Biden and his team know that the key to an expansive global agenda lies in “a dynamic, inclusive, innovative national economy.”
Adam Schultz — White House Photo via Flickr
Three interlocking propositions comprise President Joe Biden’s “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance” issued on Wednesday. First, “the core proposition” that the US needs to focus on renewing itself economically and politically to engage the world. Second, it must do so “in common cause” with America’s allies and partners. A subtext here is the importance of promoting democracy since the contest is between the US and an autocratic challenger. And third, that the future of the world rests on the outcome of the current technological competition such as AI and quantum computing, which could upend the military and economic balance of the globe.
This engaged America sounds a lot like the US of the 1950s which understands the importance of “disrupting threats before they can reach our shores” and which invests in the economic development of other countries to produce new markets for American goods and reduce the possibility of instability. This is also an America which believes in investing federal money in areas like science, technology and innovation so as to shore up its “enduring advantages” and enhancing its competitiveness. And an America that welcomes immigrants who have played a significant role in its scientific and technological development.
Such documents are issued periodically to bring all the departments of the US government onto the same page. Through the “interim guidance,” Biden has laid out the global landscape in the understanding of the new administration and outlined its priorities. No doubt this will, in time, be followed up by a more detailed and considered national security strategy whose last iteration was in December 2017. The Trump NSS was the first to move away from the US policy of engagement with China, towards one of strategic competition. It has termed China and Russia as “revisionist” powers.
There can be little doubt that the context of the 24-page document is the “increasingly assertive China.” Which the document says, “is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic and military and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.” Where the Trump NSS had appeared to give Russia equal billing as a villain, the Biden guidance sees its role as secondary capable of playing “a disruptive role on the world stage.” The other threats listed in order of priority is the pursuit of “game changing capabilities and technologies” by North Korea and Iran, countries whose fragile governance can lead to instability, terrorism and violent extremism.
The guidance appears to confirm the US shift away from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, but it includes the importance of maintaining a “robust” presence in Europe as well.
Most importantly, and this is in the context of the Trump policy, Biden has unambiguously vowed “to defend our allies” both diplomatically and militarily. He has declared that the US will support Taiwan, “a leading democracy and a critical economic and security partner in line with longstanding American commitments.”
In a sharp break from his predecessor, Trump has vowed to “reinvigorate and modernise” alliances beginning with NATO, and Australia, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, who “are America’s greatest strategic assets.” He added that America’s “values and interests” compel “deepest connection to the Indo-Pacific, Europe and the Western Hemisphere” and in line with this, the US would deepen its “partnership with India” and work alongside New Zealand, as well as Singapore, Vietnam and the ASEAN member states.
Another important feature of the US policy guidance is the stress on re-establishing America’s “position of leadership in international institutions.” The administration signaled this by its quick return to upholding the Paris Climate Change agreement and vowing to play a leadership role in reforming and strengthening the WHO. But, as of now, there is no commitment towards joining the CATPP. The US has not been part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation (RCEP) process which includes China.
The defence section of the document strikes a sobering note declaring that the US “should not, and will not, engage in ‘forever wars,’ which has been a major factor in the political and economic turbulence that has visited the US in recent years. On Afghanistan, Biden has noted that while the US would work to end the war there, it will also ensure that it does not again become “a safe haven for terrorists.” But the document is clear that the US would never hesitate to use force when required. But a reading of the document makes it clear that the US disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan have left their imprint in the minds of American policymakers.
Biden and his team know that the key to an expansive global agenda lies in “a dynamic, inclusive, innovative national economy.” Here, obviously, the first priority is to grapple with the consequences of the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. One consequence of this is the importance of supply chain resiliency related to health security within the US. Another is the need to put up money into R&D in the area of emerging technologies.
There is a subtle America First approach in the Biden administration approach, one that has been compelled by the experience of riots and turbulence in American cities in recent years. In his first major speech delivered hours before the release of the interim guidance document, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken emphasised that the Biden policy was not an Obama III re-run. “We’re not picking up where we left off… we are looking at the world with fresh eyes.”
In the past, he said, professional American foreign policymakers have not connected too effectively with the American people’s aspirations. For this reason, the Biden team’s foreign policy will focus on the importance of answering the question as to what the foreign policy means “for the American workers and families… what do we need to do around the world to make us stronger here at home.” This would, most importantly, impinge on re-looking at the old nostrum of “free trade,” which “we didn’t (in the past) do enough to understand.”
The interim guidance document, too, notes that the American trade and international economic policies “must serve all Americans, not just the privileged few.”
Even while making speeches and issuing guidance, Biden has not allowed grass to grow under his feet. The White House has already pencilled in a virtual summit of Quad leaders later this month. Biden is seeking to underscore his commitment to the Indo-Pacific strategy of using partnerships and alliances to counter China’s influence. On 18 February, Blinken had held a virtual summit with his Quad counterparts, which included External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.
The Quad also figured in the first telephone conversation between Biden and Prime Minister Modi. The White House readout of the conversation noted that “the leaders agreed to continuing close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity, and a stronger regional architecture through the Quad.” At the time Modi had tweeted that Biden and he were “committed to a rules based international order” and “and consolidating our strategic partnership to further peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.”
But that was two days before India and China had announced a pull-back deal in the Pangong Tso area, which has since been implemented. There are expectations that India and China will take some more steps to ease the situation between them. Not surprisingly, there was no reference to the Quad, which is now being mooted as an Asian NATO in the Indian readout of the phone call. You can be sure that we will see and hear more of this triangular dynamic in the coming days and months.
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