Secretary of State Antony Blinken is a nice guy, always been a nice guy. In law classes together, years of dinners with a shared mentor, Blinken was a nice guy, imagined the best of others. But as a New Yorker, he should know what Brooklyn Dodgers Leo Durocher once said, and apply it to our Cold War with China: Too often, “nice guys finish last.” You must be tough.
“Tough” is not a word used for this secretary, nor president, or vice president. Maybe defensive, reactive, occasionally angry, but not calm, consistent, and confident dealing with adversaries.
But this is where rubber meets road. To deter China – and Iran, North Korea, Russia, the Taliban, ISIS, al Qaeda, and all who want to bring down America – we have to be blunt, put consequences with threats, stand tall, mean what we say, say what we mean.
For context, during most of our nation’s history, when the going got rough, America was blunt, determined, unwavering, and resolved to deter war, or that was impossible, win. In the leadup to every war – Revolutionary, 1812, Spanish-American, WWI, WWII, Korean, Vietnam, Gulf I, Iraq, Afghanistan, and in all other conflicts, as well as our devastating Civil War and anti-Soviet Cold War – we have sought to be clear early, about risks, consequences, and our resolve.
Put differently, no pre-war American president or secretary has minced words about the seriousness of an impending conflict. No wartime leader has ignored reality or chance to deter. To imagine a false peace, more commonality than exists, or imagine good motives for bad, is to disserve peace. To pretend a conflict is less serious than it is creates ambiguity, invites conflict.
Look at our record – and you will see that pre-war and during wars, both hot and cold, we have been fortunate to have leaders who, more often than not, who did not flinch. From Washington (Revolution), Jefferson (Barbary Pirates), Madison (1812), Lincoln (Civil War), McKinley (Spanish-American), TR (Great White Fleet, Nobel Peace Prize, efforts to prevent WWI), and Wilson (WWI), to FDR, Truman, Ike, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Bush 41 and 43, we have doggedly made clear that we did not want a war, but that if one came – we aimed to win.
This is precisely what is missing in our dialogue with China. Tony Blinken’s recent trip to China drove the point home. In photos he looks uneasy, even scared, hardly ready, confident, or at ease with America’s innate military and moral strength, intentionally, silently messaging resolve.
Instead, he conveyed wishful words, hoped for the best, told China he did not like their surveillance balloons, then denied a “Cold War” – saying that is just a “bumper sticker.” Blinken soft-shoed the notion of conflict with China, contradicting career generals, who say be ready.
Instead, my old friend keeps imagining China – and Iran, and Afghanistan, and North Korea, and others – the way he wishes them to be, good not bad, like us not unlike us. He is sure things will work out, says we are just in “vigorous competition,” adding he is not “shy” about that.
Blinken is a good guy, he is. In classrooms, dinner and casual settings, talking policy, politics, diplomacy, and – although he tended to avoid the topic – war, he was always polite, even genteel, keeps a napkin under his glass. He did not raise his voice, or bring down a fist.
Blinken is the kind of diplomat who envisions peace, imagines that all want it, works on that premise, thinks we can get along. He wants to believe war is a thing of the past, avoid the thought. It is not. Irony is, only be imagining the worst and preparing to win, do you prevent war.
That is true of the horrors which would attend war with China, or “version two” of a global war with terrorists, or any future conflict with Iran, North Korea, any who disrespect freedom.
Only by stepping up, talking straight, offending if you must, convincing by authentic belief, and preparing for the possibility of a war – taking actions that match hard words – do you sometimes turn the whole dial, get the world to regain its senses, back in order, demonstrate real diplomacy.
In short, while being nice, thoughtful, gentle, kind, and respectful is how we hope to treat each other, how we try to live as Americans, what we are taught keeps peace, that is not how the world always works. To deter adversaries – and win if we must – requires candor.
Shouting and stamping is not necessary, but soft-pedaling hard reality is bad. Theodore Roosevelt said peace is best kept when you “talk softly and carry a big stick,” but the Dodgers manager might have been a good diplomat. In wars cold and hot, too often “nice guys finish last.” China needs to know we are onto their game, will not tolerate it, do not want a conflict, but will win if one comes.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.