In mid-October, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden released a new National Security Strategy document. While the details didn’t get much play in the American or global news media, the document’s context continued to get plenty—from the war in Ukraine, to ongoing tensions with China, to the American president’s outspoken criticism of Saudi Arabia. To date, Biden’s foreign policy has been defined more tacitly than explicitly—above all, by two events: the formal withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in August of 2021 and the formation of a global coalition backing Ukraine’s resistance against Russian invasion this year. Now, however, there’s a 48-page framework that includes areas of focus not traditionally associated with national security, such as domestic U.S. economic issues and climate change. How does this framework envision American national security—and what will that vision mean for the world?
Brian Katulis is a senior fellow and vice-president of policy at the Middle East Institute in Washington. As Katulis sees it, the new National Security Strategy reflects a continuing focus by the Biden administration on steering global diplomacy back to some of the core norms and practices it departed from under Donald Trump. While Katulis has been critical of some of Biden’s decisions on the international stage, Katulis argues that the administration’s behind-the-scenes, old-fashioned coalition-building initiatives outlined in the National Security Strategy will have far greater and more lasting impact as it’s put into action than, for example, media and public reactions in the moment to some of the mistakes and desperate scenes of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. In some ways, Katulis says, Biden’s low-key national-security doctrine views the world with a mixed spirit of cooperation among like-minded economic partners and stern realism—including a view of China that’s less optimistic than the Obama administration’s was but without the rhetorical excess and ultimate isolationism of the Trump administration’s. It’s an approach Katulis sees as promising to give the United States and its global allies a meaningful advantage over time where it comes to challenges from China, Russia, and other antidemocratic competitors.
Eric Pfeiffer: What do you think the new National Security Strategy says about how the Biden administration views the world?
Brian Katulis: One of its main themes is the attempt to return to a sort of normalcy after what was an erratic four years under the Donald Trump administration. The document itself is very comprehensive, thinking through some of the tougher challenges America now faces in the world. But it does so in a way that represents a return to the kind of strategic approaches that we saw under Barack Obama and, I would say, the second George W. Bush administration after it moved away from the preemptive strategy that led it into the Iraq War. In this sense, the new framework is an attempt to restore America’s diplomatic standing in the world—and reflects the Biden administration’s view of the importance of that standing.
The second main theme is what I’d call a national industrial policy to make America more competitive economically in the world. Though we had a lot of rhetorical bluster from Trump when it came to trade wars, that bluster didn’t ultimately lead to any concerted attempts to work with allies and develop a competitive strategy. This focus on American competitiveness, and the link between that competitiveness and the imperative to coordinate more closely with longstanding allies in Europe and Asia, is together something distinctive from both the Trump and Obama approaches to foreign policy.
Pfeiffer: The focus on issues such as the domestic U.S. economy and climate change appears somewhat out of place in a document outlining a national-security strategy. Does this reflect a Biden administration view that traditional matters of national security—like standing militaries, the arms trade, or terrorism—might now be relatively less important to U.S. foreign policy?
Katulis: It reflects a view that in the emerging world, these non-traditional national-security issues intersect with traditional national-security issues in consequential ways. In my view, that’s innovative—and distinctly realistic. What I see here is a concerted effort to move beyond the parameters of older debates—for example, over trade and trade agreements—toward larger competitive issues that affect everyone, including the green-energy transition.
Another example is the way the framework looks at microchips as a key sector of competition. It considers what the U.S. should be willing to do with its national industrial policy to put limits on how much the country cooperates—and its private sector cooperates—with China and other geostrategic competitors. It’s the new frontier; it not only dictates America’s competitive footing, but it’s critical to America’s ability to connect and restore relationships with like-minded allies.
Pfeiffer: What does the new National Security Strategy say in particular about how the administration envisions dealing with China?
Katulis: China is at the heart of the what the changes outlined in this document will mean.
So many debates in the United States about American foreign policy these days aren’t only hyper-partisan, between the political parties, and focused on the short term; they also reflect divisions within the parties. But this new national industrial policy could be the nexus of what I’d call a new trans-partisan coalition, with strong popular support—across the American public and beyond the divisions of its disparate political interests.
This new national industrial policy could be the nexus of what I’d call a new trans-partisan coalition, with strong popular support—across the American public and beyond the divisions of its disparate political interests.
You can see this potential illustrated in the Afghanistan pull-out last year, which really hurt the administration publicly in the moment because of how it executed the withdrawal. But the move itself had the backing of a strong majority of Americans. What went wrong got a lot of attention in the news, because it was very dramatic, against the backdrop of America’s 20-year involvement in the war in Afghanistan. But it may not be the thing people are talking about five years from now; five years from now they may well be talking more about the ideas the administration sees in this new national industrial policy and what their implications have been for U.S.-Chinese competition and America’s relative standing in the global economy.
Pfeiffer: The new framework seems more continuous in some ways than discontinuous with the Trump Administration’s view of the world—particularly in its emphasis on the primacy of American interests and its relatively confrontational approach to China, compared with the Obama Administration’s. How do you see the worldview this framework represents in comparison with Trump and Obama?
Katulis: China defines a lot of what distinguishes the Biden and Obama administrations. If you look at Obama’s closing years, his administration hoped the U.S. might be able to cooperate with China on a number of transnational issues. Now, Biden hasn’t departed from that approach entirely, but I think he’s demonstrated that, especially with respect to Taiwan, his team is rather less Pollyannaish about the possibilities for cooperation with Beijing than Obama’s was.
In thinking about what distinguishes the Biden and Trump administrations, Biden is more of a traditional multilateralist than Trump was; still, Biden shares something of Trump’s inclination to ask, What’s in it for us? Trump was just too erratic to get results in, say, his trade war with China. Biden has a longer game, in which he’s trying to build templates for success regardless of whether or not he has a second term or the Democrats retain the presidency in 2024. His administration’s view of China is one that will likely follow through to the next administration, regardless of party—a view that focuses on the competitiveness of American workers and the capabilities of the United States generally to better stand on its own on a competitive path toward a more secure country.
Pfeiffer: What do Biden’s domestic political challenges mean for this new National Security Strategy? How, for instance, does his relatively weak standing in political polls affect they way his administration will view active situations like the war in Ukraine?
Katulis: The good news for Joe Biden, even a politically weakened Joe Biden, is that those who are advocating for more restraint, or even a full disengagement with Ukraine, have demonstrated that they’re quite out of touch with where most Americans are on the issue. When you get beneath the surface of what these critics are saying, it’s often clearer what they stand against than what they stand for. This includes critics on the left and the right. Most Americans don’t like bullies. Sure, they don’t want America paying the full bill in Ukraine; but there’s true, strong support for a balanced approach to backing Ukraine, even as some worry about comments from Kevin McCarthy—the next speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, if the Republican Party wins it back in November’s midterm elections—suggesting that a Republican-dominated House may slow aid to Ukraine. I think that would only demonstrate the gap McCarthy would have to cross to reach the U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—who’s quietly much closer to Biden on this issue.