This is an expanded and updated version of an earlier policy brief, “Two cheers for Biden’s national security record,” published in October 2022.
Three years into his presidency, U.S. President Joe Biden’s hopes that his lifetime of foreign policy experience would make national security a natural political strength continue to encounter rough seas. After a reasonably good start in early 2021, the botched Afghanistan withdrawal and unseemly unveiling of the AUKUS deal with the U.K. and Australia (at France’s expense) took the sheen off his young presidency. The war in Ukraine and more recently the Middle East conflict have since taken further tolls. The latter tragedies may not have been his fault, but an incumbent is rewarded or penalized for what happens on their watch, fairly or not.
However, despite the mistakes and blemishes, Biden’s national security track record is better than widely perceived. (Fewer than 40 percent of Americans give him good grades in foreign policy in most recent polls, while nearly 60 percent typically give him an unfavorable assessment.) The key reason is this: The country is still reasonably safe, and great-power relations, while surely fraught, do not have the United States on the brink of war. As I argued in 2022, unlike his predecessor and likely 2024 challenger, Donald Trump, who took the nation closer to war against North Korea in 2017 than is commonly appreciated, and unlike certain prominent Republicans who have suggested the United States consider recognizing Taiwan independence even at heightened risk of war with China, Biden has been calm and de-escalatory, yet resolute on core matters of national interest.
Recognizing the subjectivity associated with grading a president, I would give the Biden administration a B+ in its national security record.
Recognizing the subjectivity associated with grading a president, I would give the Biden administration a B+ in its national security record (similar to my assessment in the fall of 2022 in an earlier paper). Its overall approach to both Russia and China has been fairly strong. Its policies toward other crucial issues with enduring relevance to national security—North Korea, Iran, terrorism, fentanyl, climate, the national debt, and thus long-term national power—are more mixed. (I do not attempt a broader assessment of all aspects of Biden’s foreign policy here but focus on those of greatest relevance to the nation’s safety—that is, national security in a specific and literal sense.) My verdict is that the Biden administration’s national security policy may not be sensational, but it has been generally solid on the biggest and most consequential issues.
Of course, in a larger sense there is no such thing as a Biden foreign policy record—rather, there is an American foreign policy record during the time of the Biden-Harris administration. Congress’s role has been crucial in shaping defense budgets, Ukraine aid packages, border policy, and many other things, as well as broader fiscal policy. Thus, assessing Biden’s role in policymaking requires a certain amount of interpretation of the respective roles of the executive branch, the legislative branch, and indeed other parts of American society. Congress has been particularly difficult to work with during the Biden years, given the influence of a small Freedom Caucus, and thus mostly beyond Biden’s realistic control or influence. Thus, if grading his foreign policy on a curve, I push it up to an A- from a B+.
In particular, as this article goes to press, it remains unclear if Biden will be able to work with Congress to secure another crucial aid package for Ukraine, as well as important assistance for Taiwan and Israel and the nation’s borders. Several months ago, I might have given Biden a fair share of the blame for any such impasse. But with the administration and many Congressional Democrats now willing to make major changes to border and immigration policy, it is a segment of the Republican party that at present is primarily responsible for the policy logjam. Biden’s tactics have not always been excellent, but his overall policy position has evolved to a reasonable place, and he deserves credit for the flexibility.
Ukraine and Russia
On the Ukraine conflict, the Biden administration’s record was excellent in 2022. It became a bit stuck, even if not demonstrably ineffective or incorrect, in 2023, with an uncertain path forward for 2024 and beyond. Yet on its fundamentals—checking Russian aggression, protecting NATO allies, helping Ukraine survive with most if not all of its territory under Kyiv’s control—it has clearly been more successful than not, even as direct war against Russia has thankfully been avoided. And if it proves impossible to secure additional U.S. aid for Ukraine in 2024, it now appears that Congress (and, mostly, hard-line Republicans) will be the culprit, not Biden.
When the full-scale Russian invasion began on February 24, 2022, Biden rightly decided that the United States should not directly enter into the conflict and thereby risk World War III. As I have previously written, while important, Ukraine is not a vital interest of the United States. We take that decision for granted, but it remains enormously important, given the potential for escalation in any direct fight between nuclear-armed superpowers that involves a major interest of at least one of them.
