The Next National Defense Strategy


The Biden-Harris administration is inheriting a defense strategy undermined by a mix of Jacksonian populism manifest in President Donald Trump’s political base, and COVID-19, a once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic. Certainly, no plan survives first contact, but it is increasingly apparent that the U.S. defense strategy has neither altered Chinese foreign policy nor found a way to navigate polarizing domestic political divisions, racial tensions, and the economic dislocation brought on by trade wars and disease.

The question then is: What should come next? Which aspects of the 2018 National Defense Strategy should the Biden-Harris team retain and which should they adjust? How should the administration balance defense initiatives with the reality of a global pandemic and diminished American standing in a multipolar world?



We argue that the Biden-Harris team should continue focusing on great-power competition, but in a manner that prioritizes rebuilding America’s security architecture and alliance interoperability. The new defense posture should engage China not as a rival, but as a competitor, and focus more on diplomacy, rebuilding international institutions, and addressing systemic human security issues manifest in the pandemic, global income inequality, cyber security, and climate change. Great powers have great responsibilities in an uncertain world.

Below, we take stock of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. While the 2018 strategy called for investing in alliances, the Trump administration failed to implement this aspect and adjust as the pandemic changed international relations. The strategy, along with the new U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff concepts on competition and integrated campaigning, is sound overall. But the Biden-Harris administration should ensure that it doubles down on partners and allies. The focus should shift from increasing lethality and defense modernization to rebuilding America’s competitive advantage: a global alliance architecture.

The National Defense Strategy Theory of Victory: Expand the Competitive Space

Military strategy is a blueprint for translating military power into political objectives. Every military strategy articulates a theory of victory. The theory specifies a competitive logic, describing what produces military power, possible confrontations, and how to best employ forces to achieve national security objectives consistent with political interests. In simpler terms, it frames the problem, describes a preferred future, and begins to outline how a state can apply available resources to get there.

The initial problem definition and solution set in the 2018 National Defense Strategy was concise and clear: “[A] more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force, combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners, [would] sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power that safeguard the free and open international order.” This combination of forward-deployed forces, alliances, and defense modernization formed a competitive strategy that would deter states like China and Russia from challenging the international order.

Furthermore, this competitive strategy called for integrating defense with other instruments of power to shape the international system:

A long-term strategic competition requires the seamless integration of multiple elements of national power — diplomacy, information, economic, finance, intelligence, law enforcement, and military. More than any other nation, America can expand the competitive space, seizing the initiative to challenge our competitors where we possess advantages and they lack strength.

This emphasis on integrated instruments of power is not unique to the United States. The character of strategy is changing. Military strategy in the 21st century involves the global circulation of ideas and influence as much as it does carrier strike group deployments. Even China and Russia are increasingly operating in gray zones, employing what Herman Kahn called sub-crisis maneuvering and George Kennan labeled political warfare. The reality is that setting the conditions and shaping the environment by leveraging multiple instruments of power and managing escalation risks are key aspects of 21st-century statecraft.

Despite trying to set up U.S. defense strategy for global competition, the 2018 plan struggled. Two things went wrong: the Trump administration and the pandemic. President Trump and his national security team did not implement the strategy in a way that put allies and partners front and center as the plan originally intended. The United States did not invest in the advantage that America has and China lacks: a global alliance architecture. Implementation also incentivized the worst aspects of the modern defense bureaucracy. Military services raced to spend money America didn’t have, while generals and civil servants focused on narrow operational plans at the expense of larger strategy. Ends, ways, and means became unglued. In addition to this tragedy of implementation, there was a failure to adjust. Already on life support, the plan never fully adjusted to the 2020 global pandemic, a domestic political situation that could be described as a dumpster fire, and shifting international attitudes toward American power.

What Went Wrong, Part I: A Tragedy of Implementation

Three tragedies undermined implementation of the 2018 National Defense Strategy. First, given the emphasis on increasing lethality and defense modernization in the plan, each military service raced to cash in on what multiple senior leaders referred to as the Trump bump in a buying spree that would leave President Dwight Eisenhower rolling in his grave. Sadly, many of these initiatives — from the U.S. Army’s Project Convergence to the U.S. Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations — have sound ideas, but do little to address a broken defense modernization bureaucracy wrought with inefficiencies and subject to diminishing marginal returns. The fact is, the Department of Defense failed its first and second audits.

