The Presidency of George H. W. Bush

Former President George Bush passed away last week at the ripe old age of 94. In retrospect, his presidency marked one of the great turning points in world history. He was the last president to have served in World War II, and was in fact the last president to be born before the end of WWII. Over the course of his term the Soviet Union would collapse and the Berlin Wall would fall, allowing the reunification of Germany. The threat of universal nuclear annihilation, which seemed real and imminent even as late as the mid-1980s, would quickly disappear and be replaced by a new optimism about mankind’s future.

I was merely a child at the time, and little understood the momentous changes that were happening in the world. It is hard to believe that nearly thirty years have passed since President Bush’s inauguration. I went back and watched some of his famous speeches in order to refresh my memory and see that era with new eyes. If you have twenty minutes to spare, go ahead and watch his inaugural address from 1989:

Doesn’t President Bush sound a lot like Mr. Rogers here? I don’t mean that in a demeaning way. Bush had a certain gravitas about him that later presidents lack, as if he was obviously noble born, yet still friendly and unassuming. Many people during this time seemed to feel that humanity had crossed a threshold and was preparing to live happily ever after. Francis Fukuyama was writing about the End of History, how mankind had created the most stable forms of government and society and would evolve no further. After the tension of the Cold War, the horror of Vietnam, and the tumult of the Civil Rights era, it was time for everyone to settle down and be nice, and start building the 21st century utopia we all dreamed about.

Unfortunately, the 1990s proved to be an aberration in American history, rather than the start of a utopia. For a brief moment in time, the United States stood alone on top of the world stage. The Soviet Union had collapsed and left Russia in disarray, Japan was entering a recession, and China was still years away from being a major world power. The United States ruled supreme, both economically and militarily. Wars were no longer existential fights like WWII, or quagmires like Vietnam. Grenada, Nicaragua, and Somalia were simply police actions. The Gulf War was a resounding success that demonstrated American invincibility. President Bush was in a position to determine the direction of not only the United States but the entire world for the next century. The choices he made then still echo today.

President Bush himself recognized that he was at a turning point in history. In several speeches throughout his presidency, Bush spoke of a “new world order” that was emerging from the ashes of the old. On the eve of Operation Desert Storm, President Bush spoke to a joint session of Congress:

“We have in this past year made great progress in ending the long era of conflict and cold war. We have before us the opportunity to forge for ourselves and for future generations a new world order–a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations. When we are successful–and we will be–we have a real chance at this new world order, an order in which a credible United Nations can use its peacekeeping role to fulfill the promise and vision of the U.N.’s founders…”

I tend to give President Bush the benefit of the doubt here. As we saw in his first inaugural address, he was optimistic about the goodness of mankind, almost to the point of naivete. Today, however, we have the benefit of hindsight. After nearly two decades of Islamic terrorism reshaping society, the loss of manufacturing jobs due to NAFTA and the growing global economy, and the lack of purpose felt by an entire generation, it seems easy to say that he made the wrong choices. In the late 2010s, the failures of globalism are apparent and are contributing to the rising tide of nationalism in countries all across the world. However, from the vantage point of January 1991, globalism seemed to be an unmitigated good: free trade, spreading prosperity, no more tyranny. So it was that President Bush set America on course for globalism, believing that utopia was just around the corner.

In a sense, then, President George Bush was America’s first globalist president. Those who followed – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama – can conceivably be called globalists as well. By that I mean that they saw their allegiance and mission as something higher than previous American leaders, who were only concerned about what was best for America alone. President Clinton signed NAFTA, which sought to erase North American borders with regard to trade. Like Bush, Clinton joined the United States to a coalition of nations to punish a tyrant for invading his neighbor. The younger President Bush began open-ended wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were less about the defense of the United States than they were about exporting democracy to the people of the Middle East. President Obama, raised by a Muslim stepfather in Indonesia, saw himself as a global citizen whose role as leader was to apologize for America’s past sins and to pull the United States back from its position of supremacy in the world. Obama trumpeted “soft power” and “leading from behind” yet still built the same coalitions as his predecessors in order to invade foreign countries and depose their tyrannical rulers.

The reaction of establishment politicians and journalists to the election of self-proclaimed nationalist Donald Trump in 2016 shows how far we have come from the end of the Cold War. Pundits and politicians have reacted to slogans such as “America First” and “Make America Great Again” with abject horror, as if they are relics of a past age of barbarism. The idea of putting your country first, ahead of global concerns, is considered absurd in elite circles. In marking the centennial of the end of World War I, French President Emmanuel Macron denounced nationalism, saying:

“By putting our own interests first, with no regard for others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds dearest, and the thing that keeps it alive: its moral values.”

Yet it is striking how quickly this change in conventional wisdom has occurred. If you watch President Trump’s inaugural address from 2017 and compare it to President Clinton’s first inaugural from 1993, you’ll find them very similar. Rather than being a radical extremist, President Trump is instead simply a moderate from thirty years ago. The “New World Order” of George Bush has become so normal to us that we forget how new it really is.

The presidency of George H. W. Bush lasted only four years, but those four years set the course of the nation as it entered a new era. In that brief interlude between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans believed they had reached the plateau of history, and would indeed live happily ever after. This naivete left our nation unprepared for the turmoil that is growing ever more chaotic as we move deeper into the 21st century. It might have been a beautiful dream, but the idea of a global utopia was always doomed to fail. History never ends, but keeps repeating over and over again.

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