National security and transatlantic unity top Biden’s agenda

The timing of the State of the Union address is significant as Joe Biden tries to maintain focus on Ukraine and China while navigating partisanship at home.

Expert comment Published 1 February 2023 3 minute READ

Although primarily a domestic affair, the president’s remarks in the annual State of the Union (SOTU) telegraph the US’s foreign policy priorities to the rest of the world. They reveal the prism through which the US understands its national security and its role in the world.

The 2023 address comes as the first anniversary of the Ukraine invasion rapidly approaches, and the US is also trying to build international support for tough economic measures towards China. Domestically, Republican control of the House of Representatives will exert new pressure on US foreign policy choices. Electoral pressures are also around the corner and Joe Biden should announce soon whether he plans to run for president in 2024.

Alliances and partnerships are a driving force for Biden. As pressure to end the war in Ukraine intensifies, maintaining transatlantic unity on Ukraine will be a key priority for the president. And as US electoral politics rise to the fore, ensuring the visibility of Europe’s role as a security provider in its own backyard will be essential.

For a US president who sees China and the Indo-Pacific as America’s most significant long-term geopolitical challenge – and the only peer competitor to the US – transatlantic unity on China will also come under pressure.

Ukraine, China, and controlling domestic division

Republican leaders who now chair key committees in the House of Representatives continue to signal support for Ukraine, and polling shows a majority of US public opinion (54 per cent) favours sending either weapons or air defence systems.

But recent polls also reveal a growing gap between Democrat and Republican supporters with a slight majority of Republicans (52 per cent) now opposing further support for Ukraine.

Biden’s ability to demonstrate that America and its European partners remain unified in their policy towards Ukraine and Russia will help him ward off partisanship at home. Congressional approval of $45 billion for Ukraine in its end of year spending budget will help the president remain above the fray of partisan politics for now. But if there is an absence of clear signs Ukraine is succeeding in its war aims, the challenge of maintaining domestic support could become more difficult.

Bipartisanship is strong on China, Republicans are more singular and hawkish in their approach to China than the US president, and the public support tough measures

A greater US focus on China, India, and on the Indo-Pacific in 2023 is also likely. Bipartisanship is strong on China, Republicans are more singular and hawkish in their approach to China than the US president, and the public support tough measures. At a time of war in Europe, the president will place great emphasis on the need to maintain transatlantic unity and to work with a broader coalition of partners in the Indo-Pacific.

The groundwork for focus on China has already been laid. Throughout 2022, the Biden administration worked steadily, but quietly, to set out its China policy. Just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the US released its new US-Indo Pacific Strategy stressing regional partnerships – especially the Quad and ASEAN – and it’s determination to shape essential norms for the region.

It stated boldly – albeit in a document which was largely unnoticed – that the objective is not to change China but to ‘shape the strategic environment in which it operates’, a policy which signifies a clear departure from the more ideological approach pursued by the US during Donald Trump’s final year in office. And in May, the US announced its economic strategy for the region, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

Now the terrain for competition with China and alignment with US partners and allies is heavily focused on technology and the daylight between national security and economic strategy in US China policy is rapidly disappearing. Biden’s policy focus of ‘invest (at home), align (with allies and partners), and compete (with China)’ has overshadowed earlier talk of cooperation between the US and China.

Those listening carefully to the State of the Union and who have followed US policy will also note the unchallenged hegemony of neoliberalism is rapidly vanishing

But as China opens its doors and Europe looks to bolster its economies, the US will have to work far harder to maintain transatlantic unity. Japan and the Netherlands embracing the US adoption of export controls on semiconductor chips is a positive sign, but the US’s economic strategy towards China may present harder choices to come for Europe. If China leans into its diplomacy, the pressure on transatlantic unity will also grow.

The new US Congress will only sharpen the president’s tough stance on China. Some Republican leaders still deny climate change and have demonstrated little interest in cooperating with China on debt relief for developing countries. The prospects for addressing critical global challenges appear dim without China’s collaboration, and the UK and Europe should work with the US president and Congress to correct this.

President Biden has clearly recognized that diplomacy will be critical in the months ahead. At a time of growing tensions, the potential for misperceptions or misunderstandings to create conflict will also increase, and so a US – and also European – commitment to broadening and deepening diplomacy with China is urgent but it also needs to be patient and sustained.

A new American industrial policy?

Those listening carefully to the State of the Union and who have followed US policy will also note the unchallenged hegemony of neoliberalism is rapidly vanishing. The American state appeared to be disturbingly absent in the early months of the US pandemic response – but now it is back and, in a surprising turn of events, is being cast as a solution not a problem.

Biden's aim remains global despite domestic divisions 2nd part

On economic strategy and climate policy, the role of the state looms large. Public investment in new technologies, and research and development, is front and centre in Biden’s China strategy. Paradoxically, this move to leverage the power of the state has arrived at a moment when Americans’ trust in institutions is low.

Biden’s climate bill – rather misleadingly named the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) – relies on tax incentives and subsidies to spur investments in electric vehicles and clean energy. America’s leading governors recently travelled to Davos for the World Economic Forum (WEF) to court European companies to relocate to their home states, aiming to tempt them with the benefits the IRA brings.

But the IRA is also generating transatlantic competition, and Europe’s unimpressed response to it is a reminder that there will be multiple sources of tension for the US to navigate in 2023. Each one has the potential to undermine transatlantic unity in a year when it is more essential than ever and must not be taken for granted.