The Biden Administration’s Dangerous Grand Strategy

Melanie W. Sisson
Sunday, May 21, 2023, 4:47 PM
Can the liberal international order survive the strategy to save it?
President Joe Biden with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan aboard a train bound for Kyiv, Ukraine from Przemsyl, Poland. (White House,; Public Domain)

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Editor's Note: The United States is in an era of great power competition, arming Ukraine against Russia and seeking to contain Chinese aggressiveness. But are U.S. policies making the problem worse? My Brookings colleague Melanie Sisson argues that the Biden administration is militarizing its foreign policy and, in so doing, missing opportunities for diplomacy and economic cooperation that could make the United States and its allies safer.

Daniel Byman


The world is fast becoming a more armed and dangerous place. Discourse in Washington, D.C., attributes this unhappy trend to the temperaments and appetites of autocratic leaders generally, and of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping specifically. There is of course no question about Putin’s culpability, as the war he launched in Ukraine continues into its second year of death, destruction, and callous manipulation of the risks of escalation and nuclear detonation. Xi is implicated insofar as he is expanding China’s nuclear arsenal and using the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to advance discredited maritime and territorial claims, coerce regional neighbors, and signal displeasure with U.S. Taiwan policy, all with the potential for misperception and miscalculation.

 This focus on Russia’s and China’s militarism overlooks the contributions U.S. national security strategy is making to the increasingly hazardous international environment. The United States is pursuing military solutions to its problems with Russia and China despite the fact that, short of fighting wars that should never be fought, there aren’t any. 

In Ukraine, the United States continues to chase the moment when battlefield dynamics shift sufficiently in Kyiv’s favor that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is in the “strongest possible position at the negotiating table.” This framing reduces decision-making to a choice between which weapons to send or not to send so as to strike just the right balance between perpetuating the war between Russia and Ukraine without precipitating a war between Russia and NATO. The first year of navigating this line involved such large transfers of ammunition and of Javelin and Stinger missiles to Ukraine that its continuation into a second year has inspired serious conversations about reviving legacy munitions production through multiyear government contracts. These calls to reestablish the United States as the “arsenal of democracy” are fashioned as necessary both to defeat Putin today and to deter Xi tomorrow. Making more weapons over a longer duration, however, is a tactical maneuver that addresses the U.S. ability to have and transfer weapons; its strategic effect will be to prolong the destructive stasis in Ukraine and to fuel the militarization of U.S. alliances and partnerships elsewhere. 

This is not just a matter of arms transfers and expenditures, though military spending has grown globally since 2015 and the U.S. defense budget alone is inching ever closer to the $1 trillion mark. It also is evident in the nature and type of relationships taking shape, especially in East Asia. The Biden administration’s commitment to “reaffirming and revitalizing [U.S.] alliances and partnerships around the world” has been pursued less by reinvigorating diplomatic and economic exchange than through the expansion and tightening of defense arrangements. NATO has added one member and is working on a second, which would raise its roster to 32 countries, and its 2022 Strategic Concept for the first time includes the Indo-Pacific as a NATO concern, describing China as a “systemic challenge.” The United States has acquired access to four new military bases in the Philippines, the trilateral AUKUS agreement involves the near-term forward rotation of nuclear-powered U.S. fast attack submarines to Perth, and the United States will soon begin periodically docking a nuclear-armed submarine in South Korea.

 These moves—along with U.S. encouragement of increases in and changes to Germany’s, Japan’s, and Australia’s defense postures to hew toward contingency readiness—are explained as necessary for deterrence in Europe and in Asia. These displays of power in both regions, in turn, are presented as the means through which to demonstrate the substance and solidarity of the liberal international rules-based order. Military might, in other words, provides deterrence; and deterrence sustains global order.

 There are good reasons to be skeptical about both of these assertions. In the first instance, the history of the 20th century punctures, if not entirely deflates, the proposition that more weapons in the hands of more countries produces more deterrence and therefore more peace. In the second, it is difficult to reconcile the current balance of military capabilities between China and the United States—in 2022, their military expenditures were $292 billion and $877 billion, respectively—with the extent of U.S. agitation about China’s growing regional and global influence. U.S. distress that it no longer can be assured of prevailing in any and all military contingencies over Taiwan is understandable, but it is not the PLA’s ability to go toe-to-toe with the United States in the Taiwan Strait that explains China’s influence in its own region, much less farther afield. Although China’s neighbors are rightfully unhappy about the PLA’s local and sometimes aggressive activities, these upsets do not yet outweigh their interest in maintaining a productive economic relationship with China. This is even more the case for countries in other regions, which see great value in China’s willingness to enter into free trade agreements, to invest in their economies, and to provide alternatives to Western development aid.      

 This is not to say that the Biden administration is insensitive to diplomacy or to economic relationships, but its efforts in these domains have been pursued with less energy and have generated far fewer outcomes than its military initiatives. Indeed, the administration’s most visible overtures have produced diffidence, disappointment, wariness, and anger: Its summits for democracy have been described as partisan pageantry; the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum hasn’t delivered the trade relationships that partners in Asia want; participants in the high technology global value chain worry that U.S. controls on exports to China will force them to make costly trade-offs; and important European partners object to subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act, arguing that they are unfairly protectionist.

 In an explanatory speech delivered at the Brookings Institution in late April, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan sought to redress confusion and dissatisfaction with these policies by making the case that they are part of a comprehensive response to an international environment in which the gains of trade liberalization and the benefits of institutionalized multilateral regimes—like the World Trade Organization—no longer outweigh their costs and risks. In response to this shift, the United States will implement industrial policy at home to address climate change, reduce dependencies, and increase resilience to shocks. It also will negotiate a multiplicity of plurilateral economic affiliations abroad that are characterized not by the absence of tariffs but by agreement on corporate taxation and adherence to environmental protections and labor requirements. Emerging economies are to benefit from U.S. diplomacy with international development banks and other sources of financing for infrastructure investment and debt restructuring. 

 It may be that Sullivan’s speech is an indication that the administration is rebalancing its grand strategy to focus less on demonstrating military might and more on putting other tools of national power to good use. Promoting U.S. leadership by engaging earnestly on the economic and non-military security and status issues that other states care about would be a welcome adjustment, as would be breaking away from the stalemate paradigm that is driving U.S. policy on Ukraine. Discovering non-battlefield ways to change the combatants’ perceptions of their leverage at the negotiating table should take priority over negotiating long-term weapons procurement deals. Defense guarantees are not the only source of U.S. influence, and a grand strategy that better reflects this fact is a good way both to invite the cooperation the United States wants from other states and, if not to reduce, then at least not to exacerbate, dangerous military dynamics both in Europe and in Asia. 

If, however, the administration is not undertaking such a rebalancing, then what it is proposing to do is to combine all the costs and risks of deconstructing globalization with all the costs and risks of accelerating militarization. The success of this approach is highly contingent: on the extent to which other states accept the premise that what is good for the U.S. economy is good for theirs; on the extent to which they perceive the United States to be hearing or ignoring their concerns and preferences; and on the extent to which military fortification does, or does not, prove also to be military provocation.

Melanie W. Sisson is a fellow in the Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology at the Brookings Institution, where she researches the use of force in international politics, U.S. national security strategy, U.S. defense policy, and military applications of emerging technologies.

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