Center Spotlight | Lessons from Bush 41

As a result of a massive 10-year declassification project at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, Jeffrey A. Engel wrote his new book, “When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War.” The Tower Center sat down with Engel, our Senior Fellow and Director of the SMU Center for Presidential History, to discuss his latest project.

Tell us how this book project came about.

Oh my goodness. That is a good story actually. So, my first tenure track job was at the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M, which of course is where the Bush Presidential Library is located. My department chair walked into my office and said “You know there’s a diary over at the library they just released. You might find it interesting.”  It was George Bush’s diary from when he was de facto U.S. ambassador to China in the early 1970s, and it was fascinating. He was much more interesting as a person who was thinking hard about the nature of the international system than I had anticipated, to be honest, and he also seemed like a fun guy. This led first and foremost to publication of the diary, which the president and I did together, and then subsequently and more importantly, it led to a deep interest in the end of the Cold War, which of course produced this book.

What did you find most interesting while researching this book?

The most fascinating part for me is that we think back on the Cold War in many ways as inevitable. We think that the capitalists will win, but also, that it was a period of joy and happiness and excitement. The truth is I think that we’re actually, as a globe, remarkably lucky to have survived. It is extremely rare in history for a great power to collapse without an ensuing great power war. It’s just the nature of the international system going all the way back to Athens and Sparta.

That didn’t happen at the end of the Cold War, and I contend that it didn’t just not happen, it was actually the active result of prudent and thoughtful and quiet diplomacy on the part of all the great powers, but in particular on the part of President Bush.

Professor Jeffrey A. Engel teaches class outside of Dallas Hall.

What insights are you hoping this book will offer in terms of the U.S.’ position in the current global sphere?

I did not anticipate Donald Trump when I began working on this book. I think even Trump supporters would concede that he is inexperienced on the international stage. He’s prone to shoot from the hip, rhetorically, and hopefully not otherwise.

“When the World Seemed New” is a book about a man who was as experienced as any president in the 20th century. He was particularly experienced internationally. He was calm and confident, and it’s that calm that was really the key to his success. So ultimately this is a book that tells us that what we want in the middle of a crisis is not a leader who is going to escalate the crisis, but a leader who’s going to deal with it quietly.

What could the United States’ current administration learn from your book and from watching Bush?

One of the things that’s really important about that is, and we know this from the declassification project, that throughout his administration, Bush was constantly criticized for not doing enough. Whether it be at Tiananmen Square, whether it be at the fall of the Berlin wall, or whether it be with the coup in the Soviet Union in 1991. At each point he was criticized for being too quiet, too cautious, too calm, not doing enough. We now know two things that are really important.

The first is that throughout that period in each of those crises he was actually working incredibly hard behind the scenes on the phone, with letters, with cables, trying to maintain international calm and international order at the highest possible level. That calming effect was really critical to keep things from going south.

The second thing that we know is that he was really aware that he was suffering in the polls, and he just didn’t give a damn. He said: “You know, saving the world is more important than my poll numbers.” And that is also something which I think the president of the United States today should consider.

Before President Trump took office, some people argued that the U.S. and Russia were entering a new Cold War. How do you think we got to this point?

That’s actually a big aspect of the book. There are two key reasons that Vladimir Putin and other Russian nationalists are upset with the West. The first is they felt they didn’t get enough aid after the end of Cold War and that therefore Russia went through a period of economic upheaval, which was terrible. And the second is that Gorbachev believed he had a promise that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would not expand (and then it did). So, if you want to understand why the Russians are upset today, you really have to go back to this cold war zone.

However, I don’t think we’re necessarily in a new Cold War because I don’t think Russia is that intimidating. But they are increasingly an annoyance.

What would you consider to be George H.W. Bush’s biggest accomplishments?

The first is keeping us all alive. I really can’t stress that enough; how incredibly rare it is historically for that type of event to happen (the collapse of the Soviet Union), without a war, and this is the first time we had to deal with this kind of problem with nuclear weapons in the mix. Bush can really be considered the father of modern Germany and therefore the father of modern Europe, and consequently in many ways, the father of the modern international system. Because without his leadership there is no conceivable way that Germany would have gotten unified as quickly as it did and as peacefully as it did. And within NATO, which is really crucial. So if you like the Germans on your side, you have George H.W. Bush to thank.

“When the World Seemed New” is available for advanced purchase here and will be widely released Nov. 7.