Executive Branch Foreign Relations & International Law

A Tale of Two Strategies: Comparing the Biden and Trump National Security Strategies

Saraphin Dhanani, Tyler McBrien
Friday, November 4, 2022, 8:01 AM

Reading the National Security Strategy on its own provides insights into an administration’s values and priorities, but comparing it to a previous strategy yields even more. How does Biden’s strategy compare to that of Trump’s?

Secretary Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan Deliver Statements to the Press (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Secretary_Blinken_and_National_Security_Advisor_Sullivan_Deliver_Statements_to_the_Press_(51052764548).jpg)

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It’s a busy time for the national security business. 

Last week, the Justice Department publicly announced charges against 20 nationals from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), including two PRC intelligence officers. Elsewhere in the Washington, progressive Democrat lawmakers sheepishly withdrew their letter calling on President Biden to urge Russia to impose a cease-fire in Ukraine, as GOP lawmakers suggested that aid to Ukraine should be pared down, both at a time when Russia has doubled down on its occupation of four regions of Ukraine through an illegal annexation, conducted nuclear drills, and brought the world eerily closer to nuclear annihilation.

But that’s not all. There seem to be simmering geopolitical crises everywhere you look: the energy crisis in Europe; Xi Jinping securing a third, and indefinite, term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); and a U.S.-Saudi relationship on the rocks—just to name a few. 

While busy, it’s still business-as-usual for Washington, and nothing reflects these competing national security priorities better than the Biden administration’s new National Security Strategy (NSS). Mandated by the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, the NSS conveys the executive branch’s national security vision to the legislative branch and, by extension, the public. The report should include, among other things, the “worldwide interests, goals, and objectives of the United States” vital to national security, as well as the “foreign policy, worldwide commitments, and national defense capabilities of the United States necessary to deter aggression and to implement the national security strategy.” 

As Center for a New American Security CEO Richard Fontaine said in a recent episode of the Lawfare Podcast, the word “strategy” in the NSS is something of a misnomer—anyone looking for an articulation of objectives and how to achieve them may be disappointed. Rather, as Fontaine notes, the NSS is a “very long foreign policy speech, a snapshot of how a particular administration understands its global security and economic environment …. [I]ts chief value is [as] a signaling device.”

Reading the NSS on its own provides insights into an administration’s values and priorities, but comparing it to a previous NSS yields even more. How does Biden’s NSS compare to Trump’s 2017 strategy? Is it a sea change for U.S. national security policy, or more of the same, especially on hot-button issues like Russia, the PRC, immigration, and climate change?

It’s important to note that other factors, outside of values and priorities, could animate the variation in strategies. In many respects, Biden’s NSS of 2022 was written in a much different world than that of Trump’s NSS of 2017. One stark example is the U.S. relationship with Russia—the Biden administration delayed the release of its NSS in February, citing the likelihood of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

This article lays out high-level priorities in Biden’s and Trump’s NSSs and analyzes how the two administrations talk about the issues, paying close attention to how they’re aligned and where they differ. 

On Balancing Domestic Revitalization Interests and Great Power Competition

President Trump’s “America First” tenor during his campaign seemed to suggest that national security would be an inward-looking endeavor during his administration. In other words, revitalizing the U.S. economy would take priority over U.S. engagement overseas. In the cover letter to his NSS, buried between his signature and polemics against North Korea, Iran, and ISIS, is a nod to his “America First” campaign promise: “[W]e will serve the American people and uphold their right to a government that prioritizes their security, their prosperity, and their interests. This National Security Strategy puts America First.” 

But the 60 pages that follow paint a different, relatively sober strategy. For starters, “America First” is no longer used to imply that the U.S. will take an isolationist course. Instead, the administration redefines the term altogether: “An America First National Security Strategy is … a clear-eyed assessment of U.S. interests … based upon the view that peace, security, and prosperity depend on strong, sovereign nations that respect their citizens at home and cooperate to advance peace abroad. And it is grounded in the realization that American principles are a lasting force for good in the world.” 

Thereafter, “America First” is largely erased from the document. Instead, the administration folds its commitment to preserve American interests and security into the larger framework of traditional national security goals, such as “lead[ing] in multilateral organizations,” partnering with allies, and “respond[ing] to the growing political, economic, and military competitions” from adversaries like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. From this appear four umbrella goals that reiterate the Trump administration’s hybrid efforts to address both its domestic revitalization efforts and its commitment to global partnership and competition: (1) “protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life” (domestic goal); (2) “promote American prosperity” (domestic goal); (3) “preserve peace through strength” (international goal); and (4) “advance American influence” (international goal). Trump’s NSS makes clear that global engagement is a key ingredient to achieving economic, political, and social security for Americans at home. 

