Biden’s ‘schizophrenic’ National Security Strategy

Image credits: President Biden vowed farewell to Afghanistan but the consequences continue to haunt his administration. [AFP via Getty Images]

The White House says we need international cooperation, but still wants to decide who’s in or out of the global club.

By Marcus Stanley

The Biden administration has finally released its long-awaited National Security Strategy, the first such document since 2017.

It’s strikingly schizophrenic, alternating — sometimes on an almost sentence-by-sentence basis — between ambitious promises to lead global cooperation in addressing transnational challenges, and depicting a world of near-intractable rivalries. The overall impression is of a foreign policy establishment that seems to understand the need for international cooperation, but also seems helplessly carried along by currents that could divide the world in a way that makes such cooperation impossible.

This reflects the journey of the Biden administration itself. President Biden came into office promising to refocus foreign policy domestically on the needs of the American middle class, to lead global cooperation against the climate crisis, and with apparent plans to lower conflict in global flash points. He planned to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran as a way to ramp down tensions there, and intended to maintain cooperation with China in key selected areas even as the administration maintained much of the Trump administration’s shift toward a hard-edged “strategic competition” with China.

The Biden White House even sought a “stable, predictable” relationship with Russia. Its first major foreign policy decision was to disentangle the United States from its two-decade military occupation of Afghanistan.

Two years later, the world instead seems to be teetering on the brink of a new cold war with all the dangers and costs that it implies. Cooperation between China and the United States is in a deep freeze because of a seemingly endless series of tit-for-tat provocations, especially over Taiwan, and the president’s own party is pressuring him to be even more aggressive. 

Meanwhile, negotiations to restore the Iran nuclear deal are bogged down and during this summer’s trip to the Middle East, Biden seemed to threaten war. In Ukraine, after helping to decisively thwart Putin’s initial bid to conquer the country, Washington seems satisfied to settle in for a long and vicious conflict with no effort to seek a diplomatic way out. 

While our core allies in Europe and Japan stand with the United States against both Russia and China, many critical nations in the Global South, including some of the world’s largest democracies in India and Brazil, have failed to join the United States in unequivocally denouncing the Russian invasion. Furthermore, the Biden administration’s rhetoric has shifted from a “foreign policy for the middle class” to calls for a potentially apocalyptic confrontation between “democracies and autocracies.”

The NSS tries to square this circle and harmonize the desire for a more cooperative global order that benefits the American middle class with the emerging global conflict between blocs led by China and Russia on one side and the United States and its allies on the other. There’s advocacy of global cooperation, including with China, to address transnational challenges, and some clear awareness of the dangers of the course we are on. The document denies any desire to fuel global division, and in places tries to claim the mantle of support for national sovereignties in a multi-polar world that China typically depicts itself as advocating:

“Some parts of the world are uneasy with the competition between the United States and the world’s largest autocracies. We understand these concerns. We also want to avoid a world in which competition escalates into a world of rigid blocs. We do not seek conflict or a new Cold War. Rather, we are trying to support every country, regardless of size or strength, in exercising the freedom to make choices that serve their interests. This is a critical difference between our vision, which aims to preserve the autonomy and rights of less powerful states, and that of our rivals, which does not.”

Apparently, also aware of the potentially divisive and impractical aspects of the “democracy vs. autocracy” framework that otherwise structures much of the document, the administration even extends the hand of fellowship to “countries that do not embrace democratic institutions but nevertheless depend upon and support a rules-based international system.” Without much definition of what is meant by “rules based” this just feels like a signal that we’re willing to drop our putative idealism when countries play ball with us.

But ultimately these efforts are unconvincing. At this point, to reverse the course of global division will require spending real political capital on changing policies that are fueling a disturbing spiral of escalating conflict around the world. There’s nothing here, for example, that envisions a diplomatic or peaceful way out of the Ukraine conflict that could preserve peace and security for our European allies.

In the case of China, there’s an abstract acknowledgement of China’s significance in the world order and the need for some form of cooperation. But this is paired with repeated charges that China intends to aggressively reshape the world order in damaging and illiberal ways that will harm U.S. interests and global peace. It seems unlikely that this will alter the downward spiral of U.S.-China relations. Nor will it be entirely credible to a global community that knows China has invaded only one country since 1979 while the United States has engaged directly in violent conflict with dozens of countries over the same period.

The NSS at least reflects some awareness of the dangers of global divisions and the need for cooperation. But the challenge of moving from this awareness to a real shift in direction remains. 

Source: Responsible Statecraft

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