Biden did, however, help lead a Western response in the economic realm that has cut off most high-tech cooperation between the West and Russia (even if it has not substantially reduced Russian oil and gas export earnings or brought the economy to its knees). He has also provided massive security and economic assistance, and unprecedented intelligence support, to Ukraine to help ensure its security as well as the survival of its government. As of this writing, the United States has committed total assistance to Ukraine of more than $75 billion over the past two years. Its major allies have contributed even more to Ukraine, though with a different relative composition of assistance between military and economic and refugee aid. Meanwhile, NATO remains strongly united, even with occasional cracks and strains apparent.
However, even beyond the budgetary impasse in the United States at present, clearly not all is well in regard to Ukraine policy. By 2023, Biden became a bit too incrementalist in his approach to the war. No big ideas were offered about how to wage it or end it. The United States sometimes seemed a day late and a penny short in providing weapons—even though its overall effort was extraordinary by historical standards, exceeded only by the Lend-Lease Act of World War II in size and scale. Washington begrudgingly agreed to provide tanks, to offer Ukraine longer-range surface-to-surface missiles, to agree to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16 aircraft, and to see F-16s shipped to Kyiv.
The understandable concerns that Biden had in 2022 about avoiding escalation, and about focusing arms transfers on the most urgent threats to Ukraine, were not as understandable in 2023. His hesitancy to agree to weapons shipments on multiple occasions, only to relent later, gave the administration’s approach a sclerotic feel that contradicted its strong rhetorical support for the Ukrainian cause. Nevertheless, those who think that if Biden had only transferred the big weapons to Ukraine sooner, when Russia was still reeling from its initial mistakes of 2022, things would have gone much better for Ukraine on the battlefield may be unrealistic in their expectations of how quickly weapons can be absorbed and turned into decisive military capabilities. Modern combined-arms warfare is too complex for that argument to be completely compelling. Yes, Biden was too slow to agree to key weapons transfers in 2023. But it might not have made that much difference if he had been three to six months faster. And what he did provide was historic in pace, quality, and effectiveness.
Does Biden deserve any blame for the outbreak of the war? Biden’s pullout from Afghanistan may have affected his credibility as a leader in the eyes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who might have surmised that like Afghanistan, Ukraine was a second-tier strategic concern of the United States in general and of Biden in particular. If Biden wouldn’t sustain a modest U.S. commitment to the former, perhaps he wouldn’t react strongly if Russia attacked its neighbor—or so the Putin hypothesis might have gone. This possibility cannot be entirely dismissed (and it is more compelling than the administration’s argument that pulling out of Afghanistan actually helped improve America’s responsiveness to Russia’s attack on Ukraine). It is easy to exaggerate how much decisions in one theater by the United States or any other major power affect its image in entirely different regions; domino theories are usually exaggerated. That said, leaders do form images of the credibility and resoluteness of other leaders.
On balance, it is hard to pin too much blame for Putin’s decision on Biden. It was a long time in the making.
Yet on balance, it is hard to pin too much blame for Putin’s decision on Biden. It was a long time in the making. Of course, Putin’s scheming against Ukraine went back at least to 2014, when Barack Obama was U.S. president; it was then that Russia stole Crimea and then fostered unrest in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. In the years before the all-out attack of 2022, when Trump was president, Putin began to lay the propaganda backdrop that produced, among other things, his highly tendentious essay in the summer of 2021 explaining why Ukraine was supposedly not a real country. Putin’s acute disagreements with the United States—and his sense of U.S. wobbliness on its commitment to Ukraine—went back at least to the George W. Bush era and the 2008 Bucharest summit, where NATO promised eventual membership to Ukraine without giving a date or interim security guarantee. Even before then, at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Putin indicated that his patience with the West had largely dissipated. That is not to excuse Putin, but rather to take stock of the long series of events and decisions stretching back 15 to 20 years that constitute the backdrop to the 2022 invasion.
