Yearning for an Earlier Era of American Diplomacy

Yearning for an Earlier Era of American Diplomacy


President George H.W. Bush waves from his motorcade during his visit to China in 1989.

Courtesy of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War
By Jeffrey A. Engel
Illustrated. 596 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $35.

In May 1989, as the Soviet empire was imploding, President George H.W. Bush delivered a commencement speech at Texas A&M University declaring that the moment had arrived to move “beyond containment” and expressing the hope that the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika would succeed. A day earlier, however, someone in his administration had wanted to deliver a very different message. “Buried deep in the archives of the Bush administration,” Jeffrey A. Engel reports in “When the World Seemed New,” rests an address that Bush’s defense secretary Dick Cheney had drafted that breathed fire about the unrelenting Soviet threat: “It would be supreme folly to quit the struggle on what may well be the eve of a less threatening world.” The White House put the kibosh on it. A few weeks later Bush prepared to visit Eastern Europe. “Whatever this trip is, it is not a victory tour with me running around over there pounding my chest,” he instructed his speechwriters. “I don’t want to sound inflammatory or provocative,” and “I don’t want to put a stick in Gorbachev’s eye.”

Engel, the director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University and the editor of “The China Diary of George H.W. Bush,” is an assiduous researcher and vivid writer who has conducted numerous interviews with leading Bush administration officials. To read his account of the administration’s foreign policy is to yearn for an earlier era of American diplomacy, when blarney about the nation’s omnipotence was not permitted to substitute for realistic prudence. Instead, Bush, together with Secretary of State James A. Baker III and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, represented the last spasm of Republican internationalism, working closely with the Western allies and the Soviet leadership to end the Cold War peacefully. Engel’s excellent history forms a standing — if unspoken — rebuke to the retrograde nationalism espoused by Donald J. Trump.


At the core of the Cold War was the division of Germany. All Soviet attempts to extrude the United States from West Berlin after 1945 had failed. Chancellor Helmut Kohl was a staunch Atlanticist who resisted a ferocious Soviet campaign to block the installation of intermediate-range Pershing missiles in 1983. But while West German politicians had routinely paid lip service to unification, an official goal since the founding of West Germany in 1949, it was widely viewed as a pipe dream. “I do not write futuristic novels,” Kohl said in October 1988 when questioned about unification. Indeed, early 1989 polls showed that one-half of West Germans believed reunification shouldn’t even be a long-term goal, but it soon became apparent that their brethren across the Berlin Wall had different ideas. When the wall was breached in November 1989, the movement toward a single Germany became unstoppable. It was Kohl who grabbed the opportunity, audaciously announcing a 10-point plan on Nov. 28 that set the basis for formal reunification. According to Engel, “he had effectively broken his word given to the British, the Americans, the French and the Soviets … but Kohl succeeded in seizing the initiative while others dithered.”

What truly mattered to Bush, however, was Kohl’s promise to him that a united Germany would remain in NATO. Bush didn’t fear German unification but a Europe denuded of American troops. Engel focuses on the geopolitical tussle between Gorbachev and Bush over Germany’s fate. Gorbachev aimed for a neutral and united Germany. Bush, by contrast, had no intention of surrendering America’s dominant position. He wanted to cement it, and that is what he did. When Baker met with Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in February 1990, he stated that “there will be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction or military presence one inch to the east.” What terms like “jurisdiction” and “military presence” meant precisely was left vague, but essentially Bush took Gorbachev to the cleaners. According to Engel, “the key was to wield power in a gentlemanly manner, forcefully yet tactfully, so hard feelings could be allayed without jeopardizing the outcome.” By late May, Gorbachev, to the shock and consternation of his aides, and in direct contravention of the Communist Party’s marching orders, capitulated to Bush’s demands for a united Germany in NATO during a meeting at the White House, where he had arrived in the position of a mendicant pleading for financial aid for Mother Russia. Engel rightly observes, “Bush, as much as anyone else, and certainly more than any other foreigner, can lay claim to being the father of modern Germany.” In Moscow, however, Bush’s paternity of a new Germany was not met with equanimity: According to Engel, a ranking general raged, “We have lost World War III without a shot being fired.”

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