The Diplomacy of George H.W. Bush



Many of the titles that the 41st U.S. President held prior to serving in that office were notable in the way they prepared him to be nation’s top diplomat and leader: member of Congress, CIA director, envoy to China and UN ambassador. What can we take away from President Geroge Herbert Walker Bush’s diplomatic legacy beyond the titles? He should be remembered in the same way we think about other notable president diplomats such as Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams–and among important statesmen like Benjamin Franklin, as “a very different kind of Republican” in “a very different poltical moment” as Jacob Weisberg says in a the CFR Lessons from History Series.

  1. Fixing Foreign Policy In-House

The Clinton/Gore team ran on “reinventing government” but Ivo Daalder and I.M. Destler assert that it really was George H. W. Bush’s reinvention of the foreign policy process resulted in a new way to create and implement U.S. foreign policy. They call it nothing short of “genius”– an innovation that “has stood the test of time.” Consequently, Bush was called by Michael Cohen one of the five “Best Foreign Policy Presidents of the Past Century.”

He assembled a true body of wise men–whose influence in power and afterword continue to offer foreign policy direction–even if largely unheeded by Republicans today: Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, Colin Powell, and others such as Ambassador Thomas Pickering, Richard Haas, Robert Gates, and even Dick Cheney–mastered the processes needed to make foreign policy work and offered a steady hand when in office. They all demosntrated the impact (and importance) of effective governance.

2. Exemplifying Diplomacy as a Dealmaker

Bush was the example of what a truly tough negoiator looked like facing down China at the UN. Even so, he was tested in ways that make his one term the stuff of modern legends–confronting more crises and major global issues that most Presidents face in two.

In the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Bush dispatched his top diplomat to build a coaltion that would be the 20th century gold standard for collective security, in line with the United Nations Charter:

The U.S. effort to put together an international coalition against Iraq in 1990 was stunning. Secretary of State James Baker met with every head of state or foreign minister whose country held a seat on the U.N. Security Council. That meant not just meeting with those countries that had permanent seats like the Soviet Union and China, but also those holding rotating seats such as Ivory Coast, Romania and even Cuba.

via PBS, James Goldgeiger, The Conversation

He also recognized the truth that realists should be expressing more loudly: “limited objectives in the Middle East” are essential to the maintance of U.S. power and national interests. (This reality is driven by the nature of colaitions, as well.) The U.S. may see itself as “indespensable” but it cannot manage a world in chaos without recognizing the strategic necessity to temper its foreign policy goals and contstrain any possible expansive tendencies.

3. Demonstrating How Tone Matters

His tone as a leader, deeply influeced by diplomatic norms and his personal life experiece, contrasts in a major way with the current Pennsylvania Avenue resident: measured, steady, and prudent. Not exciting terms or ones that would marshall voters in a primary–but essential ones for an effective statecraft in the time when the U.S. was seen as the unequivocal winner of the Cold War and the last superpower standing.

As Philip Seib of USC writes, Bush’s legacy

is not that he failed to win reelection, but that he succeeded in making the world safer and in reinforcing American world leadership. He acknowledged the responsibilities that accompanied this role: “We cannot retreat into isolation. We will only succeed in this interconnected world by continuing to lead.”

Oddly enough, part of President Bush’s diplomatic legacy may have morphed directy into the Democrats as embodied in Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as other luminaries such as HIllary Clinton, as Derek Chollet notes in FP.



Thinking Carefully about U.S. Power

Another reason to read the NYT: where else will you get a full half-page, above-the-fold analysis citing top scholars on the underlying reasons why Syria is a such a strategic, military and diplomatic conundrum:

It is an urgent problem that has consumed foreign policy discussions for the last few years. But much more is involved than the fate of a single country in the Middle East. Underlying the Syria issue is a set of questions that have animated every major debate over foreign policy for a century: What is America’s role in the world, what are its obligations, and what happens if it falls short of meeting them?
One strain of thought holds that America has a mission to champion democracy and human rights, granting it a unique role in the world, along with special powers and obligations. But that idea has always been controversial, with skeptics arguing it is an alluring myth — and a potentially dangerous notion.
via NYT

Could we Sleepwalk into a Big War?

