President Biden delivered an admirable speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, condemning Russia’s war and saying that the United States will continue its support for Ukraine. “We chose freedom. We chose sovereignty,” he said enthusiastically. “We were on the side of Ukraine.” In the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s recent nuclear threat and the call for reservists, it was reassuring for the leader of the free world to be inflexible.
Rhetoric aside, the administration has signaled many other ways that Mr. Putin’s threats have limited support for Ukraine. Mr Biden’s foreign policy team talks about putting safeguards in place in the conflict and welcomes their slow increase in aid not provoking Mr Putin. Government officials have told reporters they have been sending private warnings to Russians for months about nuclear use, but the president himself appears anxious publicly, repeatedly saying, “We are trying to avoid World War III. world”. We let Russian threats determine our actions, which encourages Russia and others to test our resolve.
The problem is even bigger than it seems. Twenty months into the administration, there is no public national security strategy. This makes it difficult for Congress to align spending with strategy, and difficult for allies to align their policies to support ours. All the downstream strategic directives, including the national defense strategy and the national military strategy, are hostage to the delays of the national security strategy. Even within the administration, there are no binding guidelines, to take a recent example, preventing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, from opposing the administration to cancel a new nuclear cruise missile (which Congress supported over White House objections).
The Biden White House can argue that surprises such as China’s nuclear weapons breakthrough and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have necessitated major revisions to US strategy. A good strategy protects against such uncertainties, so it is the weakness of the Biden administration’s strategy and lack of foresight — not the events that derailed it — that are to blame.
The gap between what the administration claims as foreign policy goals and what it is actually willing to do is a serious problem for American security, for Russia and beyond. In mid-September, President Biden declared for the fourth time that if China invaded Taiwan, the United States would send troops to defend it. And, for the fourth time, administration officials have asserted that this obvious change in policy does not represent any change in policy.
The Biden administration’s messaging botches are bad enough. But even worse, the real capability gaps call into question the ability of the United States to defend Taiwan. Ships, troop numbers, aircraft and missile defenses in the Pacific do not match China’s capabilities. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has assessed the threat to Taiwan by 2030 as “acute”, but the defense budget is not adequate to improve capabilities until the mid-2030s More broadly, the Biden administration is not funding a US military capable of carrying out our defense commitments, a dangerous posture for a great power. The Democratic-led Congress added $29 billion last year and $45 billion this year to the Defense Department’s budget request, a measure of Biden’s budget shortfall.
Also, although the Department of Defense knows the industry needs multi-year contracts to keep production lines open, Biden’s defense budget is long on research and development, short on weapons purchases. and ammunition. Our deliveries to Ukraine revealed unacceptable shortages of ammunition in US stocks and an industrial inability to resupply.
Deficiencies are not only military either. In fact, the absence of an international economic policy that helps the United States and other countries reduce their dependence on China could prove an even bigger problem. Although its strategy is fundamentally based on allied support to counter China, the Biden administration’s “middle-class foreign policy,” as described on the campaign trail and by the national security adviser, seems be indistinguishable from the trade protectionism of the Trump administration. The current administration has allowed Congress’s trade promotion authority to expire, will not join the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, has cheated Asian allies with the Cut Inflation Act protectionism, and offers only vague promises of future negotiations. This is not the recipe for success.
Nor are these the only gaps between stated policy and the will and ability to implement the policy. The administration seems to lack an effective strategy for the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea beyond empty statements that we will not allow North Korea to have nuclear weapons, although experts believe Pyongyang’s leaders could have dozens. Or look at Iran, where the administration has pursued a strategy known as “more for more” – more sanctions relief for more restraint on Iran’s nuclear program – and yet it can’t even get a back to Iran’s 2015 terms. Moreover, war with Iran is surely a no-start for a president who has abandoned Afghanistan, and is effectively indifferent to the fate of Iraq and Syria.
Speaking with Ukrainians in Kyiv in mid-September, it was striking how much better they are at strategy than the Biden administration. They understand – and relentlessly convey from all departments – that their success rests on Western support and that the West has both a moral and geopolitical interest in what Ukraine wins. President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that he was under pressure from some Western governments to obtain concessions to make negotiations possible, and reversed the situation: “We rather set the conditions to make negotiations possible”, m he said, a sharp but diplomatic shift to protect Ukraine. against the failure of Western resolution. The military, economic and foreign policy lines of Ukraine’s strategy are mutually reinforcing, giving greater strength to each. This is what a government strategy looks like in execution.
Analyzing Russian strategy, in Foreign Affairs, Liana Fix, a historian and political scientist, and Michael Kimmage of the Catholic University recently concluded that Russia’s failure stemmed from “the combination of extravagant political goals in Ukraine with lean and inefficiently mobilized”. As tempting as it is to marvel at Russia’s strategic incompetence, we should worry that Russia’s serious shortcomings also haunt our own national security strategy. We risk making the same mistakes as Vladimir Putin, overestimating our military power, blocking essential international cooperation with our economic policies, and believing our own statements despite our actions that undermine them.
The New York Times