Over the past few days, Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman held a short conversation over email on the recent death of former US President George H. W. Bush. Below is that conversation.
Brad Nelson: What are your thoughts on the passing of George H.W. Bush?
Yohanes Sulaiman: It is the passing of a great man, a world leader, a mensch, etc.
Three more thoughts.
First, the media talk about how Bush Sr. is different from Trump, and how Bush Jr. wasn’t able to exhibit the kind of caution and restraint in his foreign policy as hid dad did. So I don't want to discuss that. What I want to talk about is about the change in global order. Some argue that without Bush Sr., the collapse of the Berlin Wall might not have been so peaceful. The Russians, Brits, and French were actually aghast at the prospect of German unification, and it was only because of Bush’s diplomacy that those three nations finally allowed Germany to unite. Perhaps there is a lesson somewhere here about the rise of China?
Second, it can be argued that Bush was probably the most prepared foreign policy president, with stints as the head of the CIA, vice presidency, etc. Compared to the leaders who followed, who lacked any foreign policy experience, I could argue that Bush Sr.'s foreign policy was successful because he knew the levers he could pull.
And third, while it could be argued that Reagan won the battles to break the Soviet Union, it was Bush who won the war by presiding over a peaceful transition. Is it a fair assessment, or am I giving too much credit to Bush?
BN: My initial reaction is this: During and for years afterward, George H. W. Bush’s (GHWB) presidency was completely overshadowed by more electric personalities—first by his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, and then by his successor, Bill Clinton. Reagan was seen as the modern GOP Jesus, a conservative exemplar who strengthened the party by bringing evangelicals back into politics and flipping Midwestern and rust belt democrats into Republicans. He kept the US out of costly wars, burnished America's image as a beacon of freedom, and had a hand in winning the cold war. Clinton was young and hip and cool, understood the plight of the common person, and, oh, and he was credited for rejuvenating the US economy in the 1990s.
Bush's legacy was also hamstrung by the fact that he only served one term. Americans—citizens and academics alike—typically don't view one-term presidents as successful. It's basically taken as given that one-termers screwed up somewhere along the way and that's why they weren't reelected to office.
Over the last few years, especially since the release of Jon Meacham's bio of GHWB in 2015, there's been a critical reassessment of Bush's legacy. And that's allowed Bush's presidency to stand alone, to be evaluated on its own terms. And rightly so. His presidency wasn't perfect, true, especially on domestic matters. But Bush accomplished so much in his 4 years. Mostly seamless German unification. NATO kept intact. Stable Russian-US relations. Norms against conquest upheld. The UN had one of its few shining moments on his watch. And it's not just the individual, discrete accomplishments that matter most, it's that Bush applied a steady hand in a massively changing world, as you point out. He safely, confidently guided the world as it moved from the cold war to a new unipolar era. And given how the US prosecuted the Iraq War in 1991, this unipolar era wasn't one to be feared, as the US wielded its power as a benign hegemon. All credit to Bush.
And so I agree with you on Bush. While Reagan helped bring the USSR to the precipice of the end of the cold war, it was Bush who actually won the cold war. He won it in a literal sense, in that the USSR folded on Christmas Day 1991. But besides that, Bush had the harder part of dealing with the reality of a defeated, nuclear great power. There are lots of ways in which bad things could've happened and then spun out of control. What if Bush had decided to immediately consolidate US gains in his remaining time in office? He resisted those temptations. And frankly, that's something Russians remember to this day and why he's still fondly remembered by them.
BN: And going back to your first point, the GHWB administration does offer lessons for the future of US-China relations, especially for the Chinese. Going forward, China could well be in the position the US was in the late 1980s/early 1990s: riding high atop the international system, flush with power advantages and confidence, faced with the dilemma of what to do about its fallen superpower competitor. Bush showed how a deft touch toward a defeated great power—via diplomacy, face saving tactics, great power cooperation—can yield significant benefits. China should take note. Will Beijing find a way for the US to decline with grace and dignity? Or will it try to harass and humiliate an enervated US in Asia and globally?
YS: The problem with the current Chinese leadership is in their inability to think about what others think. We could argue whether it is due to China's authoritarian leadership. Or China's culture that emphasizes itself as the center of the world. Or the idea of the "Century of humiliation. Whichever is the case, it is a fact that the Chinese leadership is simply unprepared to face a global backlash against their current policies. I doubt that the current Chinese leadership could behave like Bush Sr., who understood what was going on behind the Kremlin walls and tried to make sure that the Soviet Union didn't overreact to the fall of Berlin Wall, thus wrapping up the Cold War. And such experience is unfortunately lacking among current or recent global leadership.
BN: Are you surprised by the sustained, lavish praise, especially here in the States, by talking heads, the media, foreign politicians, and like since GHWB's death?
YS: Not really. Though from what I observe, the media, especially CNN, praises Bush to draw contrasts against Trump.
BN: You're exactly right. The very positive coverage of the passing of GHWB—whether intentional or not--has been a stinging rebuke of Trump. Bush was a devoted father and husband. Bush was a fairly decent guy. He served in war and was a war hero. He was very experienced, in terms of politics and policy. He was a "true" conservative. He ran an organized WH, one that was filled with highly qualified people (Haass, Scowcroft, Baker, among others). And so on. All of these things have been exhaustively discussed and analyzed by the media over the last week, and they all stand in sharp contrast to Donald Trump and his presidency.
But the other interesting part is a clear nostalgia for the late 1980s/early 1990s. The undercurrent of the praiseworthy reporting on Bush, at least as I see it, is that the Bush presidency was a good era, particularly for the US.
It was a simpler, more stable world. Nations were turning liberal and democratic, enmeshing themselves in the liberal world order, with only a few minor rogue actors posing a threat to the international system. The perils of globalization, jihadist terrorism, the rise of China, a resurgent Russia—these were either minor problems to the US or were light years away from becoming one. The US sat at the apex of the international system, as it won the cold war and stood as the unquestioned lone superpower globally. It quickly and successfully kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, whereby the US demonstrated its enormous raw might and reach of the American military, highlighted its role as a careful protector of long-established liberal norms and rules, and showed sincerity in gaining the requisite buy-in from other nations, including Muslim-majority nations in the ME, in order to prosecute the war. The US had good relations with most of the world. The world wanted to be friends and allies with the US, and the US worked hard at maintaining their friendship. Despite the economic blip that helped to boot Bush out of office by November 1992, it was a period when the US felt good about itself, its role in the world, and saw the promise of better days ahead.
That's a bygone era we now wistfully look at. By contrast, the world today is messy, complicated, filled with ghosts and demons everywhere. The US is turning on itself, as polarization is sky-high. There are large and deep-seated questions percolating these days throughout the US: Who is an American? What is America? Does America still have a global mission? America is engaged in a very self-help dialogue: we're troubled, we need help, but we don't know what to do or where to go, or who is best equipped to lead us out of the wilderness. That's a far cry from where we were in the Bush years.