The writer is chief executive of the New America think-tank and an FT contributing editor
The Biden administration released its National Security Strategy last week, after six months of delay due to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine and consequent revisions. The document is thoughtful and clear.
Most important, the new strategy elevates global threats like climate change and pandemics to an equal footing with geopolitical competition and conflict with China, Russia and other autocracies. The US faces “two strategic challenges”, it says. The first is a competition “between the major powers to shape what comes next” after the end of the post-cold war era. The second is a cluster of “shared challenges that cross borders”, including “climate change, food insecurity, communicable diseases, terrorism, energy shortages, or inflation”.
The language is unequivocal and historic. “These shared challenges are not marginal issues that are secondary to geopolitics. They are at the very core of national and international security and must be treated as such.”
Meeting both sets of threats is a tall but necessary order. Pushing back naked interstate aggression, intended to conquer and annex territory, while avoiding nuclear war is an urgent and enormous task. The Biden administration is doing a remarkable job thus far. True to its strategy of never going it alone, it is also working intensively with allies and strategic partners around the world, many of whom it has marshalled into a range of new economic, military, and political groupings.
Yet, if we accept that “transnational challenges” are every bit as important as matters of war and peace, then climate change, global health, food security, and other issues should be getting equal time, funding and attention alongside traditional geopolitical threats. The proposed implementation of the Biden strategy should focus on ensuring that government departments responsible for tackling these challenges have funding, authority and prestige comparable to the Pentagon’s.
In the State Department, the bureaus that address issues such as climate change and food security should be given budgets comparable to the regional bureaus that control the embassies around the world. Moreover, given that the strategy rightly recognises that transnational challenges require intensive government co-operation to solve, we should see a significant upgrading of the US capacity to engage with international and regional organisations. The current State Department Bureau of International Organization Affairs has long been a backwater; that should change. We should also expect as much attention to be paid to working with other nations on climate and other global issues as on security issues.
Finally, many of these transnational challenges are deeply rooted in underdevelopment around the world. Biden writes movingly in his opening letter: “If parents cannot feed their children, nothing else matters.” USAID should therefore be transformed from an agency intended to distribute foreign aid into a full government department for development, on a par with State and the Department of Defense.
Instead, the administration’s implementation plan focuses on three “lines of effort”. These include investing in the underlying sources of US power and influence at home, including a transition to green energy and modernising and strengthening the military. The final set of efforts does focus on global co-operation “to solve shared challenges”, but only indirectly. The immediate goal is to “build the strongest possible coalition of nations”, presumably led by the US, that can then undertake these tasks.
Similarly, when the NSS outlines “what success looks like”, it envisages extensive diplomatic coalition building. Yet when we look at what this deepened co-operation is actually supposed to achieve, the height of the administration’s ambition is to have “laid the foundation to increase co-operation on strategic challenges” and to make “meaningful progress on issues like climate change, global health, and food security”. These are the kind of vague phrases that diplomats use to avoid committing to anything specific and measurable.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the administration’s focus on shared transnational challenges is less about meeting and defeating them than about leading the global response to them. Why? If different groups of nations acting without American leadership and participation could meaningfully reduce carbon emissions or increase food security, shouldn’t we applaud? Isn’t it the result that matters?
Successfully addressing shared global challenges requires a planetary perspective, one focused on all human beings, regardless of the countries they live in, and their relationships to one another and to the planet. The Biden administration understands that keeping Americans safe in the 21st century requires a critical doctrinal shift. But a shift in money, mindset and metrics must follow suit.