Biden knows there are limits on American power, but they’re nowhere to be found in his first major security strategy

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Joe Biden Lockheed Martin Javelin
President Joe Biden at a Lockheed Martin facility that makes weapons such as Javelin anti-tank missiles, in Alabama on May 3.

  • This month, the Biden administration released its long-delayed National Security Strategy.
  • Biden has shown he’s aware of the limits of American power, but that awareness is absent from the NSS.
  • Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities.

The Biden administration released its delayed National Security Strategy (NSS) this month.

The NSS, to be followed by a National Defense Strategy and a National Military Strategy, is the first holistic strategy document from the administration since its initial Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, issued two months after the president’s inauguration in January 2021.

The new NSS covers a laundry list of challenges, threats, and responses in its 48 unclassified pages. This “Christmas tree” approach is perhaps inevitable in a public-facing national security document from a superpower.

In language befitting an inaugural address or a campaign debate, the NSS declares of America: “There is nothing beyond our capacity.” This language could be quickly dismissed as boilerplate but for the fact that the entire NSS is suffused with an inability to accept the clear and growing limits to American power.

The brief moment of post-Cold War American hyperpower is long gone, a victim of both natural power dynamics and three decades of incessant American foreign policy hubris and error. But most of the principals who signed off on the NSS were beginning their rise up the Washington national security totem pole during the blissful ’90s, and the new strategy only intermittently recognizes how different the world is today.

putin xi
Russian President Vladimir Putin with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In Europe, the United States has ensured Ukrainian independence through a highly successful arming and advising campaign, but with the specter of nuclear escalation limiting America’s role in the conflict. In Asia, an influential recent war game found that even a successful American defense of Taiwan against China would lead to enormous losses of ships and planes.

Six months before the assault on Ukraine began, the Biden administration admitted the limits of American power in another land that defeated Russian invaders: Afghanistan.

Biden’s final withdrawal from America’s longest foreign war, against the counsel of most of his advisors, was a long-overdue admission of reality. Despite throwing $2.3 trillion and as many as 100,000 American troops at the problem, the US was unable to achieve more than transitory tactical success in Afghanistan, never mind reshaping Afghan society or destroying the Taliban.

The overnight Taliban victory, with the insurgents taking Kabul before the US withdrawal could even be completed, was proof of how little America accomplished in its nearly 20-year intervention. Biden is clearly able to recognize limits to American power in practice, but not, somehow, in principle or on paper.

The NSS was rewritten as a result of the Ukraine war, delaying its publication by months. But the war’s central revelation — that Russia’s military is a paper tiger, bereft of both operational competence and sufficient soldiers — also left no meaningful imprint on the document. Not since the hyperpower ’90s has there been a better opportunity to return European security to Europeans.

The Russian armed forces have suffered losses that may take a decade to recover from, while NATO is tighter than before and soon to be larger, with the addition of the highly capable Finnish and Swedish militaries. But the NSS instead pledges that America will “step up our own sizable contributions to NATO capabilities and readiness” while also expecting NATO allies to “continue assuming greater responsibility by increasing their spending, capabilities, and contributions.”

Why European allies would choose to share more of the burden of collective defense in the face of both Russian defeat and American reinforcement is unasked and unanswered.

Army Asymmetric Warfare Group man-portable line charge Afghanistan
US troops during an exercise near Forward Operating Base Zangabad in Afghanistan in October 2013.

Though it is buried at the bottom of a paragraph a few pages in, the new strategy does make one meaningful, belated concession: The Biden administration does not “believe that governments and societies everywhere must be remade in America’s image for us to be secure.”

Regime change, for decades one of America’s most harmful foreign policy inclinations, is officially abjured in the 2022 NSS. Somewhere in the recesses of the Kremlin, one hopes that Vladimir Putin is listening.

The saving grace of the National Security Strategy may be its meaninglessness. Rightly likened by some to a party platform, assembled with all interests in mind but constraining few who matter, the NSS may be of limited consequence to the actual direction of American grand strategy.

An old Washington truism instructs: “Show me your budget and I’ll tell you your strategy.” To date, the Biden defense budgets have been business as usual: steadily growing, slowly modernizing, unwilling to make hard choices about service shares or regional priorities.

But the recent investments in broader American production, infrastructure, and intellectual capital are real and potentially game-changing: a major, unexpected shot in the arm to green energy; an initial stab at upgrading America’s embarrassing digital infrastructure; and a critical effort to strangle China’s semiconductor industry. Deeds matter far more than words.

The Biden administration’s actual emerging national security strategy could be far better than the document lets on.

Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities.

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