'When the World Seemed New': George H.W. Bush & the Art of 'Quiet Diplomacy'

Nov 7, 2017

Today is the first Tuesday in November, which is typically the fall election day in this country. A year ago, Donald Trump was elected president, and a year from today, people will go to the polls in Wisconsin to vote in the gubernatorial, Congressional, Senate, and state legislative races.

Twenty-nine years ago today, the Reagan era started to reach its end as George H.W. Bush was elected president. The four years Bush was in office were, themselves, the end of an era. It was in that eventful term that the Cold War essentially came to its conclusion with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Credit Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Presidential scholar and founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Texas, Jeffrey Engel examines the end of the Cold War through the lens of the Bush White House in a new book called, When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War.

Engel notes that the dominos of international events the Bush administration experienced in a single term was quite remarkable.

"George H.W. Bush's four years in office presented as complex and as numerous and as difficult of periods of challenges on the international stage as arguably faced by any president in American history over the course of the entire administration," he says.

According to Engel, only Franklin D. Roosevelt (who served three times as long as Bush) could rival in such presidential decisions and experiences on the international scale.

When the World Seemed New addresses two key events in the Bush administration: the fall of the Berlin wall and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. For both of these events - one a momentous victory for democracy and the other a severe blow - President Bush exemplified restraint and balance.

Bush understood China's democratic movement as a "natural progression from China's engagement with the world," and saw the uprising as a validation of the growth of democracy in China, Engel explains. When given the option to cut off ties with China or leave the door open, Bush kept China engaged in the Democratic international system for the long term.

Engel says it was this restraint that often saw him referred to as a "wimp" on the campaign trail, but he argues that his quiet and respectful demeanor benefited many Americans. "Most other times he was perfectly willing - not happy - but willing to accept political barbs and consequences for what he believed was the necessity of quiet diplomacy."

The art of quiet diplomacy is in stark contrast with today's politics, he says. While George H.W. Bush was an experienced, quiet, and confident president, Engel says President Trump is none of those things. "We can really see that in the way that (Trump) is conducting his China diplomacy, but also his diplomacy in East Asia more broadly which is done largely by tweet and by bluster."

"Most other times (George H.W. Bush) was perfectly willing - not happy - but willing to accept political barbs and consequences for what he believed was the necessity of quiet diplomacy."

He adds that Bush recognized the power and effect of not just his word, but the mistaken word. In order to prevent any unwanted stories in the media or attention directed at his office, Engel says Bush kept criticisms in a private diary so that his focus was on the issues, not the stories.

"This was a very conservative man in the sense that he was a traditional business person, he was a traditional Republican - frankly of a kind that doesn't exist anymore. He believed in free trade, international trade, internationalism, a strong civil rights regime as far as the federal government is concerned, (and) he believed frankly in immigration."

He adds, "I like to say that George H.W. Bush, and to a large extent Ronald Reagan too, essentially would have no place in today's Republican party because they're just simply way too centralist for today's discussions."

Throughout the process of researching this period of the Bush administration, Engel recognizes how Bush and other leaders "worked very hard to keep calm and to keep others calm." Through new access to formerly classified documents from the Bush Presidential Library, he discovered just how dangerous and unstable a majority of the situations in the Cold War were.

"It really drove home to me the idea that when we have an international crisis, honestly as we are seeing today in many parts of the world, that the more a President can decrease tensions as a general proposition, the safer we all are. Because in a time of heightened tensions, frankly even the people who think they’re in charge don’t really really have a lot of control."