While Bush’s invasion of Panama to capture (and later put on trial) former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega may have violated Panamanian sovereignty, it had a degree of de facto legitimacy, given Noriega’s notorious behavior. And, when Bush organized his international coalition to prosecute the Gulf War, he included several Arab countries — not to ensure military success, but to boost the mission’s legitimacy.
When Bush and Thatcher met in Aspen, Colorado, in the summer of 1990, Thatcher allegedly warned him “not to go wobbly.”
However, most historians agree there was no such danger. With his careful combination of hard and soft power, Bush created a successful strategy — one that accomplished US goals in a manner that was not unduly insular and with minimal damage to the interests of foreigners.
He was careful not to humiliate Gorbachev, and to manage the transition to Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in an independent Russia.
Of course, not all foreigners were adequately protected. For example, Bush assigned a low priority to Kurds and Shiites in Iraq, to dissidents in China and to Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia. In that sense, Bush’s realism set limits to his cosmopolitanism.
Could Bush have done more had he been a transformational leader like Thatcher or Reagan?
Perhaps he might have done more in a second term. And, with better communication skills, he might have been able to do more to educate the US public about the changing nature of the post-Cold War world. However, given the profound uncertainty of a world in flux, as well as the dangers of miscalculation as the Soviet empire collapsed, prudent management trumped grand visions.
Bush famously said that he did not do “the vision thing.”
Nonetheless, few people at the end of 1989 believed that Germany could be reunited peacefully within the Western alliance.
Thatcher certainly did not.
The lesson is that in some circumstances, we should prefer leadership by good transactional managers like Bush (or former US president Dwight Eisenhower before him), rather than by more flashy and inspirational transformers.
Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate