On 12 October 2022, the administration of United States President Joe Biden finally released its long-awaited and much anticipated National Security Strategy (NSS).
Traditionally, presidents have released their NSS in their first year of office, but Biden’s strategy was delayed for a variety of reasons — most pressing of which were the international implications of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
The fact that it was released some 18 months after his inauguration meant that the strategy merely confirmed policies already in place and being practiced.
Having said that, the official release of the strategy confirmed the reversal of the priorities of the Trump administration — especially concerning Iran, North Korea, Nato, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and others.
This article focuses on Biden’s strategy in the Middle East.
However, to fully understand the administration’s policy in the region, it is useful to put it in a geopolitical context. It is also important to take into account Washington’s relationships with its main competitors and adversaries — Russia and China.
The NSS is essentially a strategy that seeks to secure US national interests, which are basically domestic, in an external environment that is usually unpredictable, shifting, mostly inhospitable and sometimes hostile.
Every administration has a multifaceted strategy. However, it is mainly about US leadership in the world and how to preserve it and spread American values of freedom and democracy — sending a message to allies and adversaries alike.
All the strategies reflect, in one way or the other, two dominant features that shape American foreign policy: idealism and realism and the tension between them. The Republican administration’s accent is on realism, whereas Democratic ones tend to be more idealistic.
All strategies are influenced by both the domestic situation in the US and the prevailing international environment. In fact, they seek to shape the external environment to improve the circumstances of the American citizen.
The US has issued NSS updates since 1987, in compliance with a Congressional act.
Initially, they came at intervals of one or two years until 2002. However, since 2006, the frequency was reduced to one per term in office. All in all, there are now 18 strategies covering six presidents, including the latest one.
President George W. Bush’s strategy was known for introducing the pre-emption doctrine that contributed to his administration’s justification for the invasion of Iraq. It also paved the way for the War on Terror that outlasted his presidency and cast a dark shadow on successive ones.
President Barack Obama’s strategy — true to the idealistic streak of democratic administrations — aspired to move the world away from nuclear weapons, but also sought an expansion of American soft power to conquer disease and global poverty.
President Donald Trump’s strategy was aptly labelled as “America First”, indicating that the US would pursue its national interests with little regard for its allies and partners. It declared that the era of counterterrorism was being replaced by a revival of superpower competition against what it called “revisionist” powers.
All NSS strategies emphasise that the US shares the international arena with allies, partners, competitors and adversaries. While they articulate global policies, they also adapt them to specific regions of special importance to the US.
Allies and adversaries
US allies have been the same for decades — essentially those who Washington believes share the values underpinning freedom and democracy. These allies are mostly in Europe and around the Pacific rim.
The main adversaries and competitors of the US — depending on the time the NSS was issued — have consistently been the former Soviet Union, then Russia and China.
Not surprisingly, the first NSS issued by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 was very critical of the USSR. Only a year later, in acknowledgement of the reforms undertaken by Soviet leader Gorbachev, the 1988 strategy reflected the shift in the US attitude towards Moscow.
The shift continued under President George Bush who served one term in office but issued three strategies — in 1990, 1991 and 1993 — to cover the historic moment of the demise of the Soviet Union and its implications for the international system.
By 1994, under President Bill Clinton, Russia became a partner. Then it gradually started to lose favour after the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, which was reflected in Obama’s 2015 strategy.
The 2022 Biden strategy describes Russia as “declining and battered” and says that it “poses an immediate and ongoing threat to the regional security order in Europe and a source of disruption and instability globally.”
Likewise, the US attitude to China underwent a gradual change in recognition of its growing global stature and importance. It was described in the 2010 Obama strategy as merely a “centre of influence”.
By 2015, the scope of US cooperation with China was “unprecedented” and by the time of Trump’s strategy in 2017 it was presented as “a challenge to American power, influence, and interests”. In Biden’s NSS, China was ultimately the major competitor.
As for the regions that are the main priorities for the US, they have not changed much. It is always Europe and East Asia (later the Indo-Pacific). The Middle East always features, but towards the tail end.
The exception came during the heyday of President George W. Bush’s presidency between 2001 and 2009 and its “War on Terror”, which emphasised the importance of the region.
President Biden’s strategy, unlike previous ones, delves into the workings of American democracy. It sees the world as more divided and unstable. But more importantly, it recognises that although the international environment has become more contested, the US remains the world’s leading power.
The usual tension between idealism and realism is reflected in the dilemma of preserving US leadership while having to acknowledge its diminishing capacity to influence the external environment.
It posits that the contested international environment, or geopolitical competition, is reflected in two strategic intertwined challenges.
The first is a competition between the major powers — democracies on the one side and autocracies on the other — to shape the future international system.
The second is that there are shared challenges that cross borders: climate change, food insecurity, communicable diseases, terrorism, energy shortages, and inflation.
The implementation of Biden’s strategy is based on seven pillars:
1) for the US there is no dividing line between foreign policy and domestic policy
2) alliances and partnerships are the most important strategic asset
3) China presents the most consequential geopolitical challenge
4) smaller autocratic powers such as Iran and North Korea act in aggressive and destabilising ways
5) engagement with countries on their own terms
6) globalisation needs an adjustment
7) international institutions, including the United Nations, need to be modernised and strengthened.
Turning to the main competitors of the US — China and Russia — the strategy recognises that while they are increasingly aligned, they pose different challenges. The strategy stipulates that it “will prioritise maintaining an enduring competitive edge over China while constraining a still profoundly dangerous Russia.”
Although the strategy views Russia’s soft power and diplomatic influence as having waned, it maintains that Moscow poses an immediate and ongoing threat to the regional security order in Europe and a source of disruption and instability globally.