Biden’s provisional advice isn’t an NSS, but it sort of is. The fact that they released it less than six weeks after the inauguration is a legitimately impressive feat, especially given the “slow and steady” vibe that surrounds this administration. To use an educational metaphor, it’s like a student is assigned a scheduled term assignment in May and the student submits a neat draft in February.
These documents matter. There are a lot of national security and foreign policy bureaucracies in the federal government. After four years of take a beating of the Trump administration, they must know what US foreign policy looks like in the post-Trump world. What policies should persist? What issues should be prioritized? Which language can be deployed? Provisional guidance helps provide a measure of certainty for operators and political managers who hate uncertainty.
It is very good for such a first project, and I’m glad to see you hit the high notes. Your Secretary of State ended the domestic unrest in the United States quite cleverly by pointing out in his speech this, “I rejoice in the fact that we are bringing our struggles to light. And that sets us apart from many other countries. We don’t ignore our failures and shortcomings or try to sweep them under the rug and pretend they don’t exist. We confront them for the world to see. It’s painful. Sometimes it’s ugly. But this is how we progress.This ties in with your theme of marrying international relations issues with domestic political concerns.
Your threat hierarchy also appears strong. I was delighted to see you focus on “non-agent” threats like climate change and pandemic disease before even talking about a great power like China. Your assessment of the power jibing distribution with external observers. For example, you write that China “is 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. “Even more accommodating authors on China Okay on this point, they are therefore solid bases for building guidelines.
However, you still have work to do, and nowhere is this more evident than in the cognitive dissonance over foreign economic policy. To be frank, your advice and Blinken’s speech are all over the map. The Secretary of State noted in his speech that “there is no wall high enough or strong enough to hold back the changes that are transforming our world.“In your advice, you state:”We must also remember and celebrate that we are a nation of immigrants, strengthened at home and abroad by our diversity.. The document says that national security obliges the United States to “lead and maintain a stable and open international system.“
It sounds simple, but when your advice becomes concrete on foreign economic policy, it looks very, very different. The Secretary of State adopts a sad tone in support of past free trade agreements. The interim strategic direction says: “Economic policy should be [one of] the main instruments of American foreign policy“and”Our policies must reflect a fundamental truth: in today’s world, economic security is national security.“He also says,”We will ensure that the rules of the international economy are not tilted against the United States. “
This does not sound like the platform to build an open international system! To be honest, it looks a lot like your predecessor – which is surprising given overall popularity of an open world economy.
The unarticulated thesis of your provisional direction is that the United States intends to build new rules of the game with allies, partners, and as many unnamed “China” countries as the State Department can muster. It is a possible strategy.
However, when you revise this draft document and submit your final version, you will need to articulate two things more clearly. First, under what conditions will the Biden administration be ready to cooperate with China? You are vaguely referring to some problematic areas – be more concrete.
Second, how will you persuade your allies and partners to join your coalition if you continue to express the neo-mercantilist convictions of your predecessor? Why should countries like Japan, Germany or Chile get tougher on China while finding themselves outside looking at the US market?
You have done a solid job here. Take this draft and revise it better.