The Biden administration’s NSS is similar in this regard. Some combination of partnership, cooperation, and competition are highlighted as necessary ingredients to achieve the administration’s core strategy, “rooted in [the U.S.’s] national interests: to protect the security of the American people; to expand economic prosperity and opportunity; and to realize and defend the democratic values at the heart of the American way of life.” 

Unlike Trump’s NSS, Biden’s strategy sometimes loses the domestic security focus in its 48-page document. Against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s growing influence across the world, and the fabric of democracy fraying at the seams in countries around the world, competition with adversaries and autocracies undergirds the Biden strategy. The administration unites democratic countries on one side and isolates autocracies on the other. Indeed, Biden notes that we are at an “inflection point” and “in the midst of a strategic competition to shape the future of the international order.” He asserts that we must “sharpen our competitive edge for the future” and that our “competitors mistakenly believe democracy is weaker than autocracy.” Facing these competitors, Biden stresses that “we need to win the competition for the 21st century.” In this way, questions of economic, social, and political revitalization efforts seem to be second to, and in furtherance of, achieving a competitive edge over the U.S.’s adversaries.

On China/PRC and Russia

The principal adversaries in both Trump’s and Biden’s strategies are China (known as the PRC in Biden’s strategy) and Russia. But the two administrations diverge from there.

Trump conflates China and Russia as posing similar challenges to the U.S., including “attempting to erode American security and prosperity” and making “economies less free and

less fair[,] … grow[ing] their militaries, and … control[ing] information and data to repress their

societies and expand their influence.” Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Ryan Hass explains that “painting China and Russia with black and white brushes obscures that those countries do not have perfectly aligned interests. Russia is more of an arsonist of the existing international order, whereas China seeks to be an architect of a revised order …. Since China is still rising while Russia is not, Beijing has more to lose and hold at risk than Moscow. Recognizing such distinctions is a critical step toward crafting approaches to act upon them.”

Biden, by contrast, decouples the two countries and, further, decouples the government of China from the Chinese people by referring to the Chinese state as the PRC. His strategy makes plain that Russia and the PRC “pose different challenges” and the U.S.’s response will vary accordingly. The U.S. “will prioritize maintaining an enduring competitive edge over the PRC while constraining a still profoundly dangerous Russia.” Here, it’s difficult to tell whether these variations reflect differences in values and priorities or, rather, the time in which the two strategies were written.

On Immigration

In Trump’s NSS, the word “immigration” or “immigrants” appeared 18 times to Biden’s four. This more frequent invocation is not perspective neutral—the Trump administration’s hostile view toward immigration was apparent even in its order of priorities. In the strategy’s first pillar, “Protect the American People, the Homeland, and the American Way of Life,” an intention to “[s]trengthen [b]order [c]ontrol and [i]mmigration [p]olicy” received top billing. While remaining open to what the Trump administration called “lawful immigrants,” it nonetheless warned that “[t]errorists, drug traffickers, and criminal cartels exploit porous borders and threaten U.S. security and public safety.” The Trump NSS spoke harshly of the immigration system at the time, which, “contrary to our national interest and national security, allows for randomized entry and extended-family chain migration.” To meet the threat posed by immigration, the administration prioritized enhancing border security and vetting, enforcing immigration laws, and bolstering transportation security. 

The latest NSS suggests a softer view of immigration from the Biden administration, at least rhetorically. Rather than a threat needing to be neutralized, immigration is seen as a source of strength and renewal and a “unique strategic advantage.” In a section on competition with the PRC, the Biden administration is careful to distinguish between the CCP and Chinese government on the one hand, and the Chinese people on the other, referencing the U.S.’s own rich history of Chinese immigration: “Racism and hate have no place in a nation built by generations of immigrants to fulfill the promise of opportunity for all.”

To that end, the Biden administration claims it will build immigration and refugee systems that are “fair, orderly, humane, easier to navigate, and consistent with our values and the law.” In fact, the NSS references a “fair, orderly, and humane” immigration system in several places. The Biden administration sees the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration, “a bold hemisphere-wide partnership centered on the principle of responsibility-sharing, stability and assistance for affected communities, the expansion of legal pathways, humane migration management, and a coordinated emergency response,” as central to these efforts. 

On Trade

Both the Trump and Biden NSSs insist on a free, fair, rules-based system of international trade. While the former leans more heavily on the America-as-victim rhetoric (for example, the Trump administration wrote that when Trump took office, “[u]nfair trade practices had weakened our economy and exported our jobs overseas”), both strategies castigate rule-breakers and unfair foreign trade practices. The Biden NSS sees the PRC as the chief violator: “[T]he longstanding rules that govern trade and other means of economic exchange have been violated by non-market actors, like the PRC.” 

