The U.S. National Security Strategy: Flavors of Liberalism & Strategic Competition

A new global security environment

For the first time, the Strategy claims that the post-Cold War world order is coming to an end, while great-power competition and global security issues will shape the new order. Specifically, the U.S. identifies the next decade as one of competition between two factions: democratic and authoritarian. While Russia was considered an “immediate threat” because of the war in Ukraine, China is the “most consequential geopolitical challenge”. Such competition will make cooperation to solve climate change, disease, energy/food crises or terrorism more difficult.

However, the U.S. is still the leading country and is most well-positioned to deal with these challenges. The Strategy affirms that the U.S. has outstanding strength in all aspects and a broad network of allies and partners, and is supported by countries on every continent. Meanwhile, the power of China and Russia still possesses its own limits. The war in Ukraine has revealed Russia’s weaknesses, while China will be shunned by its neighboring countries.

In this context, the U.S. needs to safeguard three national interests: to protect the security of the American people; to expand economic prosperity; and to defend democratic values, which are relatively “traditional” and long-term interests of the U.S. Once maintained, they will contribute towards the common goal of free, open, prosperous, and secure world order.

To achieve these goals, the Strategy sets out different sets of actions. First, the Biden administration will invest in American internal strength to maintain its competition edges, especially in areas such as industry - innovation, human capital and democracy, instead of focusing solely on trade and tariffs like in the Trump era.

Second, through diplomatic means, the Biden administration will build the “strongest possible” network through “innovative” groupings such as NATO, AUKUS or QUAD, as well as inclusive initiatives such as IPEF or PGII, rather than broadcast the “American First” mentality as before.

Third, the U.S. will strengthen its military might, focusing on nuclear deterrence and integrated deterrence. “Integrated deterrence” is a new concept, introduced by the Biden administration in June 2021, and has now been explained on multiple occasions, with its meaning being broadened each time.

Populism or Liberalism inclination? 

Numerous schools in the field of international security co-exist, with the most prominent being the “traditional view”, the “broad view” and the “human-security” approach. Compared to Trump-era national security strategy, the new document’s approach is more inclined toward human security, in which people are considered the main referent object of security, instead of the state.

In fact, the 2017 Strategy already shows signs of this trend. For the first time, the U.S. considers economic security an element of national security, as well as emphasizes that there must be security for the American people.

The 2022 Strategy is a new development, as it used the phrase “American people” 16 times (the Obama-era Strategy[1] used this phrase 4 times), although not always relevant (for example, strengthening democracy or sending troops aboard are also “for the American people”).

The new Strategy also elevates global issues to “strategic” status for the first time, as well as favoring disadvantaged groups such as women, immigrants, LGBTQI+, working class or the poor. People-to-people diplomacy is also mentioned in addition to state diplomacy. This trend may be the consequence of the influence of the radical and populist factions in U.S. politics.

In addition, if the 2017 Strategy stresses that the U.S. was pursuing “principled realism”, putting international relations in a gain-and-lose calculation while promoting cooperation in a pragmatic and somewhat “transactional” way, the 2022 Strategy leans more towards liberalism. For example, the former focused on “power” but didn't mention the “rules-based” order, while the latter brings the concept back (8 times).

Multilateralism is also described in a more positive light than in the Trump era: the Strategy no longer ties NATO to the “responsibility” of burden-sharing with the U.S; no longer calls to reform the United Nations, no longer considers international institutions as inefficient, not serving the U.S. interests like in the Trump era. In contrast, the 2022 Strategy appreciates the value of its allies and partners, of “open” alliance and multilateral embodiments such as ASEAN, AUKUS, PGII or IPEF.

Still deep in strategic rivalry?

Liberal on global issues, the Strategy adopts a more Realist approach to China. The overriding theme of the Strategy is the U.S.-China competition. The Strategy expanded the level of competition, reflected in the way competitors are defined, and the scope and method of competition.

On competitors, the 2022 Strategy does not put Russia and China on the same level as the 2017 one. Amid the war in Ukraine, some observers have expressed their concerns that the U.S. may shift its global focus from the Indo-Pacific. However, the Strategy dismisses this concern. It assesses that Russia does not have the comprehensive power and intention to challenge and reshape the international order as China does.

On the scope of competition, the Strategy elevates U.S.-China competition from the Pacific region to the global scale. The Strategy prioritizes areas where China is seeking to enhance influence - such as Pacific Islands countries - more than ever. (China in 2022 signed a security agreement with the Solomon Islands and sought security-economic deals with other Pacific countries, as well as successfully persuading many to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China).

For the first time, the Strategy devotes separate sections to the Arctic and to Sea, Air and Space domains, with the aim to develop new “rules of the road” here, possibly because these are where China is seeking to enhance its presence and where international legal regimes have not been clearly developed.

As for the South China Sea, this is the first time the U.S. mentions what they will do in the area in an NSS, namely “to affirm freedom of the seas and build shared regional support for open access to the South China Sea—a throughway for nearly two-thirds of global maritime trade and a quarter of all global trade”. The two Bush-era strategies (released in 2002[2] and 2006[3]) and the first Obama’s strategy (2010[4]) do not mention the South China Sea. The second Obama’s strategy (2015[5]) and Trump’s version (2017[6]) mention it but only as part of a larger international context.

However, how the U.S. will compete with China is still unclear. There is internal consensus in the US on the goal of competing with China, but U.S. politicians still disagree on how to implement it. Some criticize that as the Strategy raises global issues to the “strategic” level, the U.S. will be forced to enhance cooperation with China. On the other hand, there is also an opinion that the power gap between the US and China is getting smaller and smaller, and the U.S. cannot cope with two nuclear-armed competitors at the same time[7]. Therefore, big power competition will not be an easy game to play for Washington.

Moreover, U.S. initiatives in the region still encounter constraints. The IPEF does not provide opportunities to access the U.S. market for its members. The “Chip 4 alliance” hasn’t been supported by all Japanese and South Korean tech companies. AUKUS is also under scrutiny by regional countries, as the pact can be seen as possibly inciting an arms race and violating international law.

At the same time, we should note that the Strategy is not all about competition. It also sends some positive signals about cooperation with China: Washington appreciates China’s new position in the global order, affirming that the two countries “is possible to coexist peacefully” and can work together to address issues of mutual interest such as climate change. Some even interpret that the NSS has tacitly acknowledged China’s new position in the world order by saying that China has created an enhanced sphere of influence around it[8].

By and large, the new National Security Strategy outlines the new global environment from the Biden administration’s perspective, putting more emphasis on strategic great-power competition and non-military security issues, while still embodying liberalism and populism. Although not directly mentioned, Vietnam is still indirectly involved in all of these issues, hence our need to closely monitor the Strategy’s implementation process in the years to come.

Hoang Do (Twitter: @hoangdo_m) and Viet Ha

The article only reflects the author’s views.