Could Biden have tried harder to prevent the war in its immediate prelude? Perhaps, though the argument shouldn’t be pushed too far. As I wrote in October 2022, much of the U.S. intelligence community and many top administration officials were convinced by late 2021 that Russia intended to attack, with Biden himself at one point in January 2022 predicting that Putin “has to do something” given the magnitude of his military preparations. Yet there were not the kind of overtures to the Russians that JFK undertook in the Cuban Missile Crisis, or former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger attempted during the 1973 October War, for example. Without conceding core principles, the United States could have tried to discuss alternatives to eventual NATO membership for Ukraine with Moscow, provided that any such alternatives would impose verifiable obligations on Russia and not compromise Ukraine’s sovereignty. As former U.S. ambassador to Russia (and current CIA director) Bill Burns has written, in his fine memoir “The Back Channel,” the history of NATO expansion—particularly the NATO proposal in 2008 to someday bring Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance, a vision reaffirmed in the U.S.-Ukraine charter of November 2021—caused deep resentment in Putin’s vindictive and imperial mind. Yet creating an alternative security structure to NATO that protected Ukraine and solved the crisis would have been extremely difficult to do at the barrel of a gun. Biden should not be seriously faulted for failing to explore with sufficient creativity and persistence whatever modest opportunity may have still then existed.
Where to, now? While Biden has been on balance strong and stalwart in his support for Ukraine, he has begun to lose the American people with a pledge to provide assistance to Kyiv for “as long as it takes.” That slogan is not an adequate policy for a conflict that appears to be largely stalemated at present; it may contribute to Republican resistance to further fund the war (though that resistance may be overdetermined by a number of factors, some beyond Biden’s control and having little to do with Ukraine).
In November 2023, I proposed that Biden should articulate a policy like this: the United States will provide virtually all types of weaponry Ukraine may request over the next 18 months, in the hope that Ukraine can break the stalemate sometime in 2024 or early 2025. That extra bit of patience is only logical; it typically takes modern military units at least a couple of years to absorb and train on new weapons, and Ukraine has not yet had a fair chance to do so. But the United States will plan to reassess its strategy in the course of 2025, as would be expected for a major national security issue early in the new term of a freshly elected president (whether Biden or Trump or someone else). If the war remains largely stalemated then, a fallback approach would be considered. Specifically, at that point, a “Plan B” focused on helping Ukraine protect whatever territory it then holds, recover economically, strengthen its defenses for the future, and anchor it to Western institutions could be appropriate. But it is too soon to accept such an outcome now, and in the process to at least partially reward Russia for its aggression. I believe Biden would be well-served by publicly explaining such a nuanced policy for Ukraine right now.
Overall, Biden’s grade on Ukraine, Russia, and NATO must, naturally, be incomplete at this juncture. But he has done more right than wrong, avoiding the biggest possible mistakes while doing the morally and strategically correct thing in his strong support for Ukraine.
On China, the Biden team began by slightly overdoing it, at least in some elements of its rhetoric and messaging about China. Yet on policy specifics, it has generally done well (building on some good ideas from the Trump administration, to be fair). And in recent months, once the reactions to the February 2023 “balloon incident” played out, Biden has rightly found a way to reestablish a workmanlike dialogue on numerous issues with Xi Jinping and his government.
As noted, for two-plus years, the Biden team sometimes went too far. Many of its officials portrayed China as something close to an adversary. Biden called Xi a dictator on at least two occasions, which is not quite right; worse, his secretary of state and his National Security Strategy accused China of genocide, a loaded term if there ever was one. (To be sure, as I have previously asserted, China’s repression of the Uighurs should be documented and penalized; a recent UN report had the right tone on this, but it talked of severe human rights repression rather than genocide.) Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s big foreign policy speech of March 2021 held out collaboration as one of the three pillars of the Biden administration’s China policy (along with competition and, when unavoidable, confrontation). But his May 2022 China speech had dropped the cooperation dimension.