Many of the priority actions identified in the Trump NSS with regard to trade, including “to adopt new trade and investment agreements and modernize existing ones,” “counter unfair trade practices,” and “work with like-minded partners,” map onto the Biden NSS, but the latter adds more specificity to these vague goals. Recognizing the need to “move beyond traditional Free Trade Agreements,” the Biden administration claims to be “charting new economic arrangements to deepen economic engagement with our partners.” Specifically, the Biden NSS calls out the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) (a partnership “to drive inclusive, broad-based prosperity and advance our shared interests in resilient, fair, digital, and low-carbon economies”), the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council (which is “coordinating approaches to setting the rules of the road on global technology, economic, and trade issues based on shared democratic values”), and the Prosper Africa Build Together Campaign (“to fuel economic growth across the continent and bolster trade and investment in the clean energy, health, and digital technology sectors”), among other named initiatives.

On Terrorism

Trump’s NSS highlights one existential terrorist threat: jihadist terrorists. The NSS explains that “[j]ihadist terrorist organizations present the most dangerous terrorist threat to the Nation” (emphasis added). But according to FBI Director Christopher Wray’s 2019 testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, in recent years, domestic terrorists—specifically, “racially-motivated violent extremists”—“have been responsible for the most lethal activity in the U.S.” Indeed, right-wing terrorism, which includes racially motivated extremism and opponents to government authority, has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of sources, including jihadist groups, since at least 2015. 

Biden’s NSS reiterates Trump’s commitment to countering terrorism overseas. He does not, however, explain the unique threats in Somalia and Syria, two countries with ongoing U.S. military operations for counterterrorsim purposes. Moreover, beyond overseas threats, the most notable difference between Trump’s and Biden’s NSSs is that Biden also commits his administration to countering “increased threats from a range of domestic violent extremists” in the U.S. In Biden’s strategy, domestic violent extremists are defined broadly and include those “motivated by racial or ethnic prejudice, as well as anti-government or anti-authority sentiment.” The strategy commits to implementing the first-ever National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, a comprehensive approach to addressing domestic threats in the U.S.; working with state, local, territorial, and tribal partners to streamline information on domestic violent extremist threats; and working with Congress to advance and reform gun laws and address the ongoing challenges of disinformation and misinformation.

On Climate Change

On climate change, comparing the Trump NSS and Biden NSS is quite easy. Put simply, climate change plays a central role in Biden’s NSS, and played no role at all for Trump, other than as an impediment to U.S. industry. For the Trump administration, U.S. leadership was “indispensable to countering an anti-growth energy agenda that is detrimental to U.S. economic and energy security interests.” Instead of the specter of climate change, the Trump NSS sought to combat the specter of energy dependence, embracing “energy dominance” and the unshackled development of energy resources as the antidote. 

The Biden administration’s strategy—much like President Biden’s rhetoric since taking office—reimagines climate change as an existential threat and, therefore, central to U.S. national security interests. As Erin Sikorsky points out in Lawfare, “[c]limate change is mentioned a whopping 63 times (compared to 71 mentions of Russia and 55 mentions of China). More important than the number of mentions, however, is how climate change is framed—as a top-tier threat on par with, and influenced by, geopolitical challenges from U.S. adversaries and competitors.” Rather than another piece on the board of a zero-sum game, climate change is framed as a shared challenge, one requiring international cooperation rather than competition. Despite this call for collective action, the Biden NSS reminds readers that “[g]lobal action begins at home,” promoting a domestic clean energy transition, bolstering disaster preparedness and resilience, and integrating climate change into national security planning and policies. 

Aside from this shift in tone, there are some similarities. The Biden administration does not completely abandon the Trump administration’s focus on energy dependence. But instead of finding an answer in the unfettered production of fossil fuels, the Biden administration strives for clean energy: “Events like Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine have made clear the urgent need to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels. We know that long-term energy security depends on clean energy.” 

On the Middle East

The strategies strike a different tone with regard to the Middle East—and yet both versions leave the reader with a similar feeling, that the Middle East is somehow deficient, that despite U.S. investments in the region, it’s still not cured of its woes. 

President Trump asserts that the U.S.’s “aspirations for democratic transformation [in the Middle East]” was not a “realistic … [expectation] for the region.” So the U.S. must now change course. References to terrorist groups and Iran’s aggression in the region lay the foundation for Trump’s three-part Middle East strategy, which is political, economic, and militaristic in nature. 

