When the World Seemed New
George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War
Jeffrey A. Engel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2017, 608 pages
Book Review published on: July 13, 2018
We hear from government officials, academics, and pundits that the current international security environment is the most complex one they can recollect. Rife with threats and challenges posed by revisionist powers, states with malign intent, and nonstate actors, this situation seems unprecedented in its demand for strategic vision at the highest levels of government. If only there was an example of how a president navigated through such uncharted waters to guide our leaders. Happily, we now have an account that fits this bill, Jeffrey Engel’s When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War. Faced with a tectonic shift in the international order as the Cold War entered its denouement, Engel argues that President George H. W. Bush developed a plan for the peaceful management of this complex process of change and successfully executed it. He was the consummate strategist.
As Engel explains, Bush was well qualified to assume the presidential mantle, having assembled an enviable resume: a congressman, the first U.S. representative to the Peoples Republic of China, the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, the CIA director, and the vice president. Notwithstanding this pedigree, Bush faced challenges that influenced his approach to presidential leadership. He had to find his way out from the shadow of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. He also was dogged by the “wimp factor” and an aversion to “the vision thing.” As a result, he practiced “Hippocratic diplomacy” designed to do no harm and, in Engel’s account, successfully led his country and their allies through a potentially perilous transitional period.
Engel is highly qualified to tackle this topic as the author or editor of ten books on the American presidency and foreign policy as well as the founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Sothern Methodist University. He looks to U.S. history for the book’s title, taken from Thomas Paine, who wrote in 1776, “We have it our power to begin the world over again.” He places his narrative and argument within the context of rich descriptions of a cast of characters in the United States and abroad (e.g. James Baker, Dick Cheney, Brent Scowcroft, Eduard Shevardnadze, Mikhail Gorbachev) and accounts of the overall historical context that includes the massacre in Tiananmen Square, cataclysmic changes in the USSR and Eastern Europe, the invasion of Panama, Desert Storm, and the reunification of Germany. Engel especially highlights Bush’s emphasis on personal relationships, such as with China’s Deng Xiaoping, a possible weakness that created blind spots for Bush.
At the end of the day, Bush saw a continuity of historical development since World War II that progressed with the spread of liberal democracy throughout the world. He took a cautious approach initially, conducting a series of time-consuming strategic reviews for which he was roundly criticized, and then seized the moment to complete the job. While acting within this broader historical context, Bush was criticized for a lack of original ideas as his approach was just a continuation of ideas about American values and the need for American leadership to “shepherd” the world toward a better place. Rather than a criticism, though, Engel sees this characterization of Bush as not only accurate but also complimentary.
Bush faced “complete collapse of the enemy and existential threat that had defined American foreign policy, indeed American society, his entire life. Faced with uncertainty, and unsure of the best response, he paused, considered, and learned.” On Christmas Day of 1991, as the USSR came to an end, he told the American people, “We cannot retreat into isolation. We will only succeed in this interconnected world by continuing to lead.” Thanks to Engel’s well-researched and well-written book, we can appreciate the wisdom of this advice, which resonates very much today.
Book Review written by: Mark Wilcox, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas