The Magazine

Warfare of Ideas

There is an alternative to Obama diplomacy.

Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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Christian Whiton occupied several posts at the State Department during the administration of George W. Bush, all of them at the juncture where realpolitik meets ideology. Or would meet, anyway, if the department were able to recognize the importance of ideas in international politics. Whiton served under Jay Lefkowitz when Lefkowitz was Bush’s special envoy for human rights in North Korea, where he learned what the department can do to corner and undermine a foreign body it views as dangerous. From his years at State comes this book, half memoir of what the United States government does wrong and half proposal for fixing it. 

Sidney Hook, Seymour Martin Lipset

Sidney Hook, Seymour Martin Lipset (right) at the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Milan, 1955

There is an old joke about a restaurant patron who complains that “the food is inedible and the portions are too small.” Whiton is sometimes left in this position by the State Department, and the government more broadly: We are doing the wrong things, he complains, and we are doing them badly. His main targets are our handling of China, which we insist is not an adversary, and Islamism, of which we only treat the symptom—terrorism—rather than the underlying ideological disease. As he notes, “terrorism is but the preferred tool and vanguard of a much broader political force,” and yet, “surprisingly many among the Washington foreign policy establishment have yet to take [the first step] recognizing and understanding the existence of Islamism.” 

These are two of the five main myths of the bureaucracy that he lists and examines: that China is not an adversary; that al Qaeda terror is the only real threat to us; that neglecting our allies softens up our adversaries’ attitudes toward the United States; that the CIA knows all; and that social media can destroy dictatorships. 

The range here shows how much Whiton tries to take in, and to do it better he would have needed a longer book. His analyses are often more compelling (and longer) than his prescriptions—for example, Iran gets just four pages. He also has the habit of attacking potential allies—for example, neoconservatives—and writes of “neoconservatives on the right and moralists on the left [who] call for intervention at the drop of a hat” and “whose sole solution to foreign problems so often seems to be sideshow wars.” 

As someone seeking recognition of the role of ideology in world politics, and of the new agencies and programs that can use “smart power” best, Whiton ought to realize that he is most likely to find support among neocons—and incomprehension almost everywhere else, in the government and in both political parties. There are also a few too many snarky personal comments here, such as an attack on John McCain (Whiton backed Newt Gingrich in 2012), that add nothing to the serious arguments he is making.

What is “smart power” to Christian Whiton? It is not, he stresses, “public diplomacy,” but rather ideological and political warfare:

If U.S. espionage today is the “pull” of information that America’s opponents do not want it to have, political warfare is the “push” of confrontational ideas, people, forces, and events with which America’s opponents would rather not contend. That push is aided by a strong military posture, whether or not it is engaged in outright combat.

Smart Power is not, then, a paean to replacing hard power with the Internet. Discussing China, for example, he says flatly that “restoring hard power and projecting it into the Pacific is a key to smart power,” and he calls for “a different military posture” against the Chinese. His analyses of our relationship with China are smart, nowhere more so than in his discussion of Taiwan. We generally treat her as an embarrassment, but Whiton suggests a very different policy:

The mainland’s Han Chinese—the majority ethnic group of Taiwan and China—should see in Taiwan’s example their potential too when they become free. Part of this effort, however, requires Washington to treat Taiwan as an asset rather than as a liability in U.S.-China interactions. The freedoms of speech and worship that exist in Hong Kong should also be highlighted to the mainland Chinese, with the goal of prompting them to ask, “Why not here?” 

That is, why treat the 1949 victory of the Communists as the permanent solution for China? Why not wonder if the model presented by Taiwan and Hong Kong (and, for that matter, Singapore) will win out in the decades ahead?