Sheryl Sandberg, one of the business world’s highest-profile female leaders, published a book in 2013, when she was still chief operating officer of Facebook, that would later become infamous. The book’s title, “Lean In,” made her core argument clear: if women had more confidence, and showed it by pushing themselves forward, they could overcome the sexist and cultural barriers to success in the workplace. “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small,” Sandberg wrote, “by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.”
A similar sentiment animates President Joe Biden’s new national security strategy (NSS). The document avoids the blaring “America is back” statements that characterized the first year of the post-Trump era, but the message it presents is identical. “Around the world, the need for American leadership is as great as it has ever been,” Biden declares in his letter introducing the strategy, “There is nothing beyond our capacity.” If America remains confident in its abilities, the NSS implies, then we can solve the world’s most pressing problems. This is dangerous, as it risks leaving the United States overcommitted and overextended during a period of substantial shifts in the global balance of power.
And indeed, the document is a laundry list of problems and concerns to address. It formally commits the administration to the Trump administration’s great power competition framework, albeit more subtly and with far greater consideration of the differences between China, Russia, and other states. To that, it adds an Obama-era focus on transnational problems – climate change, pandemic prevention, etc. – as global issues that must be addressed alongside the primary threat from China. It bulks up the usual “regional” sections of the document to add the Arctic and space. And it even promises to use trade as both a tool of U.S. competition against China and a means of promoting the well-being of Americans at home.
To some extent, all National Security Strategies have this problem. As the draft winds its way through the interagency process, more and more priorities are inserted to keep different bureaucratic constituencies happy. But there is certainly precedent for making clear choices to deprioritize some regions or policies at the expense of others in the NSS document. Indeed, this was the entire conceit of the Obama administration’s much-discussed “pivot to Asia.” But the having-it-all problem runs deeper in the document than the mere excessive list of U.S. goals; there’s a genuine feel that if America really pushes, it can have its cake and eat it too.
The document half-heartedly commits to the administration’s “democracy vs. autocracy” framework, before acknowledging that America must work with “democratic allies… and countries that do not embrace democratic institutions.” In the Indo-Pacific, the strategy argues that “the United States has long been a regional trade and investment leader” even while declaring that U.S. policy has “to move beyond traditional Free Trade Agreements,” in “advancing the interests of American workers.”
The tension between ambitious goals and practical limitations is perhaps most notable in the omission of any discussion of burden-shifting to capable European or Asian allies. Despite a growing realization in Washington – and in European capitals, that American allies are being underutilized, the document barely mentions the issue. “As we step up our own sizable contributions to NATO capabilities and readiness,” it suggests, “we will count on our Allies to continue assuming greater responsibility by increasing their spending, capabilities, and contributions.” There is no discussion of specific initiatives, or notable places where European states might pick up some of America’s burden.
The Harmful Myth of Having It All
In 2015, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a rejoinder to Sandberg with a surprising title, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” In the article, Slaughter wrote that the “Lean In” argument was a harmful myth. Faced with a variety of structural and cultural barriers that made it more difficult to combine workplace success with family harmony, women who embraced Sandberg’s argument would eventually come to blame themselves for their failure to achieve everything. Slaughter’s own experiences juggling a role as a high-level official in the Obama administration with her family responsibilities eventually convinced her that one would ultimately be forced into difficult choices about priorities.
The NSS does not prioritize. Or rather, while it has some implicit sense of prioritization – the section on the Middle East, for example, is located behind several other regions – these nuances are at odds with the substance of the document. For example, the strategy states clearly that China “presents America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge.” But if you compare the sections for the Indo-Pacific and Europe, you would be hard-pressed to notice that there is a difference in priority.
Indeed, with each regional or functional area explored in the document, the list of challenges to be met continues to grow: migration, economic development, technological cooperation, strengthening global institutions, managing deterrence and security in the Middle East, climate, energy, and food security. There is no discussion of trade-offs, no debate about whether a focus on Europe will detract from Asia, merely an assertion that greater involvement in each region will – through some nebulous process – yield global benefits.
There is only one substantive change in policy. The NSS finally and explicitly acknowledges something that had been widely understood in Washington for some time: the era of regime change and nation-building is over. This is a welcome choice, particularly the rationale, where the administration publicly and finally accepts what War on Terror critics have been saying for decades: it’s almost impossible to use force to remake any society.
Indeed, the document goes further, and argues that the focus of recent administrations on spreading democracy was misguided, “We do not,” it notes, “believe that governments
and societies everywhere must be remade in America’s image for us to be secure.” But otherwise, the NSS sticks to the status quo in most areas of national security policy, while adding new responsibilities. It may not use the Trump-era “great power competition” phrasing, but it wholeheartedly embraces the ambitious policy itself.
It’s possible that the approach espoused here could work: perhaps a reassertion of American power on the world stage will yield dividends, allowing the United States to achieve some of these ambitious goals. The odds, however, are not good. America has relatively less power today than it had in 1992; it faces more financially and militarily powerful challengers, has weaker domestic foundations. America’s military edge over other nations has narrowed in both qualitative and quantitative ways. The world is becoming more multipolar, and while the war in Ukraine has highlighted many of America’s strengths, it has also exposed some of the limitations on U.S. power.
Yet in its own way, this agenda is no less ambitious than the Freedom Agenda of the unipolar moment, which President George W. Bush described in his second inaugural address as nothing less than “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” The Biden administration is proposing not a mere “national” security strategy – one which focuses on the security and needs of Americans – but a promise to build a more just and equal world for all. Like Bush’s Freedom Agenda, the NSS implicitly argues that the only way to secure American interests is through global transformation. It commits America to “support every country, regardless of size or strength, in exercising the freedom to make choices that serve their interests.”
As all women who’ve tried to follow Sandberg’s advice eventually discover, it’s effectively impossible to have it all. Something always has to give, whether it’s how clean your house is, how much time you put in at the office, or how much screen time your kids get. Most working parents implicitly formulate a strategy for how they will handle this problem, accepting tradeoffs and choosing priorities accordingly. Those who don’t face burnout.
Indeed, the hallmark of any good strategy is that it matches scarce resources to achievable ends. As anyone who pays attention to American political debates knows, U.S. resources are limited. Defense spending already accounts for almost half of discretionary spending; experts fear the defense budget could top $1 trillion per year by 2023. And it is not just a financial constraint. The United States has limited government and military capacities. Attention given to one crisis or region necessarily draws us away from another.
Yet the national security strategy is a plan without limits or concern for scarce resources. In seeking to have it all, the Biden administration rejects the notion of making the tough choices required to bring means and ends into alignment; in that, it’s profoundly non-strategic.