Biden was right from the start, however, on most policy specifics toward China. As I wrote in 2022, he was correct to keep at least some of the Trump-era tariffs on general trade with China, given China’s many unfair trade practices, to use the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to impede Chinese acquisitions of American high-tech jewels, and otherwise to push back against Chinese economic and technological theft. In addition, consistent with the National Security Strategy, the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy has correctly described China as the U.S. military’s “pacing challenge” and focused DoD’s long-term modernization and investment strategies on that country, while conducting adroit diplomacy in the broader Asia-Pacific to strengthen coordination with other countries concerned about the nature and pace of China’s rise (through AUKUS; the Quad with Japan, Australia, and India; and a tightening of the U.S.-Japan-South Korea triangular relationship).
Biden’s frequent misstatements, if in fact they have been mistakes, about how he would authorize a U.S. military response to any Chinese attack on Taiwan have probably been good for deterrence. (They carry some risk of encouraging Taiwan’s leaders to pursue independence, thinking that the United States would have Taiwan’s back no matter what—and these risks are not to be ignored—but it is doubtful that most politicians in Taiwan think that Washington could come quickly and easily to their rescue with rapid victory assured, so this risk may be manageable.) Even though White House staffers would always then walk back Biden’s words and reaffirm the longstanding policy of so-called “strategic ambiguity” about a possible U.S. military defense of Taiwan, the fact that Biden has publicly stated his own view on four separate occasions signals a certain conviction and sincerity on the matter.
Yet the administration has been right not to take things to the next level and formally abandon strategic ambiguity (also known as dual deterrence, since the policy is designed to simultaneously deter China from attacking Taiwan and deter Taiwan from pushing for independence). Abandoning strategic ambiguity in favor of “strategic clarity” would be a mistake for two reasons: it would inflame relations with Beijing, and it would promise a military protection of Taiwan that, depending on the scenario, the United States might not be capable of providing reliably. It could also embolden Taiwan, and its president-elect Lai Ching-te, to push things too far and too hard.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s concept of integrated deterrence has helped as well. Especially when coupled with the West’s strong collective response to the Ukraine invasion, it signals to Beijing that whether or not America intervened militarily in a Taiwan scenario, it would work with allies to severely punish China economically in the event of war. To be sure, such a process would necessarily be painstaking, gradual, and piecemeal—but it could also be sustained and expanded over time, just as in the West’s current dealings with Russia.
Some things need to improve further to deter China from reaching the wrong conclusion and attacking Taiwan.
Some things need to improve further to deter China from reaching the wrong conclusion and attacking Taiwan. They include the still-sluggish pace of U.S. arms shipments to Taiwan as well as the too-slow U.S. acquisition of anti-ship weapons that can be launched from survivable platforms (e.g., uncrewed underwater systems, or road-mobile and rocket-launched and parachute-recoverable unmanned aircraft). There is no pressing reason to think China will attack Taiwan by 2027—Xi has only asked his military to strive to have the capability to seize it by then, a much different proposition than actually deciding to do it. But deterrence can and should still be strengthened further beyond the steps Biden has already taken such as dispersing U.S. bases in the Western Pacific, hardening command and control systems, and expanding satellite networks for military reconnaissance communications.
To be sure, the partnership between Beijing and Moscow is troubling. But the Biden team has apparently persuaded China, at least so far, not to sell weapons to Russia—a huge achievement.
By the fall of 2023, the overall U.S.-China relationship was showing some signs of stabilizing, albeit in a still-dangerous place. Sending cabinet ministers, including presidential envoy John Kerry, as well as Secretaries Janet Yellen and Gina Raimondo, over the summer of 2023 helped keep the relationship with Beijing businesslike rather than personal or overly passionate; Biden’s summit with Xi in San Francisco in November had the right tone and at least some productive content, including a Chinese promise to clamp down on the production and shipment of fentanyl precursor chemicals. (I believe that goal may be more easily within reach than a meaningful resumption of military-to-military dialogue to reduce potential mishaps in the region, since China in fact has a certain interest in keeping America anxious about its military presence in the Western Pacific.) High-level contacts with a more businesslike and less acrimonious tone than in the administration’s early days have continued into early 2024.
Nothing about the U.S.-China relationship will be easy for many years to come. For that reason, it is especially important that Biden is helping establish a U.S. approach to the challenge that is resolute and tough—yet also multi-dimensional, calm, and sustainable.
