The World George H.W. Bush Built

By Robert Kaplan
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Bush writes: "I understood that the pressure on Gorbachev from hard-liners to intervene would grow, as these once reliable allies [in Eastern Europe] began to pull further away and the Soviet security buffer against the West eroded. The dangers were ahead, and I would have to respond with even greater care as the East Europeans pushed their own way to the future. We could not let the people down -- there could still be more Tiananmens." So rather than conduct a triumphant, Reaganite victory lap around Eastern Europe, Bush was restricted in his travels and in his language. For example, he knew that he could not immediately pledge support for Lithuania the moment it declared independence, because the United States was in a weak position to counter a Soviet military reaction. God bless him! He knew that tragedy is avoided by thinking tragically.

Rather than bridle at the geographic and other constraints imposed on policymakers, Bush was fundamentally aware of them. It was only by respecting geography that he was able to move beyond it.

Not that Bush wasn't bold. He certainly was. People have short memories. I was in Eastern Europe for some of this time and remember vividly. Now it seems altogether natural that West and East Germany be reunited under a NATO umbrella. Then it wasn't. Quite a few argued for the eastern part of Germany to remain neutral. Bush would have none of it. He came to the cause of reunification early, and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl always appreciated him for it. Imagine how unstable Europe would have become had Bush listened to other voices and prevented full-scale reunification -- had he not accepted that the German capital would have to move from Bonn to Berlin? Here was another geopolitical dog that didn't bark.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990, there were many voices in Washington urging the president not to get involved militarily. But Bush acted boldly. He liberated Kuwait with force in 1991, even as he was careful not to march all the way to Baghdad and become enmeshed with the internal politics of the Iraqi state. And it was Bush's nuanced position that helped reverse the coup attempt in Moscow later that same year. Unlike the Reagan foreign policy team that went through several national security advisers and got involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, the Bush team of Bush-Baker-Scowcroft represented one of the most professional stewardships of American foreign policy ever. And it was professional because it was based more on geopolitics than on ideas, even as all of these men would be careful never to admit this.

Bush wasn't perfect -- the administration could have been more proactive on Bosnia when Yugoslavia came apart. But in Bush's defense, I would say that so early in this, the first European crisis since the end of the Cold War, it was reasonable to test whether a newly united Europe could deal on its own with an internal eruption.

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In historic terms, the elder Bush was the last fully nation-state American to lead America in the world. The presidents who have come after did not serve in the nation's wars, and/or came to adulthood during the 1960s or in a post-Sixties era when American values were called into question in a more global and cosmopolitan environment. Bush senior was different. Because he was so deeply anchored in the nation-state, he was respectful of the interests of other states. That made him cautious and humble. And from such caution and restraint great things happened peacefully in the world.

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Robert D. Kaplan is Chief Geopolitical Analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical analysis firm, and author of the bestselling book The Revenge of Geography. Reprinted with permission.

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