Joe Biden takes U.S. national security strategy to the left — with nods to Donald Trump


President Biden and his administration plan a leftward shift in U.S. national security strategy while adopting some America-centered policies of the Trump administration such as countering technology theft by China.

Officials sketched out the first concrete outlines of the new strategy last week, just weeks into Mr. Biden’s term. When completed, the approach will include new policies favoring gender identity, climate change and racial justice — key themes espoused by those in the left wing of the Democratic Party.

A major thrust of the strategy will be backing international alliances and partnerships, renewed contacts with international organizations such as the World Health Organization and World Trade Organization, and signing up to international agreements on such issues as arms control.

“Under the Biden-Harris administration, America is back. Diplomacy is back. Alliances are back,” Mr. Biden stated as the interim guidance report was made public last week.

“But we are not looking back. We are looking irrevocably toward the future and all that we can achieve for the American people — together.”

The guidance report issued by the White House will be used by federal agencies and departments as the roadmap for a major strategic policy review.

“We confront a global pandemic, a crushing economic downturn, a crisis of racial justice, and a deepening climate emergency,” the report begins. Other current threats include “rising nationalism” and the decline in democracy in the face of growing rivalries with China, Russia and other authoritarian rivals.

In addition to traditional threats like those posed by China, Russia and terrorist groups, the strategy review also cites “climate change, infectious disease, cyberattacks and disinformation.”

Mr. Biden directed those working on the new strategy to make it reflect a global defense of “equal rights of all people — of women and girls, LGBTQI individuals, indigenous communities, people with disabilities, and people of every ethnic background and religion.”

The acronym LGBTQI is the latest in the lengthening list of liberal gender identity groups adopted by the administration: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex people.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the fully fleshed-out new strategy will be released later this year. He mentioned five areas of emphasis: leveraging alliances; backing the U.S. middle class; maintaining U.S. technology prowess; bolstering democracy; and using military power to bolster diplomacy.

“We need a strategy that covers both transnational threats and great power competition,” Mr. Sullivan told a group of pundits last week. “That’s the strategy this guidance lays out. The strategy has China very much in mind, but not only China in mind.”

Mr. Sullivan said he hopes that competition with China will be less confrontational while aiming to make sure “like-minded market democracies that are setting the rules and standards for advanced technologies going forward and not authoritarian regimes.”

Protecting theft of intellectual property will remain a top priority, Mr. Sullivan noted.

The Trump administration revealed in a 2017 report that technology theft and legal acquisition by China cost the United States as much as $600 billion annually.

Obama and allies

An overriding theme of the forthcoming strategy will be a renewed emphasis on strategic alliances, an approach that critics are already warning bears a faint echo to the approach adopted by the Obama administration, when Mr. Biden was vice president, that euphemistically dubbed its global approach as “leading from behind.”

Unlike President Trump’s “America First” strategy, Mr. Biden’s new strategy so far lacks a catchy moniker.

The buzz phrase for the new approach, both at home and abroad, is Mr. Biden’s campaign mantra “Build back better,” emphasizing economics, re-engaging international institutions and modernizing military power.

Some elements of the forthcoming strategy will align with that of the Trump administration.

On issues such as halting Chinese technology theft and countering efforts by Beijing to export its authoritarian system around the world, the administration is vowing to pursue similar policies.

China is described in the guidance as “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”

“By bolstering and defending our unparalleled network of allies and partners, and making smart defense investments, we will also deter Chinese aggression and counter threats to our collective security, prosperity, and democratic way of life,” the guidance says.

Support for democratic Taiwan and efforts to promote freedom of navigation against Chinese military encroachment also is mentioned. The administration insists it will not go easy on Beijing.

“When the Chinese government’s behavior directly threatens our interests and values, we will answer Beijing’s challenge,” the guidance states. “We will confront unfair and illegal trade practices, cyber theft and coercive economic practices that hurt American workers, undercut our advanced and emerging technologies, and seek to erode our strategic advantage and national competitiveness.”

Mr. Biden also is vowing to halt U.S. participation in “endless wars” — a reference to a term long favored by Mr. Trump.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken seemed to channel the previous administration in announcing last week a new “foreign policy for the American people.”

