IN REVIEW, Derek Chollet, The Middle Way: How Three Presidents Shaped America’s Role in the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021) 238 pp.
Derek Chollet is an extremely accomplished policy practitioner who has served in the White House, State Department, and Department of Defense in senior positions. He is also a policy intellectual who has had multiple think tank affiliations and has written several books on U.S. foreign and national security policy. Today, he sits as Counselor at the Department of State in the Biden administration. He also assisted writing the memoirs of James Baker, Warren Christopher, and Richard Holbrooke; has served as a State Department speechwriter; and written well-received books including a study of the onset of the post-Cold War era. Unsurprising, then that he has now written an elegant, well-crafted book comparing the statecraft of Dwight D. Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Because he is a seasoned government hand whose experience has made him painfully aware of the difficult, if not tragic, choices that policymakers routinely face, he avoids facile explanations. His current book is replete with wise observations about the dilemmas and ambiguities that inevitably haunt the policymaking process.
Chollet’s aspirations, however, extend beyond simply illuminating the policy process in this study. His previous book, The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World, argued that Obama was a consequential foreign policy president who had been right more than the foreign policy establishment that had so frequently found his presidency wanting. That work was a less ill-tempered and more polite argument than former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes’s more renowned denunciation of the “blob” that comprised the international affairs commentariat, but its import was largely the same. Unfortunately, his vindication of Obama’s foreign policy was published just as President Donald Trump, for better and for worse, was systematically disassembling Obama’s legacy and making it harder to sustain the case that the 44th President had wrought long-lasting changes in the U.S. approach to national security.
Now, Chollet is back with a second and more intellectually ambitious approach. Recognizing that presidential reputations wax and wane over time, he now seeks to place Obama in a lineage of presidents who, he argues, shared the 44th President’s cautious policy instincts. These men, “divided by background, generation and political party,” reflect an “underappreciated tradition of political leadership and a distinct vision of America’s global role.” This tradition, he argues, is rooted in “pragmatism, optimism, humility and common sense.” The three presidents considered are Dwight D. Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush, and, of course, Barack Obama. Borrowing from Eisenhower’s effort, in the wake of the New and Fair Deals, to brand himself as a “modern” Republican, Chollet dubs this approach “The Middle Way.”