Following President Biden’s address to Congress at the 2023 State of the Union, CNAS experts analyze key policy points from the speech and weigh in on the state of U.S. national security from their respective areas of expertise.
All quotes may be used with attribution. To arrange an interview, email Cameron Edinburgh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul Scharre, Vice President and Director of Studies:
Chips and supply chains were a major theme of President Biden’s speech, with the goal of reshoring American manufacturing and creating jobs. Yet absent from the speech was the most important step the United States can take to remain a global technology leader: expanding high-skilled immigration. America’s position as a magnet for global talent is an asymmetric advantage over China, and the United States must capitalize on this opportunity by continuing to recruit the best and brightest from around the world.
Emily Kilcrease, Senior Fellow and Director, Energy, Economics, and Security Program:
President Biden highlighted his record on economic security issues, including the historic investments made in domestic chip production and clean energy technology during his first term. Consistent with his National Security Strategy, economic strength at home was framed as a key part of the U.S. ability to out-compete China and lead on the world stage. What remains to be seen is whether this Congress and President Biden can work productively together to implement these new industrial policy initiatives. Clean energy investments, in particular, will be thorny, given the slim margin of support in Congress and the tensions with key allies over certain of the U.S. policies. The next two years will be a “make or break” moment for this renewed U.S. push for industrial policy.
Martijn Rasser, Senior Fellow and Director, Technology and National Security Program:
President Biden’s statement on the U.S.-China tech competition was succinct and direct. Its essence: promote, protect, partner. He’s all-in on investing in R&D and innovation, industrial policies, economic statecraft, and collaborating with allies as the pillars of U.S. strategy to outcompete China.
Katherine Kuzminski, Senior Fellow and Director, Military, Veterans, Society Program:
The president rightly emphasized the progress made on veteran issues—the passing of the PACT Act, expanding VA access for veterans exposed to toxic agents during their military service—while also addressing that much work remains to care for veterans, their spouses, and their families. The president’s attention on veteran issues and the first lady’s work through the Joining Forces Initiative are even more necessary now as public attention has shifted away from the needs of our warfighters in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Lisa Curtis, Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program:
Foreign policy and national security were not the focus of last night’s State of the Union. But the spare words the president did say about challenges from Russia and China were highly pertinent and will require more American attention and resources in the next two years than President Biden seemed willing to acknowledge—at least in this domestic-focused address. While he rightly took credit for building a unified coalition with Europe to face down Russian aggression in Ukraine, he might have spent more time telling Americans what is at stake with the growing great-power competition. He alluded to the connection between Russian aggression in Europe and Chinese military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific when he said, “bridges are forming between partners in the Pacific and those in the Atlantic.” Yet considering the global consequences of the burgeoning Russia-China partnership, the president could have dwelled on the topic a bit longer.
It is no surprise that the president avoided the topic of Afghanistan, even though the Taliban’s restrictions on women and girls—including forbidding them from attending high school or university—are crushing the lives of millions of Afghan females that America spent 20 years supporting and empowering. Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Mike McCaul deserves plaudits for inviting as his guest the former Afghanistan ambassador to the United States, Ms. Roya Rahmani. While Biden wants to avoid criticism of his disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, he will not long be able to ignore the human rights calamity unfolding in that country.
Carrie Cordero, Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow:
It’s a remarkable statement for a modern American president to say that just “two years ago, our democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War.” And yet President Biden articulated exactly where in historical context he places the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. His State of the Union’s focus on economic security and progress indicates that the administration views those efforts as critical to bolstering America’s stressed out democracy at home. Safety and security figure heavily, too. Emergency response to natural disasters, gun safety legislation to reduce the number of mass shootings, countering fentanyl and other drug trafficking and rejecting domestic violent extremism and an accompanying political environment that encourages or condones violence, are all important components to strengthening U.S. democracy in the years ahead. At the same time, international engagement that supports democracies worldwide remains a central component of American policy. Defending democracy abroad includes continuing to provide assistance and support to Ukraine so that it can defend itself against continued Russian aggression. It also means strengthening international partnerships—across an array of security, intelligence, economic and human rights arenas—with the world’s democracies to counter the influence and strength of authoritarian regimes.