The political strategy is all about strengthening partnerships to achieve lofty ends, including reinforcing the U.S.’s relationship with Iraq as an independent state, “seek[ing] a settlement to the Syrian civil war that sets the conditions for refugees to return home and rebuild their lives in safety,” “deny[ing] the Iranian regime all paths to a nuclear weapon,” and “helping facilitate a comprehensive peace agreement that is acceptable to the Israelis and Palestinians.” Trump’s economic strategy is rather muted—he commits the U.S. to be a champion for economic reform and modernization. But his military strategy is robust—retaining the U.S.’s military presence in the region to protect against terrorist attacks, “preserve a favorable regional balance of power,” assist in counterterrorism efforts, “help partners procure interoperable missile defense[s],” and “neutralize Iran’s malign activities in the region.”

President Biden’s strategy is “more practical,” as noted in his NSS, and written in part to “account for the opportunity costs” of having already invested in the Middle East at the expense of the U.S.’s “competing global priorities.” Great power competition with China and Russia’s war in Ukraine are now frontline issues Washington must address. 

Against this backdrop, Biden sets out his five-principle framework that echoes Trump’s commitment to building partnerships in the region, stomping out terrorism, paring back Iran’s nuclear capabilities, supporting the two-state solution in Israel, and promoting security connections between the U.S. and its partners in the region. Biden’s NSS reinforces the use of diplomacy as the principal tool to achieve these ends. And unlike Trump’s strategy, Biden’s NSS notes that the military will have a more limited role in the region. Aside from “strengthening partner capacity, enabling regional security integration, countering terrorist threats, and ensuring the free flow of global commerce,” the U.S. military will no longer be in the business of using force to defend the region. That responsibility now falls on the individual countries in the Middle East. Biden’s NSS makes plain that the U.S. would enable its “partners to defend their territory from external and terrorist threats” and that the U.S. military’s use of force would be deployed only “where it is necessary to protect [U.S.] national security interests.” 

On Partnerships

With Africa: Trump’s and Biden’s strategies in Africa mirror one another, striking a sanguine outlook on the continent’s possibilities. Both strategies reinforce the importance of partnerships to, as Biden’s NSS notes, “achieve our shared priorities from health and pandemic preparedness to climate change … [and] press partners about human rights, corruption, or authoritarian behavior.” Both strategies also highlight the U.S.’s commitment to helping African nations flourish as democracies, promote the rule of law, and aid partners in preventing terrorist expansion in the region. 

Africa’s economic potential is a focal point in both strategies. Its “transformative economic growth,” as Biden’s strategy notes, catalyzes both administrations to commit to fostering economic ties with the continent. Notably, only Trump’s strategy places this commitment within the larger context of China’s growing economic influence in the region: 

China is expanding its economic and military presence in Africa, growing from a small investor in the continent two decades ago into Africa’s largest trading partner today. Some Chinese practices undermine Africa’s long-term development by corrupting elites, dominating extractive industries, and locking countries into unsustainable and opaque debts and commitments. … We will offer American goods and services, both because it is profitable for us and because it serves as an alternative to China’s often extractive economic footprint on the continent.

For all of its emphasis on competition with China, Biden’s NSS is uncharacteristically quiet about it in the context of Africa. Instead, there is a one-sentence nod to the “destabilizing impact of the Russia-backed Wagner Group.”

With the Arctic: Trump’s NSS makes no mention of the Arctic region. President Biden’s NSS, however, details its growing import in the U.S. As Russia and the PRC exert influence over the region, Biden’s NSS lays out the U.S.’s response to impair their influence, including upholding security in the region, deepening cooperation with allies in the Arctic to sustain inter-Arctic institutions and partnerships, protecting freedom of navigation, investing in infrastructure, and mitigating climate change. 

With Central Asia: Trump’s NSS discusses Central Asia within the context of South Asia. Biden’s NSS bakes Central Asia into the section about the U.S.’s alliance with Europe. Still, both strategies address the U.S.’s commitment to Central Asia in passing. Trump dedicates two sentences to Central Asia: the U.S. “seek[s] Central Asian states that are resilient against domination by rival powers, are resistant to becoming jihadist safe havens, and prioritize reforms. … The U.S. will encourage the economic integration of Central and South Asia to promote prosperity and economic linkages that will bolster connectivity and trade.” 

Biden dedicates only three sentences:

[The U.S.] will continue to support the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Central Asia. [The U.S.] will foster efforts to enhance resilience and democratic development in the five countries in this region. [The U.S.] will continue to work through the C5+1 diplomatic platform (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the United States) to advance climate adaption, improve regional energy and food security, enhance integration within the region, and build greater connectivity to global markets. 

