The recent death of George H.W. Bush has rekindled nostalgia for a president with style, decorum and political experience. Yet the senior statesman's leadership has been missed for the last decade.
Bush - America’s 41st president and the successor to Ronald Reagan - took office in January 1989. In his inaugural address, he proclaimed America would become a kinder, gentler nation. He concluded what Reagan started in the 1980s, securing a peaceful victory in the battle of economic systems and ideologies called the Cold War. Without his support between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the NATO summit in December, Germany might not have been unified and Europe's development would have taken a completely different direction.
Rather than taking credit for a monumental victory, he retained his composure and showed a humility that too many leaders lack these days. No, he didn’t intend to go to Berlin and dance on the wall, he told an interviewer. But unlike UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterrand, who feared a united Germany would threaten the stability of Europe, he followed the events in and around Berlin with joyful interest.
In a period of unprecedented change and a shifting world order, Bush was a visionary. He collaborated and sought equality with states beyond the Western alliance, on the basis of trust and regulatory principles. His New World Order speech in 1990 transformed America’s foreign policy. At the helm of the world’s only remaining superpower, his vision was grounded in internationalism rather than unilaterally spreading democracy.
Bush carefully wielded America’s influence and power. Rather than charging headlong into the Gulf War in 1991, he prudently organised a broad international coalition and recruited multiple allies to combat the aggression of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. His greatest legacy was "showing the world how to preserve peace by creating coalitions and keeping them together”, wrote his wife Barbara in her memoir.
However, Bush’s heroics abroad contributed to his downfall at home. A lacklustre economy and a charismatic politician named Bill Clinton got the better of him in the next presidential election, restricting his efforts to reshape the world to a single four-year term. America swung back to unilateralism under Clinton, and the strategy reached its apogee under George W. Bush with the ‘War on Terror’ and the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s. Still, both presidents recognised the importance of American leadership on the world stage.
Once Barack Obama took office, America’s role began to shift. Obama’s promise of ‘change’ transformed the nation’s foreign policy, as he sought to ‘lead from behind’ and let other nations charge in. Similarly, Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ mentality has alienated allies around the globe, and America will no longer take the lead in fighting climate change, protecting human rights and addressing other key issues on his watch.
While speculative, it’s hard to imagine Bush senior would have drawn a ‘red line’ in Syria around the use of chemical weapons then dither when it was crossed, as Obama did. He would hardly question the value of NATO or insult foreign counterparts as Trump has. If Bush were in office now, his preference for realpolitik over ideology and deep political nous would serve him well in navigating disputes with Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and others.
No president is perfect, but Bush demonstrated a rare combination of strength and restraint. His clear vision of America’s global leadership, understanding of the value of diplomatic relations, and willingness to show force when required have been missing from Washington for some time now.