Serendipitous events do not a strategy make.
Watching events surrounding Syria unfold the last few weeks, and the Obama administration and media’s cheers of victory these last few days, is proof that our current leadership does not understand the difference between happenstance and strategy. A quick review of events: the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government on civilians; tough talk by President Barack Obama; an administration push for a congressional vote for use of force; Secretary of State John Kerry’s off-the-cuff remark regarding Syria giving weapons up to an international group; Russian President Vladimir Putin leveraging the remark into action; the Obama administration claiming a great solution to the Syrian chemical weapons problem.
Contrast this happenstance of events to smart power. Christian Whiton, former diplomat and presidential campaign adviser, clearly details in his book, “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War” the vast area of government relations between cocktail parties for diplomats and airstrikes that is missing in our national security implementation. The goal of smart power is to accomplish an “important foreign political objective without firing a shot.”
In today’s environment, there is little space between making nice and doing harm. In reality, there is much more that could and should be done between routine diplomacy and sending in troops.
For anyone with more than a passing interest in national security, this book is a must-read. Whiton is clear and honest in assessing the state of our national security apparatus and defines where we have deluded ourselves, to our detriment. We are reminded that the “U.S. government should work unapologetically toward foreign objectives that favor freedom and American Security.”
Harsh words, indeed, for those who were under the impression that our job was to be liked by other nations.
Smart power includes “diverse diplomatic, political, cultural, military, technological, financial, economic, rhetorical, legal and espionage-related tools and practices.” Where we most often focus on the ends of the spectrum, diplomacy and war, we often overlook the middle ground that can be used to shape the future. Statecraft, the juncture of diplomacy and government, can strategically maneuver and influence international relations. But it is being vastly underused.
Whiton argues that there exists a “false choice between being on a war footing or maintaining pleasant relations.”
He notes that “two distinct but overlapping elements” were neither clearly identified nor articulated to the American public or even to the national security apparatus after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He identifies them as Islam and Islamism.
“The former is a religion of nearly a quarter of the world’s population; the latter is a political ideology whose central tenet is unifying government and Islam and is advocated by a small subset of Muslims.” Without our awareness of the situation, a workable plan is not possible.
China is an area of long-term strategic importance. “China pursues other policies that ought to be of greater concern: building up its military, waging cyber war, and systematically stealing intellectual property,” in addition to currency manipulation, Whiton writes.
While we might not be fully engaged in smart power, our foes clearly are using all tools in the spectrum. Last week’s op-ed in The New York Times by Russian President Vladimir Putin provides an example. After stating that “there was every reason to believe” that the chemical attacks in Syria were carried out not by the Syrian government but by opposition forces, Putin closes with a jab at the heart of our foundation as a country. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional … We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
What Putin does not understand is that while all people are created equal, our national construct, our belief that God gives people rights, which are loaned to the government, makes our nation an exceptional nation.
What’s required to use smart power? We need to understand the truth regarding the national interests of others; we need to revamp our national security structure; and we need to use smart power — the tools in the middle — rather than rely on the tools at the extremes — routine diplomacy on one end and military action when the cocktails run out.