What hit me as I leafed through Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, released last month, was a familiar sense of dismay. The document was overflowing with unrelated concepts shoe-horned into the broad framework of "national security." Here's a taste:
We confront a global pandemic, a crushing economic downturn, a crisis of racial justice, and a deepening climate emergency. We face a world of rising nationalism, receding democracy, growing rivalry with China, Russia, and other authoritarian states, and a technological revolution that is reshaping every aspect of our lives.
I’m not sure when this tendency to shoe-horn actually started. It has to have pre-dated Trump, because rolling it back is one of those things that weirdly seemed to obsess his administration. I remember listening to a briefing by National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster in the early months of 2017 in which he vowed to downsize the National Security Council. He didn’t say it explicitly, but the intent was clear enough: there were too many staffers with too many useless portfolios kicking around the Old Executive Office Building. “Great power competition,” another brainchild of McMaster’s, was similarly more than just an attempt to get America to focus on the threat of a rising China. It was also a not-so-subtle attempt to push aside secondary concerns that had come to preoccupy the bureaucracy—democracy promotion, human rights, climate change—from the decision-making matrix. The late-term attempt by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to define human rights down was done in an analogous spirit.
Though pundits howled at these initiatives, overall I thought them healthy. Maybe there was something unseemly about the relish with which the Trumpists went about goring sacred foreign policy cows, but a culling of the herd seemed to be a good thing. A foreign policy guided by an over-broad sense of what constitutes national security was a foreign policy that at best poorly set priorities, and at worst was tempted to activism in pursuit of unrealistic or unachievable goals. I knew America could never fully shelve its Wilsonian crusader instinct, but in my estimation it had acted recklessly since Madeleine Albright declared America to be the indispensable nation in the mid-1990s. It was high time for a rebalance, especially with the era of uncontested American global hegemony coming to an end.
Of course Trump’s amateurish incompetence and lack of focus ensured that whatever corrective his team thought they were administering would not be thorough or lasting. True believers in the so-called liberal world order started getting ready to restore what Trump had desecrated well before the 2020 campaign season kicked into high gear. Joe Biden himself, still swatting away speculation about his own intentions to run for the nation's highest office, put down a marker to an audience starved for hoary American idealism at the 2019 Munich Security Conference. “I promise you," he intoned, "as my mother would say, this too shall pass. We will be back. We will be back. Don’t have any doubt about that.”
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