Setting New U.S. Strategic Priorities for a Post-Trump World

There are many areas where we need to rebuild the status of the United State relative to our strategic partners and the rest of the world. We cannot, however, focus on the strategic priorities of 2016, or even the most immediate priorities of the world we face today. The U.S. faces new domestic priorities and must now anticipate the challenges of a very different world – one where many aspects of the future are highly unpredictable.

This commentary explores nine major areas that the new Biden administration and the broader U.S. national security community need to address.

1. The Domestic Budget: Covid-19, Entitlements vs. Revenues, and Civil Needs

The U.S. already faces a major budget crisis in both short-term and long-term spending. It seems very likely that both these crises will have become much worse by June, after we have a second massive round of spending to deal with Covid-19. At this point, however, it is unclear when the full Covid-19 crisis will be over, and how deeply it will affect our economy and society.

We also face major uncertainties as to how we will deal with actual spending in the FY 2021 budget, and how the new administration will deal with the FY 2022 budget request due to come out in early 2021. Much of this budget request will have been drafted by the Trump administration. It will probably not suit all of the priorities of the Biden administration; it may or may not adequately reflect all the coming needs for Covid-19 spending and realistic assumptions about the U.S. economy; and managing the real world national budget and efforts to rebuild the economy will be an ongoing challenge through at least all of calendar 2021.

We will almost certainly will not be able to predict the full impact of Covis-19 until the late summer or fall of 2021 – if then. We will not know the full impact of the Trump versus Biden approaches to taxation and revenues, the real level of success in economic recovery, and impact of any new entitlements and social legislation before some point at the end of 2022 – if then.

If we are lucky, the outcome in dealing with the Covid-19 crisis may be as successful as the aftermath to 2008. However, we face a very real risk of a prolonged economic crisis and/or massive increase in our future debt, and the possible need to make major efforts to cut defense and foreign aid spending.

Moreover, the U.S. faces the problem of adjusting its spending and taxes to deal with new social and entitlements expenditures to deal with racism, national health care, retirement, and the cost of college and university education in a world with a steadily rising standard of technology and job creation. The U.S. cannot afford many of the proposed solutions to these problems, but it must find better and more expensive solutions than it has today.

2. Future Resources for U.S. Defense and Foreign Affairs.

Only part of these challenges directly affect U.S. foreign affairs and national security programs, but future spending on defense and foreign aid spending cannot be separated from the rest of the national budget and the overall state of the U.S. economy.

In the case of defense, there also are major problems in our existing plans and budgets. These include the near collapse of the planning, programing, and budgeting (PPB) system and the collapse of efforts to create a meaningful Future Years Defense Program, and of efforts to tie defense spending plans to clear strategies for each major military command and mission area.

Moreover, both the Biden transition and outside national security experts need to be critics of additional defense spending, not advocates. The present defense budget spends far too much on badly structured military service-driven programs, high-risk efforts, and veterans affairs. These programs need to be restructured, and it seems almost certain the U.S. can safely cut military spending if it combines a focus on meeting its core strategic priorities, rather than service-driven programs, and if it carries out a major effort to revitalize the defense PPB system and spend more effectively.

As for the civil side of foreign aid, the U.S. has now failed to address the ineffectiveness of much of its foreign aid efforts – and the key structural problems in the State Department and USAID efforts to deal with economic reform and nation building – for several decades. America’s dismal performance in nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq should be a warning.

So should the failure of two Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Reviews to solve the long-standing problems in tying State and USAID together in an efficient structure: one with adequate planning, real-world conditionality to ensure effective management of spending and actual program effectiveness, and one that can implement real-world efforts to improve policing and legal reform. The ability to defeat extremist movements, and win wars, is of little value if we cannot address the causes of extremism and civil conflict and win a stable peace.

3. The New World Disorder

The world we now face will also one with far more serious causes of unrest, political upheavals, and civil conflict. The hopes created by concepts like “globalism,” an “end to history,” and creating a liberal order based on Western values are not a substitute for realistic action to deal with the world’s instability and violence. We face both more serious threats and a far more unstable world.

Two leading power now are real threats. Russia now presents a major challenge and one that extends far beyond NATO and Europe. Developed countries are competing with China on a different and more hostile basis. The U.S. and its strategic partners face military and civil confrontation with two of the world major powers, not just competition.

Much of the developing world is an equal challenge. Even before Covid-19, there were far too many “failed states” with corrupt and ineffective governments. There were far too many countries with serious internal tensions and violence, elements of extremism and terrorism, and that relied on narrow power elites and repression.

