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New World Disorder

Although the Clinton administration certainly doesn’t want to admit it, 1999 will mark the eleventh year of the Bush administration—at least as far as foreign policy is concerned. Bush, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft at first proclaimed that post-Reagan and post-cold war foreign policy would bring about, under US leadership, an alliance of the great powers of the UN Security Council to establish order and prevent aggression. But under Bush the hope of a US-led alliance started to give way to the current intermittent American effort to assume the role of international sheriff.

This was not the declared intention of the Bush administration. When Bush took power in 1989, he was eager to sweep aside much of the legacy of the Reagan years. He wanted to abandon America’s obsession with a Communist takeover in Central America, downplay the delusive search for American invulnerability exemplified by Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (so-called Star Wars), reject what he saw as Reagan’s foolishness in suggesting, at the Reykjavik summit, the elimination of all nuclear weapons from the earth. Above all, he wanted to deflect America’s allies from embracing Mikhail Gorbachev’s call for a “common European home,” which was intended to exclude the United States from the continent while preserving the two systems in place in Eastern and Western Europe.1 In the first year of the administration, Bush’s foreign policy was aptly labeled by his national security spokesmen as “status quo plus.”

Bush, Baker, and the national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, were cautious men in office during a decade of vast change—the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, the unification of Europe, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and a triumphal war in the Persian Gulf. The United States found itself for the first time in its history a dominant power without any significant threat to its security. What was good for America, it seemed, was good for the world. But the Bush administration also be-queathed to the Clinton policymakers conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and in Somalia, and in their joint account of the foreign policy of the Bush years, the President and his national secu-rity adviser, astonishingly, do not mention the US record of failure in either country.

They deal solely with the great powers—the collapse of the Soviet empire; the unification of Germany; the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989; and the unexpectedly easy American-led victory over Iraq in the Gulf War. Even when stated in modest tones their claims are triumphalist. The reality is more clouded; the legacy more troublesome. Still, Bush, Baker, and Scowcroft avoided disaster in bringing the cold war to an end—except for their failure to deal with the conflict in Bosnia before it degenerated into mass murder. In unwittingly following Talleyrand’s famous advice to foreign diplomatists, ” Surtout, pas de zèle,” they left America more powerful than ever before amid the ruins of the new world order they believed was in the making.


A World Transformed is surprisingly readable (which may be thanks to James McCall, who is profusely thanked in the acknowledgments for his editorial work). It takes the form of alternating commentaries by Bush and Scowcroft, with flatly presented connective material to provide background. This seems clumsy at first but the voices of the two men come through and we see how different they are. Reading Bush’s contributions, especially the excerpts he gives from his diary, reminds one of the Candide-like air of naiveté of the former president, while Scowcroft presents himself as the prudent manager who more often than not has to rein in his impulsive master.

Throughout, Bush emphasizes his personal relationship with world leaders. For a self-styled realist, he fails to make the classic distinction between relations among persons and those among states, which Dean Acheson once warned was “more likely than not to be misleading if applied to the relations of one society to another.” Henry Kissinger argued with Bush that establishing personal relationships with foreign leaders should not be confused with protecting national interests. As Bush writes, Kissinger “pointed out that the leader of one country is not going to change a policy because he likes another leader.” But for Bush, “personal diplomacy and leadership went hand in hand.”

This point of view served Gorbachev very well; until the American and Soviet leaders met in ships on the stormy waters off Malta in December 1989, Bush was wary of Gorbachev’s sincerity. After that encounter, he supported Gorbachev wholeheartedly, but with little or no cash. The irony of the Bush years was the inability of the administration to find the financial means to advance its foreign policy objectives; Reagan’s crushing budget deficits left Bush little room to offer support to Russian and East European reformers.

In any case, in the first two years of Bush’s administration, US foreign policy was largely conceived as a response to the actions of Gorbachev and West German chancellor Helmut Kohl. The Soviet leader, anxious to save the Union by reforming socialism, consistently upstaged Bush by announcing dramatic arms cuts. For example, with no advance warning, Gorbachev, with Secretary of State James Baker at his side in Moscow, announced on May 11, 1989, a planned withdrawal of five hundred short-range nuclear warheads from Eastern Europe, even though Washington wanted to delay negotiations on nuclear forces until the issue of the overall balance of conventional forces was addressed. When Bush met with NATO secretary Manfred Wörner, on April 12, 1989, he was told by Wörner that “Gorbachev is driving history.”

