The Biden Administration has a habit of missing deadlines. The long overdue National Security Strategy is in the last stages of a rewrite and “should” be out in August. Only then will the Pentagon get permission to release an unclassified summary of the separate National Defense Strategy, five months after the classified version went to Congress. Such documents are often dismissed as word salads, but they can send important signals about a president’s priorities. When Donald Trump released his 2017 “America First National Security Strategy,” The Economist said he had one terrible idea: “America is stupid to want to lead a rules-based global order.” When the process works, it helps shape and justify real world decisions like what conflicts and crises we need to prepare for, or how deeply to commit to what allies, or how much and how we should be spending on national defense. Right now, such clarity seems essential.
President Biden has vowed to back Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” His goals for the war have expanded to weakening Russia to the point that it can no longer invade its neighbors (Biden dressed down his Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for publicly saying this in April, even though his National Security Adviser had said as much two weeks earlier). The President and his aides are also insisting that China remains the number one strategic “challenge” or “threat” to the United States (the meager 1.5 page defense strategy fact sheet handed out in late March uses both terms), and on his recent trip to Asia Biden committed to defending Taiwan, although aides quickly walked that back.
All of this raises the question of whether we are entering a two-front cold war—the analogy is not precise, but close enough—and whether the United States has the strategy and resources to deter and if necessary confront two nuclear-armed major powers.
___STEADY_PAYWALL___In the run up to Russia’s invasion, some defense experts were already warning that the United States wasn’t prepared to take on both Russia and China, and that it would be best to write off Ukraine, or leave the job to the Europeans (pretty much the same outcome). Writing in the Wall Street Journal eleven days before Russian bombs began dropping on Kyiv, Elbridge Colby, who helped craft Trump’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, and Oriana Skylar Mastro, a China expert at Stanford and the American Enterprise Institute, argued that a “major American troop deployment” to Europe would strain critical assets needed to confront China—including “munitions, top-end aviation, submarines, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.” “Denying China the ability to dominate Asia,” they said, “is more important than anything that happens in Europe. To be blunt: Taiwan is more important than Ukraine.” They called on the United States to reduce the number of troops in Europe. Since Russia’s invasion, the United States has actually increased its troop presence in Europe by 25 percent; it plans to send two additional Navy destroyers to Spain, and to put a permanent headquarters in Poland for the U.S. 5th Army Corps.
Almost no one I spoke with inside the administration or out felt that support for Ukraine was seriously undermining U.S. security in the Indo-Pacific, although a less strident, “Holy Cow, you’ve already sunk $50 billion into Ukraine,” version is circulating among the China teams in the White House and DOD.
Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute, who believes the U.S. military “is spread too thin everywhere,” says “so far the adds for Europe are modest and I can’t see any deleterious effects on any command.” Douglas Lute, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, agrees although he told me that he is concerned about a drawdown of U.S. munitions. “Just on the low end of the scale we have consumed one-third-to-one quarter of the Javelins and Stingers. That’s not something you can just call up someone at Raytheon and replenish tomorrow. ” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Adviser, acknowledged last week that there are “longer term questions” about ensuring both the American defense industrial base and that of our allies can “be able to sustain the kind of security assistance that we are going to need to keep supplying Ukraine as well as Taiwan as well as ourselves.”
Lute and others say the zero-sum argument is missing a larger point about how the war could shift the strategic balance in Europe. Lute points to: “The recent surges in defense spending in Europe, particularly the Germans, the efforts NATO has taken collectively to reinforce the eastern flank, the attrition the Russian army has suffered and will continue to suffer.” He believes, “if you get this war right, it should leave us with stronger more capable European allies to face a much weakened Russia. Then, with confidence we can rebalance toward Asia.”
While the zero-sum arguments are in the minority, they will almost certainly get louder the longer the Ukraine conflict drags on and the longer the administration fails to explain its thinking and planning. Insisting that the United States can “walk and chew gum at the same time,” as the Pentagon’s spokesman John Kirby (he has since gone to the White House) has, is not going to be enough. Saying Europe will take up part of the NATO burden is more credible than it was before the invasion–but still aspirational. After alienating allies with the rush-for-the-exits Afghanistan withdrawal, Biden deserves a lot of credit for rallying strong support for Ukraine. It will now take clear ideas on what real burden sharing means and sustained goading to get the Europeans to follow through.
Lute was encouraged that NATO pulled off the June summit in Madrid, including invitations to Finland and Sweden to join, with no major fissures. But he says there were “too few details” to match the summit’s grand commitments, including Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s “stunning” announcement that NATO would field a 300,000 troop response force. “It doesn’t sound feasible. I don’t know where he gets that number.” He also points out that so far there are no pledges from countries to “pony up” the far smaller number of additional troops needed to grow the size of forward deployments in the Baltics and Poland. Lute says he would push for this fall’s NATO Defense Minister’s meeting to “get very specific,” adding that President Obama "personally lobbied" Britain’s David Cameron, Germany’s Angela Merkel, and Canada’s Justin Trudeau (the only of the three still in office) to commit the first forward deployed NATO troops in the Baltics.
