George H. W. Bush saw how to preserve American strength at a perilous time
Thirty years have passed since the end of the Cold War, and the experiences of those three decades have produced abundant criticism of how the United States handled the “unipolar moment” of American hegemony over the international order. President George H. W. Bush and his administration are now rightly praised for drawing the Cold War to a peaceful close and heading the international coalition that drove Iraq out of Kuwait during the Gulf War. Bush’s greatness in foreign policy derives in part from his tactical skill in reacting to events, but he was also guided by a tough-minded view of the world, for all his self-effacement and personal decency. He was convinced that a powerful, influential America was a bulwark against the worst possibilities of a brutal and potentially chaotic world.
As he navigated through the welter of events from 1989 through 1992, Bush maneuvered to put the United States in the strongest position for the long term. Akin to President Dwight Eisenhower, whom Bush and his inner circle of advisers revered and consciously emulated, he played the long game. Bush sought to win the Cold War peacefully and to sustain lasting American power and leadership for what would come next. Bush was remarkably successful, and there is much to be gained in contemplating how and why, especially as the United States enters a tumultuous and competitive global era.
Bush brought to the presidency extensive experience in foreign affairs, including eight years as Reagan’s vice president; prior service as CIA director, chief U.S. representative in Beijing, and ambassador to the U.N.; and time in Congress. He possessed an understated confidence that American values were right and just, and best. But a sense of the tragic tempered his experience and ideology — he knew that things can and do go dangerously wrong when America abandons a leadership role, or when its foreign policy is not backed by strength and guided by clear-eyed purpose. When he was 20 years old, in 1944, he was shot down over the Pacific and lost his crewmates. He had thus experienced more intimately than most the consequences of the failed American policy of the interwar years, when war-weariness from World War I, preoccupation with economic crisis, and the concomitant strengthening of isolationist impulses led America to limit its involvement in global politics. Bush’s worldview was a product of World War II and its harsh lessons, a point he highlighted in his later foreign-policy memoirs.
As president, Bush worked to husband and sustain American leadership and power, especially heading into times of geopolitical uncertainty as the Cold War world gave way to something new and unknown. He knew that a competitive and turbulent world could reemerge in the aftermath of the Cold War and that America therefore needed to remain geopolitically and materially strong. Some readers will recall that Bush was pilloried for lacking an overarching vision. In a diary entry at the end of his first year in office, Bush himself stated that “I’m certainly not seen as a visionary, but I hope I’m seen as steady and prudent and able.” Bush’s self-assessment was in many ways too modest. His foreign-policy approach — that, in a tumultuous period, the United States should try to lead through the crisis and simultaneously focus on sustaining its own power for the long haul — was extraordinarily wise and well matched to his time, as the historian Jeffrey Engel and others have recently emphasized. It was based on important and timeless strategic principles, worthy of admiration and remembrance today.
As he took office, Bush initially cast a wary eye on the developments unfolding within the Soviet Union, where Mikhail Gorbachev was pursuing internal reform. Trying to discern what Gorbachev was up to and why, and how to pursue U.S. interests amid the uncertainty, Bush proceeded cautiously. He and especially his close friend and national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft were leery of U.S. and Soviet security and economic agreements that would have earned short-term political plaudits but not actually advanced U.S. interests, and could have given the Soviet Union a lifeline it did not deserve, such as Soviet proposals for a “common European home” to replace NATO.
Gorbachev moved to buy time and space to pursue his reforms within the Soviet Union by granting greater self-determination to Eastern Bloc countries and further reducing Cold War tensions with the United States. During that process, he lost control over the Eastern Bloc.
A rolling series of crises and breakthroughs in Europe then convulsed the Soviet Empire in 1989 and 1990. Bush has rightly earned admiration for calmly handling them. When East Germans tore down the Berlin Wall in November 1989, he famously declined to “dance on the wall,” despite overwhelming congressional and media pressure to do so. And he established meaningful personal diplomacy with Gorbachev, both encouraging and pressuring Gorbachev to change the Soviet internal system and loosen the Soviet Union’s control over its empire. It was Bush’s nature to be judicious and careful, but he also believed, correctly, that a calm, cautious approach was the best way of reducing Soviet power abroad and in the USSR itself without provoking backsliding or violence. Bush’s approach had the intended effect of shaping, in ways favorable to U.S. interests, the environment in which Gorbachev made his decisions as the Soviet Empire and then the Soviet Union unraveled.
Bush’s tact served the end of strengthening America’s geopolitical hand. But he was firm, even ruthless, in pursuing U.S. interests and in preserving U.S. freedom of action for the long haul while Soviet power collapsed. Bush insisted that, to stave off future conflict and ensure its own security, the United States would remain the predominant outside force in Western Europe and play an important role in Central Europe as it freed itself from Soviet rule.
Bush was emphatic that NATO had to survive as a means of suppressing potential intra-European conflict and deterring other powers from destabilizing the region. This in turn meant that a reunified Germany had to remain in NATO and retain a Western orientation. That outcome was not inevitable. Indeed, at one point, West German chancellor Helmut Kohl appeared willing to accept Germany’s leaving NATO as the price of reunification. This would have untethered Germany from the rest of Western Europe and the United States, lessened U.S. power and influence in Europe, and created the potential for all sorts of major-power conflict in the future. U.S. officials were alerted by German officials who shared their concerns about a neutral Germany. Bush would have none of it. As he noted in a diary entry from that time, the United States had “a disproportionate role for stability”: “We’ve got to lead, so we should not be just kind of watered down, picking up the bill, and acquiescing in a lot of decisions that might hurt us” over the long run. It was his duty “to look after the U.S. interest in all of this without reverting to a kind of isolationistic or stupid peace-nik view on where we stand in the world.”
