Biden’s long-delayed National Security Strategy is the kind of pablum that disguises danger and comes with a price.
By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News
The Biden administration — excuse me, the Biden–Harris administration if you please — has at last released its National Security Strategy, a document every president is required to release according to a law passed 40–odd years ago.
These are supposed to tell we, the people, what the plan is, how our republic proposes to make its way in the world over the four years a new occupant of the White House will reside there.
It took them long enough: It is nearly halfway through Biden’s term, and his policy people have repeatedly delayed releasing these 48 pages. Now that they are published, I can’t say as I blame them. I wouldn’t want to put this muddle on paper either.
“From the earliest days of my Presidency, I have argued that our world is at an inflection point,” the text appearing above Biden’s signature begins.
“How we respond to the tremendous challenges and the unprecedented opportunities we face today will determine the direction of our world and impact the security and prosperity of the American people for generations to come.”
You have to say “Amen” to this. It is an exact description of our circumstances. But this is the problem with the new NSS. It is a long nod to our time as one of momentous change, but it is the work of an administration patently incapable of conducting the nation’s business abroad in any kind of new way.
These documents are meant to tell Americans and the world where we are headed and to reassure us that steady hands are at the helm. I do not feel reassured. I feel frightened.
The leadership of the United States — and this goes beyond the Biden regime’s various ineptitudes — is simply unable to get clean of its addiction to global primacy and its obsessive pursuit of it even as the nation’s power declines.
The themes that define this NSS are two. One, the document acknowledges the need to cooperate multilaterally to address questions that are transnational in character. Climate change is the premier example here; others include global health challenges, international crime and the kind of cross-border economic crises we see an awful lot of these days.
Fine. These calls are apple-pie easy. None presents a challenge to U.S. power, but good enough.
It is the second theme that must concern us. Here we find ourselves in the familiar territory of great-power antagonism, “strategic competition,” and America’s obligation to lead the world in an almost biblical confrontation of democracy and autocracy. This is all the stuff Biden and his foreign policy people bang on about at every turn, never to any persuasive effect.
“The rules-based order,” predictably, makes a prominent appearance:
“We will partner with any nation that shares our basic belief that the rules-based order must remain the foundation for global peace and prosperity.”
So, a simulacrum of cooperation, but not even that when it challenges the traditional role America assigns to itself. This is the tragedy we are all fated to share, the shape of our grave new world, and I hope Biden is wrong when he says this will hold for “generations to come.”
The NSS’s two themes are supposed to look like parallel lines, thoughtfully drawn to lead us into a sound future. They are not. They are perpendicular to one another and cannot possibly lead anywhere but to more of the disorder that now besets us.
In an excellent piece in Responsible Statecraft, Marcus Stanley offers a severe diagnosis of the new NSS. “It’s strikingly schizophrenic,” he writes, “alternating — sometimes on an almost sentence-by-sentence basis — between ambitious promises to lead global cooperation in addressing transnational challenges, and depicting a world of near-intractable rivalries.”
Dr. Lawrence has a variant opinion. Washington’s collective superego understands a new epoch in the human story has arrived. But its id is stuck in an obsessive-compulsive stage, anal-retentively clutching onto the power it wielded in the post–1945 decades like a child with a tattered security blanket. This document is the ego trying to translate the id’s irrationality into a version of presentable reason.
Can’t be done.
The Biden administration tried on this routine with the Chinese a few months after the inauguration. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan famously told the Chinese that the U.S. will cooperate with them on some questions, compete with them on others and contend with them as strategic adversaries on yet others.
The Chinese let it be known they were having none of this the first chance they got, at that farcical but telling encounter in Anchorage in March 2021. In hindsight it was the most intelligent call Beijing could have made.
Biden, on four separate occasions now, has openly declared the flawed but nonetheless useful policy called “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan to be dead. As Biden tells it, the U.S. is now committed to defending Taiwan militarily should China exercise its legal right to reintegrate the island into the Chinese nation.
The provocations on this question — congressional visits, Air Force flyovers, “freedom of navigation” sails through the Taiwan Strait — are almost certainly more incessant now than they were during Mike Pompeo’s years as secretary of state, and it was Pompeo who made provocation the fashion at the other end of the Pacific.
As to competition on the economic side, the just-announced law governing high-technology exports to China is an utterly undignified effort to prevent the Chinese from completing the classic climb up the development ladder all nations aspire to make.
The New York Times report on this topic had a couple of choice quotations from both sides sizing matters up.
Liu Pengyu, speaking for the Chinese embassy in Washington, told the Times Washington seeks “to use its technological prowess as an advantage to hobble and suppress the development of emerging markets and developing countries. The U.S. probably hopes that China and the rest of the developing world will forever stay at the lower end of the industrial chain.”
There is no denial of this on the American side, in case you were expecting any. Nobody in Washington is at all ashamed. “It is an aggressive approach by the U.S. government to start to really impair the capability of China to indigenously develop certain of these critical technologies,” commented Emily Kilcrease, who thinks it all through with those wonderful people at the Center for a New American Security.
If we can’t compete with them, in other words, we will keep them down. As infra-dig policies go, this is down there with the worst.
To be noted in this connection: Any effort to cooperate on transnational questions is canceled, rendered impossible, by the supposedly parallel thought that the U.S. must remain the world’s unchallenged hegemon. Theme one and theme two can coexist only on paper, not on the ground.
Remember the Rhetoric
Remember all the rhetoric during the Biden campaign for the presidency in 2020? It will be diplomacy first, his policy people said, resort to the military a final alternative when all other options are exhausted. They promised to restore the U.S. to the accord governing Iran’s nuclear programs and to stop supplying the Saudis with weapons as they wage war against Yemen. As Marcus Stanley reminds us, the man who carried the Ukraine portfolio as Barack Obama’s veep committed to “a stable predictable relationship with Russia.”
Rhetoric, it should now be evident, is all it was. And this is all the new NSS is made of. It relies on sweeping generalities and abject insincerity of the kind Biden has always expected Americans to forget in a very short while. I can find little else in this document.
Yes, there was the withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, a good thing. But let us understand that for what it was, and was not. It was an empire’s retreat from a war two decades running that could never be won. Nothing else changed, not a single tenet of the imperium’s global objectives.
As to the democrats-vs.-authoritarians routine, the NSS has this to say:
“Some parts of the world are uneasy with the competition between the United States and the world’s largest autocracies. We understand these concerns. We also want to avoid a world in which competition escalates into a world of rigid blocs. We do not seek conflict or a new Cold War.”
I am sorry, except that I am not: You have to stand with the Chinese and others in the non–West, when — let us be frank — the most relentless liar to occupy the White House in the postwar era (and I include Richard Nixon) carries on in this fashion.
This administration has already consolidated the new Cold War that the Deep State has hankered for since the Berlin Wall came down. Biden and the amateurs around him would be lost without their rigid blocs, which are the only organizing principle simple enough for them to understand.
I did not expect much more from this NSS as we awaited its delayed release. But it is nonetheless distressing to see it all on paper now. It is our condemnation delivered in happy talk. Pabulum of this kind, we will learn if we haven’t already, disguises danger and comes with a price.
Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His Twitter account, @thefloutist, has been permanently censored. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.