An Interview with Derek Chollet

Derek Chollet, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, signs memorandums of agreement during the closing ceremony reception

Derek Chollet is counselor and senior advisor for security and defense policy at The German Marshall Fund of the United States. Mr. Chollet is also an advisor to Beacon Global Strategies and an Adjunct Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. From 2012-2015, Mr. Chollet was the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, where he managed U.S. defense policy toward Europe (including NATO), the Middle East, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere.

DPR: You’ve been involved both as a writer and speechwriter in helping others develop their voices. How do you help others convey their own stories?

Chollet: It was not by design. It’s something that you don’t go to school to learn. I didn’t embark on my career thinking that, in the early part of my career, I’d be helping people to write speeches. But since through my education I’d learned how to write and read widely, it was something at a young age I could do so when I was qualified for nothing else, I was qualified to help people write. But I think the best way it works, whether you’re a speechwriter in government or helping someone write a book, is you’re like a sherpa, a mountain climber sherpa, where you’re along for the journey, you’re carrying a lot of stuff, you’re there to do a lot of the hard jobs that aren’t particularly fun, but it’s ultimately the person you’re working for, the person giving the speech, the person whose book it is, that’s really doing most of the work and bearing the responsibility for it. So I also found that it was a wonderful way to learn how senior leaders think. Because in order to be good at it and to succeed at it you have to put yourself in their shoes, learning their voice, but also how they think through problems, how they express ideas. And it’s hard to study. You just have to learn by experience. So I was lucky in my early career to have these experiences. Because it helped me throughout my career as it has gone on and I’ve taken different jobs in and out of government. It taught me a lot about leadership, a lot about how senior people absorb information and how they think through problems.

DPR: What are some of the specific lessons you’ve learned from some of the people you’ve worked with?

Chollet: I joke that I’ve worked for 11 principals–people who were cabinet level or very prominent–so I’ve taken life lessons, both things to do and things not to do, from all of them. But the folks that I feel like I’ve learned the most from are the folks who have obviously a very good grasp of the substance of whatever topic we’re talking about, whether it’s US foreign policy or a particular narrow policy issue within U.S. foreign policy, but they also get how that interacts with U.S. politics and the ability to communicate what you’re doing publicly, the dynamic that comes in foreign relations when you’re dealing with another person sitting across the table, so you have to have a sense of how the other side thinks. My first boss out of college was James Baker, the former Secretary of State under Bush, and he titled his memoirs The Politics of Diplomacy, and he drew upon an argument by Clausewitz, the military strategist who said “war is a continuation of politics by other means,” and Baker’s point was “diplomacy is politics by other means,” and that ultimately, these are political actors that you’re dealing with in a negotiation whether they’re friend or foe, and that in order to get to a solution you need to be able to think about their politics too and put them in a position to do what you want them to do. So, the effective diplomats do that.

DPR: Who do you consider as someone who has been an effective diplomat and has been able to identity the other side’s politics like that?

Chollet: Certainly Baker was very skilled at that. He’s someone who understood US politics almost more than any other American and was an extremely successful diplomat. Richard Holbrooke was also someone who was very skilled at that. And I’d say Hillary Clinton, who I’ve worked for for two years at the State Department, and she has experienced just about everything in life in public life and has such a rich, deep experience and already understands the world so well but also understands how you can get things done in Washington.

DPR: Have you found a difference in the more traditional politicians who are in the public face all of the time and those who are working within the administration without such a public name?

Chollet: The thing about public figures in government of any kind is that you fail publicly or succeed publicly, so that takes a certain degree of bravery and fortitude that some people don’t have. Some people are really good at the public side of it and some people aren’t–they’re better inside players. Some of the best and most effective, patriotic public servants I’ve ever worked with are people you’ve never heard of, who had long careers in Washington but were comfortable behind the scenes and played a vital role behind the scenes. Some people maybe aspire to be public figures but aren’t particularly good at the public aspect of the job which is, in our democracy and in global politics, an important part of it. Your ability to engage publicly whether it’s defending or advocating for your policy in testimony before Congress or appearing on a television talk show or talking to several thousand troops to try to give them a better sense of what we’re trying to do and why to dealing with a foreign audience and making a case for American leadership to them.

DPR: Since you have worked both behind the scenes for other people and been a public figure in your own right as well, do you feel led towards one end or the other?

