While polls show the majority of the American people reside in the political center, the two main parties have moved steadily apart. Democrats have shifted to the left and Republicans have lunged to the right. This has made governing in the United States exceptionally difficult, both for domestic and foreign policy.
In “The Middle Way: How Three Presidents Shaped America’s Role in the World,” Derek Chollet argues that American foreign policy is more effective when it draws inspiration and guidance from the centrist approach of three former American presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama. These three leaders, he believes, represent an important and underappreciated tradition in American political life: moderation and caution.
“All three embraced bold ambitions and saw their country as exceptional, but remained focused on not overextending it,” Chollet writes. “Each operated within a policy ecosystem that had little patience for nuance and often pushed for ‘more’ of everything, frequently with little regard to managing trade-offs or maintaining strategic solvency between the nation’s international commitments and its domestic resources. All three labored over wrangling cantankerous allies and calibrating controversial military interventions. They practiced a governing style that was famously, and often defiantly, no-drama. And each grappled with toxic forces at home that roiled the political debate over foreign policy, ultimately undermining their presidencies.”
Chollet served in Obama’s White House and his State and Defense departments. He was the executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund and is now the counselor in the State Department, serving as senior advisor to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Chollet is the author of several books, including “The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World,” and is the co-author of “America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11.”
Chollet is convinced that the foreign policies of Eisenhower, Bush and Obama can guide the United States as it deals with a complicated and turbulent world. While the three men differed in background, generation and political circumstances, they grasped the possibilities and limitations of American global leadership.
“Governing during their moments of geopolitical uncertainty, these three leaders demonstrated both how the United States can exercise prudent and powerful leadership in the world and stand as pillars of decency, humility, and strength. They set the bar for the kind of global role the country should aspire toward — and amid moments of deep cynicism and despair, their example can remind Americans and the world that their proud legacy exists within us.”
The author examines Eisenhower, Bush and Obama by exploring their leadership styles, worldviews, initial strategic choices, response to crises and legacies. He sees a connection between the three. Eisenhower was the 34th president, serving from 1953 to 1961. Bush was the 41st president, serving a single term from 1989 to 1993. Obama was the 44th president, residing in the White House from 2009 to 2017.
Eisenhower was the archetypal moderate Republican whose pragmatic and constructive approach to governance earned the admiration of both Bush and Obama. While other American presidents displayed centrist tendencies such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, Chollet posits that there is a special connection among Eisenhower, Bush and Obama. He argues that “their outlooks, leadership styles, and foreign policy strategies are strikingly similar.”
In Chollet’s narrative, several themes unite the three presidents: a broad view of American interests; an ability to connect foreign and domestic policy; a sense of balance, proportion and practicality; a conviction that the United States is an exceptional nation; a commitment to collective security; and an acute sensitivity to the perils of American overreach.
Eisenhower is at the center of the book and looms the largest. Both Bush and Obama deeply respected him and tried to emulate him in various ways. Eisenhower began discussing “the Middle Way” in the late 1940s and continued to advocate it during his presidency and even in retirement in the 1960s.
“In recent times it has become fashionable to deride such words as conciliation, compromise, and coordination. By the unthinking these are seemingly used to define indecision, fence straddling, and wishy-washy action. Yet without them, constructive progress is impossible,” Eisenhower wrote in 1964.
Eisenhower believed that America was at its best when it was strong and smart, powerful and wise, confident and humble. The nation’s strength emanated from qualities such as patriotism, self-confidence, integrity, courage and stamina. To be effective, the United States should be united, organize strong alliances, support robust international institutions, possess a formidable defense and extend foreign assistance strategically and effectively. “To amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another,” he said.
For Eisenhower, international commitments should be consistent with the nation’s capabilities and resources. His foreign policy was built on rigorous planning and careful organization; he methodically and wisely guided the nation through significant global challenges.
Bush preferred a looser, more intuitive and more personal approach to foreign policy, according to Chollet. He was less concerned with organization and formal planning and more focused on personal relationships with international leaders.
He served as president as the Cold War was winding down but it was still a fraught time, with plenty of opportunities for miscalculation. Bush skillfully presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberation of Eastern Europe and reunification of Germany. He also carefully assembled a global coalition to extract Saddam Hussein from Kuwait after the Iraqi leader invaded that country in 1990. Bush aspired for the United States to lead a “new world order” built on international cooperation and shared purpose.
Obama came to office during a serious economic recession and with the United States ensnared in protracted and faltering wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to Chollet, Obama tried to improve the balance between diplomacy, development and defense programs. He also sought to shift American foreign policy away from President George W. Bush’s one dimensional “War on Terrorism.
“Obama was willing to acknowledge past American mistakes and to reach out to estranged groups and nations. He sought to deemphasize military force as the dominant instrument of American power and endeavored to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Chollet writes.
Despite the different circumstances these three presidents confronted, Eisenhower, Bush and Obama believed in the importance of balanced investments in diplomacy, defense and development and supported a rules-based order, collective security, strong partnerships and enduring alliances. They sought to balance aspirations with resources and tried to blend idealism and pragmatism. They believed in strategic patience.
Chollet argues that Eisenhower, Bush and Obama demonstrated the strengths of the Middle Way approach but also revealed its limitations, especially as it relates to domestic politics. Americans often want their presidents to advance ambitious initiatives, not just clean up past mistakes and avoid future ones. History demonstrates that there is little political payoff for prevention or for avoiding mistakes.
Chollet is convinced the example of these three presidents shows us that restraint is wise and “the United States often gets in the most trouble abroad when it tries to do too much, not too little.” Incremental progress is commendable and can yield major progress over time.
“This tradition may seem contrary to recent history. We live in an era that rewards outrage, spectacle, conflict, instant gratification, scorched-earth politics, and an abundance of anger,” he writes.
“Yet there is another path. For America to build a sound strategy to pursue a successful foreign policy — one that is inspirational and practical, unapologetic about the exercise of power but humble about its limits, unafraid of bold strokes, but aware of their risks, and sustainable over time — requires a certain kind of presidential leadership, one that is more critical than ever. Rooted in pragmatism, optimism, humility, and common sense, this presidential lineage is a reminder of what leadership can be, and how the right tools and expectations can fix American foreign policy.”
“The Middle Way” is an important book that challenges us to appreciate the wisdom of restraint, modesty and moderation. These qualities are not always valued in domestic politics, but they do something more important: They allow the United States to earn the respect and admiration of history.
John T. Shaw has been the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute since January 2018. Prior to that, he worked for 25 years as a congressional reporter and diplomatic correspondent in Washington, D.C. He is the author of five books, including “Rising Star, Setting Sun: Dwight D. Eisenhower,” “John F. Kennedy, and the Presidential Transition That Changed America” and “JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency.”