Bringing ‘Smart Power’ Back to U.S. Foreign Policy

Bringing ‘Smart Power’ Back to U.S. Foreign Policy

Former State Department official Christian Whiton’s book Smart Power is a needed and useful book on "the missing middle" in American foreign policy. Relying on history as well as the tried and true understanding of the term diplomacy before it was neutered by time-servers, place-seekers and the McGovernite left, Whiton outlines an approach that urges policymakers to adopt tactics that fall between the extremes of simply dialoging and a shooting war. Importantly, he argues persuasively that smart power is not only a matter of tactics that are part of a well-laid strategy; it is also a mindset about defending one’s country and its interests everywhere and at all times. Personally, I think the book is a good read for those who are desperately in need of a little bit of self-reflection on whether or not they are cut out for foreign policy officialdom.

Whiton begins the book by relaying stories about the use of tactics short of U.S. military force but much more involved than simply issuing démarches and convening conferences during the early years of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan and his allies abroad and in the United States (Democrats and Republicans) were masterful at bringing down the communist system, but the policy foundations of U.S. resistance to Soviet aggression were set long before by Truman and Eisenhower when we fought in various ways to keep Western Europe free. The Soviets knew we would resist and that we would not just talk but act to support our allies and the underground freedom fighters in whatever way was necessary to ensure their success–including supplying bags of cash and inventing ways to broadcast real news into closed states, all in an effort to harm the Soviets’ ability to capture nations. Communist leaders knew how the U.S. defined its interests and they experienced measured pain in response to their efforts to deny us the fulfillment of our goals.

Whiton contrasts this success story by showing how things are different now that we’ve had thirty years of an academic-inspired approach that assumes that the United Nations and international lawyering will somehow cause everyone to work out differences and establish peace. The problem with this approach is that it most obviously does not work very often and so the only thing left in the basket of tools is to drone or bomb or invade. Whiton argues that we have done the latter far too often, or our officials on the left and the right have argued for that, when smart power thinking and tactics would have been the wiser choice.

Mining his time in the Bush ’43 State Department for examples of missed opportunities, Whiton tells of poor judgment and careerist-thinking (both among political appointees and FSOs) that left the U.S. with only two options: convene a conference or bomb someone. Missing were a thorough examination of who are real enemies are, our interests over time, the setting of goals (short, mid-range and long-term), and the choosing of appropriate tactics to achieve each.

It is worth noting that smart power is not "soft power" because the latter almost never means the use of force in any form. Whiton argues that there are various forms of persuasion as well as force short of war that should be available to policymakers to complement the use of whatever Foggy Bottom means by "soft power."

Whiton and I served together and I experienced some of what he laments firsthand in my work on the Freedom Agenda. I believe President George W. Bush had the right mindset and knew U.S. interests well, but especially in the second term he was ill-served at times by some political appointees who were captured by the career officials who wanted a return to the old system of démarche and convene. This is especially unfortunate given the development of the Freedom Agenda and all the good theory and practice (that drew on successful experiences of the Cold War) that it entailed. We were stymied more than once and the president was in turn frustrated by the failure to achieve his goals. I am not as critical of neoconservatives as is Whiton because I think he and most of them share not only the same goals but also a similar approach and mindset. The few whom he considers trigger-happy do not discredit the whole lot. Besides, those too quick to bomb have been moved by frustration at the return of the lawyering and conferencing approach to foreign policy. If there were more tools to choose from-smart power tools-they would readily embrace them. As to Whiton’s judgment of the (Ron) Paulist isolationsists, I share his views wholly.

Whiton’s book is useful in reminding us that embracing smart power not only has facts and logic on its side, it has a successful track record borne out by history. But it is worth stressing once more: if policymakers in both the executive and legislative branches do not have the right mindset and attitude about the role and interests of the United States in the world, they will never move beyond the current approach practiced with vigor by the Obama administration. They will be reluctant to do anything but what is considered the polite and genteel approach to foreign policy which his to démarche and convene. And then when that fails, as it so often does, they will be moved to use exceedingly large amounts of force with all the political, diplomatic and collateral damage that comes with it. The public will react negatively and our alliances will be harmed. It’s time to get smart again.