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George Herbert Walker Bush and the Soviet Disintegration

When the East-West rivalry dissolved with the USSR’s demise, the international environment birthed a still-unfolding global re-alignment with the rise of China, the resurgence of Russia, and the surfacing of medium- weight powers like India, Brazil, Iran, Japan, Indonesia, and Turkey. America’s unipolar moment immediately after the USSR’s fragmentation proved transient, although Washington remains an indispensable capital for international affairs and dominant military power. After four decades of nearly immobilized global politics between the two super blocs, the sudden breakdown nearly overwhelmed the newly installed George Herbert Walker Bush administration.

President Bush saw himself as distinctly different from his predecessor Ronald Reagan. In his inaugural address on January 20, 1989, George Bush held that America’s purpose “is to make kinder the face of the Nation and gentler the face of the world.” Critics, some from his own political party, interpreted the phrase as conveying timidity about his government’s policies at home and abroad. He never completely shook his detractors’ characterization that he was to the manor born and therefore too genteel to secure exclusive American interests. Two years later, after the Persian Gulf War, Bush spoke about a “new world order” linked to the United Nations (UN), which “is poised to fulfil the historic vision of its founders” embracing “freedom and respect for human rights.”11 These statements and other similar declarations gave rise to view that America’s 41st president favored the UN agenda over that of the United States. To hard-liners, he was bent on soft-headed internationalism out of step with America’s realist foreign interests.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Bush, in fact, was steelier than his disparagers acknowledged. He was prudent and cautious but not timid. After all, he had been a decorated World War II hero as a naval aviator who flew 58 combat missions. He was the lone survivor when his three-man plane was shot down in the Philippine Sea. At the war’s conclusion, Bush attended Yale and then entered the world of business and politics. This latter profession he picked up from his father, who had been a US Senator from Connecticut. Like presidents before and after him, Bush strove to enlist the UN or other international organizations, such as the Organization of the Americas, in pursuit of US objectives. When resorting to military force, Bush (as other White House occupants) desired the political cover afforded by the UN Security Council’s blessing. His tenure coincided with dominant US military power and diplomatic influence.

So, his detractors expected near-instantaneous reactions to any perceived threats or impediments to US priorities. When Bush permitted five Iraqi oil tankers to sail to Yemen and gave the Soviets three days to persuade Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait, the British prime minister took him to task. When informed by the president, Margaret Thatcher quot- ably replied: “Well, all right, George, but this is no time to go wobbly.”12

President Bush, in fact, did not “go wobbly,” although his hawkish critics widely circulated the Thatcher quote.

When George Bush settled into the White House in January 1989, he came to the presidency after eight years as Ronald Reagan’s vice president. That tour of duty stood him in good stead for his own residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Having also served as a Texas Congressmen, US envoy to China, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), he had seasoned credentials in international affairs. He had met with scores of world leaders prior to taking the reins as America’s commander- in-chief. This familiarity with world politics bred a cautious but firm approach in America’s 41st president. His knowledge and confidence in US power were soon tested as the United States entered a hyperactive period overseas. America’s international engagement crested during the Bush presidency and then waned in his successor’s term. Bush’s overseas endeavors built on and resulted from the active international course of his predecessor.

President Ronald Reagan confronted and tested the Soviet Union by backing, equipping, and training anti-communist guerrillas in Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua in what became known as the Reagan Doctrine.13 He also stressed the USSR with a massive arms buildup and a sketchy missile defense system. Already taxed by a failing military intervention into Afghanistan and a collapsing state-managed economy, Soviet Russia was fearful of further exertions. Reagan’s forward policies contributed to the Soviets’s debilitating woes. As Reagan prepared to depart for retirement in California, his personal friend and close ally Margaret Thatcher stated what was becoming obvious to all: “We are no longer in the Cold War now.”14 But the breakup of the sprawling Soviet Empire took place during the Bush presidency.

As the USSR visibly faltered under Mikhail Gorbachev, the White House scrambled to fashion a policy to take advantage of its foe’s spiraling misfortune. Kremlin watchers struggled to comprehend the unfolding developments inside their beleaguered adversary. Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985, in part, to reform the stagnant Soviet economy. The former agricultural economist implemented glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) policies to breathe new life into the decaying economic and political apparatus. He also looked to the West for financial bailouts. In demographic terms, the Soviet Union also showed its systemic dysfunction with “very high rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, and crime.”15 Life expectancy, infant mortality, and governmental corruption reflected a society in disarray. Instead of resuscitating the dying Soviet system, Gorbachev jolted the sclerotic mechanism to its overdue death. Bankruptcy, political breakdown, and malaise became the new face of the USSR, dashing all the early Bolshevik promises of a worker’s paradise.

