Security Policies and Strategy under the Biden Administration: Will Outcomes Reflect Election Promises?

by Will Strickland


Photo by Caleb Perez on Unsplash

Biden is expected to chart a fundamentally different course for American foreign policy from Trump by implementing policies based on a belief in international institutions and shared western democratic values.1


Some of the anticipated changes are:

  • Easing of the ‘Maximum Pressure’ campaign on Iran and attempts to reinstate some form of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
  • Continuing redeployment of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan that end the ‘forever wars’, but potentially retaining a CT presence in the region and continuing reconciliation efforts with the Taleban.
  • Reinvestment in NATO, at a minimum with renewed leadership, but possibly to more assertively counter Russia, particularly in ‘conflict below the threshold of war’.
  • Reinvestment in the Rules-Based International System: renewing international leadership in multilateral organisations, countering authoritarianism and corruption, strengthening human rights advocacy, and using force as a last resort.


For many observers, these are seemingly obvious choices and should be implemented immediately.


The international security opportunities associated with a new, highly experienced, more balanced, inclusive and internationalist Administration are significant. Effective implementation will, however, be hard fought for, and needs to be grounded in realism, the alignment of structural factors and considered leadership.


However, my PhD research into national strategic decision-making and practices suggests the implementation of policy changes will not be straightforward for four primary reasons.2


First, what may start as a clear form of election logic, competitively counterposed against the other presidential contender, will very quickly transition into a new form of inter-departmental bureaucratic behaviour. The primary departments, sub-departments or bodies related to international security will have established positions on these policy issues; will compete for their version of the form the new policies take, and may subvert outcomes. This will particularly be the case if significant resource reallocation is proposed.


For example, and admittedly less prevalent in the Trump Administration, there has been a history of vying departmental behaviour between the Pentagon and State Department. Simplistically, the Pentagon has a habit of arguing for military solutions to international security problems, whereas the State Department is more likely to propose using diplomatic means. In this sense, they tend to propose the means they have to further their own departmental agendas. Biden’s stated plan to elevate the role of the State Department could initiate this type of competitive behaviour, particularly given how dominant the Pentagon has been over the last twenty years.3


Another example at a sub-department level is the competition between the Combatant Commands for the weight of policy effort and associated military resources. Reinvesting in NATO is liable to favour European Command; continuing the ‘forever wars’, CT operations and an aggressive Iranian policy will maintain Central Command dominance; and any further military pivot to Asia will benefit Pacific Command. It is possible that planned changes that question the amount of resource, primacy and careers of leaders within these commands will result in ‘turf wars’. Any such struggle might alter outcomes.


Second, my research suggests successful policy changes hinge on not only how the Departments react to them, but also how the new team interacts with these Departments. For example, Brett McGurk (White House Coordinator to the Middle East and North Africa) has an extensive background of working well with the Pentagon and State Department. This bodes well for Middle East policy. More generally, many of the new leadership team have similar policy dispositions on pursuing a liberal internationalist agenda.


Most have worked together in the past, are experienced practitioners and are connected to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Brett McGurk, Anthony Blinken (Nominated Secretary of State), Jake Sullivan (NSA) and William Burns (Nominated CIA Director) are all connected to this influential think tank.4 This also bodes well and may reduce inter-departmental competition. The quiet outsider seems to be Lloyd Austin (Secretary of Defence).5 This may well reflect an intention to build State Department primacy. If so, this may prove counter-productive and create structural distinction.


Third, how other countries position themselves reflexively to US policies will have changed since the Obama Administration. Just applying amended Obama-like policies – which many think is possible and the new team seems to reflect – is unlikely to be appropriate. It misses the reality of an evolving international environment.


For example, easing ‘Maximum Pressure’ and returning to an agreement with Iran that looks similar to the JCPOA may now be inappropriate. The positionality between countries in the Middle East has changed due to Trump’s policies and reactions to it. ‘Maximum Pressure’ has had a huge effect on Iran; the political conditions in Iraq and Syria have evolved; and Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States are far more collectively active. We should be wary of attractive policies built on normative aspirations and personal equity that no longer fit the changed circumstances and ones that may ultimately result in unintended consequences if implemented. This could equally apply to policies associated with Russia, China and the ‘forever wars’.


Fourth – and resulting from the first three – strategy or the application of international security policy is rarely a linear ends-ways-means process that is rationally thought through, applied in a hierarchical way, and thereafter has an instrumental effect whether successful or not. It is far more likely to be a messy reconciliation of internal competitive bureaucratic practice and anticipated, or actual, external reflexive positionality to expected Biden Administration policies. Overlapping, conflicting and contradictory logics will be the norm. This will make genuine strategic progress hard, slow and uncertain.


Realising this will guard against well-crafted plans that are grand in intention, but have overly ambitious ends, are under-resourced, or are merely statements of intent – much like McMaster was criticised for in the early Trump Administration or the reality of Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy.6 Worse, policies that are ambitious in intent but superficial in development might ultimately lead to bad application and very bad outcomes. And the signs are good in this respect: those that have worked together through the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace are stating they want to avoid ‘neat organising principles’ and enact a foreign policy with ‘less ambitious ends’.7


The international security opportunities associated with a new, highly experienced, more balanced, inclusive and internationalist Administration are significant. Effective implementation will, however, be hard fought for, and needs to be grounded in realism, the alignment of structural factors and considered leadership.


1 Foreign Policy and American Leadership Plan | Joe Biden

2 Previous research into US strategic practice: Strickland, Will. “The Practice of Opposition and the Foundations of Iraq’s Current Political System.” MPhil Dissertation, Cambridge University, 2015; and Strickland, Will. “American Reactions to 9/11.” MA Dissertation, KCL, 2012.

3 Foreign Policy and American Leadership Plan | Joe Biden

4 For Joe Biden, an experienced foreign policy team | TheHill and ‘Getting the gang back together’: Familiar faces in Biden’s foreign policy team prompt relief and concern ( and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

5 Deputy defence chief to be temporary acting DoD secretary | Federal News Network

6 The National Security Strategy 2002 (

7 Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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