There were far too many economies that could not cope with demographic pressure, urbanization, and social change. Covid-19, the economic crisis it is generating, and factors like low petroleum revenues and climate will inevitably tilt the balance in favor of new crises and internal or local conflicts for at least several years.

Some such challenges will affect U.S. security. Many – such as the economic crisis in Iraq and the developing crises in Lebanon and Oman – already are. Some will make the prospects for achieving peace and stability in countries that already face serious divisions or civil war – countries ranging from Thailand to Yemen to Guatemala – even worse. At the same time, the economic impact of the Covid-19 crisis will seriously affect the willingness of other states to provide aid.

The end result seems unlikely to take the form of a global crisis. It is more likely to be a limited series of moderate crises in some troubled states and major crises in a scattered few. Experts are certain to disagree over where such crisis will probably occur. However, it seems nearly certain that if you gave a range of experts a simple test – like handing them an outline map of the world and a red and yellow crayon to highlight potential risk countries facing new or worse crises – virtually all would highlight a significant number of states.

Once again, it will probably be at least 2022-2023 before the U.S. can begin to accurately judge how serious these problems will be. However, one thing seems certain: The U.S. is even less capable of being the world’s savior than it is of being its policeman. As noted earlier, the U.S. will face domestic economic needs that will mean it will have to limit aid and intervention and exercise the equivalent of strategic triage to a far greater degree. It will have to focus limited resources on the countries and cases that have the highest priority, the highest value to the U.S., and the highest probability of producing success. In some cases, it will have to do so at cost of failing to address serious humanitarian tragedies.

As one grim example, the U.S. may well be leaving Afghanistan next May as part of a failed peace process – knowing Afghanistan has become a dead end of continuing dependence, and this means letting its largely unfriendly neighbors cope with America’s departure. The U.S. will have to concentrate on making states like Iraq real strategic partners. In contrast to Afghanistan, Iraq is a nation that really matters in terms of Iran, extremism, U.S. trade with Asia, and global economic stability.

There will be all too many other examples. With limited resources, the U.S. will need to focus on the nations and cases that have the most strategic value to the United States.

4. Confrontation with China and Russia

Almost without intending to do so, the U.S. has steadily drifting toward confrontation with China and Russia rather than competition. This drift toward confrontation now affects every aspect of U.S. policy toward both countries, including U.S. trading structures and military planning. The problems this drift creates have also been compounded by creating unrealistic criteria for arms control and by focusing too much on the highest levels of deterrence and conflict, and too little on economic challenges and on gray zone and hybrid threats.

In fairness, these failures have been centered in the White House, National Security Council, and the Secretary of State. The military services, major commands, and Secretary Esper have shown more balance in dealing with the military side, and career professional and experts in the civil and economic side have shown more restraint and realism.

However, the U.S. now needs to focus on how best to compete on a global basis without making a path to direct confrontation. The U.S. needs to focus on dealing with global gray area and hybrid threats as well as on deterring or defending in major wars. However, it also needs to show China and Russia that the U.S. offers fair forms of both competition and cooperation as viable alternatives. The Trump focus on confrontation alone – without such incentives – must end as soon as possible.

5. And with North Korea and Iran

The same should be true of America’s approach to North Korea and Iran. The U.S. needs to react decisively to the challenges from both states, but it also needs to react effectively and without bluster. And, the U.S. should always make it clear to both the leadership elites and the populations of such countries and the world that we offer a better and well-defined set of economic and political alternatives to confrontation. All stick and no carrot is never the path to strategic success.

This is particularly true in the case of Iran. Unlike North Korea, the U.S. does not have a relatively stable balance of regional deterrence. America’s “maximum pressure” on Iran has gradually become so extreme that it could lead to a major military clash or hybrid conflict in the Gulf. More than that, the U.S. has failed to offer any clear basis for negotiation and seems to have left regime collapse as its only real road to success.

So far, “maximum pressure” has only made Iran more extreme. Iran’s “moderates” may not be as moderate as we would like, but they are far better than its extremists. “Maximum pressure” has already sharply limited the role of a “moderate” Iranian president, tightened the ties between the Supreme Leader and IRGC, led to the elimination of all moderate candidates from the legislative election in 2020, and led to the steady expansion of Iran’s internal security forces.

One also needs to be very careful about the assumption that the U.S. can force regime change. Even if “maximum pressure” does lead to major political upheavals, the U.S. did not profit from regime collapse in Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan. And, bad as the hardline element in Iran’s leadership may be, the impact of maximum pressure and regime collapse would affect some 80 million Iranians and the stability of the entire Gulf region.

