President Biden gave an admirable speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, condemning Russia’s war and making clear that the United States will continue its support of Ukraine. “We chose liberty. We chose sovereignty,” he said, rousingly. “We stood with Ukraine.” In the aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s recent nuclear threat and call-up of reservists, it was reassuring for the leader of the free world to be unflinching.
Rhetoric aside, the administration has signaled in numerous other ways that Putin’s threats have constrained support for Ukraine. Biden’s foreign policy team speaks of putting up guardrails in the conflict and congratulates themselves on their slow increase in assistance not provoking Mr. Putin. Government officials tell journalists they’ve been sending private warnings for months to the Russians about nuclear use, yet the president himself sounds anxious publicly, repeatedly asserting, “We’re trying to avoid World War III.” We have let Russian threats determine our actions, which encourages Russia and others to test our resolve.
The problem is even larger than it looks. Twenty months into the administration, there is no public National Security Strategy. That makes it difficult for Congress to align spending to strategy, and difficult for allies to align their policies to support ours. All of the downstream strategy directives, including the National Defense Strategy and the National Military Strategy, are hostage to delays on the National Security Strategy. Even within the administration, there is no binding guidance, to take a recent example, inhibiting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, from opposing the administration’s proposal to cancel a new nuclear cruise missile (which Congress sustained over White House objections).
The Biden White House may claimthat surprises like China’s nuclear weapons breakout and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine required major revisions to U.S. strategy. Good strategy hedges against uncertainties such as these, so it is the deficiency of the Biden administration’s strategy and its lack of foresight — not the events that derailed it — that is to blame.
The gap between what the administration is claiming as their foreign policy objectives, and what it is actually willing to do, is a serious problem for American security, for Russia and beyond. In mid-September President Biden said for the fourth time that should China invade Taiwan, the U.S. would send troops to defend it. And, for the fourth time, administration officials claimed this obvious change in policy represented no change in policy.
The Biden administration bungling its messaging is bad enough. But worse are the real gaps in capability that call into question whether the United States could indeed defend Taiwan. The ships, troop numbers, planes and missile defenses in the Pacific are a poor match for China’s capability. The director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, has assessed that the threat to Taiwan between now and 2030 is “acute,” yet the defense budget is not geared to providing improved capabilities until the mid-2030s. More broadly, the Biden administration isn’t funding an American military that can adequately carry out our defense commitments, a dangerous posture for a great power. The Democratic-led Congress added $29 billion last year and $45 billion this year to the Department of Defense budget request, a measure of just how inadequate the Biden budget is.
Further, though the Defense Department knows industry needs multiyear contracts to keep production lines open, the Biden defense budget is long on research and development, short on purchases of weapons and ammunition. Our supplies to Ukraine have revealed unacceptable shortfalls of munitions in U.S. inventories and industrial incapacity to resupply.
Nor are the deficiencies just military. In fact, the absence of an international economic policy helping the United States and other countries reduce their reliance on China may prove an even bigger problem. Although its strategy relies fundamentally on allied support to counter China, the Biden administration’s so-called “foreign policy for the middle class,” as outlined on the campaign trail and by the national security adviser, appears to be indistinguishable from Trump administration trade protectionism. The current administration allowed trade promotion authority from Congress to lapse, won’t rejoin the trans-Pacific trade agreement, has aggrieved Asian allies with the protectionism of the Inflation Reduction Act and offers only vague promises of future negotiations. It is not a recipe for success.
Nor are these the only gaps between stated policy and the willingness and ability to carry out the policy. The administration appears to lack an effective strategy for the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea beyond the empty statements that we will not allow North Korea to have nuclear weapons, though experts believe the leadership in Pyongyang may have dozens of them. Or look to Iran, where the administration pursued a strategy known as “more for more” — more sanctions relief for more constraints on the Iranian nuclear program — and yet it cannot even get a return to the 2015 terms from Iran. Moreover, war with Iran is surely a non-starter for a president who abandoned Afghanistan, and is effectively indifferent to the fate of Iraq and Syria.
Talking with Ukrainians in Kyiv in mid-September, it was striking how much better they are at strategy than is the Biden administration. They understand — and relentlessly convey from every department — that their success relies on Western support, and that the West has both a moral and geopolitical interest in Ukraine winning. President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged he was getting pressure from some Western governments for concessions to make negotiations possible, and turned the issue around: “We are instead setting the conditions to make negotiations possible,” he told me: a sharp but diplomatic reorientation to shield Ukraine against Western failure of resolve. The military, economic, and foreign policy lines of Ukraine’s strategy are mutually reinforcing, lending greater strength to each. This is what a whole government strategy looks like in execution.
Analyzing Russian strategy, in Foreign Affairs, Liana Fix, a historian and political scientist, and Michael Kimmage of Catholic University recently concluded Russia’s failure comes from “matching extravagant political aims in Ukraine to meager and inefficiently marshaled means.” Tempting as it is to marvel at Russia’s strategic incompetence, we ought to be worried that the grave deficiencies Russia is demonstrating also haunt our own national security strategy. We risk making the same mistakes Vladimir Putin has, by overestimating our military power, hobbling essential international cooperation with our economic policies, and believing our own statements despite our actions undermining them.
Kori Schake directs foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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