A hot war in Ukraine and a new cold war with Russia was not what Biden was planning for when he took office. The White House’s March 2021 interim National Security Strategic Guidance reads like a de-programming script for a country indoctrinated by Trump’s resentful nativism. Biden’s cover letter speaks about renewing American democracy and alliances, and why doing good in the world is also good for Americans. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s speech teeing up the release lists eight priorities—including stopping Covid, turning around the economic crisis, building a humane and effective immigration system, and addressing the global climate crisis. China, “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century,”only appears as priority number eight, with Russia, Iran, and North Korea as also-rans.
It is easy to caricature such language, but all of the problems listed were and are still urgent, beginning with shoring up our fracturing democracy. The Biden team was right to worry about Americans’ disengagement from the world. While polls show a majority of Americans back U.S. efforts to support Ukraine, there are signs that generosity has its limits, especially if gas prices and inflation don’t come down. Americans are already anxious about Biden’s leadership. According to a recent Pew poll, 59 percent said that they were either “not at all confident” or “not too confident” in Biden’s ability to handle an international crisis, only slightly better than the 61 percent who gave him negative marks on his ability to make good decisions about economic policy. Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, says that our closest allies are also feeling anxious, mainly because “our domestic politics has called into question our capacity to lead.”
All of this makes it even more frustrating to watch the administration go nearly radio silent as the demands around it rise.
One of the most puzzling abdications was this year’s defense budget request, which arrived on the Hill untethered from both the Ukraine war—Pentagon comptroller Mike McCord said the invasion came too late in the budget cycle to take it into account—and sharply rising inflation (the Pentagon worked with a static 3.9 percent rate, far less than half of today’s rate). Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic & International Studies described it as a “business as usual” budget “in the middle of a global crisis.”
The Congress was certainly unpersuaded. In July, the House voted 329-101 to give the Pentagon $37 billion more than it insisted it needs—Politico called the bipartisan vote “a rebuke”—adding in five ships and three more F-35 fighter jets, and capping the number of planes and ships the Pentagon can retire. The full Senate has yet to vote on the authorization, but the Armed Services committee bid it up by $45 billion, which would bring the budget to $847 billion.
Eaglen says that what most rankled the Hill—Democrats and Republicans—was DOD’s refusal to acknowledge the true effect of sharply rising inflation on everything from military families’ buying power to Pentagon procurement. She gives the House and Senate good marks for their revisions. (Her own price tag for a budget that she says addresses inflation, the military’s “unfunded priorities,” and that allows some real growth, is $846 billion.) Todd Harrison, another budget expert and head of research at Meta Aerospace, believes “Congress is improving the budget in net”—along with the usual hobbyhorses and protect-my-district jobs maneuvering—but says it is difficult to really judge without an unclassified defense strategy against which to measure the spending decisions. Without a public strategy to debate, “535 members of Congress will make it up as they go.”
As for a larger vision, the betting in Washington is that the Biden National Security strategy will move beyond their “foreign policy for the middle class” formulation and focus on the competition between the world’s democracies and revisionist autocracies like China and Russia. One of the most chilling lessons of the Ukraine war thus far is how many democracies in the world—including India, South Africa, and Brazil—have given Russia a pass as it violates every rule in the “rules based international order.” If it is truly to resonate, any argument will need to tell the fence sitters why the system we are so determined to defend, and which the Russians and Chinese are so determined to undermine, is worth preserving.
Writing recently in Foreign Affairs, Ivo Daalder and my colleague James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations argue that for all its horrors, the war against Ukraine “gives the United States and its Western allies a chance to do what they failed to accomplish after the end of the Cold War: reinvigorate international institutions and deepen cooperation on transnational threats.” They call for the creation of a new alliance of advanced democracies to work together closely, and not just to hold summits, on global security and economic challenges. To succeed and have credibility, such an alliance will “have to live by the rules it requires others to follow.” That means the United States will have to drop its indispensable nation “hubris and hypocrisy,” and its habit of unilateral action, and U.S. allies will have to stop shirking “responsibility for tough decisions, free-riding off of U.S. security pledges while allowing their own hard power to atrophy.”
It is unlikely that even the best written national security strategy would be so self-critical. But a frank recognition, in writing, of the parlous state of the global order and our own responsibility for now fixing it, would be a healthy start.
Carla Anne Robbins is faculty director of the master of international affairs program at Baruch College’s Marxe School and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an editorial board member of American Purpose and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times. Twitter: @robbinscarla
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe