The Biden administration has made clear that its chief focus in the coming days and months will be, in some ways, to reverse the status quo that has defined the past 30 years of US engagement with the world. The administration has pledged to “build back better,” and create a “foreign policy for the middle class,” which means joining with others to address America’s “growing debt, rising poverty, deteriorating food security, and worsening gender-based violence,” and elevating diplomacy “as (a) tool of first resort.” But with near-record high levels of military spending, the administration’s topline budget, expected in the coming days, looks like more of the same.
Biden’s stated agenda is sweeping and necessary, but it won’t happen in a vacuum. The US Congress is deeply concerned about China and sees little solution to counter the threat beyond military force. If the administration hopes to sell Congress the type of structural change that will be necessary to follow through on its vision, it will first need to sell a new national narrative—one in which the type of “winning” it envisions is valued over brute measures.
Narratives are stories. For a nation, a viable narrative is crucial for reflecting the shared identity of a people and its institutions. At the grand strategic level, a useful narrative should capture the priorities, threat environment, and strategic pathways that are relevant as the nation seeks to navigate the international system. Most importantly, a grand strategic narrative should tell us who we are as a nation and what we want to be in the world. Some aspects of America’s grand strategic narrative are relatively fixed (“democracy,” “free markets”), while others change over time (“global policeman,” “no entangling alliances”). As America pivots from the global war on terror to one of great power competition, a purposeful narrative needs to be shaped. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) this cannot be accomplished by some “planning cell” in the Defense or State Departments. It will need to be an emergent property of changed policies, new debates, and messaging. The administration and various departments will need to shape and amplify this emerging narrative, but it needs to be real to be become reality.
Moving away from an outdated focus on military primacy—especially a military primacy built on legacy systems—to make room for a more balanced narrative that emphasizes allies and domestic investment as critical components of national security is a key part of this effort. Though the Biden administration already seems to be charting a course in this direction, it has struggled to define a narrative that truly breaks free from the nation’s status quo. Defining a clear path forward will be necessary not only to overcome partisan resistance to proposed policy, but to provide a shared understanding—from Main Street to Wall Street to Silicon Valley—of what the United States aspires to be.
America’s new narrative. America’s new grand strategic narrative will require three specific components: a reduced emphasis on military primacy, a nuanced approach toward allies, and an elevated domestic investment in human and physical capital in the realm of national security. Rebalancing this narrative will help the average citizen realize that America is powerful when it is healthy and productive—not only when it is amassing military hardware.
Current US foreign policy is rooted in military competition, and US national identity has followed suit. Conversations about grand strategy carry either an implicit or explicit assumption that the US capability to conduct unilateral military interventions anywhere around the globe is absolutely critical. These conversations ignore the fact that the US military primacy of the last three decades is purely by accident: Unipolarity was a dividend of the Cold War after all. But that “accident” has now turned into a mindset where the United States thinks it has a God-given right to remain on top, but one that is steadily slipping away under its feet. US failure to adapt to a world in which it is not the sole military superpower has left it struggling as warfare has moved away from the type of conventional operations in which US forces excel. Furthermore, confusing the quest to maintain military primacy with having a viable grand strategy plays right into US rivals’ hands. China probably breaks open a champagne bottle every time the United States announces a new aircraft carrier.
This narrative feeds—and is fed by—a failed defense acquisition system that prioritizes a handful of large defense firms that thrive on legacy platforms. Plowing more defense dollars into building and maintaining a force structure that looks very similar to those fielded in World War II (i.e., carrier groups, manned aircraft, tanks) will not serve and strengthen America’s defense preparedness for the coming decades. China isn’t interested in competing with the United States in matching legacy platforms. Instead, China has built a military ecosystem aimed at offsetting and crippling these cumbersome platforms. We need to free up the people, money, and energy to compete in this new era of warfare, rather than double down on 20th-century forces. In an era of rapidly changing technology, such investments constitute a hedge against rapid obsolescence of military weapons and platforms and represent a prudent grand strategic investment in the human and physical capital that will pay dividends for decades. And narrative can serve as a powerful tool to shift the emphasis off of these archaic symbols of power.
The second component of this narrative must offer an updated vision of our allies and partners—replacing a characterization as “burdens” and “free riders” with one that affirms US allies are valuable assets and reliable partners in a shared mission of maintaining the international system. This would involve the collective task of sorting through the fracturing liberal order and salvaging those aspects that are practicable and enjoy widespread support. It would also involve looking at ways to bolster technology transfer and defense preparedness of key partners as the United States seeks to reduce its military commitments overseas. Lastly, it would mean working to treat allies as true partners, rather than proxies or client states or simple “access and placement” for American military activity. If America’s allies clearly don’t want to participate in something, it is probably a sign it should reconsider the mission.
The transnational nature of today’s challenges makes it abundantly clear that America alone cannot be the world’s sole problem-solver, and that global military reach isn’t always helpful when trying to address modern problems. There is also an ongoing debate on whether America’s role as a global policeman—where it has a moral responsibility to uphold freedom and democracy around the world, maintain free shipping lanes and free trade agreements, sustain military coalitions, etc.—helps to maintain global peace and stability or is destabilizing and deeply entrenches America in a vicious cycle of endless conflict. What seems certain is that America’s security and national interests are better served when it leans on its partners. At the Munich Security Conference, President Joe Biden stated that the United States will be working in lockstep with allies and partners to meet a range of shared challenges, a move that is long overdue.
Finally, a US focus on over-militarization abroad has, to a great extent, contributed to neglect at home. The fractures in American society witnessed during the last several years demonstrate that American military primacy does not resolve domestic challenges and instead makes America weak and hollow from within. Professor Ganesh Sitaraman argues that in the coming decades, countries will face major disruptions in the form of global health crises, climate shocks, cyberattacks, and geoeconomic competition among great powers. An overt focus on the idea of military primacy subtracts from addressing fragilities and weaknesses that undermine America’s democratic and societal fabric from within—and its ability to tackle modern challenges.
How to create a new American narrative. In its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, the Biden administration attaches high priority to the threat of climate change and directly links the climate change challenge to the health and economic security of the planet. To adapt and mitigate the risks of climate change, the document points to the need to build climate-friendly infrastructure, increase federal procurement of critical clean energy technologies, and modernize the energy grid. Strengthening the health care system in America and around the world in order to hedge and prevent against future pandemics also features prominently. And the administration has already issued an Executive Order providing a roadmap to build and ensure that American supply chains are diverse, secure, and resilient in an effort to help rebuild American domestic manufacturing capacity, create well-paying jobs, support small businesses, and foster cooperative economic prosperity with allies.
Equally investing in these pillars enables America’s “winning” in a manner consistent with a newly balanced American self-conceptualization. But beyond simply stating that “America is back,” the Biden administration needs a comprehensive plan to present this new national narrative. Pitching smart investment in human and physical capital as a national security priority may help to ease some partisan tensions that divide the left and the right. De-linking obsolete metrics (such as relative numbers of military platforms) from discussions of security, and instead investing in a newly conceived method of “net assessment” can shape debates around force structure. Explaining to the public precisely how alliances and international institutions contribute to (rather than hinder) American interests is equally critical. Finally, encouraging civil discourse in all fora around what America is, and aspires to be, will be critical.
The Biden administration can chart a new course for the future—it can “build back better.” But it will not do that by sticking to the status quo.
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