The US is only a few good choices from dramatically strengthening itself, both domestically and internationally.

In the coming years, the president of the United States will face five significant national security challenges: pandemic recovery, debt planning, rebalancing our over-militarized approach to the world, handling China, and harnessing allies.

Policies to repair the pandemic's damage are a necessary precondition for addressing the other national security threats. Long-term debt reduction efforts are also essential to having the resources for defense. Strengthening and using nonmilitary tools to protect and advance our interests will be crucial to making American strength sustainable. Hedging against the possibility of a failing China and a succeeding China will better balance our defenses. And a return to playing team sports-using our alliances-will both strengthen our hand and share the burden of protecting our country.

These are major challenges. But our country is more than powerful enough to meet them. We have enormous and enduring structural advantages in place, and the nature of the emergent threats actually plays to our societal advantages. Nearly any previous American president would gladly have traded his problems for our problems, as would practically any other country's leaders. The US is only a few good choices from dramatically strengthening itself, both domestically and internationally.

Pandemic Recovery

The devastation that COVID-19 unleashed-and the fumbling policy choices of the federal government, numerous states, and many localities-will cast a long shadow across American life. Our government can and should focus on restoring the safety and prosperity of American communities. Until American families and businesses have a path back to normality, public interest and support for international engagement- always the principal constraint on American involvement beyond our borders-will simply not exist.

Without public confidence that the government has sensible plans for pandemic recovery, this likely means retrenchment from costly or demanding international obligations: winding down American involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria; hesitating to make commitments to the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan pressured by China, or those of Ukraine and Belarus pressured by Russia; sustaining indifference to the COVID-19 wildfire burning through less-developed public health systems in Africa and Latin America; and missing opportunities to capitalize on a collapse of Chinese investment projects in South Asia and the Pacific. The international order will fray and be less advantageous to our interests without assertions of American power.

Our failures to respond to the pandemic have badly damaged our reputation for competence, not only at home but also internationally. Our failure to organize a global pandemic response is a huge opportunity missed to use the crisis to establish patterns of cooperation beneficial to our and others' interests, and our adversaries are using it as proof that the US can no longer act as the guarantor of order. Authoritarians will use the sight of angry Americans willfully endangering each other as proof that our way of life leads to dangerous chaos.

But we can recover from these mistakes. This is not the first denting of our reputation, and there will be myriad opportunities to showcase the strengths of American science, innovation, governance, civic activism, imagination, and experimentation. We are not the only country managing the pandemic badly either. Our adversaries have also made mistakes, and they have less margin for error than does the US. And whereas China's people losing confidence in their government is a legitimacy crisis, Americans almost always think their government is bad at its job. Our ornery insistence that we know better than our government may even strengthen our ability to deter adversaries by displaying the American public's shocking risk tolerance.

Nor have all our government's responses and decisions been ineffective. The Federal Reserve has become central banker to the world, fending off global economic collapse by ensuring dollar liquidity to emerging markets and keeping the dollar's value stable. The variance of state policies has stimulated experimentation and showcased the value of federalism. The dynamism of American faith communities, civic organizations, and philanthropic individuals such as Chef José Andrés and Bill and Melinda Gates have filled gaps of governance solutions. Even protests against police racism and brutality remind the world of Americans' ability to hold their government accountable.

Fortunately, what is needed to recover from the pandemic will also benefit American power internationally by strengthening its wellsprings: economic dynamism, the social resilience to weather volatility, a public demanding better solutions, and a political system responsive to those demands. Fixing our domestic failures is actually the best answer to the international challenges the US faces. It must be the president's first priority in 2021.

Debt Planning

The US Defense Department excels at long-term planning. Production time lines for major military acquisitions are two decades long. Developing able military leaders takes roughly as much. It is the only federal government department that produces along with its annual budget a "future years defense program" projecting out five years. It has an elaborate, formalized planning process that commences with evaluating threats. Therefore, it is striking that in 2010, with Russia under Vladimir Putin's control and China already ominous, the Defense Department concluded that the main threat facing the United States was its national debt.1 It considered that "rising debt and deficit financing of government operations will require ever-larger portions of government outlays for interest payments to service the debt."2 This is a structural vulnerability of enormous consequence yet easy to ignore.

Congressional Republicans fell quiet about deficit spending when President Donald Trump took office, but the problem of expenditures outpacing revenue continues to loom. The trillions of dollars of pandemic stimulus to cushion the effects of shutdowns were necessary, as will be continuing jolts of spending to defibrillate the economy. But at some point the government will have to acknowledge the long-term consequences of a debt-to-GDP ratio soaring past 100 percent.3 If the US does not establish a path toward deficit reduction, the risk of financial crisis grows, as does the drag on the economy. Equally important from a defense perspective, debt service (even if interest rates remain stable and low) risks crowding out defense spending; by 2024, at current projections, interest payments will surpass defense spending.4 And the pandemic will further exacerbate downward pressure on defense spending as the definition of national security expands to incorporate health systems and stockpiles of supplies.

