President Biden at the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate in April 2021, with Secretary Kerry and Secretary Blinken. CREDIT: The White House/Public Domain.

President Biden at the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate in April 2021, with Secretary Kerry and Secretary Blinken. CREDIT: The White House/Public Domain.

Biden's National Security Strategy & the Ethics of Statecraft

Oct 21, 2022

When an administration releases its National Security Strategy, the president and his national security team are providing the U.S. government—and the world—with its assessment of the country's strategic priorities, but also a window into its ethics of statecraft. The strategy is often couched in broad, aspirational language meant to lay out a vision for the U.S. role in the world and the type of international system the United States would like to see come about—one that advances the causes of peace, freedom, and prosperity around the globe.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine necessitated a review of its draft, the Biden-Harris administration formally transmitted its strategic vision last week. For those who feared that the 2020 campaign rhetoric about promoting a "foreign policy for the middle class" might lead to a retrenchment or scaling back of U.S. engagement around the globe, President Biden, in his transmittal letter, identifies the moment we are currently experiencing as an "inflection point" which requires the United States to invest in developing a coalition of nations to meet a myriad of challenges from traditional great power military aggression to the negative consequences of climate change. In so doing, he maintains that U.S. involvement abroad will generate positive domestic benefits, from regenerating our political system to encouraging innovation that will jump-start the economy.

Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote: "The realm of politics is a twilight zone where ethical and technical issues meet." This is very true in the realm of foreign policy, where intentions must be matched with capabilities and limited resources, and where the dividing line is rarely between ethical values and amoral interests, but between different clusters of values and interests. Policymakers are pulled in different ethical directions: between obligations to citizens versus humanity as a whole; between obligations owed to current generations versus the future; and, most critically, whether the guiding ethical imperative is to "do no harm" or whether taking action, even if success is not guaranteed, is warranted. As Amitai Etzioni has concluded from his decades of observing (and taking part in) the policy process, policymakers rarely choose between "good" and "bad" options but must decide what constitutes the "least bad" option. In theory, strategies should help the decision process by identifying ethical priorities and delineating tradeoffs.

The current strategy has two principal "ethical clusters": one identifies climate change as an existential threat to the human race, especially highlighting what the Munich Security Conference’s Sophie Eisentraut has labelled the "polypandemic"—a whole cluster of challenges produced by environmental degradation that impact human survivability. The other is pushing back against autocratic systems and making the future more amenable to the spread of democratic systems that place respect for the individual and protection for human rights at the center of the governance model. In some cases, strategic guidance neatly connects and supports both of these broad objectives. The "climate geopolitics" approach the strategy counsels towards Russia, for instance, calls for the U.S. to lead a coalition of states to accelerate the shift from hydrocarbons to green energy—which over time would both reduce the income Russia obtains from its oil and gas exports (and so reduce its ability to sustain operations such as its invasion of Ukraine) while also addressing the climate change question. In so doing, this provides the transition that German Bundestag member Nils Schmid says will sustain the middle-class lifestyles of the industrialized democracies—and for governments that depend on mandates from the voters, this is no insignificant concern.

Of course, a strategy must also produce a narrative that is compelling to voters. The 2016 election demonstrated a growing sense among American voters that U.S. foreign policy was not necessarily connected to ensuring domestic prosperity. An ambitious strategy that promises a continuing level of deep U.S. global involvement must co-exist with consistent polling data—including some recent surveys undertaken by J.L. Partners for the Atlantic Future Forum, that suggests the willingness of Americans to support forward engagement will erode if it generates increasing sacrifice at home. And the strategy acknowledges that domestic economic resilience is also a core objective, suggesting that the ethical imperatives driving the U.S. to see the problems of others as its responsibility will be bounded by the unwillingness to impose major costs on the U.S. public.

But what guidance does the strategy give if one ethical imperative—for instance, protecting the ecosystem—leads to a policy choice that negatively impacts other values—for instance, promoting democracy? The strategy calls for "out-competing China" and highlights the challenge that the emerging coalition of autocratic states poses to the U.S. preference for a liberal, rules-based international order, but also argues that climate, energy, and environmental issues are existential in nature. After all, whether a country is democratic or authoritarian will matter much less if climate shifts make more parts of the world uninhabitable, facilitate the spread of deadly pandemics, and lead to sustained bouts of famine and want. When does the environmental imperative trump the democratic norm? These were the types of issues respondents to the 2020 Carnegie Council poll on American attitudes about foreign policy were forced to wrestle with. Respondents were evenly split about whether to prioritize meaningful cooperation with China on climate issues or to focus first and foremost on domestic violations of human rights and aggressive actions taken against neighbors. Too often, we hope that we can neatly segment and segregate policy: that we can compete with China economically, oppose its efforts to gain greater regional and global political influence, sanction when China violates our norms for human rights, and yet be able to cooperate seamlessly and effectively on matters such as climate and energy and work together to avoid a nuclear arms race. Yet policy rarely neatly comes together.

The strategy seems to take a temporal view of ethical obligations: short-term competition against the autocratic states leading to pressures which either induce reform or accelerate collapse, leading, over time, to their integration into a U.S.-led coalition of states working on solutions to the problems posed by the polypandemic. Given the order in which these two clusters are presented—competition first followed by the "existential" challenge of climate change—the administration seems to argue that winning the competition in the short term is the ethical priority.

Nikolas Gvosdev is a senior fellow with Carnegie Council's U.S. Global Engagement Initiative and a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College.

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