Bush engaged in a similar pursuit of long-term U.S. interests, with a similar combination of firmness and restraint, in his dealings in the Middle East. Dating back to George F. Kennan, U.S. geostrategists have maintained that in three key regions of the world — Western Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia — an attempt by a power hostile to the United States to dominate or destabilize the region would be contrary to U.S. national interests and should be prevented in the first instance and countered if necessary. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 — which put Iraq in control of a large percentage of the world’s oil reserves and menaced Saudi Arabia — threatened that interest.
Bush therefore pulled together an international coalition, which received reluctant support from the Soviet Union, and went to war to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. And then Bush stopped. He did not invade and occupy Iraq, and he did not overthrow Saddam Hussein. Then and thereafter, Bush and Scowcroft maintained that they lacked domestic and international support for doing anything beyond what they had done. They also feared a war of occupation in Iraq and the negative effects that it could have on overall American power and leadership. Bush and Scowcroft had achieved their strategic objective and wanted to protect American power and influence, both in the region and globally, against potential dissipation.
There was another principle at work in Bush’s leadership of the Gulf War. With the Cold War ending, Bush saw the possibility that the United States, if it maintained its strength and leadership, could help guide an international order in which sovereign states adhered to basic rules and in which structures of power favorable to the U.S. could encourage international cooperation to enforce those rules when necessary. For Bush, the Gulf War served as a useful precedent.
That was the premise of what became Bush’s “new world order.” The unfortunate phrase, set out by Bush in a speech to Congress during the buildup to the Gulf War but not fully elucidated, was maligned from the start. It has come to represent nearly the opposite of what Bush intended. As the historian Jeffrey Engel and the geostrategist Robert Kaplan have pointed out, Bush had no illusions about “one-worldism” or multilateralism as an end or good in itself. And he was not Woodrow Wilson, naïvely seeking to impose pure ideals on a fallen world. Bush knew that the world can be tough and unforgiving and will always have bad actors with motives and interests antithetical to America’s own. Engel quotes Scowcroft as summing up the overall approach as “the world could be a better place . . . but don’t get carried away.”
Bush’s foreign policy had its flaws, of course. His innate caution overtook his good judgment when he gave his “chicken Kiev” speech in Ukraine in 1991, for instance. In this, he appeared to warn against precipitate Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union, but the split was about to become a fait accompli. (Bush and Scowcroft claimed that the speech was misinterpreted.) Immediately after the Gulf War, the United States allowed a defeated Iraq to fly helicopter gunships; Saddam Hussein promptly turned them on his own people to head off internal rebellions and punish domestic enemies. And as the current administration has noted, the U.S. approach toward China over nearly three decades, including the years of the George H. W. Bush administration, rested on assumptions that have since been called into question.
On his desk in the Oval Office, President Eisenhower kept a plate that read Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re, or “Gently in manner, strongly in deed.” It was Eisenhower’s motto and operating philosophy, and his own take on Theodore Roosevelt’s “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Bush and Scowcroft can lay claim to being the inheritors and champions of this foreign-policy legacy. In part, that was by design. When he announced his first bid for the presidency in 1979, Bush declared that he adhered to “the principles of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower,” called Eisenhower “one of the wisest and strongest of this century’s Presidents,” and quoted Eisenhower directly: “There is in world affairs a steady course to be followed between an assertion of strength that is truculent and a confession of helplessness that is cowardly.”
Like Eisenhower, Bush embodied decency, principle, graciousness, and amiability, and usually eschewed rhetorical grandiosity while pursuing strategic purposes by steady, authoritative leadership.
And like Eisenhower, Bush took steps to secure U.S. power not only through his deft diplomacy and handling of war and peace, but also by tending carefully to the sinews of American strength, including economic and military power. Eisenhower’s policy was the original peace through strength: He worked to preserve U.S. leadership through resoluteness backed by power, including America’s alliances. And, conscious of the connection between economic and military strength, he sought to keep federal spending in check while sustaining significant allocations for defense. Bush, in the end, paid a terrible political price for reneging on his promise not to raise taxes, but he did so because he had few plausible options for limiting the deficit to reduce future fiscal constraints, which he saw as a long-term threat to American strength, a point rightly noted by his biographer Jon Meacham. He refused to commit substantial sums to former Soviet-bloc states (or to Russia itself) when Germany and others were able to do so. And he proved adept at securing funding from Japan and others for the Gulf War.
Bush likewise understood the strength America derived by leading its alliances. He was cautious not to reduce U.S. military power dramatically or withdraw overseas forces too soon, resisting a clamor at home to do these things. He laid a foundation — in hard power, and in trust and credibility among allies and friends — that increased the likelihood of good outcomes for the United States. As Robert Kaplan has summarized Bush’s worldview: “Tragedy is avoided by thinking tragically.” Bush tried to position the U.S. so that it could serve as a bulwark against global disorder far into the post–Cold War world.
In 1991, Communist hardliners staged a short-lived coup against Gorbachev. Bush helped to end it by holding steady, pointedly refusing to deal with them, and urging Gorbachev’s release. It was a particularly chaotic moment. Bush dictated to his diary: “The best thing at a time like this is calmness, firmness, adherence to principle. Do not get stampeded into some flamboyant statement. See where we can go.”