Biden national security guidance calls to increase diplomacy, downplay nukes, end Afghanistan conflict

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Aaron Mehta
·6 min read
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WASHINGTON — In an “interim” security strategy document released Wednesday afternoon, the White House emphasized that the Biden administration views diplomacy as its first tool for national security issues — and democracy as its greatest asset.

The report also called for an end to “forever wars,” such as the conflict in Afghanistan; for the Pentagon to divest of legacy military systems in favor of funding for future needs; and stressed the need for cybersecurity improvements across government.

In the introduction to the 24-page document, the first wide-ranging, formal guidance on national security issues from the administration, President Joe Biden wrote that American democracy is “our most fundamental advantage” in combating challenges from China and Russia, saying “we are in the midst of an historic and fundamental debate about the future direction of our world.

“There are those who argue that, given all the challenges we face, autocracy is the best way forward. And there are those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting all the challenges of our changing world,” he wrote. “We must prove that our model isn’t a relic of history; it’s the single best way to realize the promise of our future. And, if we work together with our democratic partners, with strength and confidence, we will meet every challenge and outpace every challenger.”

The rest of the document contained broad calls for actions with few specifics — not a surprise for an interim guidance, which is expected to be followed by a formal National Security Strategy, the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, as well as a series of topic specific reviews focused on nuclear weapons, missile defense and other capabilities.

But overall the document offers hints at how the Biden administration views the need to rely first on diplomacy. International relations is underlined several times.

“In advancing America’s interests globally, we will make smart and disciplined choices regarding our national defense and the responsible use of our military, while elevating diplomacy as our tool of first resort,” the report read.

“The United States will never hesitate to use force when required to defend our vital national interests. We will ensure our armed forces are equipped to deter our adversaries, defend our people, interests, and allies, and defeat threats that emerge. But the use of military force should be a last resort, not the first; diplomacy, development, and economic statecraft should be the leading instruments of American foreign policy.

Military policies

In a signal that open-ended conflicts to deter broad concepts such as terrorism are no longer a priority, the document added that “Military force should only be used when the objectives and mission are clear and achievable, when force is matched with appropriate resources and as part of an integrated strategy, when it is consistent with our values and laws, and with the informed consent of the American people.”

Later on, the document read that “The United States should not, and will not, engage in ‘forever wars’ that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. We will work to responsibly end America’s longest war in Afghanistan while ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorist attacks against the United States.”

Interestingly, the Biden document borrows a key phrase from the National Security Strategy of President Donald Trump – that “economic security is national security.” But while that was a clear overall theme of the Trump document, here it is lower in the document, as part of a broader section about the need to repair America at home in order to strengthen the nation.

Other items of note from the report include:

Defense budget: The document called for “clear priorities” within the defense budget, stating “we will assess the appropriate structure, capabilities, and sizing of the force, and, working with the Congress, shift our emphasis from unneeded legacy platforms and weapons systems to free up resources for investments in the cutting-edge technologies and capabilities that will determine our military and national security advantage in the future. We will streamline the processes for developing, testing, acquiring, deploying, and securing these technologies.”

Cybersecurity: Per the report, “we will make cybersecurity a top priority, strengthening our capability, readiness, and resilience in cyberspace. We will elevate cybersecurity as an imperative across the government. We will work together to manage and share risk, and we will encourage collaboration between the private sector and the government at all levels in order to build a safe and secure online environment for all Americans.”

In the wake of the Solarwinds hack, the report also notes that “we will hold actors accountable for destructive, disruptive, or otherwise destabilizing malicious cyber activity, and respond swiftly and proportionately to cyberattacks by imposing substantial costs through cyber and noncyber means.”

National security workforce: Statements appear throughout the document about the need to broaden the workforce in order to take full advantage of America’s talent base, notable given the focus from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on curbing sexual harassment and racism in the military, both issues which have been cast as causing a talent drain from those willing to serve.

But the document specifically called out creating new ways for talented individuals to enter service, saying the White House will “create new opportunities for non-career experts to serve our government for a finite period of time, and we will attract critical talent from the private sector on issues as diverse as climate change, global public health, emerging technologies, and China, and incentivize them to work in the federal government.”

Nuclear nonproliferation: The document stated that “Renewed American nonproliferation leadership will also be essential to reducing the dangers posed by nuclear weapons,” before mentioning that diplomacy will lead the way with North Korea and Iran, setting up a contrast to the policies of “maximum pressure” employed by the Trump administration.

More broadly, the Biden team promised to “head off costly arms races and re-establish our credibility as a leader in arms control,” starting with the extension of the New START treaty with Russia.

“Where possible, we will also pursue new arms control arrangements. We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective and that our extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible. And we will engage in meaningful dialogue with Russia and China on a range of emerging military technological developments that implicate strategic stability.”

A potential restructure: The authors indicated it may be time to rethink the traditional structures of the national security establishment.

“Because traditional distinctions between foreign and domestic policy – and among national security, economic security, health security, and environmental security – are less meaningful than ever before, we will reform and rethink our agencies, departments, interagency processes, and White House organization to reflect this new reality,” the document read. “We will ensure that individuals with expertise in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, economics and finance, and critical languages and regions are fully integrated into our decision-making.”