Dear President Biden,
I hope this note finds you well. You’re a busy guy, so I’ll get straight to the point. You’ve now been in office for over a year, and you still don’t have a National Security Strategy, which, as you may know, you’re legally obliged to send to Congress. That’s a tad pokey, don’t you think?
Last March, you did issue a placeholder: The “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.” That document was primarily concerned with “the climate crisis” and “those who argue that, given all the challenges we face, autocracy is the best way forward.” As has since become apparent, the latter is the real crisis because the autocrats are not just arguing.
On February 4, 2022, the presidents of Russia and China—Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping—proclaimed a new partnership “superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era” with “no limits” and “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”
Twenty days later, Putin sent tanks, troops and missiles into Ukraine. His mission: to overthrow the democratically elected government and turn an independent nation-state into a Russian colony.
Since then, Putin’s barbarity—mass executions, torture, rape, forced population transfers—has been shocking and criminal. William Burns, your CIA director, last week observed that Mr. Xi is “a silent partner in Putin’s aggression.”
Given these developments, can we agree that you have some serious work to do on your NSS and that the final product should be significantly different from what your interim guidance, which mentions Russia just five times, two in a positive context, suggests?
And may I lend a hand?
Your NSS should be predicated on “peace through strength.” That’s not just a Reaganesque concept. It traces back to an ancient Roman general who wrote, “If you want peace, prepare for war.”
It makes sense if you think about it. Bad guys are less likely to throw a punch if they think you can hit harder. The corollary is that, if they see you as weak, they’re apt to take their best shot.
To achieve “peace through strength” requires deterrence. That comes in two flavors. The more effective is “deterrence by denial.” Imagine if Putin had looked at Ukraine and said, “Those SOBs are armed to the teeth! I won’t succeed in conquering them. And I may get clobbered if I try!”
Your policy instead was to refrain from provoking Vladimir the Terrible. That undoubtedly encouraged him.
However, you did attempt to establish “deterrence by punishment,” warning that if he butchered his neighbors, economic sanctions would follow. He factored that in and proceeded anyway.
One reason: He knew Germany and other European countries were addicted to Russian fossil fuels and would keep writing checks and remain reluctant to provide Ukraine with weapons. You encouraged such thinking by limiting American energy production and exports, and relinquishing America’s status as an energy superpower.
That was necessary, you argued, to address the aforementioned “climate crisis.” Perhaps, in your NSS, you might consider alternative policies. Like what? How about replacing coal overseas with American liquefied natural gas? According to a credible analysis, that would “have the environmental impact of electrifying every vehicle in the United States, putting solar on every household in America and adding 54,000 industrial-scale windmills.”
One more point on deterrence: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has been talking about “integrated deterrence.” If he’s implying a “whole of government” approach, that’s fine, but hardly new. Count me among those who fear he really means speaking softly and carrying a smaller stick. Austin recently said that integrated deterrence “will give any adversary pause.” Uh-oh. You do see why “pausing” is not as good as deterring, don’t you?
In your interim guidance, you emphasize the importance of “our alliances and partnerships around the world.” Right you are! But you’ve also been talking about a “pivot toward Asia,” which by definition means turning your back on alliances and partnerships in Europe and the Middle East, even as common enemies are attacking them. How about dropping the pivot and reinforcing deterrence everywhere?
One silver lining: Putin may have reawakened NATO. Germany and other member nations haven’t been contributing adequately to collective security. It’s now your job to lead the effort to revitalize this defensive alliance, possibly with Finland and Sweden coming onboard. But keep in mind: NATO unity is not the goal. Rather NATO unity is the means by which NATO achieves its goals: deterrence leading to peace.
Final thought: A growing number of serious analysts, including Matt Pottinger, a former deputy national security adviser and my FDD colleague; and Elliott Abrams, who served in high posts in several administrations and is now with the Council on Foreign Relations; believe that a new Cold War is already underway.
As noted above, a Sino-Russian alliance is driving the conflict. Among the junior partners are Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, North Korea (nuclear-armed today, thanks to fatally flawed diplomatic deals in the past) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (which will be nuclear-armed before long if you conclude a watered-down version of former President Barack Obama’s fatally flawed deal).
Are you prepared to lead the free world against what Waller Newell, the great academic expert on tyranny, calls the “Antidemocratic League”? If so, you must adjust your priorities—not least your spending priorities.
Years from now, when historians read your NSS, will they conclude that you recognized the threats to America and its allies and responded effectively? Or will they say that while tyrants ran roughshod over Europe, Asia and the Middle East, your attention was … elsewhere.
If you want to chat about any of this, you know where to find me. Not a joke! And have a nice day!
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a columnist for “The Washington Times.”