During George H. W. Bush’s single term in the White House, the Berlin Wall fell and Germany reunified peacefully. The Warsaw Pact dissolved, the Soviet Union crumbled, and the Cold War ended. The American military ejected Manuel Noriega from Panama and liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. The United States emerged as the world’s preeminent power after four decades of superpower standoff.
This outcome was the product of both long historical forces and key actors, including Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. But it was not inevitable.
As the world order shifted dramatically, George H. W. Bush steered the ship of state with experience, expertise, and—though it launched a million gibes—prudence. America emerged from his tenure stronger than before, with its adversaries weakened or transformed. “I’m certainly not seen as visionary,” he wrote in his diary. “But I hope I’m seen as steady and prudent and able.” That oft-mocked prudence was key to Bush’s success.
When Bush took the oath of office, in January 1989, the United States was locked in nuclear-armed confrontation with the Soviet Union. A wall split Berlin, an iron curtain divided Europe, and top experts—including the new president—remained convinced that Gorbachev was more talk than action. Everything would change with lightning speed.
During Bush’s first year, elections in Poland brought the reformist Solidarity party into power and Hungary’s parliament adopted a “democracy package.” By November, the Berlin Wall had fallen. The Velvet Revolution then swept Czechoslovakia. Non-communist parties emerged in Yugoslavia, protests broke out and were crushed in Beijing, and Romanians violently overthrew the Ceausescu regime. As satellites began to spin out of Moscow’s orbit, Gorbachev announced the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe. All in that first year.
The West won the Cold War on George H. W. Bush’s watch, and for most political leaders such a victory would occasion loud self-congratulation. Yet here is where the president’s prudence proved so pivotal. Bush reacted carefully to each historic development, understanding that American triumphalism might arrest progress. After Berliners streamed westward, he declined to, as he put it later, “dance on the wall.” The president was keen to pocket the democratic and geopolitical gains without either weakening Gorbachev’s position or inciting a backlash among hardliners. Such quietude was puzzling to some Americans. The media couldn’t understand why the president was not more euphoric as the wall came down. “I’m elated,” Bush told them. “I’m just not an emotional kind of guy.”
Bush and his most like-minded officials, National-Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker, portrayed this approach as the product of strategic calculation. But perhaps Bush’s restraint was simply a reflection of his New England patrician disposition, or the international application of that old political adage: When your opponent is destroying himself, don’t get in his way.
Regardless, the gambit worked. The Cold War ended without a shot fired between superpowers, both sides cut their nuclear arsenals, and Moscow abandoned its empire and founding ideology. Bush shifted from letting events unfold favorably to shaping their future course, articulating a vision of Europe “whole and free.” He persuaded Gorbachev to turn on his Iraqi ally after Kuwait’s invasion and even to accept the reunification of Germany, a country that had invaded the Soviet Union during Gorbachev’s lifetime.
Bush’s prudence meant more than outward calm, however. Behind his even rhetoric lay reflection, planning, organization, and determination, often in the service of bold objectives. He was the last president to enter office with foreign-policy or even executive-branch experience, and it showed. It seems almost quaint to reflect that Bush’s Washington résumé was an asset in those days rather than an indictment; he served as a naval aviator, congressman, United Nations ambassador, envoy to China, Republican Party chair, CIA director, and two-term vice president before taking the Oval Office. Perhaps never before or since has a commander in chief been better prepared to manage foreign affairs.
He did so methodically, and the Gulf War best illustrated his determination and doggedness. At the time, the United States imported fully a quarter of its oil from Gulf countries. Saddam’s control over combined Iraqi and Kuwait supplies would have handed Baghdad disproportionate influence over prices and, as a result, the American economy. Yet Bush seemed driven less by economic considerations than geopolitical ones: In the new world order just then unfolding, forcible acquisitions of territory had no place. Aggression had to be resisted and reversed. And America had to play the leading role.
But not the only role. Bush sent his diplomats around the world and to the UN in search of allies. He opened his global Rolodex and marshaled an unprecedented coalition of 39 countries, including Britain and France, Czechoslovakia, Syria, Niger, and Pakistan. He won UN approval and congressional authorization to use force, and American allies in the Gulf, along with Germany and Japan, picked up nearly 90 percent of the war’s costs. After 100 hours of ground combat, victory was at hand. Kuwait was liberated, and Vietnam Syndrome was finally quelled.
Bush’s record was not one of unalloyed success, either in Iraq or elsewhere. Saddam Hussein remained in Baghdad after the Gulf War’s end, requiring indefinite, U.S.-patrolled no-fly zones and endless inspections for weapons of mass destruction. The president ably preserved relations with China after the Tiananmen massacre but was criticized for insufficiently condemning Beijing’s abuses. He passed off trouble in the Balkans and an ultimately disastrous Somalia operation to Bill Clinton. And the caution that generally served so well also sometimes rendered him impervious to the winds of change, as when he railed against nationalism in Ukraine, only to see that country realize independence months later.
American presidents tend to be possessed by a sunny optimism—think Reagan’s “morning in America,” George W. Bush’s confidence in democracy’s triumph abroad, and Obama’s conviction that the arc of history bends toward justice. Even Donald Trump displays a kind of buoyancy on occasion: “Trade wars are good, and easy to win,” he’s said.
That wasn’t George H. W. Bush.
Bush aimed not to force into existence a better world, but to adapt to and shape circumstances for America’s advantage. He sought not to roll geopolitical dice but rather to consider fully the consequences of both action and inaction. He seemingly wished to be judged not only on the victories accrued—Panama, Iraq, NAFTA, Germany, the Cold War—but also tragedies avoided: the wars not commenced, the chaos not unleashed, the blood and treasure saved rather than squandered. These were just as vital to a prudent foreign policy president.
Bush-style caution isn’t right for every era. Churchill’s combination of alarmism and drive fit his time, as did FDR’s patient assertiveness, Truman’s creative initiative and Reagan’s toughness. But with the world in dramatic transformation, and with the geopolitical stakes at their very height, George H. W. Bush’s prudence was just what America needed.
And the country could use a dose of it today. President Trump often seems to tweet first and plan later, to launch bold initiatives without preparation, and to act before considering contingencies. America and the world would benefit from more of the foreign-policy predictability, caution, and discipline that characterized the 41st presidency, and that is not exactly emblematic of the 45th.