After a months-long delay because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the White House finally issued its National Security Strategy (NSS) on Oct. 12, 2022. The reaction of the pundit class has been mixed and not necessarily along partisan lines. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to find charitable and critical opinions about it on both the left and the right in Washington.
What few have acknowledged, however, is that this entire NSS changes nothing about US grand strategy or how it relates to the world. It has rhetorical elements that any sane person concerned with “national security” should cheer about. For example, it mentions environmental degradation (or its synonyms) more than 60 times. It disavows regime change by military force on pg. 42. And it elevates the transnational security issues to be on par with the traditional great-power preoccupation.
Then there are more controversial rhetorical changes. It claims to center alliances — which for the pundit class is as American as apple pie. But some of those “allies” are kleptocratic or oppressive regimes unworthy of our weapons, let alone our security commitments. For example, US allies include Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Philippines, Hungary, and Turkey.
If anything, Biden’s NSS brings back the Clinton-era practice of talking like a liberal about an agenda that works primarily for conservative elites and defense contractors.
The NSS also breaks from the tradition of first identifying national interests, then identifying threats to those interests that the strategy must deal with. On one level, this seems refreshing because strategy needs to have a broader horizon and a more worthy national purpose than simply smiting named enemies at all costs. On another level, the near “threat” that the NSS stresses more than any other is the threat posed to the intangible “rules-based order.” The language of “national interests” is problematic, but so is replacing it with a vague, unmeasurable, and highly contestable concept that is securitized to justify anything and everything.
Most notably, the NSS sounds like a critical note on globalization, taking an implicitly anti-neoliberal stance on economic policy. But the reason for that shift is national security Keynesianism, pure and simple. The Biden administration’s most progressive minds want to wield the economy as a weapon in rivalry with China and, to a lesser extent Russia. Neoliberalism is a blight on democracy, so you’d think moving away from it would be cheer-worthy. But they’ve managed to do so in a way that has nothing to do with global debt sustainability, reducing global economic precarity, improving labor rights anywhere, or fighting kleptocracy.
WHAT IS THE NSS SIGNALING?
Then there are the contradictions. In my newsletter and on Twitter, I’ve complained with acid tongue why this NSS is full of unsustainable contradictions. But, frankly, I don’t see how anybody could claim otherwise. And that’s a problem because strategy documents are supposed to tell a story that leads to prioritizing or concentrating resources in some particular way.
But the story in this strategy is an incoherent jumble of rhetorical references that at once signal idealism, pragmatism, and outright conservatism. It’s all just word salad nonsense if the document contradicts itself. National Security Adviser Jake Sulivan gave the NSS rollout briefing where he acknowledged multiple times that the strategy had “tensions.” Kudos for the attempted transparency — and frankly, such an admission is itself novel — but “tensions” vastly undersell what are just contradictions.
Ultimately, these shifts of rhetorical emphasis — whether good, controversial, or contradictory — simply put liberal aspirational lipstick on an American primacist pig. Suppose you go back and look at the NSS documents from the Bill Clinton years. In that case, you find a crucial resemblance to what we see now: The importance of transnational and human-security type challenges, lots of emphasis on democracy, but all of it amounts to a way of legitimizing military primacy.
No matter what the strategy says, we have to ask if it’s going to shift the United States into a new grand strategy or defense paradigm. It does not. If anything, Biden’s NSS brings back the Clinton-era practice of talking like a liberal about an agenda that works primarily for conservative elites and defense contractors. As John Carl Baker quipped, “the Pentagon budget will tell you more about US strategy (or lack thereof) than any administration document.” At $850 billion, Baker is right.
Van Jackson is a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington, host of The Un-Diplomatic Podcast, and author of the forthcoming Pacific Power Paradox: American Statecraft and the Fate of the Asian Peace.