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.
- 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.
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.