January 29, 2021

CNAS Responds: Week One of the Biden Presidency

A week in, the Biden administration has made a series of moves across national security policy. In the advisory below, CNAS experts unpack key developments and possible outcomes for journalists to watch for. To arrange an interview, contact Cole Stevens at cstevens@cnas.org.

  • Richard Fontaine, CNAS Chief Executive Officer: "The new administration's early signals on China are striking. In the run-up to the presidential election, many observers either hoped for or feared a reset of relations with Beijing. That already appears remote. The new Secretary of State judged the Chinese Communist Party as engaging in genocide against Xinjiang’s Uighur population, trampling democracy in Hong Kong, and threatening Taiwan. The Secretary of Treasury condemned China’s “horrendous” human rights abuses and noted that Washington has economic tools for responding to them. An American aircraft carrier appeared in the South China Sea, the administration warned Beijing away from threatening Taiwan, and the White House appointed the first-ever Indo-Pacific coordinator to pull together cross-government efforts.

    "With no reset in the offing, questions remain. It’s not clear whether it will be possible to both compete vigorously in most spheres – military, technology, economic, diplomatic – while collaborating effectively on climate, COVID-19 and North Korea. The new administration will try. But if it’s not, will it soften its approach to preserve the ability to work together? Or might it forgo some opportunities for co-operation, bowing instead to the reality of great power rivalry? That remains to be seen."
  • Carrie Cordero, Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow: "The Acting Attorney General's rescinding of the so-called 'zero tolerance' policy for immigration enforcement is an important step forward in resetting Department of Justice (DOJ) policy in a way that restores prosecutorial discretion, particularly on the southern border. The DOJ, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, plays an important role in protecting the nation from national and homeland security threats, as well as keeping communities safe from public safety threats. In order to carry out those responsibilities most effectively, federal prosecutors need to be able to exercise discretion, consistent with DOJ policy priorities, to devote resources and attention to the most important threats to communities. The zero tolerance policy of the last administration placed unnecessary constraints on federal law enforcement personnel that resulted in immoral and illegal separation of children from parents or guardians while also placing unnecessary operational burdens on the federal government, without demonstrated benefits to security or safety. Addressing unaccompanied minors at the border will remain a difficult challenge for the new administration, but rescinding the zero tolerance policy is a necessary step.
  • Chris Dougherty, Senior Fellow for Defense: "Budget, budget, budget. The absolute highest priority for the incoming team has to be the FY22 budget submission. The outgoing administration has handed them a budget that’s 95% baked, and the incoming team likely has little visibility into the substance and process behind the numbers, given the contentious transition. It will be absolutely critical for the new team to advance their priorities to the greatest extent possible, as they’ll only get so many chances to do so.

    "Rebuild and Reinvigorate OSD Policy. OSD Policy (OSD-P) is the office in the Pentagon that’s responsible for translating the Secretary and the White House’s goals into policy outcomes. Policy is the crucial link between the political appointees and the bureaucracy that they’re supposed to guide and oversee. Without a strong and properly functioning OSD-P, the administration will struggle to implement its vision. Unfortunately, after a decade of personnel cuts, hiring freezes, talent exoduses, and, more recently, Joint Staff ascendancy in policy processes, OSD-P is a shadow of its former self. If the new team is to have any hope of taming the bureaucratic beast that is DoD, they’ll need to fix OSD-P quickly."
  • Jason Bartlett, Research Assistant for Energy, Economics, and Security: "Under both U.S. strategic patience and maximum pressure policies, North Korea has successfully expanded its nuclear and ballistic weapons capabilities with the help of traditional U.S. adversaries like China and Russia. As sanctions evasion tactics benefiting North Korea's weapons program continue to evolve, due in part to Pyongyang's ever-growing cyber capabilities, the United States must increase efforts to detect, deter, and dismantle illicit finance networks led by malicious actors seeking to threaten U.S. national security. Southeast Asia is a hub for illicit North Korean financial activity which requires greater multilateral coordination among the United States and its allies and partners, in particular South Korea, Japan, and ASEAN member states."
  • Nathalie Grogan, Research Assistant for Military, Veterans, and Society: "The rescinding of the ban on transgender service members in the armed forces is a welcome development for a diverse, inclusive and competent military. Despite the previous ban and decades of discrimination, transgender troops have served their country in all branches of the military. A move that values competency, qualifications and force readiness over discrimination on the basis of gender identity will improve the makeup of the force and allow qualified transgender individuals to join the military. The military and the country are stronger when they are representative of the population. The executive order’s request for a report within 60 days indicates an understanding that progress is not a single action but requires dedicated action and support to ensure that bias has no place in the armed forces. This is a promising start to enabling better recruitment, retention and talent management within the military."
  • Megan Lamberth, Research Associate for Technology and National Security: "In his inaugural address, President Biden called for a rejection of a 'culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.' 2020 provided much fertile ground for misinformation to sow and spread. The pandemic pushed us further online and restricted our physical interactions. The election exacerbated already deep divisions in American society.

