In the fall of 1949, in the early days of McCarthyism, Dwight D. Eisenhower rejected the emerging partisan extremes in American politics: “The frightened, vanquished, cowards and villains run to the flanks and sneak out of the battle the cover of slogans, false formulas and appeals to passion – a welcome sight for an observant enemy. “
Columbia University then-president Eisenhower urged his audience of American Bar Association attorneys to “make progress at the center” to reconcile anti-communism and the defense of individual freedoms with the need for global partnerships and investment in economic development bring to. Eisenhower criticized both the hawks and the doves in the early Cold War, advocating a careful balance between violence and diplomacy in what he called “the really creative area in which we can reach agreement on constructive social action that coincides with fundamental American principles is compatible “.
Eisenhower admitted that his approach to politics sounded “sluggish”, especially in contrast to the demands for “liberation” of communist societies on the right and the idealistic demands for “disarmament” and “world peace” on the left. Indeed, the Republican Party was still marked by an isolationist sentiment, represented by Ohio Senator Robert Taft, the party’s alleged presidential candidate in 1952. Eisenhower, of course, used his war history to steal Taft’s Republican nomination and presidency.
Despite his personal popularity, Eisenhower’s foreign policy has been consistently criticized from all directions for its mixed results. The scholars echoed the president’s critics, portraying his administration as an alternative to passive and too militarized. However, in the past two decades, Eisenhower’s reputation has seen a comeback among scholars and practitioners who commented on the later excesses of US foreign policy in Vietnam and more recently criticized in Iraq.
Derek Chollet is the most prominent official in the Obama and Biden administrations who takes Eisenhower as an explicit model. (He was assistant secretary of defense for international security from 2012 to 2015 and is currently an advisor to the US State Department.) Chollet’s compelling new book The Middle Way draws a clear line of political continuity from Eisenhower to Barack Obama. George HW Bush’s only tenure in the White House serves as a sort of stopover, conveying the wisdom of the Second World War generation to the young, fast-learning Senator from Illinois.
Chollet writes for our current era of “extreme polarization and geopolitical upheaval” and analyzes how Eisenhower, Bush, and Obama organized their policies around three overarching characteristics: decency, non-partisanship, and pragmatic problem solving. He admits that many of their initiatives have failed and their centrism may have increased partisanship, but they all avoided the disasters common to their successors. Chollet’s presidential troika displayed consistent humility, intelligence, and discipline. They escaped the traps of unilateralism and overstretching by taking vigorous action when necessary and expanding the use of US power overseas through multilateral mechanisms.
Chollet’s coverage of Eisenhower is particularly strong and relies on a careful reading of the historical literature and original documents. The retired general’s wisdom is most evident in the repeated crises of his years in the White House. From the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 to Suez and Hungary in 1956, Chollet recounts how Eisenhower simultaneously showed strength to Communist opponents, worked closely with foreign allies, and promoted compromises that protected US core interests from the war.
After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Eisenhower rejected calls for direct military intervention but invested in supporting anti-communist forces against what he perceived to be “falling dominoes”. In Suez and Hungary, he withdrew his allies from the brink of major conflict, deterred Soviet aggression, and intensified US covert and public activities. Critics at the time claimed that the president had not pushed back Soviet power but that he had effectively pursued the containment of communist influence at a reasonable cost. Though that fell far short of victory, the United States was set up for a long-term benefit – a theme from Chollet’s previous book, The Long Game.
Bush began his political career as a supporter of Eisenhower. He ended the Cold War and the first Gulf War, as the former president would have done. Bush trusted the Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, but he was careful and deliberate. He worked closely with a variety of allies and turned some former opponents (particularly Syria) into temporary partners in the case of the Gulf War. Bush carefully avoided overstretching, refraining from over-pushing Gorbachev or occupying Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The president took action on the ground and responded with a disciplined role for U.S. interests – supporting Germany-led efforts to unite their divided nation and helping the international community (through the United Nations) curtail Iraq’s power. In the latter case, Saddam defied Bush’s expectations of his overthrow, but became more of a nuisance than a strategic threat to the United States.