Other global theaters
Whatever American strategists’ preference, the United States does not have the luxury of focusing exclusively on great-power competition in developing its defense and broader national security frameworks. Other threats get a vote, as well. Four of the most serious include North Korea, where the world’s most hypermilitarized country now has several dozen nuclear weapons and longer-range missiles; Iran, with its likely ambitions to follow North Korea on the nuclear front as well as its ongoing support for terrorists; the terrorists themselves (of various designations and sectarian affiliations, but especially ISIS, al-Qaida, Hezbollah, and Hamas); and transnational criminal organizations with a particular focus on those groups shipping fentanyl into the United States from Mexico.
The Biden administration has done a generally good job in managing the U.S.-South Korean alliance and also in tightening links between that bilateral relationship and the U.S.-Japan alliance. The August 2023 Camp David summit of the leaders of Japan, the United States and South Korea was a reflection and further reinforcement of this desirable trend. Yet there is to my mind one mistake in the Biden team’s approach to this part of the world: As I’ve previously argued, the Biden administration seems content to tell Kim Jong Un that the United States will negotiate anytime he wishes, but to leave the content of any such possible talks a mystery, hoping that Kim will want dialogue for its own sake. Instead, I believe the Biden team should make greater efforts on this diplomatic track.
The most sensible approach would propose a halfway deal with Kim. Such an agreement would cap the size of his nuclear arsenal by verifiably dismantling North Korean nuclear production facilities, while also instituting bans on nuclear and long-range missile testing, in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions on North Korea (with “snapback provisions” in the event of North Korean violations of its obligations). The dismantlement of North Korea’s existing nuclear weapons would be left for another day. This approach would not recognize and accept the existing North Korean nuclear arsenal any more than does current policy, despite that policy’s declared (but currently magical and unrealistic) intent of complete and irreversible North Korean denuclearization. Admittedly, the immediate prospects for such a deal appear modest, given Kim’s attachment to his military modernization programs. But the main parameters of a deal should nonetheless be articulated, partly as a way of maintaining as much cooperation with China on the issue as possible.
Iran policy may present an even more daunting challenge. Whether its theocratic leaders authorized Hamas’s terrible October 7, 2023, attack against Israel or not, they certainly facilitated and resourced it. Iran may currently be deterred from outright breakout from its nuclear nonproliferation obligations, but even that hope needs to be maintained with a grain of salt. It sustains malevolent forces in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and beyond. Any meaningful diplomacy with it seems an unlikely reach. It is hard to criticize Biden for this longstanding reality—even if he, like Obama before him, was perhaps too hopeful that limited diplomacy could turn into genuine détente with the Islamic Republic. For now, managing and limiting further deterioration in the relationship while building coalitions to pressure Iran and all the while sustaining a strong U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region will have to be the realistic interim goals. Most of this Biden is already doing fairly well. After the tragic attacks of late January that took three American lives in Jordan, the president will need to find a way to punish Iran more directly without running undue risk of an all-out war. That will require sophistication and a calm hand.
Regarding the broader war against terrorist extremists, the Biden team seems to be largely continuing Obama and Trump’s overall policy approach of using a modest number of moderately-sized military assets in the broader Middle East region and northern Africa to help partner nations with their indigenous capacities while also monitoring and occasionally striking extremists with U.S. capabilities. This is a generally sound approach.
Less sound, in my judgment, was the decision to pull out of Afghanistan quickly. Writing in 2022, I made the point that departing after only four months’ notice was badly mistaken. It left the Afghan government with inadequate time to develop a military triage plan or figure out how to keep its U.S.-provided planes flying without American contractor support. The impressive achievement of getting more than 100,000 Americans and U.S. friends out of Afghanistan by the end of August 2021 was severely tainted by the fact that we left many friends behind and that 13 Americans died in a tragic attack in Kabul on August 26. Although the rapid Taliban takeover of the country spared the country a massive bloodbath, the ineptitude and extremism of the Taliban government have led to a situation in which the World Food Program estimates that roughly half of Afghanistan’s population of 40 million is at risk of famine, and almost 20 percent at extreme risk. All of this to end a U.S. military presence that had already been downsized more than 95 percent from peak by the time Biden took office, and to honor a 2020 agreement with the Taliban that the latter had already violated multiple times over.