As Gorbachev and Kohl moved forward, following each other’s wishes, Bush writes, he constantly consulted then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and French president François Mitterrand. Thatcher hectored Bush not to give in to Kohl’s plans for détente with Gorbachev, whereas Mitterrand’s advice, at least as reflected in Bush’s account, was consistently wise and helpful (even when the Quai d’Orsay was not). At a NATO summit in May 1989, after Bush put forward a plan for measured reduction of US and Soviet forces on the continent to a maximum of 275,000 each, Thatcher lectured Bush at dinner over German proposals to move quickly on cutting back short-range nuclear forces as well. “You’re not going to give in, are you?” she said. Bush did not.

The British prime minister in her memoirs is candid in recalling her distrust of Bush and Baker. She thought Bush was sometimes “exasperated” by her habit of talking about issues nonstop, believing that he ought to have been leading the discussion. Eventually, she learned “to defer to him in conversation and not to stint the praise.” More serious was her dislike of James Baker, whom she saw as primarily a political fixer and whose approach was “to put the relationship with Germany—rather than the ‘special relationship’ with Britain—at the centre.” She also believed, with some justification, that the State Department had “swallowed” the French argument that only a “united Europe,” which she opposed, could keep German power in check.2

In the meantime, while arms reductions were being discussed in Washington and Moscow, events were moving fast in Eastern Europe. Gorbachev had made it clear by June 1989 that he would not follow the Brezhnev Doctrine, which threatened Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe if the Soviet satellites should go too far in asserting their independence. By now, Poland and Hungary were moving to get rid of the vestiges of Communist rule, and Bush knew that both countries needed American economic aid to help them carry out reform and move toward a market economy. But there was painfully little money available, and Bush’s Treasury Department was reluctant to provide cash before the reforms were in place.

By late summer the Hungarians had opened the frontier with Austria and “vacationing” East Germans saw an opportunity to slip across the border to that country and then travel by train to the Federal Republic. When thousands did so, it became clear that a historical turning point was at hand. If the East German regime collapsed, that would mean a very real possibility of German reunification—which no government in the West expected, or much wanted. At Bush’s vacation retreat in Maine, in May 1989, Mitterrand had told Bush, “As long as the Soviet Union is strong, [reunification] will never happen.”

On November 9, 1989, however, the Berlin Wall fell. Keeping in mind a possible Soviet crackdown, Bush was cautious at expressing too much elation over the breach in the Iron Curtain. Asked by a reporter his reaction to the opening of the Wall, Bush said, “I am not an emotional kind of guy.” “Well,” said the reporter, “how elated are you?” “I’m very pleased,” Bush said evenly. That kind of remark did not make Bush sound like a forceful leader, but Gorbachev was warning him not to react in a triumphant way. Bush kept insisting in his diary that reunification was “a matter for the German people.” And that was certainly how Kohl—and even Mitterrand—saw it.

At the December summit meeting of Bush and Gorbachev at Malta, Gorbachev outlined a comprehensive geopolitical view of the world’s future. He hoped for a five-power global balance among an integrated Europe, a strong Japan and China, and the Soviet Union and the United States. Gorbachev also proposed, in effect, a new era of Soviet-American cooperation—one that would go far beyond the détente of the Nixon-Brezhnev years—when he suggested that both NATO and the Warsaw Pact should have more of a political than a military character. The Malta summit prefigured an understanding on the evolution of Eastern Europe and the two Germanies. Although Gorbachev was not ready to endorse German reunification, or—the unthinkable—the incorporation of a united Germany in NATO, it was clear from the meeting that the United States would neither oppose German unification nor speak openly to encourage it.

The Malta summit was less successful when it came to the future of the Baltic states. Bush was fearful, he writes, that the Soviets would use force to prevent Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia from trying to becoming independent; Gorbachev was equally fearful that Baltic independence could lead to the further dissolution of the Soviet Union. During the next few months the pressures for independence, especially from Lithuania, impeded Bush, because of domestic political pressures, from seeking aid for the Soviets.

All the Eastern European nations, including Romania, then seized the moment to free themselves from the Soviet Union’s imperial control, but, as Scowcroft admits, the Bush administration’s Eastern European policy had not been “among the catalysts of the changes.” Short of armed Soviet intervention, however, there was little that could halt the pace of events. What might have affected the character of political change over the longer run, on the other hand, was the shortage of American funds for economic aid. Scowcroft acknowledges that had the US been able to provide the reformers with the means to demonstrate to their people that these new changes would improve the material conditions of their lives,

  1. 1

    See Robert L. Hutchings, American Diplomacy and the End of the Cold War: An Insider’s Account of US Policy in Europe, 1989-1992 (Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp. 10-11.

  2. 2

    Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 783.

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