6. End Burden-sharing Bullying and Focus on Real Strategic Partnerships: Europe as a Case Study

One immediate need is clear. The U.S. needs to act as soon as possible to end the kind of transactional bullying that has characterized the Trump approach to our allies and strategic partners. America’s strategic partnerships urgently need to be revitalized by working with its partners to focus on achieving the objectives of the partnership and creating lasting stable relationships. We need to put an end to efforts to squeeze as much as possible out of the partner, or acting on the basis of the strategic equivalent of grabbing our baseball and threatening to go home if the other children in the partnership won’t play the game our way. A “spoiled brat” strategy is not the road to strategic success.

The most gratuitous example is NATO and Europe. America has undermined its strategic partnership with far too many European states. This is brutally clear from opinion polls like those of the Pew Trusts that show how much popular trust in the U.S. has declined over the last four years.

The U.S. has focused its burden-sharing efforts on European spending, and not enhanced deterrence and security. In the process, the focus on price rather than effectiveness has led to an approach to burden-sharing that is mathematically and strategically ridiculous. Any detailed comparison of the trends in spending as a percent of GDP, and the percent of procurement spending, with the actual modernization and effectiveness of country-by-country forces and their ability to meet NATO-wide goals for deterrence and defense shows far too little correlation between more money and a more effective NATO.

More than that, even if one does totally ignore the impact of spending on deterrence and defense, the focus on defense spending – rather than effectiveness – still makes no sense. NATO Europe alone is already spending far more on military forces than Russia, according to Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) estimates regarding Russian defense spending and NATO estimates of member country spending.

DIA last reported publicly in 2017 and put Russian spending at $60.825 billion in 2016 and only $42.278 billion in 2017 – with spending driven down by dropping petroleum export revenues. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that Russia spent $65.1 billion in 2019. but IISS only estimates spending in 2019 as 48.206 billion.

In contrast, NATO reports that NATO Europe spent $279.069 billion in defense in 2019 and is estimated to spend $285.380 billion in 2020. Accordingly, if one accepts the DIA, SIPRI, and IISS levels of Russian spending, NATO Europe is already spending a minimum of four times as much as Russian.

There are private estimates of Russian spending that do go as high as $150-180 billion. Even if one accepts the high total of $180 billion, however, NATO Europe is still is spending some 1.6 times more than Russia. Given the role of the U.S. and Canada, this should be more than enough to decisively deter and defend against Russia if the money is wisely and effectively spent. If it is not spent wisely and effectively, it is unclear what level of spending will ever be high enough to compensate.

The U.S. is now bullying European countries, however, for not spending 2% of their GNP on military forces (20% on procurement). It is doing so even though they already are massively outspending Russia, and without any public analysis of where and how each member should spend more and whether they are doing so. It is doing so without examining what pressing our allies to spend more has actually done to enhance defense and deterrence, without publicly stating what our own future commitment to NATO should be, and without any net assessment of how well Russia spends compared to the U.S. and NATO.

Having been part of the NATO force planning team in the 1960s, and having dealt with NATO in Office of the Secretary of Defense and National Security Council, I find this entire exercise to be mindlessly unfocused and incompetent. I also find claiming that our allies somehow owe us money because they have fallen short of a NATO goal that is to be reached years in the future to be dishonest. Worse, withdrawing from Germany seems to fully qualify for the designation of the “spoiled brat strategy” described earlier. Slowly throwing away some 60 years of effort of building real trust and mutual confidence is a set of policies the U.S. really does need to end immediately.

7. End Burden-sharing Bullying and Focus on Real Strategic Partnerships: The Persian/Arab Gulf as a Case Study

The U.S. approach to the Gulf may, however, be as bad or worse. We have not had a sound foundation for our strategic positions in the region since at least 2003. We have fought two wars against extremism in Iraq. We have now done so without successfully helping to bring unity and effective governance, to build a stable set of security forces, and to successfully support economic reform.

The U.S. has focused on ISIS and Iran proper without showing it has any clear strategy to deal with Syria, Hezbollah, or Yemen. It has failed at the White House level to push effectively to reunite Qatar with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Oman has distanced itself from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Kuwait – the strategic partner that arguably has the most vulnerable location in the Gulf – has tried and failed to moderate and end the boycott. The Gulf Cooperation Council effectively no longer exists as a meaningful security structure, and the entire structure of Gulf security now depends on the U.S. at a time when the U.S. is not sending clear signals that it intends to keep adequate forces in the region.