What does the end of the West’s military superiority mean for great power politics, peace and stability around the world?

When explaining the need to prepare for a major war against a high-end enemy, US and European analysts usually point to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea (9). Western military moves, it is claimed, are an undesired but necessary reaction to provocations by others. But probe more deeply into the thinking of senior leaders and a different picture emerges. Running throughout this discussion is a pervasive anxiety that the world has changed in significant ways, and that the strategic advantages once possessed by the West are slipping away as other powers gain increased military and geopolitical leverage. In this new era — ‘a time of renewed great power competition’ as Carter put it — the US’s military might no longer appears as formidable as it once did, while the m

Source: Sleepwalking into a big war, by Michael T Klare (Le Monde diplomatique – English edition, September 2016)

Another Take on Obama’s Worldview

We are still talking about what past U.S. Presidents meant to national interests and strategy and how their decisions shaped the world (or failed to do so). Consider this new take on Eisenhower or Nixon or Wilson. And so, we will still be talking about the Obama Presidency for a long time. He told Doris Kearns Godwin that he “didn’t want to be Millard Fillmore or Franklin Pierce”. He seems to be reshuffling the deck, rethinking the game–even dissing the Special Relationship. So what will be Obama’s legacy?

If you want to read the latest  round of journalism-to-maybe-become-history longform, head over to Jeffery Goldberg’s lengthy piece in The Atlantic.

But if you want a shorter take, Max Fischer does a nice job on Vox. He breaks down the notion of Obama as a “Hobbesian optimist” and someone who sees long-term historical thinking as a key part of U.S. strategic interests–contrary to a foreign policy establishment that is focused on quick wins, especially by use of military power:

This spoke to how Obama sees challenges as well as opportunities: as a matter of encouraging that global progress toward peace and prosperity, while also acknowledging how dangerous it can be when that progress stalls or reverses. But it sees the latter as the exception rather than the norm.

Source: The best articulation yet of how President Obama sees the world – Vox

His critics may be status quo. His critics are certainly inflamed. They may even be right.

War and Humanity

In thinking about the attacks in Paris and Beirut–among other places, we can express anger, revenge, or frustration. We can also redouble ourselves onto the weightier questions. What motivates Daesh to organize and carry out these attacks? What is their perspective? And even better: What does it mean to be human?

Primo Levi stands as an important figure: Holocaust survivor and writer who has been widely read across Italy. His works are used across disciplines to teach Jewish and Holocaust studies, and warrants a refresh as we think about the nature of evil:

Toward the end of If This Is a Man (whose very title, Se questo è un uomo, offers the conditional clause of a question that remains open), Levi befriends Jean, an Alsatian student who serves as errand boy in the Auschwitz chemical unit on which Levi toils. Hoping to teach his French-speaking friend some Italian, Levi recites from memory, and imperfectly, a passage from Dante’s Commedia, from Canto XXVI of The Inferno. Ulysses, who is, like Levi and Jean, suffering the torments of hell, explains how he roused his fellow mariners to undertake the transgressive journey that would damn them all:

“Consider well the seed that gave you birth:/ you were not made to live your lives as brutes,/ but to be followers of worth and knowledge.”

As he recites those lines, amid the misery and horror of a human abattoir, Levi himself is moved, he explains, “as if I, too, were hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.” He would survive to be a follower of worth and knowledge.

Source: Primo Levi’s Invaluable Voice, in Full – The Chronicle of Higher Education

He lived with the brutality of Auschwitz, with shame and inner turmoil., believing that “people have a responsibility to each other as well as to other living things”. In a Paris Review interview, Levi reflected on his writing and life, demonstrating himself as a master of the “understated”:

Remember, when there is war, the first thing is shoes, and second is eating. Because if you have shoes, then you can run and steal. But you must have shoes. Yes, I told him, well you are right, but there is not war any more. And he told me, Guerra es siempre. There is always war.