Chollet had a front row seat to watch Obama learn from this story. Obama shared Eisenhower’s and Bush’s belief in the extraordinary role of the United States around the world and reiterated her warning of the limits of American power. Washington was at its best when it was careful, deliberate, and focused on incremental progress. Obama pulled back from excessive commitments in Iraq, negotiated nuclear arms control with Iran and tried to encourage Russian and Chinese cooperation while punishing their aggressive behavior. Chollet defends the president’s hesitation (and inconsistency) in Syria, where he finally realized that limited US military intervention could not end the crimes of Bashar al-Assad.
Syria, of course, shows the shortcomings of this cautious pragmatism. There and in Libya, the president promised to improve conditions there, but US provisional commitments cemented civil war and genocide. Obama’s rhetoric may have sparked the spread of more violence, as happened in Hungary in 1956 and Iraq in 1991 – occasions when Eisenhower and Bush also encouraged suffering people to rise but then did not intervene more fully. Even if the United States was not weak in its goals and actions, the perception of American hesitation likely encouraged aggression by Russia and regional tyrants in later months and years.
The Middle Way highlights the flexibility and risk aversion of cautious policy making, but reduces the cost to American ambitions. As Eisenhower’s critics noted, holding the line in a dangerous world gave the enemy pioneering advantages, as demonstrated by Mao Zedong’s regime in Korea, Tibet, and Quemoy and Matsu in the 1950s. Bush’s critics accused him of failing to formulate a convincing post-Cold War vision that made the United States and its allies ill-prepared when countries like Yugoslavia fell into civil war and ethnic cleansing less than 50 years after the Holocaust.
Chollet explains that his presidential troika had a keen sense of American priorities, the strength to break away from counterproductive commitments, and the wisdom to hedge when necessary. They were prudent leaders. But did they advance US interests? Was stability and avoidance of big mistakes enough?
Bush has the strongest case after breaking the Soviet threat, as Chollet reports very well. However, both Eisenhower and Obama’s presidencies saw the expansion of Russian and Chinese power in East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The rogue governments became more confident during the Eisenhower and Obama administrations, including Cuba in the late 1950s and North Korea after 2009. Chollet admits that, while these presidents continued to be popular personally, their dissatisfaction with their foreign policy led to more belligerent and very partisan presidential candidates.
The Middle Way offers powerful historical lessons on the importance of pragmatism in US foreign policy, especially during moments of national and international turmoil. Chollet will certainly apply these valuable lessons to President Joe Biden’s new strategy. Of course, pragmatism begins with competence. The United States must train, nurture, and empower the best diplomats to represent the nation abroad. Washington also needs to work effectively with international organizations such as NATO and the World Health Organization that advance many common interests.
However, it is not enough to just stay in the middle. In order for Americans and many others to benefit from the vast resources that the United States has invested in foreign policy, we must make significant progress on the most critical issues. Modest transformation is a necessary pursuit, especially for a powerful and vulnerable nation. Reducing the proliferation of deadly weapons, a trend that Eisenhower and Obama were unable to reverse, is critical to America’s long-term security. Containing the spread of disease and combating climate change are two other strategic imperatives, among others, and they require more decisive action than incremental efforts.
The Middle Way offers a model to start with. It illustrates the deliberate temperament that can help executives navigate a complex mix of challenges and pressures. Smart, prudent, and balanced strategies will make good use of US resources. Restoring consensus on what America is about and how it wants to make the world a better place requires stronger declarations of intent and some risk. Here the leaders must selectively deviate from the center.
As Eisenhower, Bush and Obama have learned, the alternative to partisanship requires more than “progress at the center”. An effective strategy requires citizens to accept a new reality. Passions are dangerous, but they are inevitable fuel for foreign policy transformation. Biden must channel pragmatism and passion if he is to restore America’s international leadership.