The costs of innovation are starting to eclipse the expected gains at a time when America has systematically failed to balance its budget. Worse still, these investments favor increasing American lethality over alliance interoperability. Washington is buying toys its friends won’t be allowed to play with, like hypersonic weapons. If the enduring American advantage is its global alliance architecture, then investing in capabilities that increase military power across the alliance is a form of competitive strategy, a finding echoed by recent war games for U.S. Army Futures Command hosted by the Atlantic Council.

Second, generals, appointees, and civil servants focused more on the narrow tactical and operational aspects of an increasingly bold U.S. military strategy in the Asia-Pacific region than the larger defense strategy itself. Daily news reports discuss yet another freedom of navigation operation or military exercise to deter China. Yet have they? The fundamental question is whether any of these activities alter Chinese behavior. While state behavior is often complex and overdetermined, rarely subject to a single cause, evaluating the deterrence value of defense strategy is a central foreign policy question. Based on China’s 2019 defense white paper and increased defense spending, Beijing does not appear deterred. Instead, it is expanding joint military exercises with Russia and Iran and countering U.S. naval drills with massive missile exercises that signal its ability to target U.S. carriers. What is even more concerning is that China has doubled down on its coercive activities in the political, informational, and economic spheres, as evidenced by recent events in Hong Kong and renewed military pressure on Taiwan.

There appears to be a mismatch between ongoing U.S. military operations that pressure China by demonstrating an ability to escalate and a strategic end state of deterrence. In their now classic study of military innovation in the lead-up to World War II, Allan Millett and Williamson Murray rightly observed, “No amount of operational virtuosity or strategic wisdom redeemed fundamental flaws in political judgment,” and thus, “it is more important to make correct decisions at the political and strategic level than it is at the operational and tactical level. Mistakes in operations and tactics can be corrected, but political and strategic mistakes live forever.” At present, the U.S. military is busy working away on tactical and operational challenges, but largely missing the bigger political picture. In other words, the generals and civil servants tend to focus on the operational trees and miss the strategic forest. China is not deterred. Continuing to increase military pressure absent a clear escalation management framework or political end state is a dangerous gamble that also risks further alienating allies.

What Went Wrong, Part II: Failure to Adjust

In addition to failures in implementation, policymakers failed to adjust to the economic realities of 2020 and domestic politics. The budgetary environment radically shifted following the onset of COVID-19. In addition, even before the pandemic, neither party seemed interested in balancing the budget. With a federal budget deficit totaling $3.1 trillion, the United States’ budget gap in Fiscal Year 2020 was roughly 16.1 percent and the largest it’s been since the last year of World War II, per the bipartisan Deficit Tracker. The balance of economic power does not favor aggressive competition, and the U.S. business community seems to be in different place from the defense establishment. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and two dozen industry associations have pressured Congress to slow the implementation of anti-China prohibitions. A defense strategy predicated on increasingly lethality doesn’t work if it breaks the bank and creates a domestic backlash.

In light of present economic realities, it is noteworthy that some proponents of a “get tough” approach with China point to the latter years of the Cold War as an analogy. In the 1980s, so the story goes, President Ronald Reagan invested heavily in defense, the Soviets couldn’t keep up, and the Soviet Union crumbled. The lesson for today being that the United States should invest heavily in defense and stay the course until the Chinese system fractures. However, as Dan Coats, Trump’s former Director of National Intelligence, has made clear, this analogy is a “dangerous myth” and fails in light of the fact that the Chinese economy in 2020 is far larger and more dynamic than that of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Furthermore, falling oil prices and people power as manifest in brave dissidents likely did as much, if not more, to undermine the Soviets than the U.S. defense budget.

Sadly, while the United States remains enamored with the military instrument of power, China is inking both multilateral and unilateral trade deals around the world. On Nov. 15, 2020, China, along with 15 other nations in the Asia-Pacific region, including U.S. allies Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand, signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Washington’s refusal to participate leaves the United States outside a free trade zone that comprises a third of the world’s economy. The fact that Washington also chose not participate in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a similar agreement that does not include China, means the United States is a nonplayer in the two most important economic forums in the region. A recent RAND report on influence — the ability to shape the actions of others — concludes that the United States is falling behind in nonmilitary forms of persuasion. U.S. policymakers should recognize that the economic landscape is shifting, both domestically and internationally. Any strategy that does not take economic realities into account runs a higher risk of failure.

