Event summary: ‘Smart Power: The Missing Middle of National Security’


This is an executive summary of an event with Christian Whiton, former US diplomat, senior advisor to the State Department, on 31 October 2013; it reflects the views expressed by the speaker, not those of The Henry Jackson Society or its staff.

To view a full transcript for this event, click here 


Christian Whiton, a former US diplomat, senior advisor to the State Department, and commentator on national security issues introduced his new book ‘Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War’. He highlighted what he believes is wrong with current attitudes to foreign policy and explained why we need to focus on the absent intermediate stages of foreign policy, revisiting the tools of statecraft that fall between diplomacy and war. He also discussed what he considers to be the three main threats to the US and UK, namely China, Iran, and Islamism. Finally, he stressed the importance of practical policies and action which embodied the ‘missing middle’, and gave a number of historical examples.

What is the ‘Missing Middle’?

  • As has been seen with Iran and North Korea, the existing diplomatic options are often seen as talk and sanctions on the one hand and war on the other. This ‘missing middle’ is where smart power ought to be, between soft and hard power, between diplomacy and war;
  • This stems from the first Gulf War in 1991 when there was very limited time to do anything in the middle, something which has stuck in the minds of policy makers given the war’s success;
  • It is also caused by the lack of coherent policies, particularly in the Middle East, which has led to a ‘rush to tactics’ such as ‘No Fly Zones’ as an end in themselves;
  • This means that the ‘middle’ stages are missing, and as a result this has caused disillusionment with both parties in the US and boosted the non-interventionist camp.

Who are the Major Adversaries for the US and UK?

  • The three main adversaries for the US and UK in the future are the Chinese and Iranian governments, and increasing Islamism around the world;
  • The ‘War on Terror’ is not an accurate description of the fight against Islamist extremism; terrorism is simply a feature of this ‘war’ and is the vanguard of a bigger political force;
  • Whilst there are clear differences between Islamist movements, for example disagreements between Hamas and Hezbollah, movements may still cooperate with Tehran against the West;
  • We should also be well aware of the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia, something the Bush administration failed to fully take into account;
  • China is a major threat, particularly in terms of political warfare and cyber threats, but politicians in Washington are often reluctant to admit this or mention Chinese human rights abuses;
  • Russia is also of concern, particularly given Putin’s lack of cooperation with the US, but there remain foundations to be built on, and Mr Whiton does not believe it poses the same threat that the other three do.

Practical Examples of Smart Power in the ‘Missing Middle’

In addition to assessing what is wrong with the current approach it is also important to highlight historical examples which demonstrate the use of smart power. These include:

  • UK and US support and funding for the Christian Democrats in the Italian elections of 1948 in order to help prevent the Italian Communists from coming to power and ensuring Italy joined NATO;
  • The Marshall Plan, which was an important signal from the US that it would stand with Europe, although today it would likely be regarded as soft power and as foreign aid,  which today has often lost its objective;
  • The US reversal of its decline in defence spending in 1948, signalling awareness of the necessity of being ready for a global war at a moment’s notice;
  • The formation of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which demonstrated to allies like France, Sweden and Germany, as well as to the Soviet Union, that the US would maintain its commitment in the event of war;
  • The commitment to and promotion of cultural freedom, including sending pro-Western academics and speakers to events to support socialists and social democrats in the debate against communism.

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