Still, any fair assessment of the Biden national security record must place the Afghanistan debacle in a geostrategic perspective. That country is of limited global import compared with many others. The killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri by a U.S. drone after American intelligence located him in a Kabul “safe house” in July 2022 suggested that “over the horizon” counterterrorism is not completely impossible against a known target. Time will tell, but Biden’s mistake in Afghanistan does not appear to have cost the United States seriously to date (though that could change).
With the end of the November 2023 cease-fire and the resumption of intensive Israeli military attacks in Gaza, the United States’ ability to influence its close friend is in doubt.
The terrible tragedy of Hamas’s heinous attack on Israel on October 7, 2023 caused immense human suffering and led to a very complex situation for Biden in the region. It is still too early to assess the administration’s overall record. Much will depend on what kind of political and security frameworks can be established, not only to help end the current round of fighting, but with the profound hope of preventing future rounds as well. So far, the basic sequencing of the Biden administration’s approach to the crisis—first, come unconditionally to Israel’s aid while supporting its right of self-defense, and second, try to steer Israel toward more selective uses of force as its operations unfold, and third, try to deter a broader regional war whether with Hezbollah or Iran or the Houthis in Yemen (against whom the United States has now conducted several selective attacks while avoiding broader conflict)—has been broadly correct. That said, with the end of the November 2023 cease-fire and the resumption of intensive Israeli military attacks in Gaza, this time largely in the south, the United States’ ability to influence its close friend is in doubt—and the nation’s moral standing, important for maintaining pressure on Russia over Ukraine, among other things, is at risk. It is probably time for Biden to heed the advice of Congressional Democrats and place certain restrictions on arms exports to Israel; notably, it might scale back shipments of unguided artillery and bombs, as Israel has been using such weapons too much at times, with serious and tragic consequences.
Finally, to the border, Mexico, and fentanyl. There are no silver bullets for these issues. But Biden has failed to propose ideas commensurate with the scale of the problem. Building a wall is unlikely to make much difference, given that fentanyl is usually smuggled into the country at legal points of entry. The challenge must be addressed in broader terms. A larger package of economic and law-enforcement cooperation with Mexico and Central America is probably the right way to think about the fundamental path forward. The Mexico, border, and fentanyl elements of Biden’s $106 billion foreign assistance package, as proposed to Congress in the fall of 2023, together constitute a belated step in the right direction. So is Biden’s willingness, partly for tactical reasons unrelated to the border, to accept tougher conditions on how foreigners may apply for asylum into the United States—and thereby to restrict the flow of people into the country. Nothing about any such crackdown need be viewed as permanent; historically, the United States has gone through periods of higher and low immigration in its history, and a scaling back at this juncture could be viewed as just one more adjustment in a long history of immigration policy. Given the magnitude of the fentanyl crisis, and high flows of illegal immigrants into the United States of late—as well as simple political reality—Biden has been right to toughen his own views on immigration and the southern border, albeit belatedly.
Core national power: Infrastructure, resilience, and economics
Despite having to settle for a very modest or “super-skinny” version of his Build Back Better agenda as reflected in the so-called Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, Biden has in fact worked with Congress to pass at least three major “domestic” acts with major and positive national security ramifications. But—as I noted in October 2022—he also has a major liability.
The first achievement was the 2021 law known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. It provides an important way for the country to give a sustainable boost to elements of its domestic and economic power that are relevant to military strength, given what they do to bolster GDP (and also potentially to make infrastructure more resilient against attack). Many scholars consider it quite substantial in its scale and likely impact. The success should not be overstated, since not all ensuing investments will create greater scientific, industrial, or potential military power. But some will.
The second achievement was the July 2022 CHIPS and Science Act, which funded semiconductor factories in North America as well as scientific research. It will eventually reduce the nation’s dependence on key high-tech goods from East Asia, and strengthen the nation’s underlying science and technology base, over time.
