Strategy is the “guiding lifeline” for approaching monster challenges. To deliver a strategy that fits the challenges of the modern era, the Biden team will have to answer some questions. Their answers will tell us a lot about how well this team is equipped to deal with the trials of great power competition.
Strategy is about making hard, decisive choices on how to handle major, complex problems. As problems change, so must strategies. Often, that requires doing something dramatically different. At the onset of World War II, the United States ranked twentieth as a military power. The decision was taken to gear up to fight a global conflict and win by forcing the unconditional surrender of all Axis powers. That was a radical change in U.S. strategy.
Post-modern government strategies have been more milquetoast than muscle (though to be fair Trump’s was remarkably decisive). The strategists seem to proceed by compiling a list of stuff they are already doing, then tossing in some aspirational goals they have no hope of delivering on.
Real strategies are born of hard choices. They must articulate ends (what the strategy will deliver), ways (how they achieve their goals) and means (what resources they will put to the task). If the formulas for victory are suitable (would achieve desired outcomes), feasible (can be accomplished) and acceptable (the will is there to follow through), then at least there is a blueprint for getting it right.
Strategy for Our Times
Whether stated or not, the Biden administration’s national security strategy will be framed by the challenges posed by several great powers. The United States has now had four consecutive presidents who have consistently identified China, Russia, Iran and North Korea as top concerns. True, they have dealt with them differently. True, they each have also had other items on their list. Nevertheless, their assessments constitute the most consistent threat perception the United States has had since the end of the Cold War. This reflects strong bipartisan orthodoxy that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.
The great-power framework also makes sense. Together, these nations represent worldwide challenges on the scale of the global reach of the Soviet Union. Further, each, in their own way, has the capacity to threaten the peace, prosperity and stability of regions vitally important to Washington.
Like it, or not, President Joe Biden’s strategy ought to be measured against how effective it is in an era of great-power competition. Here are three top questions the Biden team will have to address. How fully they map out ends, ways, and means—and how suitable, feasible and acceptable their solutions are—will go a long way toward telling if they have delivered a strategy able to keep America safe, free and prosperous.
How to Handle Economic Relations with China?
Washington must break free of the notion that it must go easy on addressing our political, military, security, and diplomatic differences with China for fear of damaging economic ties. This kind of deliberate self-censorship is self-weakening, deterring the United States from protecting its own interests, advancing China’s policies at America’s expense. Many nations are doing Beijing’s bidding out of fear they will lose business and market access. As a result, their China policies are often muddled, incoherent and, in the long term, self-defeating.
Australia, however, has set an example for the free world. Canberra stopped worrying about offending China and put its own vital national interests. The United States should do the same thing.
The upcoming Olympics in Beijing are a case in point. Commercial broadcast rights and sponsorships aside, holding the games in China while Beijing continues its ongoing genocide against the Uyghurs is intolerable. The United States ought to lead an effort to move the games. On the other hand, battling back on China should not become an excuse for all kinds of economic mischief and spending that has nothing to do with pushing back on China. U.S. policies to counter China should be appropriately scoped and efficacious.
How to Do Battle in the Gray Zones?
China, Russia, Iran and North Korea all have something in common. None wants to fight a war with the United States (though none would mind if one or more of the others did). They all want to win without fighting. Thus, they all look for times, places and ways to indirectly challenge and undermine U.S. influence.
Indirect ways of draining American power range from propaganda to proxy wars. These are often called “gray zone” operations. To win great-power competition, the United States will need to decide which of these operations really matter and then deal with them in a manner that leaves the United States in a better competitive position afterward.
One area where the United States will have to do way better is in the Atlantic region. Washington isn’t used to this being a competitive space—at least not since the Navy sank the last U-boat in 1945. China, however, is meddling across the Atlantic region from the Arctic to the Antarctic from the heart of Africa to Central America. Washington needs a holistic plan to deal with this, a bookend to U.S. efforts to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
How to Balance Hard- and Soft Power?
One does not substitute hard power for soft power or vice versa. These elements of national power are not fungible. There is no formula for how many diplomats can replace a division. Further, many of these instruments are not well suited for dealing with modern great-power competition. Traditional tools of public diplomacy and foreign assistance match up poorly against China’s sharp power.
Whether Biden’s team can deliver satisfactory answers to these three questions will tell the country a lot about how well they will prepare America to compete for the long term.
A Heritage Foundation vice president, James Jay Carafano directs the think tank’s research on matters of national security and foreign relations.