The Biden administration’s long-awaited National Security Strategy (NSS) was released this week to mixed reviews. On one level, it reads like a continuation of the Trump strategy of focusing on great power competition as the guiding principle for US engagement with the rest of the world, backstopped by “the strongest military in the world.” But to the administration’s credit, the strategy document also references addressing non-military challenges and promoting cooperation with allies and adversaries alike as integral components of any plan to promote US and global security in the decades to come.
It’s almost as if the NSS is two separate documents mashed together — one focused on traditional military threats (and threat inflation) and another on non-military risks like climate change, which the strategy describes as “the existential challenge of our time.” But there is no recognition of the fact that pursuing genuine cooperation will require scaling back plans premised on dominance and confrontation.
In addition to the focus on climate change, other positive elements of the NSS — issues that were largely ignored or even ridiculed during the Trump years — include pledges to invest in preventing pandemics; reducing global inequality; addressing the divisions that are threatening the future of American democracy, and helping to foster economic development in countries that are struggling to meet the needs of their people. The question is whether these problems will attract the kind of resources and attention currently being lavished on military tools of influence.
SETTING THE STAGE FOR A HIGHER DEFENSE BUDGET
The NSS is being released against the backdrop of one of the sharpest increases in Pentagon spending in history, spurred in part by hefty budgetary requests by the Biden administration and in part by congressional efforts to add tens of billions of dollars in military spending beyond what the Pentagon has even asked for. The result is a potential “national security” budget of roughly $850 billion for the fiscal year 2023, mostly for spending on the Pentagon and work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy.
It’s almost as if the NSS is two separate documents mashed together — one focused on traditional military threats (and threat inflation) and another on non-military risks like climate change.
A broader definition of military and related spending that includes outlays for things like veterans’ benefits, intelligence, homeland security, and military aid pushes that figure to more than $1.4 trillion — the full costs of sustaining the national security state. And the $850 billion figure alone is substantially higher than US spending for these purposes during the height of the Korean or Vietnam Wars or the height of the Cold War. Moreover, there is no indication in the new NSS that these expenditures will be reduced any time soon. In fact, the breadth of its military ambitions sets the table for further increases.
The NSS also gives lip service to the need for nuclear arms control in the face of new nuclear realities, not least of which is President Vladimir Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. But there is no discussion of how nuclear reductions or stricter rules of the road on nuclear weapons development and potential use will be pursued. In fact, at a time when organizations like Global Zero have sketched out a way to substantially reduce the US nuclear arsenal while still dissuading any nation from attacking the United States, the administration is going full-speed ahead with a nuclear modernization plan that could cost up to $2 trillion over the next decade. This is a recipe for nuclear arms racing, not nuclear arms control.
FAILING TO CHOOSE
A defense budget that seeks to win a military and economic competition with China; confronts potential military challenges with Russia; persists in fighting a global war on terror; and continues the Pentagon’s costly plan to build a new generation of nuclear weapons will hobble any efforts to address non-military challenges that pose a greater threat to the lives and livelihoods of people in the United States — and around the world — than any traditional military threat.
In his 1967 speech against the Vietnam War, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that “we have a choice today — non-violent co-existence or violent co-annihilation.” Today, the range of threats to humanity are more complex but no less dangerous. Addressing them requires not only a new vision of what makes us safe but a commitment to devote the resources needed to make it a reality. Unfortunately, the new Biden administration security strategy fails that test by not setting clear priorities between preparing for military confrontation and promoting urgently needed international cooperation.
William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.