Biden’s Military Vision: Steady as She Goes, With Liberal Tweaks

Biden's pledges include "arms controls for a new era", lifting the transgender ban, and making climate change a defense priority
September 13, 2020 Updated: September 15, 2020

End forever wars and bring home troops? Check. Claim credit for bolstering NATO allies’ spending? Check. Continue to modernize to counter China and Russia? Check.

Some of Joe Biden’s election pitches sound a lot like President Donald Trump when it comes to defense. A Biden presidency for the most part also appears unlikely to change much of the status quo when it comes to the military and the cross-party consensus on tackling great power competition.

But there are things Biden would do differently, according to his official campaign website, acceptance speech, an article he wrote in Foreign Affairs, and the Democratic Party platform.

Biden wants to introduce a new era of arms controls, to overturn the ban on transgender people in the military and to cut back on arms sales to nations where there are human rights concerns.

He is also likely to cut defense spending, will make climate change a national security priority, and make “inclusion and diversity” much more of a feature in military policy.

Perhaps most significantly at a strategic level—assuming he follows the Democratic party platform—Biden would cut back on the nuclear weapon modernization program.

Joe Biden speaks during a campaign
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event Sept. 4, 2020 in Wilmington, Dela. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

That last policy will worry some analysts who say the U.S. nuclear deterrent is getting too old and tired, and that the modernization program is more of a life-support program than an upgrade.

Cold War Style Orthodoxy

After two decades mired in counter-insurgency, the military is currently revamping equipment and strategies to face “great power competition” with Russia and China as its top priority, as directed by the 2018 Trump Administration’s National Defense Strategy.

Biden would likely bring back a lot of President Barack Obama’s team to senior national security positions, according to James Carafano, a senior analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. But they likely won’t simply roll the clock back, he says.

“The reality is the world has changed in four years, and they know that,” Carafano told the Epoch Times. “The geopolitical reality is we are in an era of great power competition. I think that’s bipartisan, in the United States.”

“It’s almost an orthodoxy, as with the Cold War. That’s a reality you have with the United States as a global power with global interest and responsibilities.”

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese missiles are shown on trucks as they drive next to Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall of the People during a military parade in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

“Nobody’s going to back off on competition with China in the South China Seas. There’s no magic answer for North Korea. So the strategic challenges look similar.”

Most other analysts hold similar views.

Trump’s military-related election promises take up five of his 50 election pledges under his “America First Foreign Policy.”

They are:

  • Stop Endless Wars and Bring Our Troops Home
  • Get Allies to Pay their Fair Share
  • Maintain and Expand America’s Unrivaled Military Strength
  • Wipe Out Global Terrorists Who Threaten to Harm Americans
  • Build a Great Cybersecurity Defense System and Missile Defense System

Except for that last specific mention of cybersecurity and missile defense, these points have all already featured prominently in the Trump administration’s current and past policies, action, and rhetoric.

Analysts generally assume that there will otherwise be little change in direction for the military in a second term Trump presidency.

Mark Cancian, a senior national security advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies agrees that Biden doesn’t appear likely to make any major changes to the broader current defense priorities.

Modest Cuts

But Cancian says one of the most significant changes under Biden would likely be a cut in overall defense spending.

Biden’s personal election platform does not explicitly state he would cut the defense budget. The Democratic Party platform, however, does.

Cancian says it isn’t clear where such cuts will come from. “They talk a lot about eliminating legacy systems. They don’t really say what that is,” he told the Epoch Times. Some of the savings would come from cuts to nuclear weapons programs.

The Democratic Party platform states, “We will work to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our overreliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.”

Carafano says this policy on nuclear modernization would probably be the most strategically significant change under a Biden administration.

“The folks around Biden have always been skeptical of nuclear modernization—it is a big price tag.”

It isn’t clear exactly what elements of the nuclear weapons program changes and proposals would be kept says Cancian. “I think that Biden will continue those elements that were in the Obama program,” he says.

Most analysts interpret the Democrat party platform as Biden’s de facto position on issues where he hasn’t given a clear stance. The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for clarification on this, or whether Biden specifically supports defense cuts.

It is generally thought cuts will be modest because moderate Democrats won’t accept deep cuts.

“There was a progressive caucus in Congress that offered a 10 percent cut to defense in the National Defense Authorization Act, ” says Carafano. “A third of the Democrats didn’t vote for that. So I just don’t think [a big cut] is on the cards.”

Congress as a whole tends to be very reluctant to shrink forces and retire systems, says Cancian. “This budget, the administration proposed doing some of that, and Congress has pushed back.” A Biden administration would similarly have to push very hard to retire legacy systems, he says. “That’s bipartisan–that’s not a Democratic or Republican kind of issue.”

Annual defense spending currently stands at $738 billion. That budget was $662 billion when Trump began his tenure in the Oval Office.

“The saving grace for Biden is he will not have inherited a force that’s burned out,” says Carafano. “All the Clinton years, all the Bush years, we kind of lived off the fat of land of the Reagan rebuild. Obama really inherited a force that needed to recap, and in the end, he didn’t recap it. So Trump inherited kind of the bottom of the barrel really—but he put a lot of money into it.”

Inclusion and Climate change

In addition to a potential budget cut, Cancian says Biden would also make other changes around personnel.

“There will be a huge push on diversity and inclusion: they’ll reverse the ban on transgenders and push much harder for recruiting minorities and promoting minorities.”

Biden also describes climate change as a priority for national security, such as the melting ice in the Arctic opening up new strategic dynamics. The Democrat platform states that climate change is a “core priority” for defense.

Epoch Times Photo
The Royal Navy Type-23 Duke-class frigate HMS Kent (F78), front, and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) conduct joint operations to ensure maritime security in the Arctic Ocean, May 5, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of the Royal Navy/Dan Rosenbaum/Released)

Cancian says that a Biden administration “will expand the definition of national security to include climate change, to include education, to include pandemics—probably as a way to move money out of Department of Defense into other agencies.”

Biden also says he will reduce arms sales to nations where there are human rights concerns, such as Saudi Arabia.

“The Trump administration viewed arms sales through the lens of manufacturing and employment,” says Cancian. “Arms sales were [seen as] good because they supported U.S. manufacturing.”

Biden and the Democratic party also broadly indicate a strong ideological appetite for arms controls.

In an article published by Foreign Affairs, Biden wrote that he will commit “to arms control for a new era.”

This marks a typical traditional difference between Republicans and Democrats on arms control,  says Cancian. “Democrats and the arms control community believe in arms control as an end in itself, that the arms control process is important. Republicans and conservatives are very skeptical about them.”

Epoch Times Photo
A deactivated Titan II nuclear ICMB is seen in a silo at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Arizona, on May 12, 2015. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Carafano says that with arms control the traditional conservative approach is to “first put the reality in place,” then to legitimize it with an agreement. In other words, first establish the military capability, then negotiate.

Democrats tend to prioritize the establishment of international agreements and frameworks first, then to work within them.

Biden says he would extend the New START treaty—the only remaining nuclear arms treaty between Russia and the United States—which is due to expire at the end of the year.

Russia and the United States are currently in talks to assess whether to extend it.

Biden says that he would sign the United States back up to the so-called Iran nuclear deal, as long as Tehran first showed “strict compliance.”

National Defense Strategy

The military is currently pivoting away from counter-insurgency under the guiding star of the national defense strategy, which spelled out for the first time that the United States was in an era of renewed great power competition. While combating terrorism is still a goal, it falls way behind countering China and Russia, and handling rogue states such as Iran and North Korea.

The strategy also called for the U.S. military to compete with other nations “below the threshold of conflict,” sometimes referred to as the grayzone.