Finally, U.S. policymakers do not have a clear appreciation of the impact of domestic politics on strategy, both in China and at home. With respect to the former, the Trump administration is convinced that it can drive a wedge between the Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party. This interpretation misses the degree to which the party is integrated into Chinese society. Sure, one can argue that Chinese Communist Party members are a minority at 200 million or so out of 1.4 billion, but one needs to extend that number out to friends, family, associates, and so on. There is not as much daylight between the Party and the people as China hawks would like to believe, particularly on core interests, such as Taiwan and perceived threats to Chinese sovereignty. Here again, Washington fails to take into account the economic dimension. Under the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership, millions of Chinese families have been lifted out of poverty. While Chinese citizens might chafe against restrictions on their civil liberties, one can expect the majority to support their government, provided living conditions continue to improve.

Conclusion: Bring Allies Back in the Next Four Years

The 2018 National Defense Strategy focused correctly on great powers like China. Yet its implementation left much to be desired and undermined the secret to American success: partners and allies. At the strategic level, the only way to affect China’s decision-making calculus is to work with allies and partners to create collective positions of strength. That requires investing less in exquisite U.S. military capabilities and spending the marginal defense dollar more on alliance interoperability and efforts like the Pacific Deterrence Initiative that create the coalition missile defenses, expeditionary airfields, and ports needed to move modern militaries. These infrastructure investments should also include expanded cyber cooperation as envisioned by the 2020 U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission.

Bringing allies back in also requires changing the tone of America’s relationships abroad. The preferred U.S. approach to working with allies and partners over the last four years has been one of seeking maximum short-term leverage at the expense of long-term trust and confidence. Relationships take work. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has taken a day trader mentality. U.S. leaders tended to present things as binary, rather than on a spectrum. The United States did not give allies much choice between complete embrace and total rejection. This approach is dangerous, considering that allies and partners justifiably view the United States as a basket case right now.

Investing in partnerships should also involve new thinking about alliance networks in a digital age and how to create collective goods in a multipolar system. Defense alliances aren’t limited to stopping land invasions. They actively shape interactions in an anarchical society, creating security communities and providing flexible options to help states address issues like migration, disinformation, and countering violent extremism. Great-power competition in the 21st century will indirectly involve all of these dimensions, creating a need for new thinking that transcends counting armored division equivalents and enemy submarines. The national security community needs to retire Cold War-era security discourse and develop new ideas that incorporate diverse perspectives, critical analysis, and evidence-based arguments. As Christopher Layne points out in a recent Foreign Affairs article, “The trouble is that although supporters of increased confrontation are making their case loudly and clearly, opposition to such policies has been surprisingly muted within the foreign policy establishment.”

The new arms race should be the quest for allies and shaping of the international order in a manner that promotes stability and prosperity as collective goods in an interconnected world. Based on China’s actions with respect to international organizations, it would appear that China is more adaptable at present, building new trade pacts and pledging, unlike America, to deliver a vaccine to nations in need. Contrast that with repeated hard-line and tone-deaf speeches on China, such as National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien’s recurrent attempts to paint China as an existential threat. The fact that other nations are dissatisfied with China does not mean they agree with the United States. A multipolar world is not binary. As former George W. Bush administration official Kori Schake points out, countries may not like China, but they also don’t trust America right now, a conclusion supported by survey data that shows most countries hold negative views of both China and the United States. Sadly, it would appear the outgoing Trump administration is telling a story that only the U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex finds compelling. Thus far, the only thing that has saved America’s inept diplomacy is China’s tone-deaf approach to international relations.

Unless the next National Defense Strategy brings allies back in, the United States is at risk of being left out of the international order it built with partners after World War II and reinforced after the Cold War. The last four years risk being more than an interlude if American doesn’t reinvest in its partners and allies. The key to moderating China’s behavior is creating positions of strength through building larger networks of partners and allies. By working with others, America presents a unified front that limits Beijing’s authoritarian instincts and freedom of maneuver.



Benjamin Jensen, Ph.D. holds a dual position as a professor at the Marine Corps University, School of Advanced Warfighting, and as a scholar-in-residence at American University, School of International Service. He is also a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. He recently served as the senior research director and lead author for the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect official policy.

Nathan Packard, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at the Marine Corps University, Command and Staff College, and an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He spent the last year at the National War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect official policy.

Image: Department of Defense