Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, during the recent confirmation hearing for Kathleen Hicks, the Biden administration’s nominee for deputy defense secretary, pressed her on a phrase used by White House press secretary Jen Psaki — one that, in his words, “sent a shiver down my back.” The phrase in question was “strategic patience,” and it was used in reference to China. “Do you think that’s a good term that we should be using when the challenge and threat from China is immediate?”
Hicks was ready for the question. “I think our approach toward China is first to recognize that they are the pacing challenge for the defense community,” she said, “and that they present a serious alternative model, to be rejected, with regard to how they govern their society.” But she then added: “I do think there are opportunities for the United States and China to work together. … Even in the defense realm, there are confidence-building measures we should be pursuing so that we can prevent conflict between the two nations.”
It was a deft answer, one that dispelled Sullivan’s concerns with the doctrine but also signaled that she essentially agreed with it: While China is a “pacing challenge” (Pentagon argot for nations developing defense technologies intended to match America’s), the United States would confront China when required while avoiding a conflict by searching out areas of cooperation. And so the Sullivan-Hicks exchange has shed light on how strategic patience has become a stand-in for the new Biden administration’s approach to China—and the world.
Strategic patience has been used most recently to describe the Obama administration’s approach to North Korea, summarized by one defense intellectual as “refraining from actively pursuing regime change” while restraining Pyongyang’s behavior and “waiting for self-inflicted collapse.” The reason the policy failed, as Jessica J. Lee, a Korea expert at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft described it to me, was because it was a “highly risk-averse containment strategy” that relied too heavily on “economic and political pressure with no off-ramps.” But President Barack Obama’s North Korea failure wasn’t his alone. His successor, Donald Trump, doubled down on the Obama approach (vowing “fire and fury”) and then followed it by a face-to-face embrace with Kim Jong Un, which failed even more spectacularly. In fact, strategic patience predates Obama’s approach to North Korea, appearing prominently in his 2015 National Security Strategy (“the challenges we face require strategic patience and persistence”) as a way of dealing with a host of challenges—not just North Korea.
Read the full article in Foreign Policy.