Can Biden Turn His Diverse Set of Priorities into a Grand Strategy?

This commentary is part of CSIS's Global Forecast 2021 essay series.

The essence of grand strategy is to reconcile seemingly contradictory national objectives. The more objectives, the more complicated the formulation of strategy. President Joe Biden comes to office with the most sweeping and diverse array of national objectives of any president in decades. He must mobilize a national bipartisan campaign to attack the Covid-19 pandemic and invest in economic renewal. He must heal deep ideological and cultural divisions while rooting out the growing threat of homegrown white nationalist terrorism and simultaneously addressing systemic racism. He has called climate change an existential crisis and vowed to mobilize the international community to curb carbon dioxide emissions. He has pledged a summit of democracies to restore American leadership in advancing universal values. And he has committed to reinvigorating alliances to compete with China.

These priorities are all valid and important. They reflect rising transnational, regional, and domestic threats and the consequences of U.S. retreat and diminishment over the past four years. The new administration has signaled its multiple commitments by elevating key officials in the National Security Council and establishing new cabinet positions to handle climate change, China, domestic rebuilding, the pandemic, and democracy. Veterans of government are warning that this proliferation of special coordinators and cabinet officials will distort the policymaking process. Allies, particularly in Asia, worry that they see attributes from early Democratic administrations where the globalist agenda crowded out alliance and diplomatic cooperation on immediate security and economic challenges in their regions.

In the past, the United States had the latitude to make mistakes in the early parts of administrations as competing priorities clashed and were resolved. There was a time when the United States could more easily stumble while trying to walk and chew gum at the same time and then bounce back without losing our place at the head of the line. Today, the Biden administration has less margin for error. China is on a trajectory to surpass the United States in nominal GDP by the end of the decade and has been emboldened to crack down on Hong Kong, impose massive mercantilist embargoes on close U.S. allies like Australia, and place sanctions on the outgoing administration’s national security team (which Biden’s White House rightly rejected as unacceptable interference). The United States’ edge remains resilience and entrepreneurship, but alliances and partnerships will now also be more important than ever. China is not on an unimpeded trajectory for global or even regional hegemony when one considers the aggregate power of states like Japan, India, Australia, or Indonesia that fear Chinese intentions. But managing this complex multipolarity will be more difficult than U.S. policymakers have found in the past, because there is no clear collective security formula that would capture the eclectic strengths and anxieties of the countries involved. Moreover, while U.S. allies and partners are looking to the new administration for leadership, events of recent months have shaken their confidence in the United States’ basic competence regardless of who is in charge.

Shoring up alliances and partnerships therefore should be the highest priority for the administration. Without restoring trust and common purpose to our traditional alliances and building on new partnerships with non-allies, the administration will find itself trying to advance an agenda for climate change or democracy that divides rather than unites, with allies unenthusiastic and potential partners standing neutral or even obstructing. No U.S. ally in the most contested parts of the world—particularly in Asia—is about to sign on to a strategy that prioritizes climate change or democracy over deterrence and economic prosperity. The challenge then is how to keep up momentum on these critical global challenges through coalitions without succumbing to a lowest common denominator approach.

Five key principles should guide the formulation of this new grand strategy.

  1. Find a theme to the pudding. Winston Churchill famously described an after-dinner pudding as tasty but having “no theme”—a metaphor for his view on the need to discipline grand strategy. The administration needs to weave together the domestic, transnational, and balance-of-power elements of its mission conceptually. Thus far the best proposal to do this has been under the rubric of a “grand strategy of resilience.” Usually, this is framed in terms of the resilience of U.S. cyber, health, and financial systems against disruption. U.S. foreign policy and outreach to allies and partners could also be framed under a strategy of resilience. In Asia, key partners like Japan and Australia are prepared to sign on to a strategy that helps smaller Asian states in China’s orbit develop greater resilience, and the theme would resonate in Europe and North America as well. When the United States is on the side of national self-strengthening, we have more partners and more leverage. Resilience could be extended to democratic governance, health, climate, and cyber but as a mode of capacity building rather than just imposition of global standards. The downside of a theme as broad as a “resilience” is that almost anything could be cast as a priority, but this conceptual framing and branding would be a start.

