In the dispiriting aftermath of the past four years of aimless, incoherent, entirely transactional national security affairs, the Biden administration now holds a tabula rasa in hand that, properly orchestrated, could provide strategic holy writ for the years ahead. Will there inevitably be a Biden Doctrine? Yes. Should there be a Biden Doctrine? Yes. What form might it take? Time will tell.
Regrettably, we remain consumed today by the pandemic crisis, and crisis management is the very antithesis of strategy. Moreover, the Biden national security team is made up entirely of establishmentarian types whose sole immediate goal is public reassurance and institutional restoration. So, looking into the future and framing a coherent architecture for getting there doesn’t seem to be in the cards for now.
Virtually every administration lays claim to its own national security or foreign policy doctrine — even when there is an underlying grand doctrine like the Cold War “containment.” In some cases these doctrines are consciously and intentionally articulated, as with the Truman, Clinton, or Bush 43 doctrines. In other cases, the label is affixed after the fact, often by outsiders, to emergent circumstances and developments (as with Nixon, Carter, and Reagan). For yet others there is no doctrine worthy of the name (Johnson and Bush 41, for example).
There was no Obama Doctrine, due principally to Obama’s rejection of the constraints of pre-programming. Certainly there was no Trump doctrine, due to pronounced intellectual incapacity and disinterest. And clearly there no longer is grand doctrine comparable to containment. So, in the sense that strategy is, in part, a philosophy of global conduct, there remains a philosophical vacuum, now at least 12 years old, waiting to be filled.
Doctrine is a codification of precepts and principles that provide a thematic guide to and reflection of one’s approach to statecraft. Substantively, it provides an intellectual compass; symbolically, it seeks to convey imagery of a coherent, competent, thoughtful “grand design.” Though that may be the intent, in reality most presidential doctrines have proven less than earth-shattering or mind-bending — invariably they are utilitarian products of the domestic and international politics of the moment.
By law (50 USC §5043), the Biden administration is required to transmit to Congress a national security strategy report not later than 150 days after the President takes office. By June 19, then, if not before, we should expect to see what passes for an initial Biden doctrine. It will tell us how visionary and bold the new administration is capable of being and willing to be.
The first thing critical observers should look for is whether the Biden team opts for politically driven feasibility (the possible) or bold, visionary desirability (the aspirational) as its overarching criterion of choice. The former would reflect a preference for incremental realism and the establishmentarian legitimacy that goes with it; the latter for something approximating transformational idealism and the disapprobation that invariably attends unrealistic hopefulness. What, then, could a bold, visionary Biden Doctrine that prizes desirability over feasibility do?
First, most fundamentally, it could provide the platform for reestablishing a commitment to constitutionalism in the conduct of statecraft. Picture the effect, for example, if the president were to state that, henceforth, any commitment of U.S. forces to prospective hostilities would be subject to prior congressional approval, the intent being for Congress to fulfill the obligation implied by its constitutionally enumerated power to declare wars.
Second, it could similarly be a vehicle for reasserting the country’s commitment to the international rule of law. How? By resurrecting our obligations to long-standing treaties to which we are party but have consistently ignored — notably, the 1928 Kellogg-Briand General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy (which passed the Senate 85-1); or the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Article VI of which commits all parties to good-faith negotiations to end the nuclear arms race at an early date leading to nuclear disarmament. And by joining international agreements we have eschewed to date due to political and ideological resistance, e.g., the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and others.
Third, in much the same manner as the Kennedy administration’s flexible response doctrine displaced Eisenhower-era massive retaliation, a Biden Doctrine could — and should — summarily reject the major ideologically driven untruths of the 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy (arguably the extant de facto national security strategy): that the world we inhabit is defined by so-called Great Power Competition; that our deserved primacy in every domain of warfare is threatened; that we must attend to the 2+3 threats of China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and violent extremism to the exclusion of transnational threats and other parts of the world; and that lethality should be our primary instrumentality for confronting such a world.
Fourth, a Biden Doctrine could embody a major reconceptualization of some of the most enduringly sacrosanct ideas associated with statecraft. In seeking national security, for example, we would acknowledge that it is properly situated between human security on the one hand and global security on the other, and that its domestic dimension is every bit as important as its international dimension.
In exercising power, we would accentuate the importance of the inspirational power of the example we set and the ideational power of the ideas we put forward. In pursuing interests — that by their nature are intellectually and socially constructed rather than objectively apprehensible — we would assume responsibility for attending not just to national interests but to supranational interests. In considering sovereignty, we would give increasing weight to the truth that such supreme authority resides in humans who are governed, not just in the states that govern. And in our dealings with allies and partners, we would henceforth treat such arrangements as ends in themselves, not just as convenient means to self-interested national aims.
Finally, a bold, visionary doctrine would — or could — be predicated on any of a range of truly heterodox proposals designed to demonstrate U.S. intellectual leadership and significantly redefine the prevailing rules of the international order. What might be the impact of initiating actions to establish inclusive multilateral collective security regimes (as opposed to exclusionary alliances) in each region of the world; or to supplant state-to-state multilateralism with permanent state-nonstate polylateralism; or to place U.S. super ambassadors in each region of the world (thereby asserting civilian primacy over military combatant commands); or to undertake a Manhattan Project-like effort to develop and field a family of nonlethal weapons technologies; or to seek an international convention banning international trade in lethal arms?
The possibility is real that such ideas are nothing but harebrained wing-nuttery — at least in the minds of the realists among us. They are among the paradigmatic protectors and perpetrators who suffocatingly control the discourse of national security affairs. But vision is about seeing what others can’t or won’t see, and leadership is about translating vision into action. The Biden administration assumes office at an historical inflection point — the passage from the post-Cold War world to the post-post-Cold War world — and it does so with one hand tied behind its back, intellectually speaking, due to the destructive, counterproductive practices of its immediate predecessors. We must hope that bona fide strategic vision will light the path ahead.