Joe Biden’s National Security Strategy: Nothing new, yet weighty

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The recently released report by the American White House on “National Security Strategy, October 2022” announces no brand new defence strategy or foreign policy approach or security doctrine, yet its significance cannot be overlooked.

Under American law, every US administration is supposed to submit to the Congress an annual report on comprehensive national security interests, challenges and the strategy required to handle the challenges and protect national interests. At least since the Reagan administration, successive American presidents have been releasing a document on “US National Security Strategy”, some of them annually. The Trump Administration, unlike many of his predecessors, issued one national security strategy report in 2017.

The national security strategy report by the current Joe Biden administration has been long overdue, arguably because of the war in Ukraine and policymakers and pundits around the world had been eagerly waiting for its release to have a glimpse of the grand strategy of the Biden Administration in handling global affairs.

As and when this report was made public, policymakers in some countries, especially China, promptly responded, some national security experts and analysts in the US as well as abroad announced their verdicts and many others preferred to maintain studied silence.

China’s response was sharp, swift, and full of rage mirrored in its vitriolic language, which is explicable because the NSS 2022 has overly focused on the “China threat” without declaring it as a “threat”. The report considers China as “the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly…the power to advance that objective”. The international order that has witnessed American leadership since the end of the Second World War has, according to the Biden administration, only one challenger and that is China. If this is not a threat to US values, ideals and global interests, what else can be?

No matter how palliative the assertion in the report that the US is not for any “new Cold War” and that it would seek “to manage” competition with China “responsibly”, Beijing appears convinced that the US is all out to contain perceived Chinese ambitions to reduce American influence around the world and simultaneously expand Chinese power and influence. In an editorial, government mouth-piece Global Times lashed out that it “has been 31 years since the end of the Cold War, but the political elites in Washington still have not learned to coexist with other countries in a new way.” What rankles Beijing the most is Biden administration’s pronounced goal to defend democracies, to prevent autocracies from exporting their “model of governance”, to defend Japan under treaty obligation that includes Senkaku Islands, and back “self-defense” of Taiwan, while pledging continuing endorsement of “one China” policy.

The NSS clearly identifies Russia as an “immediate threat”. This is a new addition to earlier versions of NSS reports on Russia, yet it is natural in view of the on-going Russia-Ukraine war and the evident determination of the Biden administration to guarantee Putin’s failure in Ukraine. Despite comprehensive sanctions imposed on Russia and incessant military supplies to Ukraine, Putin’s resolve has not wobbled. Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling on probable use of nuclear weapons has unnerved the Western world. Intense deliberations in Western capitals have been taking place on how to respond to any use of nuclear weapons by Russia, not against any NATO member, but on Ukraine. While the list of Russian bellicose moves — Georgia, Syria, Crimea, now Ukraine is repeatedly remembered, Russia has not been identified as a long-term threat by the NSS 2022 and that is thought-provoking. Russia has no match to the comprehensive national power of China, but it does retain the capacity to pose an existential threat to the US.

It is quite likely that differentiating the challenges posed by Russia and China is part of strategic calculus. Any talk of dual-containment of Russia and China or “duel-restraint” can be counterproductive. The report does appreciate the growing strength of NATO and AUCKUS — one aims at Russia and the other at China. But the cohesion in the Western alliance is under test due to unexpected consequences of Biden’s approach to Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s unhidden threats to Taiwan.

India prominently figures in the NSS 2022, as a country that “is the world’s largest democracy.” The report asserts that as “Major Defence Partner, the United States and India will work together, bilaterally and multilaterally, to support our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.” The report is short on India, unlike the NSS 2017 of the Trump administration which said: “We welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner. We will seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia and India.”

But then, the quadrilateral cooperation among India, the US, Japan and Australia has actually increased manifold. India’s role as a “leading global power” has gone deeper and wider since the Trump report was published. India-US strategic partnership has withstood the pressures generated by the Ukraine War. India has deftly managed its crucial defence and energy ties with Russia without substantively coming on the way of the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy. The two-plus-two strategic dialogue between the US and India, meeting of the Quad countries to ensure peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and trade and investment ties between India and the US have so far been successfully navigating the turbulent global geopolitics and political economy.

Thus a few lines on India in the NSS 2022 speak what needed to be spoken. What could have been probably better for India is perhaps some mention of Pakistan. A country that still has a large presence of terrorist networks, possesses nuclear weapons and faces a fast failing economy amidst natural disasters should not have been neglected in the report.

It is also noteworthy that the NSS 2022 has highlighted the terrorist threats in Africa and Southeast Asia and has little to say on South Asia. It says that “Al Qaeda, ISIS and associated forces have expanded from Afghanistan and the Middle East into Africa and Southeast Asia.” The terrorist threats in the Af-Pak region and India have been overlooked perhaps on account of recent reduction in number of terror attacks, but the potency of terror threats in the region remains and such threats can bounce back. History repeats, as the US has again taken focus away from the Af-Pak region after withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, as it did in the aftermath of the Soviet troops withdrawal in late 1980s.

It is noteworthy that the report has stressed the threat of extremist violence within the United States in the section on terrorism and says, “We face an increased and significant threat within the United States from a range of domestic violent extremists, including those motivated by racial or ethnic prejudice…”

It may be underlined that Russia cares little about the NSS 2022, China is outraged, strategic ally Pakistan is annoyed because it has not even been mentioned once, and domestic critics in the US do not find any novelty in the report. Yet, India needs to read signals in the report:

a.     India has to increasingly walk the diplomatic tightrope.

b.     Pakistan is neither a US problem nor a partner.

c.      There is no end in sight of US confrontation with Russia.

d.     China will read “competition” by the US as “containment”.

e.     North Korea will remain a nuclear weapon power and denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula has become a pipedream.

f.       The US approach to Iran will continue to challenge energy security.

The writer is editor, ‘Indian Foreign Affairs Journal’, founder and Honorary Chairperson of Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies, and formerly professor of JNU. Views expressed are personal.

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Joe Biden’s National Security Strategy: Nothing new, yet weighty
Joe Biden’s National Security Strategy: Nothing new, yet weighty
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