Many of the recent tributes for former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher following her death celebrated her as a “transformational” leader who brought about great changes. There were frequent references to her equally transformational US counterpart, former US president Ronald Reagan. However, a more interesting comparison is with her other US presidential contemporary, George H.W. Bush.
Though often dismissed as a mere “transactional” manager, Bush had one of the best foreign policy records of the past half-century. His administration managed the end of the Cold War, the dismantlement of the Soviet Union, and the unification of Germany within NATO — all without violence. At the same time, he led a broad UN-backed coalition that repelled then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Kuwait. Had he dropped any of the balls he was juggling, today’s world would be much worse.
Although he presided over a major global transformation, Bush, by his own account, did not have transformational objectives. On the unification of Germany, he resisted the advice of Thatcher and others, apparently out of a sense of fairness and responsiveness to his friend, then-German chancellor Helmut Kohl. In October 1989, Bush responded to a call from Kohl by publicly stating that he did not “share the concern that some European countries have about a reunified Germany.”
At the same time, he was careful to let Kohl and others take the lead. When the Berlin Wall was opened a month later, partly owing to an East German mistake, Bush was criticized for his low-key response. However, Bush had made a deliberate choice not to humiliate the Soviets or gloat: “I won’t beat on my chest and dance on the wall,” was his response — a model of emotional intelligence in a leader.
Such self-restraint helped to set the stage for the successful Malta Summit with then-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev a month later. The Cold War ended quietly, and the dismantlement of the Soviet empire followed.
As Bush and his team responded to forces that were largely outside of his control, he set goals and objectives that balanced opportunities and constraints in a prudent manner.
Some critics have faulted him for not supporting the national aspirations of Soviet republics like Ukraine in 1991 (when he delivered his infamous “Chicken Kiev” speech warning against “suicidal nationalism”); for failing to go to Baghdad to unseat Saddam in the Gulf War; or for sending his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, to Beijing to maintain relations with China after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. However, in each instance, Bush was limiting his short-term gains in order to pursue long-term stability.
Other critics complained that Bush did not set more transformational objectives regarding Russian democracy, the Middle East or nuclear non-proliferation at a time when world politics seemed fluid. However, again, Bush remained more focused on maintaining global stability than on advancing new visions.
Bush was also respectful of institutions and norms at home and abroad, going to the US Congress for authorization of the Gulf War, and to the UN for a resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.
Although a realist in his thinking, he could be Wilsonian in his tactics. Bush’s termination of the ground war in Iraq after only four days was motivated in part by humanitarian concerns about the slaughter of Iraqi troops, as well as by an interest in not leaving Iraq so weakened that it could not balance the power of neighboring Iran.