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A Bipartisan Agenda on National Security

Policy moves that President Biden could take to unite the country and build on its strengths.
January 26, 2021
A Bipartisan Agenda on National Security
A US Air Force F-15C Eagle" jet is seen behind a US flag during an exercise of NATO's Baltic air-policing mission at the Siauliai Air Base in Siauliai, Lithuania, August 30, 2017. (PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Even before the storming of the Capitol, the enemies of democracy abroad were taking advantage of American distraction. Russia was calculating that it could deter any U.S. actions to limit the expansion of Russian influence by the threat of devastating reprisal attacks on American cyberinfrastructure, as last year’s massive SolarWinds hack demonstrated. China was accelerating its military modernization program, building up its forces opposite India, and engaging in mass arrests in Hong Kong. Iran had raised its uranium enrichment to levels that make breakout to an atomic bomb easier. Pakistan has activated new plutonium-producing nuclear reactors and reprocessing plants. Since the Capitol attack, the English-language newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, Global Times, has been gloating about America’s shame. Other adversaries have also indulged in schadenfreude. The Capitol attack, the transition between administrations, and the looming fight over a Senate impeachment trial may make some of them think that this is the time to take aggressive action to settle business, while the United States is distracted and internally divided.

American leaders of both parties wherever possible must now set aside business as usual to show our enemies abroad that they cannot exploit America’s preoccupation with its problems at home. Conservatives cannot afford to engage in partisan attacks on the old hot-button issues like climate change or Iran or arms control. We can all agree, as President Joe Biden emphasized in his inaugural address, that the United States must first build strength and show unity. We must do so in ways that are convincing abroad if we wish to keep the peace that makes prosperity and safety possible at home. A limited bipartisan consensus on national security, and a bipartisan agenda for the first months of the new administration is possible. A government of all talents is necessary to meet the challenge.

An early move that the new administration can make to take off the table one potentially controversial issue: President Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin should make clear that while the defense budget cannot now be increased, it will not be cut during his administration, even though we face the costs of COVID-19 and domestic reconstruction, and that he will veto any budget that does so. More than increases in the defense budget, the American military must have stable funding so it can plan. Our enemies must know that Republicans and Democrats agree that America will surely and steadily build its military strength.

Second, America must recommit to NATO, both to turn the page on the Trump administration’s relationship with the alliance—which was uncomfortable at best, antagonistic at worst—and to take into account new realities. Such a recommitment must be bipartisan if it is to be reassuring. President Biden should consider naming high-level, anti-Trump officials who served in Republican administrations, like Condoleezza Rice and Eric Edelman, to be special envoys to NATO. They should convey a message from Republicans and Democrats that the United States will not withdraw any more forces from Europe—but there must also be a NATO commitment to ensuring that China does not gain access to European high technology. European nations will not spend two percent of their GDP on their defense budgets no matter what we say or do. Germany will always balance between Russia and the United States. We must accept these facts, but we must also limit the ability of the Chinese to match us in high technology.

Similarly, Japan must be reassured by Republicans and Democrats that it will not face North Korea and China on its own. Again, prominent anti-Trump Republican officials, such as Mitt Romney and Aaron Friedberg, should be considered as extraordinary presidential envoys to Japan to discuss the ways in which the American extended nuclear guarantee that protects Japan can be made as credible as possible. If Japan desires, this could include using the same tools of military diplomacy that protected Europe during the Cold War.

Third, since 1945, the United States kept the peace and won its wars even though it faced enemies who were superior to it in numbers because it had superior technology. The Department of Defense has played an essential role in building and maintaining our technology lead and paying for the industrial base that turned technology into capability. Republicans and Democrats can agree on that. There are professionals who have worked in the Department of Defense under presidents of both parties who know how to strengthen the American technology base. Michèle Flournoy and Will Roper are two such professionals. They should both be put to work to do this, and their work should include developing a national security immigration policy that brings the best science and engineering talent in the world to the United States and keeps it here.

There will be many areas where conservatives will argue with Democrats. We should and will argue about where and how to stand up to China, Russia, and Iran. President Biden was elected to make these decisions based on his principles, the facts on the ground, the arguments of both sides, and his prudential judgments about when and where the United States must take risks. He will be more likely to succeed if he, along with Republican leaders, can begin his term in office with national security policies that unite the country and build its strengths.

Stephen Peter Rosen

Stephen Peter Rosen is the Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs at Harvard University.