The administration of new U.S. President Joe Biden is essentially doing away with the traditional distinction between domestic policy and foreign policy when it comes to tackling threats to the country’s security.
"Foreign policy is domestic policy and domestic policy is foreign policy," national security adviser Jake Sullivan told a virtual audience Friday.
"We have to put ourselves in a position of strength to be able to deal with the challenges we face around the world,” Sullivan said. "Right now, the most profound pressing national security challenge for the United States is getting our own house in order."
The approach, on its face, might appear to be similar to the national security strategy former President Donald Trump rolled out just more than three years ago, which aimed to strengthen the country by putting “America First.”
Sullivan, though, pitched the decision to stop categorizing threats as purely foreign or purely domestic as one of necessity — an acknowledgement that many of the dangers confronting the new administration do not respect borders or boundaries.
"We are facing a COVID-19 pandemic that continues to ravage our population," he said. “We're obviously facing the effects in every part of our country of a climate crisis."
Sullivan also said the Biden administration is concerned about the way U.S. adversaries are increasingly using Washington’s domestic politics to gain leverage on the global stage.
“China is essentially making the case that the Chinese model is better than the American model,” he said. “They're pointing to dysfunction and division in the United States and saying, 'Take a look at that — their system doesn’t work. Our system does.' "
The Biden administration national security adviser also argued that a strengthened U.S. foreign policy is critical to addressing domestic threats, such as domestic violent extremism, that are flourishing not in isolation but as part of worldwide trends.
Unlike the Trump administration, which increasingly frayed ties with traditional U.S. allies with its “America First” approach, Sullivan also said strengthening alliances would be a key priority as part of the Biden administration approach to national security.
“We are going to be most effective in advancing our vision for what a free, prosperous, equitable society looks like if we are doing so in lockstep with democratic allies and partners,” he said.
"By ourselves, we represent about a quarter of the world's economy. With our allies and partners in both Europe and Asia, we represent more than half of the world's economy,” Sullivan argued. “It provides us a chorus of voices that can drive the argument that says, 'We are going to stand up for a certain set of principles in the face of aggression.’ ”
Despite such differences, Sullivan said, there are few disagreements between the Trump and Biden administrations about the countries posing the greatest threat to the U.S. He listed China, Russia and Iran as some of the biggest challenges.
Still, Sullivan said, how the U.S. deals with those threats will be changing.
During his four years in office, Trump’s rhetoric on China swung from praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping to criticism of Beijing over the spread of the coronavirus and for interfering in the 2020 presidential election.
But Trump himself was less vocal on other issues, including China’s crackdown on pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong.
Sullivan on Friday said the U.S. needed to speak with “clarity and consistency” on issues involving China and to “impose costs” for Beijing’s actions against the Uighurs in Xinjiang, its crackdown in Hong Kong and its continued threats to Taiwan.
The Biden administration’s approach to China, so far, has earned praise from at least one former Trump official.
Speaking at the same virtual event as Sullivan, former national security adviser Robert O’Brien said the new White House was “off to a great start on China.”
Critics of the previous administration repeatedly complained that Trump consistently refused to hold Russia to account for a range of activities, from election meddling to allegations that the Kremlin paid bounties in Afghanistan for the deaths of U.S. troops there. They also criticized the Trump administration for allowing key treaties with Russia to lapse without getting anything in return.
In contrast, Sullivan said, Biden is taking a “clear-eyed, hard-headed, practical approach” to the relationship with Russia, calling the White House offer to extend New START — the last remaining nuclear arms treaty with Russia — for five years just a starting point.
"That … is not the end of the story," Sullivan said. “It is beginning of the story on what is going to have to be serious, sustained negotiations around a whole set of nuclear challenges and threats.”
Sullivan, like other Biden administration officials, also said Washington would hold Russia to account for other unacceptable behavior, from election interference to the SolarWinds hack.
Some of Sullivan’s most pointed criticism of Trump came on the topic of Iran. He accused the Trump administration of allowing Tehran to become more of a threat by pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
"Iran's nuclear program has advanced dramatically over the course of the past couple of years,” he said. “They are significantly closer to a nuclear weapon than they were when the previous administration withdrew from the JCPOA."
Sullivan also said the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign had likewise failed to rein in Tehran’s support for terrorism and other malign activity.
"If we can get back to diplomacy that can put Iran's nuclear program in a box, that will create a platform upon which to build a global effort, including partners and allies in the region and in Europe and elsewhere, to take on the other significant threats,” he said.
The U.S. withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. Trump, at the time, said the agreement “didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will,” and added, “America will not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail.”
Instead, Trump imposed a series of sanctions against the government in Tehran for its nuclear activity, its missile development programs and its support of terrorism.