President George H. W. Bush and the end of the Cold War

How would you assess the ability of President George H. W. Bush to help to navigate the world (and my region) during uneasy times of change from communist regimes to democracy? Do we still feel his decisions? Read few comments.

Vicepresident George H. W. Bush with President Ronald Reagan. Credit:

Mark Kramer, Program Director, Project on Cold War Studies, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University

George Bush was president for only one term, but it proved to be a profoundly important term.  Not only did he guide U.S. foreign policy during the momentous events of 1989 that brought an end to Communist tyranny in Central and Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War, but he also subsequently had to deal with the Gulf War in January-February 1991, the disintegration of the Soviet Union in late 1991, and the violent breakup of Yugoslavia from June 1991 on.  Bush was highly successful in all of these challenges except the question of Yugoslavia.  Although primary credit for the end of the Cold War goes to Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR and the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe, Bush was skillful in facilitating these changes and avoiding steps that would have derailed them.  He was equally adept at dealing with the Soviet Union during its final two years.  He brilliantly oversaw Desert Shield and Desert Storm — the huge buildup of U.S. military forces around Kuwait, the formation of a coalition of dozens of countries acting in concert with the United States, and the 6-week U.S.-led war that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and compelled Saddam Hussein to surrender and allow United Nations weapons inspectors into Iraq.  It was one of the most spectacular successes in U.S. foreign policy of the past 50 years.  Bush was less adept in dealing with Yugoslavia, and when he left office in early 1993, Yugoslavia was wracked in violence.  But that was the only blemish on an otherwise remarkably successful foreign policy.

Bush served only one term not because of his foreign policy but because he happened to be in office at a time of an economic recession.  He was not really responsible for causing that recession,but because he was president, voters tended to blame him.  Yet, despite serving only that one term, Bush will be remembered as one of the most effective U.S. presidents of the 20th century.

Thomas SchwartzProfessor of History and Political Science, Vanderbilt University

President George H. W. Bush was probably the most skilled diplomat among American politicians ever elected President, at least since John Quincy Adams in 1824, when the United States was still only a marginal power.  His understanding of alliance politics was extraordinary, and his maneuvering over the issues of German reunification was particularly noteworthy.  Bush was determined to allow East European states the freedom to determine their destiny, and resisted arguments that called for restricting countries like Slovakia after communism from joining NATO or the European Union.  He believed in a “Europe whole and free,” as he called it.  In this sense, Eastern Europe, in both the strengths and weaknesses of democracy, owes a great deal to George H.W. Bush.

Kieran Williams, Visiting Professor of Political Science, Drake University

As for the late President Bush, I think there are many reasons for a rather critical view of his handling of the events in the former Soviet bloc. His government actively discouraged liberation movements in the Baltic states and Ukraine before August 1991 and were passive observers of the revolutions in 1989. In his first year in office he wasted time by stalling on nuclear weapons talks with the Soviets rather than build on what Reagan had set in motion, and did not meet Gorbachev until the Malta summit in December 1989. His administration apparently sent the Soviets very confusing or ambiguous messages about the future of NATO in the context of German unification, and had no bold ideas for a new security architecture that could replace both NATO and the Warsaw Pact (I’m attaching the transcript of Bush’s meeting with Havel in the White House in 1990). If we are living with a particular legacy of the elder Bush’s presidency, it is of an American refusal to be creative about a new security configuration that could have pulled Russia into a better arrangement with Europe. Lastly, Bush’s administration did nothing in 1991 to support the efforts of Senators Nunn and Lugar to get money to Soviet scientists so that they would not sell their nuclear know-how and materials on the black market – one of the smartest uses of American aid to the region that I know of, and the Bush White House could take no credit for it. (I’m relying here on the book The Dead Hand by David E. Hoffman).

Michael Kraus, Professor of Political Science, Middlebury College

I believe that the United States was very fortunate to have President George H. W. Bush at the helm as communism and the Soviet Union collapsed. First of all, he was very well prepared for the immense task of winding down the Cold War, a very dangerous time. By virtue of his education, experience, government service and outlook, Bush was the right man at the right place in 1989. He was a war hero, had served in Congress and as ambassador to China and director of CIA, and for eight years, he was President Ronald Reagan’s vice president. In foreign policy, he was a realist but his realism was informed by a sense of America’s moral purpose.  At his inauguration in January 1989, he declared: “America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”

In 1989-1991, Bush proceeded cautiously because he recognized that while Moscow could no longer feed its own people, it was armed to the teeth and had the capacity to crush East Europe and blow up the whole world. Therefore, he acted neither as a radical nor a nationalist gloating over American victory (it was) in the Cold War; instead, his statesmanship emphasized prudent conduct, diplomacy, gradualism and results. (His decision in the First Gulf War, 1990-91, not to conquer and depose Saddam Hussein reflected the same qualities). It was a wise policy, and I believe that history and historians will credit president Bush’s statesmanship and judgement, qualities sorely lacking in today’s White House.

Mitchell OrensteinProfessor of Central and East European Politics , University of Pennsylvania, Associate, Center for European Studies, Harvard University

President Bush was a WWII veteran.  He was part of what we call the “greatest generation” who had a certain perspective on international affairs deeply ingrained from the experience of war.  Later leaders tended to be Vietnam war draft dodgers, including our current president.

George HW Bush has been accused by some of not having the vision to remake the world after the end of the Cold War.  He tended to treat Russia as a vanquished power.  Russians feel he took advantage by unifying Germany and not giving Russia guarantees about NATO expansion and not having the imagination to create a new world order in which Russia’s great power ambitions would be accommodated.  This may be reasonable criticism.  At the time, however, Russia had massive internal problems that prevented it from playing a big role on the world stage.  George HW Bush navigated some complicated problems reasonably well, in my opinion. He certainly had no animus against Russia and believed in a Europe at peace.  I believe that most in the United States see him as a well-meaning leader, someone of great strength and generosity of character, a strong representative of our country and his death reminds us of how weak and ridiculous is our current president.  So, it is a sad day for our country.

Kurk Dorsey, Professor of History, University of New Hampshire

It is normal when a world leader dies to focus on that person’s successes, so there will certainly be many words of praise for George H. W. Bush.  Even Donald Trump is setting aside his differences briefly!  In terms of his handling of the end of the Cold War in Europe, those words will be deserved.  He and his Secretary of State, James Baker, did a masterful job of helping the Warsaw Pact dissolve peacefully.  He assured Soviet leaders that he would not use the dismantling of the Berlin Wall as a moment to score propaganda points, which made it somewhat harder for the hardliners to spark a backlash.  He pursued a cautious approach to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, while placing American support behind the protection of borders and free governments in Eastern and Central Europe.  And he played a wise role in helping create a peaceful, unified Germany.

Bush’s success came from his understanding of the world that he gained through a lifetime of politics and diplomacy.  Unlike every US President since, he knew foreign leaders and had a sense of what motivated their governments.  It is worth noting that he saw Theodore Roosevelt as something of a role model, because Roosevelt thought that the role of the US should be to promote civilization, meaning stability and order.  Democracy was a possible desirable side effect of such stability, but I think Bush thought that democracy had to grow out of a stable system, it could not be imposed or created by outsiders.

Obviously he was not perfect, and he had his critics at the time for not pushing the cause of freedom harder (for instance, the criticism he took for the so-called Chicken Kiev speech in 1991).  And perhaps more important his legacy of helping to open former Warsaw Pact countries to democracy is eroding in places like Hungary and Poland.  But Bush and James Baker seem to me to be the most successful foreign policy team in the last century of US foreign policy.


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