Is There National Security Continuity Between the Trump and Biden Administrations?

U.S. flags flutter in the wind at the Mall before the Inauguration of U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden in Washington, DC on January 20, 2021 (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. flags flutter in the wind at the Mall before the Inauguration of U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden in Washington, DC on January 20, 2021 (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)

__In the journal’s continuing conversations with government officials and practitioners, our editor reached out to former Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy and Assistant to the President of the United States Nadia Schadlow for her perspective on the new administration.__

Nikolas Gvosdev: When he spoke at the Naval War College in 2018, your then-colleague in government, Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell, spoke about the challenge for the Trump/Pence administration to forge new regional and global strategies that took into account the changes in the international system and would be able to lay a bipartisan foundation for U.S. national security. Would you agree with that assessment? To what extent do you see continuity with the national security strategy you helped to formulate in 2017 with the interim guidance issued by the Biden-Harris administration? Where are there points of discontinuity?

Nadia Schadlow: I would agree with the premise that the world has shifted. But I would add a step: Before we could make adjustments to our approach, it was the responsibility of the U.S. government, especially the White House, to provide a correct and accurate diagnosis as to how and why that shift had taken place. In other words, we needed to have clarity about the problem set that the United States was facing.

The world has moved beyond the “unipolar moment” of the post-Cold War period and into an age of interdependence and competition that calls for different policies and tools. Facing a serious competitor in China at all levels—security, military, economic, technological—those of us serving in the Trump-Pence national security team needed to make sure that all Americans understood what was at stake given these new conditions. This was especially the case with the U.S. business community, because in many sectors China was using economic tools of statecraft to harm their interests. The damage included: using U.S. capital markets to the advantage of its own companies and firms; compelling Western firms operating in China to transfer technologies; exploiting supply-chain vulnerabilities; and identifying and controlling foundational technology sectors and platforms including in broadband cellular networks like 5G and advanced energy technologies.

Let me give an additional example. In a joint op-ed, my research intern Brayden Helwig and I noted, “Data is arguably the most important strategic asset to emerge in the twenty-first century. Access to data and the ability to protect its integrity are vital to American security and prosperity. As 5G and artificial intelligence transform our societies into highly integrated networks, protecting data will become even more crucial.” During the Cold War, we would never have allowed the Soviet Union to own critical communications assets in the United States, or to allow Soviet firms to obtain contracts to service vital parts of the communications infrastructure. Yet, Chinese companies have sought to be part and parcel of the West’s data and communications systems.

The Trump administration successfully made this diagnosis—it explains the world as it is, not as we wish it to be—and to shift the national conversation about the U.S. role in the world, and especially the challenge posed by China. Last year, in Foreign Affairs, I wrote that President Donald Trump had, in terms of his impact on formulating U.S. national security policy, “been a disrupter, and his policies, informed by his heterodox perspective, have set in motion a series of long-overdue corrections … [which] will help ensure that the international order remains favorable to U.S. interests and values and to those of other free and open societies.”

Read the full interview in Orbis