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?