Defense officials, along with state department officials frequently note that the national defense strategy emphasizes working with allies and partners, such as in the Pacific, as a top strategic priority—as per the Trump administration’s America First policy.

Cancian says the Biden administration would most likely issue a new defense strategy document, but that likely it wouldn’t change much. “They’re going to say this strategy document radically changes the thrust of the Trump administration, breaks with their horrible policies, forges a new path forward. But it’s going to be an awful lot like the Trump strategy, which was a lot like the late Obama strategy.”

Cancian thinks that a second Trump administration would likely update their current strategy, although there has been no messaging yet on the issue. “It’s customary that administrations do that, even in a second term”

Both Trump and Biden talk in their platforms about pulling troops out of conflicts and ending the so-called forever wars.

Epoch Times Photo
A B-1B Lancer from the U.S. Air Force 28th Air Expeditionary Wing heads out on a combat mission in support of strikes on Afghanistan in this image released December 7, 2001. (USAF/Getty Images)

Cancian says that the difficulty Biden may face is the additional goals and caveats around withdrawing from Afghanistan, such as safeguarding women’s and girls’ rights. He says Obama’s attempts to withdraw from Afghanistan were stymied by various stipulations that, when put together, essentially amounted to nation-building.

“Biden’s going to run into the same problem,” he says.

But Cancian notes that actual troop levels in the middle east are now low, with about 10,000 in Afghanistan, and around 5,000 in Iraq and Syria.

“These are not big deployments anymore. Once upon a time they were. They aren’t now. So in a sense, they don’t really matter.”


In his election pitch, Biden takes credit for the agreement that NATO countries would pay at least two percent of GDP on defense—an agreement which he says was forged under himself and Obama in 2014.

Trump also takes credit for the rise in NATO spending towards that goal since his time in office.

Early in this presidency, Trump famously dangled the possibility that the United States could withdraw from NATO as he challenged allies on their levels of defense spending versus the amount they had pledged under the NATO agreement. During the last two years or so, NATO relations with Washington have grown more solid. The head of NATO has praised Trump for strengthening the alliance during his time in office and credited him with the boost in spending.

In July, Pentagon announced it will move 11,900 troops, along with its European command headquarters, out of Germany, as it shifts to a more flexible rotational model and reshuffles units closer to NATO’s Eastern flank with Russia.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump onstage during the annual NATO heads of government summit on Dec. 4, 2019 in Watford, England. (Photo by Steve Parsons-WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Trump characterized the moving of troops out of Germany specifically as a response to Germany being “delinquent” in terms of its defense spending. Germany has still not met the 2 percent target.

The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for clarification on whether Biden would reverse these changes to EUCOM including the Germany troop deployments.


How Biden will perform in the role as commander-in-chief is hard to judge say Carafano and Cancian.

Carafano says that he guesses Biden might be more like Bill Clinton in his decision-making, consulting a broad group of people until a decision had to be made, as opposed to the Obama model of a small inner-cadre of decision-makers.

Cancian notes that Trump has turned out to be very cautious when it comes to military action, contrary to the fears of those who thought his bombastic style of diplomacy would mean a trigger-happy commander-in-chief.

“He really does not want to get involved in foreign conflicts. He called off the strike on Iran when they shut down the drone,” he said.

“Trump is, to be generous, really unique. He doesn’t like process and is very suspicious of many players and is impatient with the bureaucratic processes of government.”

Regardless of Biden’s particular style, Cancian says that he would definitely mark a clear return to the norms of bureaucratic processes.

“Biden would go back to those kinds of processes that you saw in really all the previous administrations. That would be a huge relief for the federal bureaucracy, which lives by process.”

But whatever the difference between Trump and Biden, defense is simply not a high priority when it comes to the election, says Carafano.

“This is actually a typical national election,” he says. “On domestic issues, we vote for the guy that believes what we believe. On foreign policy issues, we vote for the guy we believe in.”

Follow Simon on Twitter: @SPVeazey