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As a global power, America must be engaged.

By From the December 2013 issue

Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War
By Christian Whiton

(Potomac Books, 304 pages, $29.95)

Christian Whiton is a man with his country in mind. A shrewd patriot and a master of national security history, he is intent on a root-and-branch reform of America’s foreign policy. Indeed, he would not only renovate some of the current principles of foreign policy as it has been recently practiced, but also clean out the stovepipe bureaucracies of our current foreign policy establishment in order to mobilize and coordinate smart power to vindicate American national interests. His sense of urgency stems from the fact that “the closer one gets to…the biggest challenges to U.S. security—especially China, Iran, and Islamism—the more one must contend…with reasons why we should do nothing.” He concludes that the State Department cannot lead the reform, not least because it is the oldest, most ossified labor union in America. 

To Whiton, smart power means winning abroad on behalf of democratic principles and American economic and political interests. As a global power, America must be engaged. Military force may be necessary under certain defined circumstances, he argues, but the aim of American strategy is to win abroad without war. Whiton is contemptuous of international organizations because he sees the world of international politics as a first approximation of anarchy. That is to say, there is no sovereign agent in global politics with a monopoly of force to arbitrate and enforce the law and the peace—as with the police, courts, and prisons of a sovereign country. There are, from time-to-time, hegemonic powers—England in the 19th century, America in the 20th—to enforce the rules of the game. But in the 21st century, Whiton argues, America has lost its grip; her interests are often ignored or undermined by her incumbent politicians. Our adversaries often operate with impunity. Thus does American leadership lose respect. Worse yet, those charged with shaping U.S. foreign policy are befuddled by aggressive new commercial and military powers, some aiming to displace America. 

Whiton recalls three presidents from the 20th—which is to say the American—century and their superior use of smart power. Truman, Eisenhower, and Reagan wielded all the tools available to them to advance American interests, from diplomacy to fifth columns to ground warfare. Whiton believes furthermore that these three presidents knew their enemies and had the judgment and skill to effectively evaluate the options. They made mistakes, but they did not “lead from behind” like Barack Obama.

But in the 21st century, American leaders have lost their way, not least because “five deadly illusions” distract and disorient foreign policy elites: 1) that China is a partner rather than an adversary; 2) that al Qaeda is the only terrorist threat; 3) that we can offend allies such as Israel while accommodating enemies such as North Korea and Iran; 4) that the CIA, with its mediocre record, provides the eyes and ears we need; and 5) that the State Department is a reliable custodian of American interests. 

In a single phrase, Whiton expresses his strongest conviction: The “U.S. government should work unapologetically toward objectives that favor freedom and American security.” One can almost feel his contempt for those who believe that a president’s job, and the State Department’s priority, is to make America well-liked. Whiton believes a bewildered President Obama, by his speeches and his actions, obscures the fact that Islamists hate America as a mortal enemy not least because she is a barrier to the restoration of the Caliphate. Islamists are not enemies to be appeased or fawned over. Nor is China, which aspires to be a globally influential military power; it employs mercantilist tactics and manipulates its currency; its cyber-warfare is unconstrained; its commercial strategy is theft of intellectual property on steroids.

What is to be done? American presidents and the foreign policy apparatus, according to Whiton, must tell us the plain truth about our national security and economic interests, and speak honestly about countries and ideologies opposed to them. Then, with all the tools of communication, black arts, commercial advocacy, and, as a last resort, the threat and use of military power, American presidents should defend and advance American interests. But here I might emphasize, more than Whiton does, that today is not 1945, when the world lay prostrate at thefeet of the United States and the Soviet Union. Nor is it 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when American hyper-power was a celebrated illusion of Washington elites, left and right—but especially right. In today’s circumstances, the presumption against large-scale military intervention may no longer be dismissed as isolationism. Whiton’s derisive treatment of RonPaul—a devoted patriot, albeit one with views different from Whiton—is regrettable. Indeed, Congressman Paul’s son Rand, the junior senator from Kentucky, is no simple-minded non-interventionist, but a well-tutored master of both domestic and foreign policy.

But one may anticipate that Whiton’s book will cause the left and the Obama foreign policy elite to react with the unctuous self-righteousness reserved for opponents; instead his analysis should cause the scales to fall from their eyes. This book should be read by every unselfconscious, unapologetic patriot, whether conservative or liberal. Libertarians, too, will find the analysis useful to their purposes. And it should be on the reading list of every potential candidate who aspires to replace the incumbent president. 

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About the Author

Lewis E. Lehrman is a senior partner at L. E. Lehrman & Co. and chairman of the Lehrman Institute.