Mighty Mighty Putin?

Has Putin outflanked Obama geostrategically? Or, as Dmitry Adamsky wrote earlier this month in Foreign Affairs, is Russia now dangerously overextended through conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East? “Making waves is easier than controlling them. For Moscow, the main risk in Syria is overextension.”

Michael McFaul, Stanford political scientist and former US Ambassador to Russia writes that Putin is weak and explores how the US can do more to advance its grand strategy toward a safer world–and get a better Russia, as well:

The United States and Western allies should capitalize on Mr. Putin’s attention being diverted to Syria to deepen support for Ukraine. In return for progress on economic reform, especially anti-corruption measures, we can offer greater financial aid for infrastructure and social service programs.

And now is the moment to bolster the Ukrainian Army by providing more military training and defensive weapons.Elsewhere in Europe, NATO should station ground forces on the territory of allies most threatened by Russia. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine violated the NATO-Russia Founding Act and other treaties. In response, our NATO allies deserve credible new commitments from us.

Finally, we must continue to pursue long-term foreign policy objectives that demonstrate American leadership and underscore Russia’s isolation. Ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, closing a multilateral climate deal by the end of the year, deepening ties with India and managing relations with China are all parts of America’s grander strategy.

Source: The Myth­ of Putin’s Strategic Genius – The New York Times

Neocons Back the Empire

Everybody loves the trailer. (Yes, that trailer.) But over at the Weekly Standard, Jonathan Last’s “The Case for the Empire” reads like a college magazine cover story–offering a soon-to-be-overshared argument for why Darth Vader and the Emperor were ultimately in the intergalactic public interest. Wow.

In all of the time we spend observing the Rebel Alliance, we never hear of their governing strategy or their plans for a post-Imperial universe. All we see are plots and fighting. Their victory over the Empire doesn’t liberate the galaxy–it turns the galaxy into Somalia writ large: dominated by local warlords who are answerable to no one.Which makes the rebels–Lucas’s heroes–an unimpressive crew of anarchic royals who wreck the galaxy so that Princess Leia can have her tiara back.

Source: The Case for the Empire | The Weekly Standard

And in another universe far, far away (on Twitter) Bill Kristol has unleashed his own forces–promoting the theory to much acclaim (and retwittering.)

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 10.20.58 AM

I didn’t realize that there was a long tradition of defending the Empire. Go figure. It even has its own poster tradition a la Cliff Chiang. (More fun for the Beltway, I guess.)

But beyond just a frame-by-frame review, this is a delicious discussion thread for adults/international relations wonks (not just geeks and nerds). Join forces with the the debate, because it’s on:

So I’ll take the nostalgia—though Bill Kristol’s crackpot take on the Empire might help define nostalgia’s limits. Folks, the Empire was not a liberal meritocracy, it was a galactic police state that blew up planets to quell rebellion. This is the kind of damage Lucas did with his prequel films, and the reason fans cheered when Disney bought the rights to the Star Wars franchise for billions. The Star Wars prequels essayed the fall of the Old Republic and the decline of the Jedi Order as plot dressing for its supposed grand arc: the rise of Darth Vader and the Emperor. They existed to justify his original stories, which needed no justification, and even though they portrayed the Republic as being bogged down by bureaucracy, they also paralleled the Empire’s emergence with Hitler’s sweep to power, with the Clone Wars functioning as a kind of Reichstag fire.

Source: How Original Can The Force Awakens Be? | The Atlantic

Next up? Dan Drezner at WaPo who argues that “the Rebel Alliance’s victory in the Battle of Endor was a catastrophic success” leading to failed nation building efforts–as seen in the new trailer.