The Biden Doctrine

The first week of March, the Biden administration rolled out a speech by Antony Blinken and an interim national security strategy. Those documents overlap significantly with each other and with a report led by Jake Sullivan, now Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor, when he was at the Carnegie Endowment last year.

Any number of authors have shared the 35 things they want Biden to do in his first week and specific solutions to numerous foreign and domestic policy problems, including would-be George Kennans penning their own long telegrams. None seem to have read the administration’s documents. The Carnegie report has been available since last September.

Much of the commentary has leaned on the previous actions of Blinken and other Biden appointees to predict how they will perform in this administration. Many appointees were in the Obama administration, and Biden has known some for longer than that. The past is often a good guide to the future. A devastating pandemic and the destruction of much of the government by office-holding vandals, however, suggest that change is necessary.

The three documents not only acknowledge that change is necessary, they propose numerous changes to how things have been done. Their content overlaps significantly, into what might be called a Biden Doctrine. Here’s my attempt at that formulation.

We are living in a time of change. The pandemic has changed everything in our interactions, from friendly gatherings through how we shop to foreign policy. After the pandemic is over, the world will be different. We can choose some of the ways in which it will be different. But even before the pandemic, the world was changing. Climate change, extreme income inequalities, the forever wars, and other problems cannot be ignored. We must build back better.

Our primary national security threats cannot be addressed by military means. The pandemic has killed more than a half-million Americans and disabled others. Climate change threatens coastal cities with inundation and other parts of the country with severe storms. Income inequality and police brutality threaten American citizens. Poor immigration policies have led to a non-citizen population who can be brutalized and a crisis on the southern border. Rightwing terrorism is only now being recognized, after an assault on the US Capitol on January 6.

To engage the rest of the world, we must get our house in order.

For conventional military threats, diplomacy must be pursued before military might is used. Iraq has never recovered from the 2003 war. An attempt to withdraw the US military from Afghanistan is ongoing. US involvement in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran presents a number of problems. Russia continues its involvement in eastern Ukraine and illegally occupies Crimea.

Nuclear weapons are a danger to all, which nuclear materials security and nonproliferation policies can help to damp down. North Korea’s nuclear arms are a danger to the United States. The United States must rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which helps to maintain Iran’s non-nuclear-weapons status.

China is in a category of its own. Trade between the US and China took a hit with the trade war, which damaged American farmers. China holds large amounts of American debt. As China’s economy enlarges, so does the Chinese military and China’s activity in its neighborhood. That activity can threaten American interests in the area.

Issues are often interrelated. For example, Japan, an American ally, is also threatened by North Korean nuclear missiles and Chinese military activity. Insecurity in Japan could lead to their proliferating a nuclear force of their own. At home, different groups may benefit or lose in foreign policy interactions. Every decision is a balance among contradictory factors that we will try to make in favor of the interests of the American people.

The wisdom and practical understanding necessary to execute these policies can come only with inclusion and diversity.

Biden’s transmittal letter for the interim national security strategy begins with change and continues to emphasize change throughout.

In my inaugural address, I committed to engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s.

Our world is at an inflection point. Global dynamics have shifted. New crises demand our attention. And in this moment of accelerating global challenges — from the pandemic to the climate crisis to nuclear proliferation to the fourth industrial revolution — one thing is certain: we will only succeed in advancing American interests and upholding our universal values by working in common cause with our closest allies and partners, and by renewing our own enduring sources of national strength.

The pandemic is also mentioned early and throughout. Although we have tried through the past year to emulate normal life, the pandemic has changed everything we do – how we work, how children go to school, simply going to the store. It has changed how the government and military carry out their duties. Although the military has said little about its response to the pandemic, the early disabling of the USS Theodore Roosevelt due to crew illness surely led to precautionary measures.

The pandemic is worldwide, with differential national effects and responses. Both allies and adversaries are affected to different degrees. Predicting their political and military positions in a year is difficult to impossible.

On January 20, the disease was out of control in the US. It still is, although the government is beginning to look at strategies that depend on some control. A sharp decrease began before January 20 and continues. The economy is in tatters, with estimates of unemployment at 10% and more, and people quite reasonably unwilling to particpate in events that involve large groups or enclosed spaces, despite the rhetoric of some governors about “opening up.”

The illness, death, and economic damage must stop before life can get back to anything resembling normal. The American Recovery Plan will help get vaccines out and provide financial support to those out of work and others. By summer we are likely to be in a much better situation than we are now, but many effects, including the emotional, will last longer than that.

Although the United States established a disastrous record on deaths, the vaccine rollout looks good. Russia and China seem to be prioritizing sales of their vaccines over availability at home, and Europe has experienced a number of difficulties. Some countries are doing well: India is seeing far fewer infections and deaths than have been seen in the US and Europe.

Controlling the pandemic is Job One.

We don’t know how other countries will come out of the pandemic, which makes it hard to predict what foreign policy should be. Biden has inherited a number of crises in progress. Withdrawal of American and NATO troops was set for May 1, but it looks like that deadline will not be met. The US and Iran are trying to find a way to discuss the US’s re-entry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which limited Iran’s nuclear activities in return for lifting of sanctions. North Korea continues to build nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them.

The actions of the past four years have damaged our relations with our allies, and we need those allies to deal with those ongoing crises. Relationships must be rebuilt and clarified. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are on their way to visit Japan and South Korea. They explain that visit in terms similar to those used in the interim national security strategy. Biden met with the “Quad,” the leaders of Japan, Australia, and India. Phonecalls continue with the governments of allies at all levels.

If the old adage is true – Friends come and go, but enemies remain –  it makes sense to restore relations with allies before trying to deal with the more difficult situations. Additionally, the agencies are not fully staffed up because of the previous administration’s malicious handling of the transition and the Republican Senate’s slow-walking of confirmations.

Passing the American Recovery Act was a priority. Passing HR 1, on voting rights, is also a priority; it will require much more work because it cannot be passed under reconciliation.

By and large, the public agrees with the way Biden is handling foreign policy. I find it surprising that so few commentators have read or referred to the three documents. The uniformity of themes across agencies and strong personalities within the government is unusual. Austin and Blinken’s op-ed echoes those themes.

I have seen only one analysis that looks at the Biden policies as a whole, by Hal Brands at the American Enterprise Institute, and he does not explicitly reference the documents. It’s a good summary worth reading. Other analyses focus on particular interests, like the Sierra Club on environment, Dan Drezner on economics, or my many nuclear friends on the two paragraphs in the interim national security strategy on nuclear weapons.

That type of analysis worked for standard government documents, but the uniformity of these documents is the primary fact. It is the whole that is central, and the parts follow from that.

Foreign policy is likely to be aimed at the pandemic, reassuring allies, and not making things worse until the pandemic is under control. We will not see bold initiatives in, for example, declaratory nuclear policy, until much later in the year if then. The administration has said that North Korea and Iran policy are under review.

These statements, and their consistency across the administration, are a new way of governing. Ignoring them leads to faulty analysis, but that is what we see.

My overviews of the documents:

Carnegie report

Blinken speech

Interim national security strategy

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice