H-Diplo|ISSF Commentary- Avey, “The Biden and Trump National Security Strategies: Continuity, Change, and the Implications for Scholars”

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H-Diplo|ISSF Commentary

Series on the 2022 US National Security Strategy

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: Christopher Ball

2 December 2022 | Vol. I: No. 2


“The Biden and Trump National Security Strategies: Continuity, Change, and the Implications for Scholars


Essay by Paul C. Avey, Virginia Tech

Despite a sense that most formal strategy documents do not matter much, there is a great deal of attention to a President’s National Security Strategy (NSS) when it is released.[1] Scholars, think tank analysts, and pundits are quick to comment on its strengths and, more commonly, highlight its flaws. The release of President Joe Biden’s 2022 NSS follows this pattern.[2] Yet as Jordan Tama notes, scholars examining the NSS find that “the White House generally treats it largely as a public relations tool and that its value has been limited by the unwillingness of presidents to use it to set priorities or provide concrete guidance to agencies or budget officials.”[3] The NSS may not even reflect presidential preferences, as was likely the case with portions of former President Donald Trump’s NSS.[4] What then can be gleaned from a document that many see as flawed or irrelevant?

In this essay I explore the utility of the NSS for scholars interested in understanding US grand strategy and contributing to policy. I make two interrelated claims. First, the NSS reflects the degree of elite consensus on US grand strategy over time. Second, the NSS can serve as an object for study itself and source to generate policy-relevant research. I first relate the NSS to grand strategy before comparing the Biden and Trump strategies in order to explore convergence and divergence. Next, I discuss the NSS as a springboard for research.

The NSS has a place in grand strategy conversations. Its congressionally mandated requirements have several components that are typical in grand strategy definitions. These include a focus on short and long-term uses of multiple elements of national power to attain the nation’s vital security goals.[5] In practice the NSS is not a detailed plan. Those seeking operational guidance will typically be disappointed. It does correspond with other common uses of the term that Nina Silove identifies.[6]  Reading it provides insight into general principles foreign policy elites espouse and sheds light on patterns of state behavior over time.

A comparison of the two most recent strategies is particularly useful in assessing the degree of elite consensus on grand strategy. The contrast between Presidents Biden and Trump on most issues is massive. Similarities across the documents are therefore likely to be areas of agreement among the different political appointees, civil servants, and military officers involved in drafting the document in subsequent administrations. The exercise is also illuminating when presidential signals differ from the NSS on an issue. In those cases, the NSS likely reflects broader preferences within the administration. Those views fill a void of presidential indifference or are strong enough to survive in spite of presidential skepticism or even hostility.

There is a great deal of overlap across the Biden and Trump NSSs. I deliberately do not label the quotations in the text that follows (see the notes for the origin). Difficulties in identifying which administration authored particular phrases underscore the similarities in the two documents. To begin, both strategies identify the basic national interest as US security, prosperity, and liberty. There is a virtuous cycle between security, prosperity, and liberty abroad and at home. Thus in one there is a goal of promoting “a free, open, secure, and prosperous world” and claim that “the character of the world we inhabit affects our ability to enjoy security prosperity, and freedom at home” while in the other an “America that is safe, prosperous, and free at home” can lead abroad, which is important “because a world that supports American interests and reflects our values makes America more secure and prosperous.”[7] What is good for America is good for the world. When “America does lead … all benefit” or “around the world, the need for American leadership is as great as it has ever been.”[8] At the same time, there is a common rejection of regime change, with the George W. Bush administration as the unspoken target. The United States “will not use our military to change regimes or remake societies” and recognizes “that the American way of life cannot be imposed on others.”[9]

One finds the same opponents and a perennial concern with nuclear proliferation. China and Russia are great-power competitors, Iran and North Korea regional challenges, and non-state terrorist groups and transnational criminal organizations round out the list of threats. China took advantage of the open international order the US promoted to grow but now seeks to push its authoritarian model abroad.[10] There is a danger from “hostile states and non-state actors who are trying to acquire nuclear, chemical, radiological, and biological weapons.” As such, the United States must “augment measures to secure, eliminate, and prevent the spread of WMD.” One finds in the document’s counterpart that “nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons proliferation is a vitally important and enduring global challenge, requiring sustained collaboration to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.”[11]

Competition does not rule out cooperation. Even as the United States competes with China and Russia it “stands ready to cooperate across areas of mutual interest with both countries.” Alternatively, “we will cooperate with any country, including our geopolitical rivals, that is willing to work constructively with us to address shared challenges.”[12]

Power and partners underpin the strategy. “The United States remains the world’s leading power” just as “American possesses unmatched political, economic, military, and technological advantages.”[13] The US approach “must integrate all elements of America’s national power” or “encompasses all elements of national power.”[14] The “American military is the strongest fighting force the world has ever known” and “America’s military remains the strongest in the world.”[15] Dark clouds are on the horizon, however. Adversaries of the US have closed the gap and manifest aggressive intentions. The United States will therefore “modernize and strengthen our military so it is equipped for the era of strategic competition with major powers.” The US “task is to ensure that American military superiority endures, and … is ready to protect Americans against sophisticated challenges to national security.”[16] The Department of Defense’s budget is secure. At the same time, the United States does not plan to go it alone. “Allies and partners are a great strength of the United States” and its “unrivaled network of allies and partners protects and advances our interests around the world.”[17] The United States “remains committed” to NATO’s Article 5 declares one. The other goes further: the US “remains unequivocally committed.”[18]

The two strategies are not identical, of course. Even when both documents mention a topic the emphasis can differ. The most notable difference is the focus on border security in the Trump NSS and climate change in the Biden NSS. Each is only briefly or indirectly addressed in the other.[19] Arms control gets more attention in the Biden NSS relative to that of its predecessor.[20] The Biden administration also highlights domestic extremists and challenges to democracy—alluding to but not calling out Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 US presidential election.[21] Some differences are likely driven by timing. For instance, the Trump NSS focuses more on ISIS, which had recently held a large amount of territory. The Biden NSS devotes attention to the COVID-19 pandemic which began after the Trump NSS was drafted (though the latter mentioned pandemics).[22]

Areas of shared emphasis constitute core areas of agreement among the US foreign policy elite. Those include a commitment to using US power to pursue a free and open order, compete with other great powers, maintain US military primacy, counter nuclear proliferation, and strengthen alliances and partnerships. This is in line with accounts that highlight a consistent US grand strategy since the end of the Cold War if not earlier (and now, according to the Biden NSS, into the post-post-Cold War era).[23] Critics see primacy infused with well-meaning but misguided liberalism; proponents a wise liberal primacy or deep engagement.[24] To be sure, there has been a shift in the primary challenge to the free and open order. In the last decade major power competition edged out rogue states and terrorism.[25] Nonetheless the broad project remains. This is not just the product of elite ideas. Powerful states—and the United States remains the world’s most powerful state—have expansive interests and tend to work to maintain their position.[26]

Efforts to move away from this consensus position will face significant hurdles. At the same time, it will be easier to sustain policies in line with the shared view. This is true even for the president. For instance, it is hard to square the 2017 NSS endorsement of US alliances with President Trump’s frequent broadsides against allies and purported plans to extricate the United States from NATO and the US-South Korean alliance if he had won a second term.[27] Trump may eventually have been able to shift US policy. The president is not simply another bureaucratic actor.[28] The point is that movement in the face of widespread consensus requires great determination. More broadly, change in different areas of general consensus may require a generational effort to develop a leadership class that shares an alternative view. Even then the propensity for capacious interests to follow immense capability means that major adjustment may only occur after a major shock or shift in US relative power.[29]

Areas of divergence in ends and means across strategies are more contingent. This is consistent with accounts that emphasize individual presidential doctrines or variations in approach.[30] There is a greater prospect for change based on the party and individuals in power. Conversely, proponents of those policies may struggle to obtain consistency.

Fully exploring continuity and change also necessitates better understanding when and how the NSS matters. Does the NSS not only reveal areas of (dis)agreement and (in)consistency, but also independently shape and constrain subsequent US policies? This, then, is an area where the NSS can spur additional research. One set of metrics, alluded to in the introduction, is whether the strategy shifts foreign policy, drives prioritization, or institutes institutional reorganization.[31] By these standards the NSS typically falls short. Yet consistency can be just as consequential.[32]

Two pathways for how the NSS can shape and constrain suggest themselves, although there are certainly others as well. One has roots in the bureaucratic and organizational politics literature.[33] An official strategy that bears the president’s signature can empower officials to keep a program alive or manage their offices in line with that position.[34] Indeed, executive branch officials should pursue policies that conform to a presidentially approved strategy.  It may also be easier to dismiss a casual presidential comment that goes against formal presidential guidance.

A second pathway is that the NSS may generate what political scientists call audience costs.[35] In essence, these are political costs leaders pay if they back down from a public commitment. Recent studies examine the role that presidential statements play in compelling rivals and reassuring allies.[36] The extent to which documents like the NSS tie a leader’s hands and with what audiences is an open question.[37] The US public may not pay much attention to the NSS; Congress, executive branch officials, and allies and partners might.

The NSS can also serve as a source for policy relevant research more broadly.[38] One approach is instrumental. Scholars can utilize NSS objectives such as promoting human rights abroad, pursuing cooperation on areas of shared interests with rivals, strengthening democracy and industry at home, or ensuring healthy civil-military relations to provide insights into the most effective methods and tools to obtain those objectives.

Another approach is foundational. Scholars can assess the feasibility of and (often implicit) causal arguments in the NSS. For instance, the Biden NSS asserts that healthy civil-military relations enhance military effectiveness and that the root causes of radicalization are poor governance, poverty, and conflict. Existing literature supports some of these claims and qualifies others.[39] Elsewhere the NSS acknowledges US domestic polarization. It nevertheless adopts an expansive strategy. Can a democracy whose last leader worked to overturn a free and fair election at home pursue a liberal policy abroad? More generally, scholars have begun to assess whether a polarized society can sustain an expansive strategy.[40] Within the strategy, how compatible are competition and cooperation with China?[41] Even during the détente era of the Cold War, US-Soviet cooperation on areas of shared interests was shallow or competition continued apace.[42] Pre-World War I era agreements could not paper over the intense security competition between great powers. The NSS suggests many other research areas as well.

Instrumental and foundational approaches both benefit from an ability to communicate the degree of scholarly consensus and what Alexander George called conditional generalizations.[43] Research that colleagues and I conducted shows that a high degree of scholarly consensus can shift policymaker views.[44] It is also important to convey how findings apply to a specific problem. A general claim that a policy promotes an outcome, such as foreign development or coercive success, will not be helpful if the key factors the study identifies are absent from the case an official has to address.

This is not a panacea. Even when there is a scholarly consensus policymaker views may only shift at the margins. And there is no academic consensus on many issues. Policymakers also must make decisions by weighing multiple factors, which means that the best solution for a particular problem may not be appealing from a wider perspective. An excellent and relevant study after a decision has been made will have little influence.[45] To the extent possible, though, walking through how a large body of theory and history supports a position will increase a recommendation’s relevance.[46] This is a different endeavor than a typical review article which assesses the state of the literature and gaps for research without necessarily applying findings to a policy problem.

I conclude by addressing a tension between my discussion of consensus and relevance. What is the point of scholarly engagement if shared principles and substantial power drive behavior? To begin with, understanding strategic durability, the role of the NSS in shaping and constraining policy, and a strategy’s feasibility are intrinsically important. Scholarship that provides more effective means to achieve objectives is not dependent upon shifting areas of agreement or disagreement. It can also incorporate the opportunities and constraints of the international environment. I am more pessimistic on shifting (sustaining) objectives when there is consensus (disagreement) across administrations.[47] Research on these issues can nevertheless put scholars in a position to convey general findings if an opening emerges to reevaluate elements of US grand strategy.[48] Scholars can be strategic in their approach to engagement.


Paul C. Avey is an associate professor of political science at Virginia Tech. His research interests include nuclear politics, US foreign policy, and academic-policy engagement. He is the author of Tempting Fate: Why Nonnuclear States Confront Nuclear Opponents (Cornell University Press, 2019), and author or coauthor of articles in multiple academic and policy journals and sitesAvey was a 2018-2019 Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, a postdoctoral fellow with the Tower Center for Political Studies at SMU, a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at MIT, and a pre-doctoral fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He earned his PhD in political science from the University of Notre Dame.


[1] I thank Michael C. Desch, Jordan Tama, and the editors at H-Diplo for helpful comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this essay. I am responsible for its remaining shortcomings.

[2] Joseph R. Biden, Jr. National Security Strategy, October 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Biden-Harris-Administrations-National-Security-Strategy-10.2022.pdf. Hereafter Biden NSS. For reactions, see Around the Halls: Assessing the 2022 National Security Strategy,” Brookings Institution, October 14, 2022,  https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2022/10/14/around-the-halls-assessing-the-2022-national-security-strategy/; “Experts React: Biden Administration’s National Security Strategy,” The Stimson Center, October 14, 2022, https://www.stimson.org/2022/experts-react-biden-administrations-national-security-strategy/; “CNAS Responds: Analyzing the 2022 National Security Strategy,” CNAS, October 13, 2022, https://www.cnas.org/press/press-note/cnas-responds-analyzing-the-2022-national-security-strategy; Alexander Ward, “Biden Admin Declares Post-Cold War Era ‘Definitively Over,’” Politico, October 12, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/10/12/biden-post-cold-war-00061428; Valerie Insinna, “Three Key Takeaways from the Biden Administration’s National Security Strategy,” Breaking Defense, October 14, 2022, https://breakingdefense.com/2022/10/three-key-takeaways-from-the-biden-administrations-national-security-strategy/; Emma Ashford, “Why the U.S. Still Can’t Have It All: Biden’s National Security Strategy,” Just Security, October 14, 2022, https://www.justsecurity.org/83568/why-the-us-still-cant-have-it-all-bidens-national-security-strategy/; Christopher Preble, Melanie Marlow, and Zack Cooper, “Assessing the National Security Strategy,” War on the Rocks, October 28, 2022, https://warontherocks.com/2022/10/assessing-the-national-security-strategy/.

[3] Jordan Tama, “Does Strategic Planning Matter?: The Outcomes of U.S. National Security Reviews,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 130, No. 4 (2015-16), 739-740. See also Justin Logan and Benjamin H. Friedman, “The Case for Getting Rid of the National Security Strategy,” War on the Rocks, November 4, 2022, https://warontherocks.com/2022/11/the-case-for-getting-rid-of-the-national-security-strategy/ For an account that the NSS and its process do matter but in primarily negative ways, see David M. Edelstein and Ronald R. Krebs, “Delusions of Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 94, No. 6 (November/December 2015), 109-116. On US strategic planning challenges, see Daniel W. Drezner, ed., Avoiding Trivia: The Role of Strategic Planning in American Foreign Policy, (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2009). On the difficulty—but not impossibility—of crafting and evaluating strategy, much of which can be adapted to the NSS and grand strategy, see Richard K. Betts, “Is Strategy an Illusion?” International Security, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Fall 2000), 5-50.

[4] President Donald J. Trump, National Security Strategy, December 2017, https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf. Hereafter Trump NSS. On the disjuncture between Trump and his NSS, see, for example, Ilan Goldenberg, “Trump’s National Security Strategy is Dead on Arrival,” Newsweek, October 27, 2017, https://www.newsweek.com/trump-national-security-strategy-dead-arrival-751514; Thomas Wright, “The National Security Strategy Papers Over a Crisis,” The Atlantic, December 19, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/12/trump-national-security-strategy/548756/.

[5] Public Law 99-43, October 1, 1986, Section 603 (pages 85-86), https://history.defense.gov/Portals/70/Documents/dod_reforms/Goldwater-NicholsDoDReordAct1986.pdf; National Security Strategy, Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, https://history.defense.gov/Historical-Sources/National-Security-Strategy/.

[6] Nina Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword: The Three Meanings of ‘Grand Strategy,’” Security Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1 (2018), 27-57. 

[7] Biden NSS, 7; Trump NSS, 1, 4.

[8] Trump NSS, 3; Biden NSS, i.

[9] Biden NSS, 43; Trump NSS, 4. See also Trump NSS, 37, 48.

[10] Trump NSS, 2, 25; Biden NSS, 8-9, 23.

[11] Trump NSS, 8; Biden NSS, 29.

[12] Trump NSS, 25; Biden NSS, 12

[13] Biden NSS, 7; Trump NSS, 3.

[14] Trump, NSS, 26; Biden NSS, 11.

[15] Biden NSS, 20; Trump NSS, 3

[16] Biden NSS, 11; Trump NSS, 3

[17] Trump NSS, 37; Biden NSS, 16

[18] Trump NSS, 48; Biden NSS, 38

[19] Trump NSS, 9-10, 22-23; Biden NSS, 9, 27-28, 40.

[20] Biden NSS, 29-30; Trump NSS, 31. 

[21] See the findings of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, https://january6th.house.gov/.

[22] Trump NSS, 9-10.

[23] Biden NSS, 6.

[24] For skeptics, see Emma Ashford and Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson, “Trump’s National Security Strategy: A Critics Dream,” Texas National Security Review, Vol. 1, No. 2 (March 2018), 139-144; John J. Mearsheimer, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018); Stephen M. Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (New York: Farrar, Srauss and Giroux, 2018); Patrick Porter, “Why America’s Grand Strategy Has Not Changed: Power, Habit, and the U.S. Foreign Policy Establishment,” International Security, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Spring 2018); Barry R. Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), though see Barry R. Posen, “The Rise of Illiberal: Trump’s Surprising Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, (March/April 2018). For proponents, see Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, America Abroad: The United States’ Global Role in the 21st Century, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Hal Brands, American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2018); G. John Ikenberry, “The Illusion of Geopolitics: The Enduring Power of the Liberal Order,” Foreign Affairs, (May/June 2014); and G. John Ikenberry, “The Next Liberal Order: The Age of Contagion Demands More Internationalism, Not Less,” Foreign Affairs, (July/August 2020). Some skeptics and proponents suggest Trump, though not necessarily his administration, is an outlier. This does not challenge my basic point on the NSS revealing foreign policy elite consensus across administrations.

[25] Officials in the President Barack Obama administration spoke of great power competition. See, for example, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work Remarks on National Security, C-Span, December 14, 2015, https://www.c-span.org/video/?401990-1/deputy-defense-secretary-bob-work-remarks-national-security&event=401990&playEvent; and Bradley Peniston, “Work: The Age of Everything is the Era of Grand Strategy,” November 2, 2015, https://www.defenseone.com/business/2015/11/work-age-everything-era-grand-strategy/123335/, 

[26] Robert Jervis, “Liberalism, the Blob, and American Foreign Policy: Evidence and Methodology,” Security Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3 (2020), 441-451; Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Vintage Books, 1989); Carla Norloff, America’s Global Advantage: US Hegemony and International Cooperation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the Twenty-first Century: China’s Rise and the Fate of America’s Global Position,” International Security, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Winter 2015/16), 7-53; and Michael Beckley, Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018). That strategic retrenchment can be a useful way to maintain a state’s position, see Paul K. MacDonald and Joseph M. Parent, Twilight of the Titans: Great Power Decline and Retrenchment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018).

[27] Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker, “‘I Alone Can Fix It’ Book Excerpt: Inside Trump’s Election Day and the Birth of the ‘Big Lie,’” Washington Post, July 15, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/07/13/book-excerpt-i-alone-can-fix-it/. See also the discussion in Brands, American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump, 83, 163-165. 

[28] Stephen D. Krasner, “Are Bureaucracies Important? (Or Allison Wonderland),” Foreign Policy, No. 7 (Summer 1972), 159-179; Robert J. Art, “Bureaucratic Politics and American Foreign Policy: A Critique,” Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, No. 4 (December 1973), 467-490.

[29] Porter, “Why America’s Grand Strategy Has Not Changed,” 11-12.

[30] Robert Jervis, “Understanding the Bush Doctrine,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 118, No. 3 (2003), 365-388; Henry R. Nau, Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy Under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), esp. chapter 3; Colin Dueck, The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Benjamin Miller with Ziv Rubinovitz, Grand Strategy from Truman to Trump (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020).

[31] Daniel Drezner, “Does Obama Have a Grand Strategy?: Why We Need Doctrines in Uncertain Times,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 90, No. 4 (July/August 2011), 59-60; Tama, “Does Strategic Planning Matter?” 741-742

[32] For a similar point see David Blagden, “Politics, Policy, and the UK Impact Agenda: The Promise and Pitfalls of Academic Engagement with Government,” International Studies Perspective, Vol. 20 (2019), 94

[33] The classic study is Graham Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1971).  

[34] On the latter, see Jordan Tama, “The Politics of Strategy: Why Government Agencies Conduct Major Strategic Reviews,” Journal of Public Policy, (2105), 1-28.

[35] The audience costs literature is massive, but consistently identifies James Fearon as critical in its early development. James D. Fearon, “Domestic Political Audiences and the Escalation of International Disputes,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 88, No. 3 (September 1994), 577-592. For critiques, see, Jack Snyder and Erica D. Borghard, “The Cost of Empty Threats: A Penny, Not A Pound,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 105, No. 3 (August 2011), 437-456; Marc Trachtenberg, “Audience Costs: An Historical Analysis,” Security Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1 (2012), 3-42; Alexander B. Downes and Todd S. Sechser, “The Illusion of Democratic Credibility,” International Organization Vol. 66, No. 3 (Summer 2012), 457-489.

[36] Roseanne W. McManus, Statements of Resolve: Achieving Coercive Credibility in International Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Brian Blankenship, “Promises Under Pressure: Statements of Reassurance in US Alliances,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 64 (2020), 1017-1030.

[37] For instance, Edelstein and Krebs argue that the NSS does little to allow foreign and domestic actors to hold the president accountable yet “doctrines force leaders to act for the sake of seeming consistent … and the pressures mount all the more with officially endorsed doctrines.” The former suggests there is not a penalty for going against NSS components while the latter implies there is one. Edelstein and Krebs, “Delusions of Grand Strategy,” 112-113, 115-116.

[38] On policy relevance, see Daniel Maliniak, Susan Peterson, Ryan Powers, and Michael J. Tierney, eds., Bridging the Theory-Practice Divide in International Relations, (Washington D.C.: George Washington Press, 2020); Alexander L. George, Bridging the Gap: Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy (Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 1993); Bruce W. Jentleson and Ely Ratner, “Bridging the Beltway–Ivory Tower Gap,” International Studies Review Vol. 13, No. 1 (2011), 6–11; Michael C. Desch, Cult of the Irrelevant: The Waning Influence of Social Science on National Security (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019); and Naazneen H. Barma and James Goldgeier, “How Not to Bridge the Gap in International Relations,” International Affairs, Vol. 98, No. 5 (September 2022), 1763-1781.

[39] Biden NSS, 21, 30. On civil military relations and military effectiveness see the discussion in Vipin Narang and Caitlin Talmadge, “Civil-Military Pathologies and Defeat in War: Tests Using New Data,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 62, No. 7, 1379-1405. On causes of terrorism and radicalization see Martha Crenshaw, “The Causes of Terrorism,” Comparative Politics, Vol. 13, No. 4 (July 1981), 379-399; Max Abrahms, “What Terrorists Really Want: Terrorist Motives and Counterterrorism Strategy,” International Security, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Spring 2008), 78-105; Robert A. Pape, “The Jan. 6 Insurrectionists Aren’t Who You Think They Are,” Foreign Policy, January 6, 2022, https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/01/06/trump-capitol-insurrection-january-6-insurrectionists....

[40] For a recent overview see Gordon M. Friedrichs and Jordan Tama, “Polarization and US Foreign Policy: Key Debates and New Findings,” International Politics, Vol. 59, (October 2022), 767-785. As the authors note, this literature has been U.S.-centric and would benefit from a comparative approach.

[41] Biden NSS 6.

[42] Galen Jackson, “Who Killed Détente? The Superpowers and the Cold War in the Middle East, 1969-77,” International Security, Vol. 44, No. 3 (Winter 2019/20), 129-162; Brendan Rittenhouse Green, The Revolution That Failed: Nuclear Competition, Arms Control, and the Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020); John D. Maurer, Competitive Arms Control: Nixon, Kissinger, and SALT, 1969-1972 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022); Rebecca Davis Gibbons, The Hegemon’s Tool Kit: US Leadership and the Politics of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2022).  

[43] George, Bridging the Gap, 120-125.

[44] Paul C. Avey, Michael C. Desch, Eric Parajon, Susan Peterson, Ryan Powers, and Michael J. Tierney, “Does Social Science Inform Foreign Policy? Evidence from a Survey of US National Security, Trade, and Development Officials,” International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 1 (March 2022), 1-19. 

[45] Daniel Byman and Matthew Kroenig, “Reaching Beyond the Ivory Tower: A How to Manual,” Security Studies, Vol. 25, No. 2 (2015), 299-300.

[46] For an example that brings together a large amount of existing theory and evidence, see Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth, “Don’t Come Home, America: The Case Against Retrenchment,” International Security, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Winter 2012/13), 7-51.

[47] I assume the basic national interest is the security, prosperity, and liberty of the American people. The debate is on what objectives (often labeled interests) and policy tools best advance that core national interest. Paul C. Avey, Jonathan N. Markowitz, and Robert J. Reardon, “Disentangling Grand Strategy: International Relations Theory and U.S. Grand Strategy,” Texas National Security Review, Vol. 2, No. 1 (November 2018), 33-35.

[48] My claim is not that scholars should set the agenda. While I believe scholarly engagement can improve policy, scholars can be wrong, lack important information available to policymakers, and are not accountable to the public in the same way as elected officials. To borrow from Nichols, scholars can engage but do not get a veto. Tom Nichols, “How America Lost Faith in Expertise: And Why That’s A Giant Problem,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 96, No. 2 (March/April 2017), 73.