Administration’s Strategic Guidance Calls Diplomacy America’s Tool of Choice

March 31, 2021 By Guest Contributor – Adam Taylor

In early March, the Biden administration released its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance—a framing document released ahead of the National Security Strategy (NSS) that serves as an early signal of U.S. foreign policy priorities in the Biden Administration.

Grounded in the president’s approach to renew America’s middle class, the guidance elevates the role of diplomacy and development as critical policy tools in the face of great power competition and other challenges, characterizing both as “leading instruments of American foreign policy.” By using diplomacy and development to connect the administration’s domestic priorities to America’s foreign policy priorities, the president has clearly signaled the significant role these tools will play over the next four years.

The Global Security Landscape

In the face of complex global challenges, the guidance calls for America to lead “from a position of renewed strength,” which includes using diplomacy and development to engage the world, particularly to confront authoritarian regimes. The guidance labels China as the only competitor that can “mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system” and references Russia’s ability to “play a disruptive role on the world stage.” Notably, the guidance pays less attention to Iran, North Korea, the Islamic State, or international terrorism than in years past, and instead focuses on transnational threats—including cyber and digital crime, climate crisis, and global health—and the need to counter the challenges confronting democracies across the globe. America must use diplomacy and development to manage its relationships with China and Russia and mitigate other security threats that challenge all nations, including our own.

The guidance’s strong support for diplomacy also highlights the administration’s commitment to “reinvigorate and modernize alliances and partnerships,” while also building new partnerships around the world and creating a unified front to “address common challenges, share costs, and widen the circle of cooperation.” Diplomacy can help achieve these goals by embracing multilateralism, engaging with international institutions, confronting authoritarianism, and serving as America’s tool of first resort in this new, competitive era.

Connecting Foreign Policy to Domestic Priorities

The guidance also stresses how President Biden’s foreign policy will “build back better” at home and advance durable and equitable outcomes for all Americans, especially working-class families. Topping the guidance’s list of domestic priorities are the need to invest in America’s work force, innovative technologies, and democratic reform, while also considering how international policies will help “grow the American middle class, create new and better jobs, raise wages, and strengthen communities.”

In this way, the administration links domestic and foreign policy priorities and expands the basis of America’s global engagement with the world beyond solely advancing U.S. interests, to include the interests of “all Americans not just the privileged few.” It creates a space for America to work with other like-minded states towards common goals, “including labor rights, equal opportunity, and environmental stewardship”, while also supporting American workers and companies. The intersection of both these trends provides an important opening for diplomacy to serve as the nation’s foreign policy tool of choice.

Development as a Tool for Global Stability

Development also plays a pivotal role in the guidance, which offers a model focused on “foreign assistance to promote global stability” and provides an “alternative to predatory development models,” like China’s Belt and Road initiative. This goal is couched in American values rather than national interests. Development remains America’s “best means to articulate and embody [U.S.] values, while simultaneously pursuing [U.S.] national security interests.” By connecting development to advancing U.S. values, the guidance illustrates how such policy is critical for our country, as well as for countries around the world—and why the work of development professionals is essential to moving this strategy forward.

The Interim National Security Strategic Guidance underscores how diplomacy and development can best support a foreign policy that works for America’s middle class, while also focusing on how these tools fit into a broader strategy to address great power competition and other national security threats—which have the ability to infringe on Americans’ wellbeing at any given moment. To meet this goal, America will need an enhanced approach to foreign policy that fully recognizes the utility of diplomacy and development in order to advance the interests of all Americans.


Adam Taylor is a member of the USGLC’s Next Gen Leader Network and currently works as a fellow in Congress. He previously served as a Marine Corps officer and holds an M.A. from American University’s School of International Service. He can be reached at [email protected].

The analysis provided here reflects the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the official positions of the USGLC, a Member of Congress, or the United States Marine Corps.