Interim National Security Strategic Guidance: Unto the Wilderness

words matter

The Biden Administration is still filling out the mid and lower echelons of their national security and defense team, but the major players are in and the “people are policy” effect is kicking in. 

If you were paying attention to the 2020 election, you have a general idea where things are going, but it is always best to wait to see what is put out … because that is what good staff people do; wait for higher Direction and Guidance, and then form your actions to align with them. 

This week, everyone has something to chew on, President Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance

As I like to do with such documents, I look for larger themes through the use of words. Words matter – details matter – and you can find out a lot about priorities and themes by investigating them. 

Yes, you need to see what people do and not what they say … but what they say matters. When words and actions align, it can show a well-functioning and serious organization and give you more to work with if you are looking for clues to the future. When words and actions are not aligned, that disconnect can – depending on the aspects of the disconnect – tell you even more interesting things. 

So, before we pull some of the detailed observation from the guidance, look at the word count above. That is from the document … but that only gives you so much. 

We know that national security was a 3rd-tier concern in the 2020 election; 1st was former President Trump, and 2nd was domestic policy. What do the words used tell us? 

Wordcount time. 

As I am a navalist, let’s start there to see what focus three may be on the issues of our greatest concern: 

- Navy: 0 

- Maritime/Sea/Ocean: 0 

Huh, we see where this is going. What about the “hard” natsec challenges? 

- China: 15 

- Russia: 5 

- Iran: 4 

- Pacific: 3 

- North Korea: 2 

- NATO: 2 

Well. Everyone take out your JPME-1 notebook. 

In the DIME view of the domains of national power you have Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic. You can, rightfully, accept the new reality that Military is well back in the toolbox – something they tell us in the guidance and we’ll quote later. That leaves the other three. How do these, “soft” natsec challenges come out of the wordcount? 

- Economy/Economic: 42 

- Cyber: 16 - Diplomacy/Diplomatic: 13 

- Information/Disinformation: 6 

Regulars recall a story I’ve mentioned here and on Midrats a few times; ~2010 I had with Admiral Foggo. The one point I left with him was that the best thing the Navy could do was to send more line officers off to get their PhD in Economics. Don’t shunt them off to teach at USNA, put them on your major staffs. More than any other service, the Navy needs a smart understanding of Economics. 

Ha! Sal wins again. 

Now for the real depressing part. Look at the “hard” and “soft” word counts again, and then take a deep breath. 

Center yourself. 

Go get your emotional support animal as required … now brace. 

The Terrible 20s are here, and they are pissed. 

More than anything, this document makes it absolutely clear that not only are national security issues 3rd tier, the personnel, infrastructure, and power in DOD will be used to support, advance, and defend domestic political policy agenda items. Some of that is in the “Economy” count above, but these words make it clear; 

- Climate: 27 

- Equity/equitable (NB: this does not mean equality): 11 

- Diversity: 7 

- “Build back better:” 5 

- Racial/racism: 5 

- Inclusive: 4 

- Justice: 3 

Compare those numbers and you get the direction the wind is blowing. 

It is only a 24-page document, so you should really read it all, but let me pull a few items for your consideration. 

In the President’s introduction, he outlines what he sees as the “new crisis” that demand our attention; 

...the pandemic, nuclear proliferation, and the “fourth industrial revolution.

He also wants a,

 revitalization of … our democracy. 

This in an inwardly focused national security policy, underlined by this paragraph;

Achieving these goals rests on a core strategic proposition: The United States must renew its enduring advantages so that we can meet today’s challenges from a position of strength. We will build back better our economic foundations; reclaim our place in international institutions; lift up our values at home and speak out to defend them around the world; modernize our military capabilities, while leading first with diplomacy; and revitalize America’s unmatched network of alliances and partnerships.

In a strange disconnect, there is a bone thrown in the direction of the internationalists/interventionists/R2P crowd;

And as we do this work, we must also demonstrate clearly to the American people that leading the world isn’t an investment we make to feel good about ourselves. It’s how we ensure the American people are able to live in peace, security, and prosperity. It’s in our undeniable self-interest.

They’re not wrong. The American people still do not understand the value of the Libyan chaos or underwriting German security against the Russians while the Germans are planning to surrender their energy security to the Russians. 

Good luck with that. 

The foreign aid lobby and the NGO rent seekers get a nod;

When we invest in the economic development of countries, we create new markets for our products and reduce the likelihood of instability, violence, and mass migrations.

We also have evidence that we have a large mass of people who have not learned anything from two decades in Afghanistan;

When we defend equal rights of all people — of women and girls, LGBTQI individuals, indigenous communities, people with disabilities, and people of every ethnic background and religion — we help ensure that those rights are protected for our own children here in America.

“Build back better” – the Biden version of a campaign slogan like “Make American Great Again” – as outlined above, makes a few appearances in the document. It strives in places to want to return to some ill-defined point in the past where things were somehow better. Well, we don’t have a time machine, and the world advances in many places on its own agenda and in directions that may or may not be in our control … nor should be. 

That is a dangerous place to be. It sets up perverse incentives and unrealistic policy goals. This is the 3rd decade of the 21st Century, not the 1990s.

Diplomacy is back. Alliances are back. But we are not looking back.

If you have to say it … well. So, remember when I warned you this was mostly aligned with domestic policy agenda items?

We confront a global pandemic, a crushing economic downturn, a crisis of racial justice, and a deepening climate emergency. We face a world of rising nationalism, receding democracy, growing rivalry with China, Russia, and other authoritarian states, and a technological revolution that is reshaping every aspect of our lives. Ours is a time of unprecedented challenges, but also unmatched opportunity.