With Europe: Trump’s and Biden’s strategies in Europe are largely the same. They commit to “deepening the transatlantic bond,” as Biden’s plan states, assuring their European partners that they are committed NATO members, making clear that NATO partners must assume greater responsibility and cost-sharing, and committing their administrations to counter Russian aggression in the region. Biden also notes the EU as an “indispensable partner” for shared climate goals, and the Group of Seven as a reliable partner to solve “the world’s most pressing challenges.” He also underscores the U.S.’s support for the Good Friday Agreement, “the bedrock of peace, stability, and prosperity in Northern Ireland.” 

Biden’s strategy makes a few additional points with regard to Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Given the context of the war in Ukraine, he doubles down on the U.S. continuing to help defend Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He commits to assisting the West Balkans in building democratic institutions and a flourishing economy. He also commits to “back[ing] diplomatic efforts to resolve conflict in the south Caucasus.” 

With the Indo-Pacific: Both Trump’s and Biden’s strategies reinforce the U.S.’s “iron-clad [commitment]” to preserving its partnership in the Indo-Pacific. Their shared efforts include supporting free and open societies in the region, freedom of the seas, a defense presence in the region, and some degree of economic cooperation. Both NSSs also highlight the U.S.’s partnership with India as fundamental to achieving these ends. 

The main departure point of the two strategies is how they address the U.S.’s economic partnerships with the Indo-Pacific. The Trump administration is more transparent about pursuing “bilateral trade agreements on a fair and reciprocal basis[,]” seeking “equal and reliable access for American exports[,]” and “work[ing] with partners to build a network of states dedicated to free markets.” 

Ironically, though, Trump’s “America First” commitment severed many important trade relations with Southeast Asia, making the region more reliant on the Chinese economy. Vestiges of “America First” still exist today, particularly with regard to efforts by the Biden administration to bolster domestic manufacturing at the expense of its trans-Atlantic economic partnerships. These efforts, also known as “Made in America” policies, have limited the Biden administration’s ability to decouple Southeast Asia from the Chinese economy and have the U.S. act as an alternative trading partner. Biden’s NSS reflects this reality. It obviates any real trade and economic commitment to Southeast Asia and instead notes, in passing, a commitment to “promote … economic connectivity across the Indian Ocean region” and “develop[] IPEF to drive inclusive, broad-based prosperity and advance … shared interests in … low-carbon economies.” It also touts its “[l]eadership through Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) … complement[ing] these efforts.” 

With South Asia: While Trump’s “South and Central Asia” strategy focuses principally on South Asia and, within South Asia, on Pakistan and Afghanistan as frontline counterterrorism partners in the region, Biden’s strategy erases any mention of the region. In fact, Pakistan is not mentioned once in Biden’s strategy. Afghanistan, for its part, is referenced four times in the context of the U.S.’s withdrawal from the country and a brief note that the U.S. will “ensure Afghanistan never again serves as a safe haven for terrorist attacks on the United States or [its] allies.” 

Trump and Biden also highlight India as a strategic partner, though Trump uses the sections on both South Asia and the Indo-Pacific to do so, while Biden addresses India only in its Indo-Pacific strategy.

With the Western Hemisphere: Trump’s and Biden’s NSSs share the same vision with regard to the Western Hemisphere. Migration management, economic cooperation, democratic stability, and building security are at the center of their strategies with the Western Hemisphere.

With adversaries: Trump’s NSS by and large “others” adversaries. Biden’s NSS, however, acknowledges the inherent tension between competition and cooperation. It outlines a “dual-track approach” that involves working with “like-minded” partners, and also with “geopolitical rivals” that are “willing to work constructively … to address shared challenges,” including climate and energy security, pandemics and biodefense, food insecurity, arms control and nonproliferation, and terrorism. 


Though still a worthwhile exercise, there are limitations to the revelations one can glean from going through each NSS with a fine-toothed comb. There’s an old Washington adage that says that no one in government really reads the thing. It’s also a static document that reflects the time and place in which it was written. And even the most well thought out strategies can be overtaken by events, through no fault of the document’s authors. As Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."

Saraphin Dhanani is the Legal Fellow at the Lawfare Institute. She previously worked at the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Ambassador for Human Rights and in the Markets Group at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. She holds a B.A. from Wellesley College, where she was a Fellow and Ambassador at the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute, and a J.D. from Stanford Law School, where she was the Senior Articles Editor of the Stanford Law Review.
Tyler McBrien is the managing editor of Lawfare. He previously worked as an editor with the Council on Foreign Relations and a Princeton in Africa Fellow with Equal Education in South Africa.

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