The Last Foreign-Policy President

US President George Bush toasts Russian President Boris yeltsin in Moscow January 3 after signing a historic START-2 treaty

George H. W. Bush's four years in office presented challenges as complex and as numerous on the international stage as faced by any president in American history over the course of the entire administration.

January-February 2018

A QUARTER century after Bush left office, nostalgia for his presidency—and his brand of pragmatic and humble internationalism—is being shaped by historians, the most important of which is Jon Meacham’s monumental biography published two years ago. (Another worthwhile entry is the surprisingly moving and insightful appreciation written by a notable amateur historian, George W. Bush, in his 2014 book 41.) There have been numerous assessments of Bush’s foreign policy, including insider narratives of German reunification or the Middle East peace process, as well as doorstop memoirs, including one cowritten by Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft; by former CIA director Robert Gates; and by James Baker (full disclosure: I assisted Baker with the research for his 1995 memoir). But by far the most comprehensive—and compelling—account of these dramatic years thus far is Jeffrey Engel’s When the World Seemed New.

Engel, a former professor at the George H. W. Bush School of Government at Texas A&M who now teaches at SMU, has made a career studying Bush. This is the fourth book he has written or edited on Bush’s foreign policy, and his work benefits from encyclopedic knowledge of the archives and hours spent talking with most of the key players, especially Bush himself. Engel’s mastery of his subject leaps off every page, and while clearly admiring, he is no court historian. On the contrary, he gives an unvarnished assessment of where Bush got it wrong. Yet after reading this lively book, the overall impression is one of great appreciation for a president and team of advisers that handled momentous events skillfully. Because so many things broke America’s way, as if everything were foreordained by destiny, in hindsight Bush does not get the credit he deserves.

Bush prized personal relationships—“Where would we be without friends?” he often asked—and the most important one of his presidency was with an unlikely partner, Mikhail Gorbachev. Initially, Bush and his core team (especially Scowcroft) were suspicious of the motives behind the Soviet leader’s glasnost and perestroika. They worried that instead of genuine accommodation, Gorbachev was relaxing tensions only to buy time, drive a wedge between the United States and Europe, and renew Soviet strength. They saw it as détente all over again—“once burned, twice shy,” was how Scowcroft later described their suspicions—and were frustrated that in 1989, the energetic Gorbachev seemed to be driving the agenda.

Ronald Reagan left office believing Gorbachev was for real, saying that all his talk about the Soviet Union as an evil empire was from “another time and another era.” Bush was less convinced. He had only met Gorbachev a few times—including, as Engel reminds us, during Gorbachev’s electrifying 1987 visit to Washington—and found him to be a showboat. Bush and his advisers were uneasy with Reagan’s warm embrace of the Soviet leader, and sought to pump the brakes on change. “We must take the offensive,” Bush told Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney just weeks after entering the White House, adding, “We cannot just be seen as reacting to yet another Gorbachev move.”

The evolution of Bush’s relationship with Gorbachev in 1989 is an important story, and it dominates the first half of Engel’s book. One watches as Bush warms to the Soviet leader, growing to sympathize with his plight and admire his courage. Bush’s initial suspicions were quickly overtaken by events, as Gorbachev stood by and watched Soviet influence unravel in eastern Europe. Yet Bush remained cautious. He resisted the temptation to celebrate historic events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, worried that such triumphalism would backfire. He wanted Gorbachev to become a partner—not a defeated, embittered enemy full of grievance. Publicly and privately, Bush said he wanted to handle things “properly” and exercise restraint. Stability mattered above all else.

Much of this can be attributed to Bush’s leadership style. But Engel offers an important twist from half a world away that, up to now, has been underappreciated. He shows how the June 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square had a major influence on how Bush reacted to events in Europe, fueling worries about what may happen when similar regimes confronted protesters. Bush thought he understood China—having led the diplomatic mission in Beijing in the 1970s, he had close relationships with many of its key leaders, especially Deng Xiaoping—and believed that China was on the right track. This is an example of when Bush’s reliance on personal relations did not work out so well.