There are many ways to attack the problem, including economic growth to increase the denominator. But putting entitlement programs on sustainable footing will be the essential component. Discretionary spending cannot compensate for a failure to address entitlement growth. For a country as prosperous as the United States, the availability of resources for defense is a choice. We have the money to provide for the common defense. But without a plan for entitlement reform and gradually slowing the growth of our national debt, defense is likely to be submerged under other societal priorities.

Rebalance an Over-Militarized Foreign Policy

Since the end of the Cold War, the US has given short shrift to the nonmilitary tools for effecting change in the world. We disestablished many of the specialized agencies, such as the US Information Agency, that projected American beliefs into the world, shaping both how foreigners saw us and how they saw their own governments. And we continue to injure our own abilities, as demonstrated by the recent politicization of Voice of America that will damage its legitimacy and the Trump administration's repeated budget submissions for 30 percent reductions in spending for the Department of State.

The State Department needs more money, not less-much more money and many more people. Those people need to be out in the world, meeting with civil society groups, bearing witness to tragedies, being part of the conversation in local languages, evaluating asylum and visa applications, and seizing opportunities as they arise. Consequential policy decisions will be made in Washington; what we need in bulk are retail interactions that can happen only in foreign lands.

But money alone cannot fix the State Department's problems; the deeper roots of its underperformance are cultural and need the sustained attention of a deputy secretary for management to oversee the recruitment, training, assignment, and promotion of our diplomats and the funding of their activities. And diplomacy is only one of the nonmilitary tools in which we need to invest. We need more banking experts at the Treasury Department tracking money laundering and identifying how to sanction foreign companies and individuals. We need more public health experts, agronomists, educational administrators, hydrologists, and veterinarians to help people solve their problems, because that is how we build receptivity to solving our problems.

We need more spies under diplomatic or commercial cover in international organizations. Our intelligence agencies have become more tightly intertwined with military operations and now give too little attention to their traditional functions of nonlethal covert action, such as keeping opposition newspapers printing and cultivating future leaders. We need to diversify how we engage with and in other countries to advance our interests.

Rebalancing our policies requires more than strengthening our nonmilitary tools. It also requires disciplining the policymaking process so that problems get attention before they urgently require solutions, allowing for actions that have longer lead times to take effect.

We often resort to military force because the military can be thrust into difficult circumstances and can figure out how to achieve what elected officials want done. But we should build that capacity throughout our national security agencies, not continue to assign to the military functions that are inherently civilian in nature.

The federal government should also be more open to putting into play elements it does not control, such as religious groups, businesses, and philanthropists. We have a tendency to think and plan narrowly based on what the government can order into action, when the vibrancy of civil society is one of our great comparative advantages. We need to learn to orchestrate activities we are not in control of so that our means are not constrained to what our government spends.

An example of what is possible was enacted at the American embassy in Beijing in 2010, when American diplomats began tweeting out data on air quality.5 It cost American taxpayers almost nothing but forced the Chinese government into accountability with its own public, with an enormous effect on Chinese policy, both domestically and internationally. What we need are more civilians across many agencies of government thinking and acting creatively to use the tools of our free society to advance our interests.

Handling China

It redounds to America's credit that, when faced with the prospect of a rising China, we envisioned a powerful, prosperous China that could be an ally and not an adversary. Previous great powers have faced much more resistance to their power than has the United States, because we built an international order in which the rules are beneficial to all who comply with them. The US leaves room for others' success instead of wringing out the last ounce of advantage for ourselves. But, although we have been willing to create space for China to develop in ways that did not undermine our interests, China has made a different choice, and we must be realistic about it.

"Rebalancing our policies requires more than strengthening our nonmilitary tools."

The Trump administration did well to shift the basis of China policy from engagement to confrontation in 2017, because China's actions had made clear it was unwilling to adopt the "responsible stakeholder" role on offer. But Trump administration policies have worked at cross purposes. For instance, the National Security Council's China documents say the US has no interest in regime change, while State Department statements call for internal change in China. The nonmilitary elements of the administration's approach have lagged years behind the Defense Department's more assertive countering of China's attempt to suborn the established order in Asia, moreover, leaving countries in the region fearful of confronting China to balk at the military's leading role.

But important as our altered perspective on China has been, the United States still lacks a proper perspective. American policy implicitly views

China as an irrepressible commercial force-a society compliant or fearful enough to permit massive data harvesting that will irretrievably advantage Chinese development of leap-ahead technologies-and allows China to surpass the United States' economic and military prowess. The Trump administration's National Security Strategy assesses that militarily, "U.S. advantages are shrinking as rival states modernize and build up their conventional and nuclear forces."6 The National Defense Strategy shifted priority from fighting terrorism, its preoccupation of the previous 18 years, to inter-state strategic competition.7

James Fallows has written on the importance of the jeremiad in American foreign policy: The US succeeds when it recognizes it is failing. Such a recognition is now palpable in our approach to China.8 The gears of American government and society are beginning to mesh as various departments examine how China is using the openness of American society to undermine it. Treasury has identified and sanctioned Chinese businesses and individuals involved in depredations against Uighur. Education is denying university and laboratory access to those associated with the Chinese military and investigating payments to American researchers. Universities are closing Confucius centers and refusing funding from Chinese sources. Civil society is shaming companies involved in Chinese surveillance projects.