Mr. Blinken said in a speech Wednesday that the first goal will be to stop the COVID-19 pandemic, address the economic crisis it spawned and build “a more stable inclusive global economy.”

Foreign policy will also “tackle the climate crisis and drive a green energy revolution,” he said.
Second to the last on Mr. Blinken’s list of 10 foreign policy challenges is China.

“Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be,” he said. “The common denominator is the need to engage China from a position of strength.”

The secretary of state also vowed American foreign policy will be bipartisan.

On arms control, the guidance suggests the administration plans to revive the Obama policy of reducing the role of nuclear weapons as an element in U.S. strategy, a move that could put in doubt the Pentagon’s hopes of spending tens of billions of dollars to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The administration also will seek to negotiate arms agreements with both China and Russia — despite Beijing’s continued refusal to engage in nuclear arms talks.

Talking points

Retired Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, said the interim guidance is positive in some respects but also repeatedly emphasizes liberal talking points.

References in the guidance to voting rights, clean energy and racial justice are “only tangentially related to national security,” he said.

The retired three-star said the guidance appears to reject “the naivete of the Obama era when the administration hoped for ‘deeper and more effective partnerships’ with countries like China and Russia.”

“Biden’s interim guidance rightly calls out China for becoming more ‘assertive’ and identifies Beijing and Moscow as having ‘invested heavily in efforts meant to check U.S. strengths and prevent us from defending our interests and allies around the world,’” said Gen. Spoehr, a former deputy commander of U.S. Forces Iraq,

Another national security expert, retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, agrees that guidance is long on rhetoric but fails to match Trump administration’s emphasis on strategic strength.

“One gets the sense this rushed document was more about domestic political posturing, than in producing a robust, whole-of-government statement of American national security, as was the Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy,” Capt. Fanell said.

The major shortcoming, he said, relates to Asia, where “language regarding China comes across as ambiguous at best.”

“The document repeatedly refers to China as becoming more ‘assertive,’ but never once does it describe the PRC as an existential threat to the United States and our allies,” Capt. Fanell said.

Repeated calls for working, engaging and holding “meaningful dialogue” with Beijing also raise concerns.

“This is worrisome given the past performance of appeasement many within the Biden Asia team have demonstrated over the years,” he said.

While emphasizing alliances, the guidance makes no reference to the landmark formation of the “Quad” alliance group the Trump administration did much to promote over the past four years.

Mr. Biden is expected to hold his first virtual meeting with the group that includes the United States, Japan, India and Australia this week.

Miles Yu, a former State Department policymaker and aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said the idea that the Trump administration abandoned alliances is not true.

“We put an enormous effort into building alliances through discussion and persuasion,” Mr. Yu said,” often with allies that did not view China the same way we did.”

Mr. Yu said the Biden strategic guidance reflects the recognition of the Trump administration regarding the threat posed by China.

“Our policies reflected the great awakening of the entire nation regarding the profound threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.

The policies also produced new laws toward China that reflected “extraordinary bipartisanship in an age of extraordinary partisanship,” Mr. Yu said.

Alex Gray, until January the chief of staff to National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, said the recognition of China in the new guidance as the most significant great power competitor to the U.S. represents continuity from the Trump administration.

“While the interim document uses different language, and perhaps a softer tone, it is unmistakable that great-power competition with China and Russia will remain the organizing principle of U.S. national security in the years ahead,” he said.

The real question is whether the Biden administration will follow through on the need to modernize the U.S. military to bolster its competition with China, or succumb to those in the administration and on Capitol Hill who favor military cuts. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat, is openly questioning the idea that the U.S. can build up a military strong enough to “dominate” China.

“The document leaves important questions unanswered about the future trajectory of Pentagon spending, which Beijing and our allies and partners are watching closely,” Mr. Gray said.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on Mr. Biden to roll back what he termed the “dangerous practice” of the Trump administration’s backing of Taiwan.

“We urge the new U.S. administration to fully understand the high sensitivity of the Taiwan issue,” Mr. Wang said in a speech Sunday, “and completely change the previous administration’s dangerous practices of ‘crossing the line’ and ‘playing with fire.’”

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