November 22, 2017
By Jeffrey Engel
Twenty-five years ago this week, Americans rejected a far different man than the one in power today. Self-confident where Donald Trump is thin-skinned, well-mannered in a way Trump considers weak, George H.W. Bush is remembered a quarter-century out of office as an elder statesman whose call for a “kinder and gentler” nation appears quaint in retrospect.
This is not a wistful column but a plea. Trump is unlikely to adopt Bush’s style, but would do well to adopt the key to his diplomatic success: the ability to keep quiet. The world changed on Bush’s watch. Freedom blew through Eastern Europe, South Africa and even China — until Tiananmen Square. An American-led coalition liberated Kuwait from Iraq. Most important of all, the Cold War’s end upended the international order in place since 1945. Wars typically follow such tectonic changes. In part thanks to Bush, a new democratic age beckoned instead, albeit with another man in charge once voters believed they no longer required an experienced diplomat in the White House.
Bush could have blustered and bullied with the world so clearly going Washington’s way. He instead practiced Hippocratic statesmanship, especially in a crisis or as international tensions rose, going out of his way to “do no harm.” Having spent decades near the epicenter of American politics, he knew the global echo of a president’s words, but also their limits. When angry crowds met recalcitrant regimes, any demonstrator reaching for a rock, or young recruit nervously fingering his rifle, wields more power to change the course of history than even the world’s most powerful man half-a-world away.
“I am old enough to remember Hungary in 1956,” he told reporters as protestors marched in Beijing, recalling when a president’s encouragements inadvertently sent hundreds to their deaths. “I do not want to be a catalyst for encouraging a course of action that would inevitably lead to violence and bloodshed.”
Bloodshed occurred nonetheless: in Kuwait — where Bush orchestrated Iraq’s ejection — and in Tiananmen Square. Neither ended wholly well, though better than initially feared due to his behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Saddam Hussein remained at the Gulf War’s close, his ouster desired by Bush’s critics who believed he’d not done enough to jump-start democracy in the Middle East. But neither were American troops occupiers in a hostile land, his hard-won coalition splintered along with his entente with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Bush suffered too for his milquetoast public response to Tiananmen, and by extension for failing to prevent the brutal crackdown. Critics demanded Beijing’s isolation, though he knew something they did not. Secretly, awkwardly, the two governments were quietly talking. Engagement had brought China this far, Bush reasoned. Engagement alone could bring about a more democratic Chinese future. His poll numbers dropped, but China remained connected to the world.
Europe posed bigger problems. Fearing words of encouragement might spark a conservative crackdown capable of making Tiananmen Square look like a walk in the park, Bush downplayed democracy’s seeming triumph throughout the Soviet Bloc. “I guess I’m just not an excitable guy,” he shrugged when bewildered reporters questioned his nonplussed reaction to the Berlin Wall’s breach.
This was a lie, but a useful one. The world focused on the transfixing images from Berlin. He heard the frightened phone calls from London, Paris, Rome and even Moscow, each fearful that today’s celebrations would spark tomorrow’s anti-Gorbachev coup, then perhaps a renewed Cold War, or worse.
Others cheered, but the man whose voice carried furthest preached calm. Once more critiqued for public inaction, Bush in truth spent the next year quietly, methodically, and hippocratically persuading his hesitant allies to accept their new strategic reality, and his strategic vision for the post-Cold War world, including reunification of a common foe none truly desired. History had bequeathed them two Germanys, Gorbachev argued: We should "let history decide.”
Bush read history differently, fearing unbridled Europeans even more than unified Germans. Over the long 20th century only American power had proven capable of keeping them from each other’s throats. While others focused on Germany’s borders he quietly secured his principal goal: NATO’s survival, and with it America’s continued place across the Atlantic.
Success required his personal investment, in the form of long walks, talks, and a plethora of hand-written messages to global leaders over the ensuing year, quietly ameliorating fears of renewed nationalism while gently fixing a permanent American wing into Europe’s transformed strategic architecture. No one doubted his nation’s ability to force its way. But like in the Middle East, Bush sought less an occupation than an invitation.
He even got the Russians on board, by hinting that NATO would never expand east. His word was enough for Gorbachev, who never codified the pledge in writing, leaving Vladimir Putin and today’s Russian nationalists convinced that the organization’s expansion under subsequent administrations represented a betrayal. Perhaps, but Bush had already achieved the American presence he valued most. We might question if Putin will be intimidated by American-led forces on his Western border. Imagine Washington’s leverage if those same American troops had retreated home at the Cold War’s end?
Bush is today celebrated in retirement as never while in office, but not everywhere. His diplomatic success epitomized the very internationalism Trump despises, favoring different roles and goals for the nation at a moment when few perceive the world going Washington’s way. But setting and achieving goals are two different things. Having never berated or belittled his counterparts, having defused rather than catalyzed tensions, and having kept the details of his negotiations private until complete, Bush did more than just talk. He had the confidence to keep behind the scenes and away from the spotlight. The art of the deal, his record shows, is best done quietly.