The U.S. has entered a “decisive decade” in the fight for a free and open global society, the Biden administration said in a major policy document released Wednesday, sketching out the immediate military threats posed by a brazen, aggressive Russia and a longer-term strategic, economic and geopolitical showdown with rising superpower China.
The White House’s long-awaited National Security Strategy (NSS), originally due out in the spring but delayed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, lays out a broad road map for American leadership and international cooperation in an era of war, deadly pandemics, a changing climate and burning questions about the viability of Western-style democracy in the 21st century. The 48-page report broke little new ground from a policy perspective but crystallized President Biden’s view of U.S. leadership in the coming years, which look to be among the most tumultuous and violent the world has seen since World War II.
China and Russia have said they are pushing for the end of a “unipolar” world dominated by Washington and its allies. Mr. Biden made clear that the U.S. is ready to meet the challenge.
“Around the world, the need for American leadership is as great as it has ever been. We are in the midst of a strategic competition to shape the future of the international order,” Mr. Biden said in the opening pages of the NSS. “Meanwhile, shared challenges that impact people everywhere demand increased global cooperation and nations stepping up to their responsibilities at a moment when this has become more difficult.
“In response,” he continued, “the United States will lead with our values, and we will work in lockstep with our allies and partners and with all those who share our interests. We will not leave our future vulnerable to the whims of those who do not share our vision for a world that is free, open, prosperous and secure.”
With the midterm elections looming, the Biden administration’s NSS sought to link the “transnational” challenges facing the planet — climate change, energy costs, inflation and pandemic diseases — with the struggles confronted by Americans at home.
“They are at the very core of national and international security and must be treated as such,” the document says.
The administration dedicates much of the NSS to detailing how the U.S. must lead on those issues in the years and decades to come, arguing that Washington must make deep investments in infrastructure and economic programs at home to maintain its “competitive edge” and maintain its status as a world leader. It also stressed the need to work with competitors such as China on issues like climate change, even while it competes with Beijing in the economic realm and maintains a military advantage over the communist regime.
Critics said the strategy missed the mark by zeroing in on climate change and other nonmilitary issues rather than focusing more heavily on hard questions of national security and the need to beef up the U.S. military.
“The president’s National Security Strategy — meant to guide the administration’s efforts to counter pressing external dangers — is comprised of a litany of the administration’s accomplishments and a recitation of progressive domestic issues, packaged as threats to the security of the United States,” said retired Army Gen. Tom Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “If Americans were looking for a National Security Strategy capable of guiding the nation’s security efforts for the next two years, they will be sorely disappointed by this document.”
The NSS does sound an urgent tone when describing the two main threats facing the U.S. and its allies.
While the Biden administration’s broad policy points remain mostly the same, the unfolding war in Ukraine — and Russia’s failures to achieve its most significant objectives in the nearly 8-month-old conflict — clearly shaped the overall tone and tenor of the document.
Previously grouped together in White House and Pentagon papers laying out a future of “great-power competition,” Russia and China are largely addressed separately in the latest NSS. The document seems to consider Russia less of a direct military challenger than China and certainly not an equal adversary to the U.S., though it makes clear that Moscow’s willingness to launch an unprovoked war on its neighbor has made for a dramatically more dangerous world.
Speaking to reporters on a conference call Wednesday morning, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan seemed to indicate that the administration expected Russia to achieve more success in its Ukraine invasion. Instead, Ukrainian troops armed with U.S.-made weapons have wreaked havoc on a bumbling Russian military, and those Ukrainian forces over the past several weeks have recaptured huge swaths of territory in the country’s east amid growing frustration in the Kremlin and across Russian society with the war effort.
“Frankly, in February, there were a whole lot of people who thought the war would be over rapidly and Russia would be in a much better position than it is in today,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We think what has actually unfolded over the last six months, which has defied many of the expectations and conventional wisdom, is a vindication of taking our time and being methodical in putting forward the strategy.”
Although Russia has proved to be perhaps less of a direct military competitor with the U.S. than previously thought, the NSS doesn’t minimize the threat posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The report casts Russia as an “immediate and persistent threat to international peace and stability.” The administration will not waver in its commitment to Ukraine and its partnership with NATO allies to beef up security assistance to Kyiv, the NSS says.
Mr. Sullivan said the February invasion of Ukraine delayed but did not “fundamentally alter” the administration’s approach to foreign policy but provided a real-world example of the need to have a coherent strategy in place.
“I do believe that [the Russian-Ukrainian war] presents in living color the key elements of our approach — the emphasis on allies, the importance of strengthening the hand and the democratic world, standing up for fellow democracies and for democratic values.”
China is cast in a different — and more formidable — light. Beijing, the document says, “is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.”
“Beijing has ambitions to create an enhanced sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and to become the world’s leading power,” the NSS reads in part. “It is using its technological capacity and increasing influence over international institutions to create more permissive conditions for its own authoritarian model, and to mold global technology use and norms to privilege its interests and values. Beijing frequently uses its economic power to coerce countries.”
The administration vowed to hold China to account for human rights abuses, theft of intellectual property and other matters. On Taiwan, the NSS stressed that the Biden administration will adhere to the “One China” policy. Washington has long acknowledged Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China, even though the United States maintains informal diplomatic relations and substantial defense ties with the island democracy and does not technically recognize Chinese sovereignty over it.
On nuclear weapons, the NSS stressed that the U.S. will invest in modernizing its deterrence capabilities. That issue is of particular importance given recent nuclear saber-rattling from the Kremlin and revelations that China’s nuclear arsenal is growing far faster than anticipated.
The administration said it wants to reduce the role of nuclear weapons around the world.
“We remain equally committed to reducing the risks of nuclear war,” the strategy says. “This includes taking further steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our strategy and pursuing realistic goals for mutual, verifiable arms control, which contribute to our deterrence strategy and strengthen the global non-proliferation regime.”