The objective of US policy remains to compel China to accept the rules of the existing international order: acknowledging state sovereignty, not changing internationally recognized borders by force, respecting self determination of peoples, abiding by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and respecting commercial law and intellectual property rights. These things China is clearly not doing. And China's refusal to accept the rules is validating the shift in American policy and consolidating allied support.

But just why has China moved so aggressively in our time? This is a vexing national security question on which several elements of our global strategy depend. Have the Chinese grown more assertive because they believe the US too weak and discredited to counter them? Is it because they know their power has crested and are trying to change the rules before we realize they are a waning force? Is it the result of an authoritarian system in which the leader is shielded from adverse reports? Is it an attempt to foment nationalist solidarity as the economy softens and legitimacy of Communist Party rule could be challenged?

There are reasons to believe China's continued success is imperiled. Since 2008, its growth rate has halved, productivity growth has been negative, and its debt has quintupled. Because of its Belt and Road Initiative, China is the world's largest creditor, and most of the projects were of questionable economic viability even before the pandemic stalled many economies. As Michael Beckley has noted, China's assets have become liabilities.9

A failing China may be a greater threat to US interests than a succeeding one. China has been an important engine of global growth, and notwithstanding the greater segregation of some supply chains, the intertwining of our economies will make even a peaceful failure painful. On its current path, moreover, China is unlikely to accept a peaceful failure.

Paramilitary police officers prepare before the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of the People's Republic of China

Because there is so much we do not know about why China is making the choices it is making, we need a strategy that hedges against a variety of bad outcomes and seeks to channel Chinese actions in less destructive directions. To succeed, we will require a strong military deterrent, creative diplomacy, a smoothing out of the countervailing forces in current policy, and support from countries in Asia and beyond.

Harnessing Allies

Taking on all these challenges will require us to grasp again the value of robust alliances. Even if our allies contributed nothing, our relationships with them would be advantageous because those countries are not working against us. Of the 15 largest economies in the world, 14 are American allies or partners; 12 of the top 15 countries by defense spending are American allies or partners.10 At a minimum, our alliance relationships prevent those resources from being arrayed against us.

But they do far more than that. Most American allies are our friends, share our values, grieve our losses, and fight alongside us in our wars. (Make no mistake: We drag them into wars; they do not drag us.) They succeed when we succeed and fail when we fail. All are middle or small powers that cannot shape the global order without our help, but they add both moral and material heft to our endeavors. Tiresome as our allies can be, our work is lonelier, more expensive, and more difficult without them.

The international order the United States and its allies have built is under strain from American indifference and Chinese usurpation. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is an example of an opportunity we are missing and difficulties China is exacerbating. The US was an original motivator of the convention; we not only abide by its terms but also enforce them. Yet, alone among the 160 countries that negotiated the convention, we have declined to ratify it. China has ratified it but has violated its terms daily. The Philippines took China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration and secured a verdict against China's incursions into Philippine waters.

Where alliances or institutions are inadequate or ill-suited to current needs, existing ones can be repurposed (as we have done frequently before) or new ones constructed. The US does not actually need international institutions. We are strong enough to do without them. But they really matter to states that do not have the power to enforce their will, because the predictability of rules and procedures builds trust and provides agreed ways of resolving disputes. The genius of the American-led international order is that we have voluntarily restrained our behavior to gain the cooperation of weaker states. Returning to the practice of working through institutions will regain the trust of smaller states we want on our side for the challenges we are facing.

Priorities in a Dangerous World

These five priority areas in national security are by no means the only problems or crises our president will face in the coming few years. Presidents rarely get to choose what problems will confront them. But if the next administration prioritizes these five, it will strengthen the core of American power and have the surge capacity to deal with crises. Disciplining the government to prioritize is no small feat; it is almost never achieved by any administration. But a clear sense at the outset of the core problems to confront can make all the difference.


View Citations Hide Citations

1. US Joint Forces Command, The Joint Operating Environment, US Department of Defense, February 18, 2010, 19, concepts/joe_2010.pdf?ver=2017-12-30-132036-843.

2. US Joint Forces Command, The Joint Operating Environment, 21.

3. Carmen M. Reinhardt and Kenneth S. Rogoff, This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), xliii.

4. Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, "As Debt Rises, Interest Costs Could Top $1 Trillion," February 13, 2019,

5. David Roberts, "How the U.S. Embassy Tweeted to Clear Beijing's Air," Wired, March 6, 2015,

6. White House, National Security Strategy of the United States, December 2017, 3, pdf.

7. US Department of Defense, "Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military's Competitive Edge," 1,

8. James Fallows, "How America Can Rise Again," Atlantic, February 6, 2010, https://

9. Michael Beckley, "China's Economy Is Not Overtaking America's," Journal of Applied Corporate Finance 32, no. 2 (Spring 2020): 10-14.

10. International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2020, 2020,