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George HW Bush’s presidency transformed global relations

Robert B. Zoellick

Europeans who wonder about the benefits of ties with the US should recall the tenure of president George HW Bush. He entered the White House at a transformative moment for transatlantic and global relations. In four years, he left a greater legacy than most presidents achieve over two terms. In early 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union, excited Europeans with the prospect of ending the cold war. Bush told secretary of state James Baker that he wanted to meet Mr Gorbachev. Bush recognised that he led an alliance as well as the US, and needed to guide a cohesive Nato in the negotiations with the Soviets.

His first step, overlooked by most historians, was a bold proposal in May of that year to slash and equalise the conventional armies in Europe. This initiative pushed the negotiation of short-range missiles to the sidelines, easing tensions with Germans who feared their territory was the only nuclear battleground left after the elimination of intermediate range missiles.

Bush’s focus on the armies in Europe also zeroed in on the heart of the cold war divide: sending Soviet troops home would bolster the movements for freedom in central and eastern Europe. If Mr Gorbachev was serious about reform, he would want to cut his military costs, too.

Bush and Mr Baker pressed to achieve this huge shift in Nato’s posture. In doing so, the president solidified his partnership with German chancellor Helmut Kohl. Bush recognised that to end the cold war, the US needed to resolve history’s “German question” as well as the question of Russia’s future. In an interview six months before the Berlin Wall fell, Bush said he would “love to see” Germany unified “on a proper basis”.

The Berlin Wall opened a few weeks before Bush was to meet Mr Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989. Some pundits criticised the president for refusing to “dance on the wall”, but the prudent Bush did not want to provoke Mr Gorbachev when the Soviet empire was dissolving. Instead, Bush went to Malta with proposals showing he could empathise with an adversary as well as allies. Bush created a context in which Mr Gorbachev could yield gracefully.

Bush flew from Malta to a Nato summit in Brussels. Amid European disquiet about Kohl’s moves after the opening in Berlin, Bush presented principles to guide German reunification within Nato and an integrating European Community. Margaret Thatcher, British prime minister, and France’s François Mitterrand were reluctant. Bush wooed them and others with attention, respect, trust, even friendship.

Germany completed its unification within Nato and a new EU in 1990. Historians often label Bush as the last cold war president. In fact, he also laid foundations for a post-cold war order. Bush completed the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. Even after losing the 1992 election, he reached an agricultural deal with Europe that helped pave the way for a new World Trade Organization. His administration also established the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

The Gulf war coalition and combat, organised under UN resolutions, reversed Iraq’s aggression without leaving the US as an occupying power; Bush even managed to have other countries pay the bill.

At home, Bush worked with the opposition Congress to pass landmark acts for Americans with disabilities and for clean air. His budget deal, which contributed to his political defeat, created effective caps on spending, on which his successor Bill Clinton built, to eliminate the US budget deficit in the 1990s.

The fact that American democracy can advance such a leader is worth recalling. Bush valued honour and service as well as achievement. He was the consummate gentleman as well as a fierce competitor. He saw US nationalism and internationalism as two sides of the same coin, not as ideas in conflict. I hope that his story, and his place in history, will inspire another generation of American leaders to act in his spirit.


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