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The Last Prudent Foreign Policy President Was George H.W. Bush


In 1989, immediately after the fall of the Berlin wall, there were trepidations within the Bush administration. How would the communists and Russian nationalists react to what might seem an inexorable loss of an imperium?

In Malta that same year, George Herbert Walker Bush spoke with Mikhail Gorbachev, reminding him that Soviet interests were under consideration in Washington DC. “I have not jumped up and down the Berlin wall,” Bush stated, to assuage the fear that the United States would take advantage of Russian diminished power.

In 1990, that assurance was repeated after the Warsaw Pact collapsed. James Baker, secretary of state under Bush, assured the Russians that there would be no North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military expansion, “not one inch eastward.” Moscow was losing grip, and one victorious dance from the West could result in vengeful communists and nationalists recapturing power and trying to take the lands lost by force, leading to a pan-European crisis. After all, Moscow, weak it might be, had all the Soviet weapons then.

Nuclear weapons were another consideration at this stage. With a weak center and a corrupt Soviet system, any collapse of central moderate authority would likely lead to nuclear proliferation, which might mean warheads in the hands of rogue states and actors. As anyone who lived through those early post-Cold War years would remember, nuclear proliferation was the West’s most pressing headache.

It was under Bush 41’s leadership that the Western leaders understood the momentous times they were passing through, and other Western leaders like Francois Mitterrand of France, Margaret Thatcher and John Major of Britain, and Helmut Kohl of Germany understood that it is imperative to be generous in victory. The Cold War ended without a single shot proverbially fired, and the credit for the relatively peaceful devolution of the Soviet Empire goes completely to the calm, cold, calculating Bush administration.

The British records show that, while meeting with British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd, German statesman Hans Genscher said the Russians needed some assurance that if Poland left the Warsaw Pact, it wouldn’t immediately join NATO. The records of all the conversations, negotiations, meetings and behind the scene diplomacy are stored in the National Security Archive materials for any amateur historian to read. Not once, but thrice, Baker assured the Soviets, Russians, and even the Germans that Americans are generous in diplomacy and not willing to go through any victory lap that would push the moderates in Russia to a corner.

“He agreed with Gorbachev’s statement in response to the assurances that ‘NATO expansion is unacceptable.’ Baker assured Gorbachev that ‘neither the President nor I intend to extract any unilateral advantages from the processes that are taking place…’”

The Last Serious Foreign Policy President

Bush 41 was the last “serious” foreign policy president, with a sense of history and proportion, and an experience to have actually fought in the last global great power war. Unlike his myopic successor, Bush 41 was a conservative and a realist.

Humble and stoic in victory, he apparently understood what subsequent generations of policymakers failed to grasp: that unipolarity is not a permanent state of affairs in the world, that aspiring hegemony is unsustainable, and that balance of power and acknowledging the defeated adversary’s interest are keys to a long-term peace.

His realism was again on display during the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein wanted to be a regional hegemon. Bush worked with allies, got the Saudis to pay the major cost of the war, had the United States play the role of an offshore balancer, and defeated Hussain’s expansionism. All the while, he understood the simple reality that toppling a dictator wouldn’t mean there would be democracy and peace in the region tomorrow.

With his deep sense of history, Bush was not a dewy-eyed optimist, or a liberal or neocon ideologue. He understood that there are regions in the world where, if the last vestiges of authority are removed, primitive sectarian tribalism would come back. The world is not a place for simpletons and idealists, and life isn’t just black and white or good and bad, and sometimes conservative restraint and amoral realism is the key to statecraft.

Prudence Born of Experience

Having lived through the height of Soviet power during Hungary ’56, and Czechoslovakia ’68, Bush had observed American attempts to stabilize Vietnam, and experienced how Soviets collapsed after overstretching in Afghanistan from ’79 onwards. He was deeply skeptical of any attempted “imperial overreach.” He understood, being from the generation who fought in the Second World War, that hubris is always followed by nemesis. Critics might call that a narrow national interest; history will remember it as prudence.

Of course, being a serious American president was also his problem during the 1992 campaign. In a unipolar world, without any external existential great power threats, charismatic charlatans and smooth talkers always have an advantage with a cable-televised audience over a serious, thoughtful, and stoic war hero.

H.W. Bush lost to a smooth-talking but cluelessly idealistic Bill Clinton, who went on to commit the grave sin of statecraft that ancient sages of statecraft like Sun Tzu, Thucydides, and Kautilya warned about. Clinton was pushed by his hawkish liberal team and the Germans to expand NATO.

It was of course completely understandable for Volker Rühe, the German foreign minister then, to desire the move of German frontiers towards Russia, just as it was understandable for Poland, Hungary, and other Central and Eastern Europeans to desire an American security umbrella after experiencing the brutal Soviet imperium for more than four decades.

That could have been done with verbal NATO guarantees without moving military hardware or force re-positioning. Instead, the Clinton administration under Madeline Albright, herself a Central European, followed what was known as a grand strategy of Democratic peace, despite the overwhelming opposition of the strategic community. The father of Cold War containment, George Kennan, warned that over time Russia would perceive this as betrayal.

Enlarging NATO Enraged Russia

NATO enlargement, followed by bombing in Kosovo under Clinton, guaranteed what Russia thought of as European and American hegemony, even when it was done to stop genocide. It resulted in the cancer of revanchism and the sense of betrayal in Russia, the fruits of which we see today. It brought Russia’s disposition towards the United States from a grateful European Atlanticist Russia under Boris Yeltsin to a vindictive, revisionist Russia under Vladimir Putin.

The restraint in the Middle East was also swept away. President Obama, for example verbally paid homage to Bush and Baker’s restraint in Iraq ‘91, while going against that same restraint in Libya. Maintaining geopolitical order and stability was discarded in radical euphoria of promoting liberal values and toppling regimes during the Arab Spring, with no idea of what might come next.

George H. W. Bush was a salutary post-war foreign policy president. As one mourns his passing, one can only wish his sense of conservative prudence, restraint, realpolitik, and his deep admiration of the cycles of history makes a comeback in a world otherwise full of myopic idealists.​