The US national security strategy and what it means for Australia
19 Oct 2022|

Last week, US President Joe Biden released his administration’s long-delayed national security strategy. It opens with a sense of urgency, declaring this a ‘decisive decade for America and the world’ to outmanoeuvre global competitors and address the shared threats of climate change, pandemics, food security and terrorism.

The challenge is stark, the White House declares, as basic norms governing international relations are under attack, the risk of war between the world’s major powers is growing, a contest between democratic and autocratic systems is spreading, competition for developing foundational technologies is accelerating, and all of this is occurring in the midst of fraying global cooperation.

The document articulates a strategy of investing in America’s core strengths to enhance national resilience; aligning US efforts with those of other like-minded nations to build the broadest coalitions possible focused on supporting a free and open world; and modernising the US military forces in order to compete with a more assertive set of actors, led by China and Russia. Working with other nations to tackle the shared global problem of climate change is also highlighted, as is Washington’s desire to shape the rules for emerging technology, cyberspace and trade.

Nevertheless, competition, and more specifically competition with China, is the central theme of this document. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the global pushback are given much space, the recurrent message that runs through the document is prioritising dealing with a more assertive China and maintaining an enduring edge to do so.

While the document is the product of an effort to coordinate input from across the entire US government, it can’t be called a comprehensive strategic document given that it’s an unclassified version and doesn’t attach resources to efforts. Still, it an important document for what it says about the Biden administration’s understanding of the world, how it defines American interests, and what it designates as its foreign-policy priorities. A close reading also reveals several important takeaways for Australia.

The document, rumoured to be ready for publication last year, had to be delayed and then rewritten due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In fact, what we saw this year was an inversion of the normal order of American national security processes. The national security strategy is supposed to articulate a broad national strategy, which then informs more focused documents such as the national defence strategy, and more specific regional articulations such as the Indo-Pacific strategy.

This year, however, the order was reversed due to the rush of real-world events and bureaucratic wrangling. The national security strategy was held because it made no sense to put it out before Washington had some sense of the trajectory of the war in Ukraine. The Indo-Pacific strategy, by contrast, came out while Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Australia in February precisely to underscore that the US could, so the saying went, walk and chew gum at the same time. That is, it could focus on responding to the first territorial war of conquest in Europe in 75 years while still prioritising its efforts in the Indo-Pacific region.

Australia should take several important messages from this document—some of which are spelled out, but the majority of which are implicit and rest on factors outside of the document.

The first of these is that, important as this document is, it should not be read in isolation, but rather alongside the administration’s slew of other national security documents—the Indo-Pacific strategy, the first-ever Pacific partnership strategy, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, the global posture review and the national defence strategy. Taken together, these documents, which are intended to be internally consistent, offer a more comprehensive sense of what Washington aims to do in the region and with Australia.

While these documents are statements of strategic intent, it will be as important to look to Congress to see what actions it takes in support of these intentions. Congress has legislation passed or pending to fund the US semiconductor industry, authorise US$280 billion for investments in critical and emerging technologies, invest in clean energy, push for significant military sales to Taiwan, and intensify screening of outbound investment. The passage and implementation of all of this legislation—most of which is bipartisan—would demonstrate that this strategy is real, not just aspirational.

The strategist Bernard Brodie once wrote, ‘Strategy wears a dollar sign.’ If, as Biden declared, we are entering a ‘decisive decade’, a useful metric by which to judge America’s articulated strategy is the resources it is able and willing to offer in support of its desire to retain, with its allies, an enduring edge.

Significantly, the strategy places heavy emphasis on the role of allies and partners as a US advantage. AUKUS, the security partnership between Canberra, London and Washington, represents a major, if still unrealised, attempt to enable and empower America’s closest allies, enhance their defence collaboration and accelerate their integration. The strategy specifically, if elusively, underlines that effort by stressing the importance of ‘removing barriers to deeper collaboration … to include joint capability development and production’. That is easier said than done, and will take sustained political and legislative pressure to force a change in how America thinks of defence collaboration on its most sensitive technologies.

While Biden’s national security strategy shares the theme of competition with his predecessor Donald Trump’s, this is anything but an ‘America first’ document. Placing allies, and coalition building, at the heart of American strategy is a rejection of the more unilateral approach taken by the Trump administration. What’s unclear, with American midterm elections looming in November and the 2024 presidential contest around the corner, is how long such a feeling will last in Washington.

It is clear, though, that Australia has assumed a significantly more important role in Washington’s strategic calculations than it has in the past. Some will look to the number of times Australia is mentioned in the document, but a better marker of the change in Washington’s thinking is that Australia, and efforts in which Australia plays a leading role such as AUKUS and the Quad, are now much more central to US national security efforts. Those are likely to persist regardless of who occupies the White House.

Finally, the increasing efforts of the US to block China from acquiring key technologies; the defence of Taiwan becoming a preoccupation of American planning; and the end drawing near of the 18-month effort to determine how best, and most quickly, to proceed with AUKUS all make clear that we have entered a more competitive phase of American strategy towards China. If strategy is equal parts conception and execution, it’s clear that Washington’s focus is about to shift to working more closely with Australia in pursuit of these ends.