See what leads, then note what follows. Order defines precedence. Precedence established priorities. 

A final note; nothing here is “unprecedented.” It is hard to get more inwardly focused as this;

The United States must lead by the power of our example, and that will require hard work at home … to truly address systemic racism

I am trying hard to find something that could be used in our competition against China … but as there is so little clarity and so much domestic play here, they can be used either way. One example was the use above of “racial justice.” Are we talking about domestic policy here – as we clearly do in other mentions of racial challenges – or could that be used concerning China’s treatment of Uighurs and Tibetans? 

What about the “digital authoritarianism” below, domestic or Chinese social credit system and censorship?

Together with our allies and partners, we can modernize the architecture of international cooperation for the challenges of this century, from cyber threats to climate change, corruption, and digital authoritarianism.

To further underline the desire to use the umbrella of national security to chase domestic policy shadows, note the first paragraph on page-9 under “Our National Security Priorities:

…we must redefine America’s economic interests in terms of working families’ livelihoods, rather than corporate profits or aggregate national wealth. That places an imperative on an economic recovery grounded in equitable and inclusive growth, as well as investments to encourage innovation, strengthen national competitiveness, produce good-paying jobs, rebuild American supply chains for critical goods, and expand opportunities for all Americans. And we must remain committed to realizing and defending the democratic values at the heart of the American way of life.

If I am looking for a hook to claw back defense dollars for domestic use and call it national security related, that paragraph gives me all I need. 

Right after that … and whoever snuck this is I want them to drop me a line so I can send them a Harry and David gift basket, is something actually useful and good;

At its root, ensuring our national security requires us to:

- Defend and nurture the underlying sources of American strength, including our people, our economy, our national defense, and our democracy at home;

- Promote a favorable distribution of power to deter and prevent adversaries from directly threatening the United States and our allies, inhibiting access to the global commons, or dominating key regions; and

- Lead and sustain a stable and open international system, underwritten by strong democratic alliances, partnerships, multilateral institutions, and rules.

First bullet is “America First.” Second is to keep China down. Third is promoting a rules based international order. 

Sold. 

Someone get me an endorsement letter to sign. Keep this, throw away the rest, and we’re good to go. 

This next goal will end in tears if the recent Yemen decision that emboldens Iranian proxies is any indication;

Our aim will be to de-escalate regional tensions and create space for people throughout the Middle East to realize their aspirations.

The order here is incorrect, but I am very happy Africa gets a mention;

We will help African nations combat the threats posed by climate change and violent extremism, and support their economic and political independence in the face of undue foreign influence.

The next line is cringe. So 1980s, so “with whom?”

We will head off costly arms races and re-establish our credibility as a leader in arms control.

China – whose defense budget just grew by 6.8% while ours is posed to fall, has zero to gain from this … and anything with Russia is meaningless because they are not a problem and will violate it anyway. 

We know … and this is smart.

…we will make smart and disciplined choices regarding our national defense and the responsible use of our military, while elevating diplomacy as our tool of first resort.

On page 14 is something that is just gobsmacking if you wonder if we are a learning institution. It is as if the mistakes of Rumsfeld and the Age of Transformationalism – that we still have not started to recover from – have been forgotten. As if no one remembers the lie of “throw away what you have now and will need to fight in 5 years for the promise of pixie dust powered unicorns bearing sharks with laser beams on their head tomorrow.” 

The people with this mindset keep popping up because no one holds them accountable for their errors.…working with the Congress, shift our emphasis from unneeded legacy platforms and weapons systems to free up resources for investments in the cutting-edge technologies and capabilities that will determine our military and national security advantage in the future.

… We will prioritize defense investments in climate resiliency and clean energy

Of course. The Great Green Fleet was such a success, let’s throw more rare funds down that onomastic rat hole. 

There is going to be a hell of a battle in this administration over Afghanistan. You can see the conflict in this document itself.

The United States should not, and will not, engage in “forever wars” that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. We will work to responsibly end America’s longest war in Afghanistan while ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorist attacks against the United States.

I will give credit to the writers. They make it clear that national security policy is a supporting entity to the supported effort; domestic policy agenda items;

…our trade and international economic policies must serve all Americans, not just the privileged few.

There is a great scene in Dr. Zhivogo where the Red Partisan commander is arguing about all he has done for the revolution and is reminded by the Commissar that once the war is over, everyone will be judged politically regardless of what they did in the war. Boy, is that clear here.

…our strength abroad requires the United States to build back better at home. A dynamic, inclusive, innovative national economy with a flourishing population is a critical American advantage that must be renewed. That starts by decisively responding to the public health and economic crises unleashed by COVID-19. Our national strategy—reinforced by the 12 initial executive actions issued by President Biden in his first two days in office—centers on restoring trust with the American people; mounting a safe, effective, and comprehensive vaccination campaign; and mitigating disease spread through masking, testing, an expanded public health workforce, and better data.

It easy to ignore such documents or, in the wave of a cynical hand, dismiss them as meaningless – but that would be a mistake. Smart staffers try to align what they do with whatever direction and guidance they can find from those up the chain. This is that. 

Reality will change things, but for the first year of the administration, this is what we have to work with. Let me book mark this post with something to back up what we started with on the wordcounts. Why, you may ask, would such domestic issues be of such importance in a national security document? 

To understand it, you need to realize the world those appointed in the Biden Administration come from. What are their interests? What are their supporters concerned with? 


Where they can, the above will be reflected in all parts of our government under the control of the Executive Branch. You don’t have to agree with it, but it would be irresponsible not to recognize it and prepare accordingly.

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