    "The Biden administration must reckon with how to combat harmful misinformation, particularly as the pandemic continues to rage on. Biden's team will have to work to restore public trust in U.S. governing institutions. They will also need to work closely with Congress, as well as the tech community, to tackle the challenge of misinformation."
  • Emma Moore, Research Associate for Military, Veterans, and Society: "The Biden administration has pledged to be the most diverse and inclusive yet, committed to respect and dignity for others — themes particularly relevant to the Department of Defense. Naming Lloyd Austin as the first Black Secretary of Defense signals progress for representation issues that have plagued the department, given the possibilities of representative leadership interested in driving change. However, the military still faces deep-seated cultural norms that inhibit such progress. The military has proven incapable of holding itself accountable and asking hard questions about the cultural underpinnings of gender-based violence, white nationalism, and ethical drift in the ranks. Carrying President Biden’s values into the most far reaching department will require significant effort; Austin’s willingness and ability to tackle the core of these issues may be inhibited by being a product of the very institution he must change.

    "Efforts to date — mandatory briefs, recruit screens, and a review of ethics and culture in special operations — have not gone beyond process development and military leader responsibility. After 40 years in uniform, Austin is uniquely positioned to navigate pushback and foster movement in the department, but institutionalizing culture change is premised on him recognizing it is military culture, not process, at fault."
  • Carisa Nietsche, Associate Fellow for Transatlantic Security: "In the past few decades, incoming U.S. presidents have often pursued a Russia reset policy. The January 26th call between President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin signals that the Biden administration intends to pursue no such reset policy. The call provided a window into the Biden administration's primary aim vis-à-vis Russia: to hold Moscow accountable. Holding Russia accountable for its malign actions is in lockstep with Biden’s commitment to bring democratic values back to the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy.

    "While Biden recognized that there are areas where the United States and Russia must work together, including arms control, the overall message was one of confrontation, rather than cooperation. The dizzying array of topics covered on the call – from the poisoning of Aleksey Navalny, to the SolarWinds hack, to interference in the 2020 United States election – disabuses the Kremlin of the notion that Russia can continue to challenge U.S. and allied interests without a strong U.S. response."
  • Ainikki Riikonen, Research Assistant for Technology and National Security: "Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will be navigating challenges of great power competition—a different strategic environment from his recent focus at CENTCOM—and will need to arm the department with the right technological capabilities to face it. The Department of Defense has run through myriad lists of priority technologies but instead should implement a systematic strategy for technology. Doing so can empower the department to leverage U.S. innovation to maximum effect, right-size its budgetary priorities, and generate institutional buy-in for the long haul."
  • Rachel Ziemba, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Energy, Economics, and Security: "Getting the U.S. house in order on Covid response and economic lifelines, and a pathway to eventual infrastructure spending is top priority for the Biden Administration. The efforts around securing Covid supply chains might provide an opportunity to work with allies (in Europe and North America) to avoid export restrictions on vaccine and therapeutic supply chains to avoid the unintended consequences of the use of the Defense production Act and other government policies. Proposed export restrictions of vaccines might amplify economic stress globally, allow new disease variants to proliferate and undermine U.S. long-term growth and national security, particularly if it leaves allies preferring to use Chinese and Russian alternatives which provide a weaker quality but more technology transfer.

    "This can be addressed in a few ways that could bear fruit for other issues – coordination at G7 and with the five eyes, but also by reviving the WTO baseline capacity. A quick diplomatic win might come from joining the global consensus and supporting the WTO candidacy of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and working with European allies to refill the Apellate body of the WTO. Working with a coalition of the willing at the WTO and in other trade bodies could help avoid some of the misuse of global trade rules and help in U.S. efforts to strengthen global supply chains.

    "The U.S. could also leverage coordination about global central banks and regulatory authorities, around both financial stability and climate change aims. The March 2020 financial support reinforced the importance of the Federal reserve and the USD-based system as a source of liquidity for the globe. The pandemic response brings a key opportunity to review existing sanctions regimes to minimize unintended de-risking that is harmful to U.S. and global business. This urgent effort could provides an opportunity for a broader economic and social impact of current sanctions programs to better focus on U.S. interests.."


  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. He served as President of CNAS from 2012–19 and as Senior Fellow from 2009–12. Prior to CNAS, he was foreign policy ad...

  • Carrie Cordero

    Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow

    Carrie Cordero is the Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow and General Counsel at CNAS. Her research and writing interests focus on homeland security and intelligence community overs...

  • Chris Dougherty

    Former Senior Fellow, Defense Program

    Chris Dougherty is a former Senior Fellow for the Defense Program at CNAS. His primary areas of research included defense strategy, operational concepts, and force planning. H...

  • Jason Bartlett

    Former Research Associate, Energy, Economics, and Security Program

    Jason Bartlett is a former Research Associate for the Energy, Economics, and Security Program at CNAS. He analyzes developments and trends in sanctions policy and evasion tact...

  • Nathalie Grogan

    Former Research Associate, Military, Veterans, and Society Program

    Nathalie Grogan is a former Research Associate for the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at CNAS. Her research focused on the National Guard and military families. Groga...

  • Megan Lamberth

    Former Associate Fellow, Technology and National Security Program

    Megan Lamberth is a former Associate Fellow for the Technology and National Security Program at CNAS. Her research focuses on U.S. strategy for emerging technologies and the k...

  • Emma Moore

    Former Research Associate

    Emma Moore is a former Research Associate at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Moore is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creati...

  • Carisa Nietsche

    Associate Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    Carisa Nietsche is an Associate Fellow for the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. She specializes in Europe-China relations, transatlantic technology policy, and threats ...

  • Ainikki Riikonen

    Former Research Associate, Technology and National Security Program

    Ainikki Riikonen is a former Research Associate for the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Her research focuses on emer...

  • Rachel Ziemba

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Energy, Economics, & Security Program

    Rachel Ziemba is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Her research focuses on the interlinkages between economics, finance and security i...