated. Civilian control of the military is a vital pillar of the American democratic system and allows for accountability at the highest levels. Maintaining strong civil-military relations and effective civilian oversight going forward will require significant effort on a bipartisan basis to avoid politicization of the armed forces. A commitment to civil-military norms is a commitment to democratic principles."
  • Katie Galgano, Executive Research Assistant: "The Biden administration’s national security guidance rightfully emphasizes revitalizing American democracy through fortifying the rule of law, and this dedication must also extend to U.S. foreign policy. Authoritarians are co-opting the rule of law, threatening existing norms and contributing to democratic backsliding globally. By perverting the rule of law, authoritarians have consolidated power and advanced illiberal objectives, including restricting political participation by opposition parties. If the United States and its democratic allies are unable to reclaim and promote legitimate, principled rule of law, the risk of additional countries backsliding and adopting authoritarian tendencies will increase."
  • Jennie Matuschak, Research Assistant for the Defense Program: "The Interim NSS notes that the Biden administration’s Middle East policy will shift away from granting a “blank check” to U.S. regional partners, as arms sales and capability building do not always correlate with achieving U.S. interests. This aligns closely with the document’s overarching theme of “diplomacy first,” and suggests that the administration is rethinking its security cooperation vis-à-vis its Middle Eastern partners and seeks to reconstruct partnerships ensconced in arms sales. To assure U.S. commitment, especially amidst U.S. force withdrawal in the region, the Biden administration must develop new methods of building partner capacities in the Middle East.

To arrange an interview, contact Cole Stevens at cstevens@cnas.org.

Authors

  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He served as President of CNAS from 2012-19 and as Senior Advisor and Senior ...

  • Lisa Curtis

    Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Lisa Curtis is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). She is a foreign policy and national securit...

  • Chris Dougherty

    Senior Fellow, Defense Program

    Chris Dougherty is a Senior Fellow in the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. His research areas include defense strategy, strategic assessments, force ...

  • Martijn Rasser

    Senior Fellow and Director, Technology and National Security Program

    Martijn Rasser is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Prior to joining CNAS, Mr. Ras...

  • Dr. Nina Kollars

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Defense Program, Associate Professor, Cyber & Innovation Policy Institute (CIPI), Naval War College

    Dr. Nina Kollars is Associate Professor in the Cyber & Innovation Policy Institute (CIPI) within the Naval War College. Kollars is a scholar of future warfighting, militar...

  • Michael Kofman

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    Michael Kofman serves as a Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses' Russia Studies Program, and a Fellow at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson Internation...

  • Becca Wasser

    Fellow, Defense Program

    Becca Wasser is a fellow in the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. Her research areas include wargaming, force posture and management, and U.S. defense...

  • Nathalie Grogan

    Research Assistant, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Nathalie Grogan is the Research Assistant for the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Prior to joining CNAS, she interned ...

  • Katie Galgano

    Executive Research Assistant

    Katie Galgano is a research assistant with the Executive Team at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Her research focuses on democracy and the rule of law, homeland...

  • Jennie Matuschak

    Research Assistant, Defense Program

    Jennie Matuschak is a Research Assistant for the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, Ms. Matuschak served as a Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Int...