While USCENTCOM has pushed for more effective forces, the White House has pushed for money for arms sales and for more military spending by Arab states that have long spent an average of more than twice the 2% of GNP we ask of NATO, and some of which have spent 8% to 10%.

The U.S. has executed this aspect of burden-sharing bullying even though the latest unclassified DIA estimate of Iranian spending is $27.3 billion in 2018 and $20.9 billion in 2019. Saudi Arabia alone spent $60 billion in 2018 and $48.5 billion in 2019. Qatar and the UAE do not report official defense spending figures. However, if one looks at their past spending rates and at SIPRI estimates for spending in current dollars in 2019, America’s Arab Gulf partners are probably still spending over $100 billion – some five times as much as Iran.

Our Arab Gulf partners are also countries whose population pressure means that “oil wealth” is steadily more limited in per capita terms, that need money for economic reform, and where their focus should be on effective deterrence and defense – not on increasing the total volume of security spending or U.S. profits from arms sales.

The U.S. also still falls far short of energy independence. And our Arab Gulf partners are countries whose petroleum exports to Asia keep key economies like those of China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan running. The merchandise trade between these Asian states and the U.S. is now far more important to the U.S. economy as a percentage of total trade and the U.S. GDP than direct Gulf oil imports to the U.S. ever were.

Moreover, Gulf oil provides some 21% of the world’s petroleum supplies, 30% of its seaborne crude exports, and 15% of its product exports. The steady flow of this oil at peacetime prices is critical to global economic growth and stability, and the U.S. strategic role in the Gulf gives the U.S. strategic influence on imports critical to China.

8. End Burden-sharing Bullying and Focus on Real Strategic Partnerships: Asia as a Case Study

As for Asia, we now have been attempting to articulate a new mix of military and civil strategies for our strategic partnership in Asia for over two decades. However, the Trump administration has created a trade war in place of a major effort to create a Pacific trade partnership, and it put spending pressure on South Korea and Japan rather than developing effective strategic partnerships of the kind advocated by INDOPACOM.

Here, it is worth pointing out that SIPRI estimates that Australia spent $25.9 billion on military forces in 2019, New Zealand spent $2.9 billion, Japan spent $46.7 billion, Singapore spent $11.2 billion, and South Korea spent $43.89 billion – for a total of $130.6 billion versus $261.1 billion for China. This is a major contribution to collective security.

Moreover, it is worth considering the potential role of other potential strategic partners. SIPRI estimates that India spent $71.1 billion, Indonesia spent $7.7 billion, Malaysia spent $3.8 billion, the Philippines spent $3.5 billion, Taiwan spent $10.4 billion, Thailand spent $7.3 billion, and Vietnam does not report. Moreover, their economies, trade, and technology base is worth far more in most cases in economic competition with China, and, ultimately, it will probably be economic competition that counts.

9. A Return to American Values

Finally, the U.S. does need to return to its past focus on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. This does not mean imposing American values on every ally or partner, or ignoring the strategic importance of states that fall short of U.S. goals and values. It does mean that the U.S. needs to rebuild trust in America’s commitment to the values that have dominated its behavior throughout the postwar era, and that have established a broad level of confidence in the United States in the past.

The U.S. can – and should – demonstrate that these American values have not changed, that they still shape our behavior, and show both our partners and the people in other countries that we still encourage them to develop those values – but not to impose them.

Recent years have shown the dangers in focusing on forms of “realism” that only consider strategic and international relations in terms of their immediate value to the U.S. The sharp decline in trust in the U.S. by in country after country that is documented in the Pew Trusts and other polls is a warning. Narrow self-interest has a strategic cost as well as a moral and ethical one.

Living in the Real New World

Put simply, we are not going to live in a “brave new world.” We cannot go back to 2000, 2002, 2011, 2016 – or any pre-Covid-19 state of stability and optimism. We need to change our strategy to suit the future, and not try to restore the past. We need to focus on new problems and issues, and we need to eliminate our current strategic failures.

This cannot be done on a transactional basis. Serious as the Covid-19 crisis in the U.S. economy may be over the next few years, the world is not a Walmart. The U.S. cannot shape its strategic relationship by seeking the lowest possible price partner that offers the highest possible discount.

Creating lasting relationships with real strategic partners and allies must be based on mutual advantage, honest dialogue, and a focus on creating the most effective partnership possible. These are the relationships that are truly critical to U.S. security and America’s ability to compete on a global basis.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.

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).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy