Biden Setting Stage for Foreign Policy

The Biden administration’s foreign and national security policy has come into sharper focus over the past two weeks. First, in an unusual step, the administration issued an interim National Security Strategy Guidance document. Typically, a new administration takes close to a year to issue the Congressionally-mandated national security document with no interim document preceding it. Second, senior Biden administration national security officials – the Secretaries of State and Defense and the National Security Advisor – all had virtual or face-to-face meetings with their counterparts in key Asian countries: Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea. Third, various press outlets have reported on internal Biden administration discussions regarding the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after a May 1 deadline set for withdrawal by the Trump administration.

The interim guidance, like final documents of this sort, is largely about signaling intent and pulling together themes that attempt to tie disparate policies together. The document is clear in setting out priorities as well as broad ways in which those priorities will be pursued. In terms of continuity with the Trump administration, the new guidance emphasizes the strategic challenges from China and, to a significantly lesser degree, Russia. The differences are in how those interests will be pursued – through multilateral approaches working with traditional allies and partners. In addition, the interim strategy guidance emphasizes the need for domestic rebuilding – economic, political, and civic – as key to having sufficient national strength to address these international challenges. In another difference, functional challenges such as climate change and cyberspace are elevated to the same importance as those posed by specific states or traditional military challenges. While more detail will emerge as the administration submits its budget requests to Congress, the interim document does calls for increased military force posture in the Indo-Pacific and Europe to counter China and Russia. Given limited resources, such an increase implies a decrease in other areas – particularly in U.S. deployments in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

However, such a reduction in military deployments may prove difficult in political and military terms. Press reports indicate that the Biden administration is considering extending the stay of U.S. forces in Afghanistan for at least another year past the May 1 deadline. While this may not seem to be a significant commitment of resources, 2,500 troops typically means three times that number for purposes of preparation and rotation plus offshore support from Navy and Air Force units and logistical support. One report put the one-year extension cost at $40 billion. In addition, key partners in the Middle East will want the United States to retain the current level of forces, or even increase them, if Washington is able to come to agreement with Iran about both countries returning to the nuclear accord. While such an agreement would reduce near-term nuclear weapons possibilities for Iran, regional states would view it as a financial boon for Tehran that would allow Iran to increase and improve its conventional, missile, and unconventional warfare capabilities. They would want U.S. forces to stay steady or increase in the region to counter this potential Iranian growth.

Biden administration senior officials’ choices of travel and early high-level meetings reinforced the emphasis on the pacing threat of China and the importance of the Indo-Pacific region. Biden administration officials pushed back rhetorically in meetings with Chinese counterparts, showing Beijing and potential U.S. critics that it was prepared to be firm with China. Other meetings with key allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific -- particularly the Quad (U.S., Japan, India, and Australia) were a clear signal of how Washington would be working with allies and partners to balance China.

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