  2. Help allies and partners take the lead. The Obama administration was wise to ask South Korea to host the second nuclear summit in 2012 because it demonstrated that nuclear safety was a norm being advanced by countries that looked more like the states the United States needed inside the tent. Rather than hosting a democracy summit and deciding in Washington who is and who is not invited, the Biden administration should empower Indonesia, South Korea, or other partners to host and help develop the agenda. The definition of democracy may not be as precise as experts in Washington would prefer, but this approach will draw in more countries and unleash more resources and effort from middle powers that have themselves recently gone through democratic transition. On climate, the administration should develop strategies with countries like Japan and Australia that are thought leaders within Asia and more in touch with the development needs of countries in the region (and that contribute more to development relative to gross national income than the United States). Played poorly, the climate or democracy agendas could actually become areas of friction with close allies that would otherwise be 80 percent in agreement with the U.S. agenda. Given the distribution of power and influence in Asia and other regions, this is a critical premise for success.

  3. Work with China where it is in our interests, but in a framework of competition. The administration will benefit from cooperation with Beijing on climate and health but must go into those discussions with a clear-eyed recognition that China will only cooperate in a productive way when it is unambiguously in China’s own interests to do so and that Beijing is not likely to divert from its larger objective of displacing the United States in Asia. Put differently, the administration should never privilege China on these issues over allies and partners that share core U.S. values and strategic objectives. A decade ago, there were arguments that cooperation on global issues would transform strategic competition with China, but that is no longer a tenable premise for policy.

  4. Build international economic agreements that prevent protectionism. The instincts in Congress and among many of our international partners will be to use the urgency of the pandemic and climate change to expand nationalistic procurement rules, industrial policies, and general rent-seeking activity. The United States formed the G20 in the wake of the global financial crisis primarily to prevent such a spiraling of beggar-thy-neighbor protectionist exchange rate and tariff policies. The Biden administration gets underway as Asia has completed two major trade agreements without the United States (the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, CPTPP, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, RCEP), and the European Union and China have inked their own historic investment deal. The strategy of competition with China requires leadership on international economic rulemaking, while the global agenda on climate and health are prone to the kind of rent-seeking that the United States has historical resisted. The best move would be to rejoin CPTPP, but short of that the administration can reclaim momentum with sectoral agreements on environment goods and services or medical devices aimed at stopping protectionism and advancing innovation and capacity around key challenges in partnership with like-minded allies.

  5. Expand unity of purpose within the United States. Given the relative paucity of power and resources available to advance the U.S. agenda on global issues, alliances and partnerships at home will matter more just as they do abroad. Building consensus with key domestic stakeholders around democracy promotion, climate policies, and resilience is critical. For example, a climate or democracy policy that has buy-in from the Chamber of Commerce because it advances U.S. economic interests is much more likely to win support from other countries. Biden set that tone in his inaugural address and early consultations, but the administration will have to be careful not to let its sense of urgency deprive it of the opportunity to build consensus and leverage powerful domestic constituencies.

Democracies are capable of grand strategy. Arguably, they have produced the most successful grand strategies of modern history. However, democracies’ grand strategies must reflect the values and navigate the checks and balances of open societies. The process is more of a messy scrum than the linear decisionmaking implied by the Greek origins of the word strategos (“from the commander”). The Biden administration will be forced to craft grand strategy at a time when the Democratic and Republican Parties’ coalitions consist of highly agitated groups that are often unwilling to brook any compromise on their agendas. But Biden will also have two strong currents in his favor: polls consistently indicate there has been no diminishment of the U.S. public’s basic commitment to international engagement or the international community’s fundamental need for American leadership. And most importantly, Biden himself believes this.

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and director of Asian Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.