The third substantial piece of legislation was the so-called Inflation Reduction Act of August 2022. Its central focus on providing hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies and grants to foster greater energy security, with a particular eye on green technologies, is relevant to national security given the urgency of the climate challenge. This is a major accomplishment, and the proposal’s funding appears sound, such that the act will not add to the deficit (unlike Trump’s and Biden’s COVID-19 relief packages, the last of which may not have been crucial). Given the severity of the climate challenge, future generations may see this act as falling short of what the moment required, but it is still quite substantial compared with anything before it.
These bills are important not only in their own immediate right but as part of a larger national security strategy for the country.
The nation’s economic foundations are crucial to its long-term strength, domestic cohesion, and military power. Its high-tech sectors are also crucial to defense innovation. As such, these bills are important not only in their own immediate right but as part of a larger national security strategy for the country.
But there are clearly big problems on the home front, too. Biden cannot be blamed for the United States’ overall political tenor, except perhaps to the extent that his original gargantuan concept for “Build Back Better” with its highly-touted $6 trillion price tag contributed to the sense (fair or not) of him as an out-of-control spender. Yet he can be criticized for fiscal policy given his unwillingness to talk plainly to the country about the need for entitlement reform. U.S. debt held by the American public is already roughly equal to GDP and is on track to reach 172 percent by mid-century. As the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget put it, “high debt levels slow income and wage growth, increase interest payments on the national debt, reduce the fiscal space available for the nation to respond to a recession or other emergency, place an undue burden on future generations, and increase the risk of a fiscal crisis.” By slowing income and wage growth, and also indirectly impeding the possible adoption of worthwhile new programs to strengthen America’s middle class, such debt levels also weaken the domestic consensus that internationalism is good for the country. That weakening consensus is a huge danger to the United States’ ability to sustain the kind of global leadership that has helped make the last 80 years, despite many problems, the most peaceful and prosperous in human history.
As a way of mitigating this problem, the United States almost surely needs more federal revenue and a way to constrain the growth of entitlements. Big and immediate cuts in benefits are probably not needed; policies can be put in place in the near term that have their largest effects only over time. Slowing the rate of growth of those benefits while modifying some age eligibility rules and some elements of the tax code that fund Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other entitlements can do much to make these programs solvent and the nation more fiscally secure. Biden should not have shied from that challenge, even if most of his political competitors are no better on the subject.
Biden’s overall national security policy has been solid through the first three years of his presidency. It might be described as one of what I call “resolute restraint”—being firm on defending allies and core interests without looking for big new projects or succumbing to escalatory pressures when crises arise. His desire to avoid escalation and war during a crisis is commendable and not to be taken for granted. His overall approaches to Russia, Ukraine, and NATO, on the one hand, and to China, Taiwan, and U.S. alliances in Asia, on the other, have been particularly sound.
Less strong has been Biden’s handling of Afghanistan, Mexico, North Korea, Iran, and the new transnational threat agenda—though even within these problem areas, there have been some successes, as with the strengthening of the U.S.-South Korea-Japan alliance network. On economic and technological stewardship of the nation, Biden has done decently with several big pieces of legislation, and on balance his record has been good—though his inability to work successfully with the Congress on addressing the nation’s enormous deficit and debt puts America’s long-term power at increased risk.
Generally speaking, though, the Biden record holds up reasonably well. The core job of any American president on the national security front is to keep the world as safe and stable as possible so that the nation will remain at peace. These goals, knock on wood, are being achieved. Biden deserves no Nobel Prizes yet for solving any of the key overseas challenges that make today’s international environment very dangerous. And he has made mistakes. But by focusing on the big picture and the fundamentals—especially China and Russia, defense policy, national economic and scientific strength—he has gotten most of the big picture right. As Obama might say, there haven’t been too many home runs. But so far at least, there have been a decent number of singles and doubles—and no huge disasters. That must necessarily be a contingent assessment; much could change in 2024, and beyond. Yet with all the challenges and dangers in headlines today, it is easy to lose sight of what is still right, and promising, with the state of the world and with America’s role in that world.