Alexandra Seymour, Associate Fellow, Technology and National Security Program:
While I was encouraged that President Biden highlighted efforts to bolster supply chain resiliency by investing in semiconductor manufacturing, aspects of the U.S. semiconductor strategy were omitted from his State of the Union remarks. First, President Biden stated that, “We’re making sure the supply chain for America begins in America.” Although it is true that the United States outsourced semiconductor manufacturing, the supply chain already arguably begins in America, given that the United States leads in semiconductor design capabilities. Consequently, as the United States makes needed investments into semiconductor manufacturing to achieve supply chain resiliency, it must also remember to preserve its advantage in design. Second, given that the overarching theme of President Biden’s speech was unity, it was interesting that he did not emphasize the national security implications of investing in domestic semiconductor manufacturing since national security concerns drove bipartisan support for the CHIPS and Science Act. Finally, President Biden rightly highlighted the number of jobs that semiconductor investments will create. However, he did not acknowledge the skill-shortage that the United States currently faces to fill these critical roles. As the nation continues to focus on semiconductor supply chain resiliency, I will be watching to see how these issues will be addressed.
Bill Drexel, Associate Fellow, Technology and National Security Program:
President Biden highlighted two familiar pillars of his administration’s approach to emerging tech: curbing authoritarian access to cutting edge capabilities and aligning our own technologies with democratic values. In reference to a recent diplomatic win with the Netherlands and Japan to expand restrictions on China’s access to advanced semiconductor manufacturing capabilities, President Biden rightly touted his administration’s “working with our allies to protect our advanced technologies.” Continued steps in this direction are certainly welcome, but will require serious attention to follow through—ensuring that China and others are unable to find workarounds, and continuing to identify new, fast-moving technologies for appropriate safeguards.
In terms of democratic values, President Biden focused primarily on Big Tech’s relationship with children, lampooning social media platforms for “the experiment they are running on our children for profit.” He proposed bans on personal data collection and targeted advertising for minors, and “stricter limits” on personal data norms for all others. Enhancing data and targeting safeguards, especially for minors, has considerable appeal for forging a more democratic tech culture. But the address skirted some of the administration’s more controversial domestic tech ambitions, including measures that could harm the R&D outlook of America’s largest tech companies at the forefront of critical innovations with national security dimensions. Boosting the democratic norms of our tech ecosystem—without damaging its world-leading culture of innovation—will likely continue to be a challenge.
Carisa Nietsche, Associate Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program:
President Biden argued that “Buy American” policies are consistent with international trade rules. This comment is a nod to the recent kerfuffle with international partners, including the European Union, Japan, and South Korea, over the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). EU officials have called the IRA discriminatory and have threatened potential retaliation in the WTO. As the French and German economic ministers arrived in Washington yesterday to discuss the IRA, it is no surprise that the importance of reassuring allies about the IRA was top of mind for President Biden. Throughout the speech, President Biden highlighted the importance of “Buy American” policies. However, when introducing these policies, the United States must be careful to avoid making the United States’ allies and partners collateral damage.
Nicholas Lokker, Research Assistant, Transatlantic Security Program:
In promising to stand with Ukraine “as long as it takes,” President Biden emphasized his administration’s continued dedication to a robust response to Russia’s war of aggression. This is an important signal of American resolve at a time when fighting looks set to intensify and the future trajectory of the conflict remains highly uncertain. U.S. allies and partners in Europe will also welcome Biden’s evident commitment to maintaining a united Western front against the Putin regime as the invasion’s one year anniversary approaches.
Caleb Withers, Research Assistant, Technology and National Security Program:
The address rightfully lauds recent progress toward greater U.S. competitiveness in critical technologies like semiconductors, such as the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act. While the particularly domestic focus of the address was perhaps unsurprising, there was a missed opportunity to highlight key international aspects of the work still to be done. Given the global dispersion of relevant capabilities, U.S. allies play a crucial role in maintaining democracies’ lead in many critical technologies, and are critical partners in curbing their harmful use by countries such as Russia and China; many are currently looking for reassurance that they will not be sidelined by ongoing U.S. efforts in this space. Addressing challenges around high-skilled immigration will also be key to fully realizing the ambitions of the CHIPS and Science Act and for wider US technological competitiveness—arguably just as integral to national security as the border security angle of immigration that was emphasized in the address.