Last week the White House issued the Biden Administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, the first authoritative, high-level outline of its national security perspective and aims.  The document will serve as a placeholder, and as guidance for federal departments and agencies, until the White House issues a full-blown National Security Strategy in the coming months.

The Guidance document echoes in essence the perspective of The Lugar Center and many foreign assistance advocates that international development must be a central, core component of U.S. national security.  A few excerpts from the Guidance:

  • “Global development is among our best means to articulate and embody our values, while simultaneously pursuing our national security interests. In short, our foreign assistance programs and partnerships are both the right and the smart thing to do.”
  • “The use of military force should be a last resort, not the first; diplomacy, development, and economic statecraft should be the leading instruments of American foreign policy.”
  • ”America accomplishes more when we lead with our full diplomatic, economic, health, and developmental toolkit. For that reason, and to avoid overreliance on the U.S. military to carry out tasks and missions better suited to others, our national security budget will prioritize new resources for diplomacy and development.”

Now, of course, there is much more than support for development assistance in the twenty-four pages of this seminal document.  The Administration lists, of course, what it believes are the most menacing national security threats, including “pandemics and other biological risks, the escalating climate crisis, cyber and digital threats, international economic disruptions, protracted humanitarian crises, violent extremism and terrorism, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.”

President Biden’s national security team identifies early actions it will take in the international arena, in what amounts to a major re-set from the preceding administration.  For example, the Guidance promises that “we will reinvigorate and modernize our alliances and partnerships around the world,” and “will move swiftly to earn back our position of leadership in international institutions, joining with the international community to tackle the climate crisis and other shared challenges.”  The White House calls for aggressive action on the COVID-19 pandemic, and for economic and trade policies that “must serve all Americans, not just the privileged few.”

And most forcefully of all, the administration focuses on the essentiality of promoting democratic principles and systems, both at home and abroad.  In a sober assessment of global trends indicating an erosion of support for democratic norms, the document notes that “we are in the midst of an historic and fundamental debate about the future direction of our world. There are those who argue that, given all the challenges we face, autocracy is the best way forward.”

Clearly, this is all essential reading for development assistance advocates in order to get a sense of topics like how the Biden Administration views China as both a sole peer competitor and potential cooperator, and what geographical regions are the highest priorities for the Biden national security team.     

But, these many competing issues and priorities notwithstanding, development assistance advocates cannot but be encouraged, not only by the recognition in this document of the centrality of development, but by the apparent deep understanding by the document’s drafters of key issues in the development assistance paradigm.   The Guidance moves beyond a generalized endorsement of foreign assistance to include a reassuring level of detail about concrete issues facing development assistance practitioners.  To wit, “through our development agencies and financing tools, we will provide foreign assistance to promote global stability and offer an alternative to predatory development models. We will invest in climate-conscious food and water security and resilient agriculture, preventing disease and improving public health and nutrition. We will work to ensure high-quality and equitable education and opportunities for children and youth.”  And much more.

The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance is, then, at one level, an occasion for restrained celebration.  It is, I would argue, even more decidedly a call to action.  The encouraging language in this preliminary document must be distilled into more specific policy guidance in the upcoming National Security Strategy, and development assistance advocates should weigh in now with the follow-on document’s drafters to promote the requisite detail.  The next several months provide an opportunity to think through carefully and inform the Biden Administration what role development assistance entities can play in its clarion call for a global revitalization of democratic principles and processes.  The coming months provide an opportunity to explain how sound development is intertwined with calls for addressing climate change and other threats to U.S. national security.  And, the time is ripe for input from development advocates on practical, bureaucratic issues like how the U.S. Agency for International Development should be “at the table” when all these critical national security issues are discussed.

My closing message to international development colleagues:  Take time for a quick “pat on the back” for the progress that is found in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.   Then, take a deep breath and get to work to sustain the progress that has been made.