The year 2021 comes in the US with a new presidential administration confronted by critical strategic challenges, political turmoil, and high expectations. The FORCES team of social science, STEM, and military experts summarizes in this report the leading functional, geographic, and political-military issues confronting the Biden administration. A non-partisan, land-grant university research initiative, the FORCES report provides policymakers, military leaders, media experts, and the general public a direct and unbiased assessment of the road ahead. It identifies the most significant hot spots created by the clash between the global military, technological, and social forces. A future speaker series and upcoming reports will provide a constant flow of knowledge. The FORCES team is also looking forward to hearing your opinion about their work or to provide support in your future research and policy-making activities. Feel free to reach out them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: The report reflects the opinion of the authors, as scholars. It does not represent the official position of Purdue University. The report benefitted from the review and suggestions of a member of the Purdue Policy Research Institute.
From the Executive Summary
A new American presidential administration coming into office is seldom an easy transition, a fact made more difficult when one party replaces another. In the areas of security and strategy Biden is walking into a dangerous room. Purdue’s FORCES Initiative looks at the Biden’s potential and actual strategic priorities and challenges.
- Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. Anticipate much from Blinken, who has known Biden since the latter’s senate tenure. He is an Atlanticist since his earliest days at State and has called for diplomacy based on confidence and humility.
- Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin. Austin began working closely with Vice President Biden during the 2013 150,000-troop drawdown in Iraq. He favors diplomacy and development (monetary aid) over force, which he calls “only one instrument of our national power.”
- National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan. The lawyer and Atlanticist served as Hillary Clinton’s national security advisor. Even Congressional Republicans like him, a benefit in Biden’s centrist reconstruction administration.
- Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines. Haines was Deputy Director of the CIA in 2013-15. She will have an uphill battle restoring morale throughout the American intelligence community after much partisan infighting generated by the recent Russian and Chinese interference scandals.
- Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen. Named by Obama to serve as Chairperson of the Federal Reserve Bank, expect her to support Biden’s moderate “whole of government” path. Internationally, she should to continue her previous open trade actions.
- Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas. He will carry the burden of balancing immigration policies in a way that satisfies both human rights and security interests.
- CIA Director, William Burns. A former diplomat, he will shift the emphasis on the workings of the agency from muscle and spycraft to intelligence and influence operations.
- People’s Republic of China. Biden committed to treat the PRC as America’s primary competitor. His Democratic party now agrees with Republicans about a powerful and nouveau riche China posing a “special challenge.” The two nations’ relationship is complicated because they are each other’s top trading partner. The People’s Liberation Army is the world’s largest, and its Navy and Air Force are expanding; paid for by the country’s accumulating wealth. The PRC’s cyberwar capabilities are at least equal to America’s, and its space program is catching up. As America’s only economic and military peer rival, Biden cannot ignore the PRC, and will probably pursue a tougher policy than Obama.
- Russia. Biden must simultaneously keep a wary eye on Putin’s Russia. Russia is weak, and COVID has made it weaker. Continued cyber and information ops are Putin’s asymmetrical weapons of choice. The PRC pretends Russia is still a great power, and the two have enjoyed a détente. Biden will have to beware of the two coordinating their machinations, threatening to send American responses into “systems overload.”
- Europe and NATO. Biden is a child of the Cold War who realizes America’s Atlantic security arrangements have maintained generations of peace; so do many of his foreign policy personnel. With the expected emphasis on long-standing relationships, the EU will return to its former prominence.
- Middle East and South Asia. The trend away from fossil fuels plus the resurgent American oil industry has pushed the Persian Gulf into our B List of global hot spots. Biden may create a more connections in the region, for example, eschewing Trump’s over-emphasis on Israel and Saudi Arabia, while remaining loyal to both. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran was a cornerstone of Obama’s Gulf security regime, and we expect Biden to try to rejoin it. Biden has long favored shifting American efforts away from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and instead focusing on non-state threats like the Islamic State.
Diplomacy. Biden favors strategies short of war: a noble objective. We believe he will restore American diplomatic eminence and unity of effort. Nuclear Weapons. Although many in the US Department of Defense believe its nuclear arsenal needs updating, both Obama and Trump considered this a waste of effort and money. Biden may reverse his predecessor and extend the START Treaty with Russia. We suggest that START should also include China, which would benefit both the US and Russia. Cyber: This newest threat area has become perhaps the most dangerous. Like 9/11, recent cyberattacks have caught America off guard and are worthy of grudging respect. A challenge is that any American countermeasures would invite counter-countermeasures; in which it is not clear how the US would fare. Climate. Biden sees climate change as an immense manmade problem requiring scientific solutions coordinated globally. He said he will return to the UN-sponsored 2016 Paris Agreement. Opportunities to include the PRC, India, or Brazil in the conversation should be examined. Space. Biden is alert to the dangers posed in the ultimate high ground. He will have his hands full with domestic and foreign challenges, and it is unclear what he will do about space. Moral Leadership and Information Operations. America’s record was built on moral values, which at times clashed with realism and pragmatism. The US have usually strived to be a beacon for good. Our better values have been questioned during the past four years. Biden vocally advocated a return to American virtue, from reinforcing democracy to fighting injustice, while retaining a strong sense or realism.
US Military: In terms of capabilities and global reach, the US has no peer. But we also have worldwide commitments like no other. Biden will be under pressure to axe defense spending. Global tensions should prevent him from cutting too much, but expect him to save on “legacy systems” (ground forces, aircraft carriers) to switch to new technologies (cyber, hypersonics, space).
- US Army: The Army must prove its relevance in the information age. This will be an uphill battle, especially as it is of doubtful utility in the Indo-Pacific region or cyber and space arenas.
- US Navy: The Navy’s high op-tempo but limited manpower and ships means it is probably in the worst shape of the three services. With 90 percent of world trade and 95 percent of global internet traffic on or under the sea, the Navy has a full plate. Nearly two-thirds of its capabilities are dedicated to the Indo-Pacific region.
- US Air Force: The USAF is probably the healthiest service, and likely to remain DoD’s “golden child.” Its new subordinate US Space Force budget increased from $40M in FY2020 to $15.3B in FY2021. Overall, the future of Space Force seems secure under Biden.