Chollet: There are some people who work behind the scenes and then decide to go seek elected office. That’s not me. But I have colleagues who have done that. No one has succeeded yet, which may tell you something about how much inside government experience is actually valued in the political realm, but certainly as my jobs have gained responsibility I’ve had to do more public things. My last job in government I frequently had to testify on Capitol Hill, publicly or privately depending on what the issue was, and I always found those to be very good experiences, not because they were easy or fun but because you test your argument against an audience that is sometimes deeply skeptical of what you’re doing, maybe sometimes cynically so, or they actually want to be supportive but are trying to find the best argument to support you. So that’s actually a healthy part of our system, the fact that public officials have to defend their policies and be accountable for what they’re doing.

DPR: Your talk tonight addresses Obama’s grand strategy. Sometimes in those public hearings Senators and members of Congress question whether the administration has a grand strategy. How would you respond to those criticisms?

Chollet: One of the easiest criticisms to make of any administration (so this is not a partisan comment) is that if you don’t like the policy, the claim is there’s no strategy. So, I don’t like what’s happening in Syria or don’t like the way China is behaving or don’t like the chaos in North Africa, and the reason why that’s happening is because there’s no strategy to deal with it. And as President Obama has made very clear, it’s not so much that there’s no strategy–there is a strategy–it’s just that you may not like the strategy or you may want to do something different, but it’s not that there’s not a strategy. And I actually think that for President Obama, when you think of grand strategy in the true sense of grand strategy, it’s not just foreign policy. It’s a national strategy where you have your allocation of resources and political capital and time and attention placed in the priority order you think they should be for the national interest.

So President Obama was elected into office by a sense that we were on the wrong path as a country, whether you looked at our standing in the world, the health of our alliances, the fact that we were bogged down in two wars in the Middle East with hundreds of thousands of troops in harm’s way, that we had certain challenges like the Iran nuclear program at that time that was going unchecked, we weren’t present in Asia to the degree that we should have been given the strategic importance of that part of the world for our future, that we had no agenda on an issue like climate change of global consequence that is going to probably change the map of the world over the next fifty years. And then at home we were in the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, we had this housing bubble that had helped drive that where it was seen as possible to own a million dollar house making fifty thousand dollars a year. We had a health care system that was fundamentally broken, leaving many millions of people out the system and raising prices for all of us. So, across the board he was looking at a situation where the country’s fundamentals were not good, and so he set out seven years ago to try to correct course.

And the word that matters a lot to the way I see Obama is balance. You can talk about the re-balance when it comes to Asia, but it’s actually much bigger than that. It’s about trying to find the right balance between the resources we’re spending in the world and what we’re spending here at home. Some people call that retrenchment, that we are seeking to limit American involvement in world problems. I would say it’s the way we’re involved in certain problems. If you take the use of military force, Obama has decided on the use of force in seven countries during his presidency and, in terms of pure lethality of the counter-terrorism campaign, in the last seven years it was far greater than in the previous eight years. But what he’s tried to do is create better balance and tried to address certain problems both abroad and at home but also ensure that that is sustainable over time. We’re getting to the fourth quarter of the Obama administration, and I think he is very determined to leave his successor a much better hand than what he inherited.

DPR: In terms of career advice, how have you seen the field of diplomacy changing during your time working in it?

Chollet: The hot thing in the State Department when I was there and I think still today is what Secretary Clinton called 21st century statecraft. It was how you integrated social media into the conduct of diplomacy. And you’ve seen some of that change already. Certainly we’ve seen whether it was in the Arab Spring or in the Ukraine crisis, for unfolding events, Twitter is a better information source than the mainstream media. By almost accounts we’re way behind where we should be. Most recently we’ve seen that with ISIS and their ability to recruit on social media, and we’re still fighting several steps behind where are adversaries are.

But, at the end of the day it’s still about people. This is more on the diplomacy side. It’s actually easier to communicate now than it was 30 years ago. When I served in government and dealt with foreign counterparts all the time, we used the phone, and used email, and text messaging, and video conferencing. So it was easier to maintain those relationships which, after all, are at the very core of what you do in foreign policy. It’s diplomacy–it’s human interaction. So it was easier to stay plugged in with your foreign counterparts whereas 30 years ago you actually had to be in the country or they had to be in Washington.

The other thing I’d say is for people who are interested in working in U.S. foreign policy in Washington, there’s nothing that substitutes for experience.


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