Gorbachev’s decentralizing moves loosened Moscow’s controlling grip on the country’s 15 Soviet Republics. The Russians held the top Communist Party positions in my republics despite their minority status among non-Russian populations. These resistive ethnic nationalities yearned for their freedom from Russian rule. Outside the USSR, the so- called Captive Nations of Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries asserted their sovereignty from the Kremlin’s rule. Protests and turmoil broke out across many of the Soviet imperial holdings.

Among the Moscow’s satellites, Poland led the growing resistance against the imposition of the Soviet-backed communist regime after World War II. In the early 1980s, the Polish workers’ movement, Solidarity, protested for not only higher wages but also independence from party control. Solidarity, in addition, called for a free press, release of political dissidents, and a greater role for the Roman Catholic Church, which criticized the ruling party’s crackdown. Moscow tentatively pushed back. But unlike its heavy-handed military suppressions in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), Red Square did not dispatch tanks and troops to crush the protestors. The significance of Poland’s opposition and the Soviet’s indecisiveness must not be lost on a historical observer. One chronicler of the Soviet Union’s rise and fall wrote: “in the imperial collapse, the Polish turning point would be only marginally less import than the foredoomed invasion of Afghanistan.”16 The political ferment pushed the Polish communist regime to concede partially free elections in June 1989. Of the 100 open seats, Solidarity captured all but one and then formed a coalition government. This independent leadership constituted the first democratic rule in Eastern Europe since the Iron Curtain descended.

The Polish bid for freedom pulled the proverbial finger from the dike. Neighboring countries under Soviet thrall soon followed suit. Hungary’s break for freedom was of particular significance on two fronts. First, like Poland, it held elections in which the non-communist movements vanquished the regime’s reinvented Socialist Party, thereby forming a representative government. Second, and equally consequential, the Hungarians broke open the Iron Curtain separating the communist nations from the democracies to the West. They took down the barbed-wire fence along their border with Austria, flinging open a route for thousands of fleeing East Europeans to seek freedom. Next, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and the three Baltic states swept their communist rulers from power almost without bloodshed. Only in Romania did Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu cling tenaciously to power, ordering the Securitate (secret police) to fire on protestors in the streets. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, the Securitate, however, switched sides sealing the fate of their former masters. The Ceausescus were put up against a wall and shot to death by anti-regime opponents in December 1989. Thereafter, Romania joined the expanding democratic ranks.

Washington scrambled to keep up with the political tumult. After a brief hesitation, the Bush White House grasped that Moscow was geopolitically adrift without the ability or willingness to restore the old order. No Red Army soldiers marched from the barracks to clampdown on protests. American policy boiled down standing by and allowing change to proceed. Not for the first time in history, the best policy centered on steadying a wobbly foreign leader. The United States had two broad goals to gain from a weakened Gorbachev. It sought nuclear arms accords to lower the number of warheads aimed at the American homeland. And it wanted to sustain the freeing of Soviet satellites from Communist thrall- dom. George Bush and his closest aides reasoned that both objectives could best be obtained from Gorbachev. So, the Americans worried about the general secretary’s political survival. Should he be replaced by either a military or party hard-liner, then America’s priorities might be in jeopardy.

Nuclear weapons cast a dark shadow over American-Soviet relations since the early Cold War. These fearsome bombs could annihilate both powers, while destroying half the planet though the atomic blast or nuclear winter of smoke and soot blocking out sunlight. Both powers amassed huge armories of nuclear warheads that could be delivered against adversaries’ cities by bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Sensing an opportunity with a withering Soviet Union, the Bush White House resurfaced the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) talks, which the Reagan administration had proposed to Moscow. The abundance of weaponry and high financial costs of servicing nuclear arms made both superpowers amenable to reductions.

Two years of talks led to the signing of START I, a treaty that slashed about half of each side’s nuclear weapons to some 6000—still many more than needed to destroy the planet. The agreement also cut back the number of delivery systems to 1600 each, whether they were long- range bombers, submarine-launched ballistic missiles or ground-based ICBMs. President Bush traveled to Moscow for the signing in July 1991. Years later, Moscow and Washington ratified the agreement, which rendered the world slightly safer from atomic annihilation. Secretary of State James A. Baker pressed ahead by persuading the newly independent successor states from the fragmenting USSR—Belarus, Kazakhstan, and the Ukraine—to sign onto the Lisbon Protocol in 1992. By agreeing to the protocol’s terms, the former Soviet republics abandoned their nuclear arsenals which they obtained from Moscow.

The internationally activist government sitting in Washington followed up the START I signing with more arms-control accords. It embraced the senatorial initiative known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which advanced in bipartisan fashion by US Senators Sam Nunn (Democrat, Georgia) and Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana). The program received funding from the US Department of Defense in order to dismantle Soviet nuclear and chemical arms, lest these deadly instruments fall into rogue or terrorist hands.17 Prior to leaving office after losing his reelection bid in November 1992, George Bush entered into the START II treaty, which shaved activated nuclear arms by more—3000 Russian warheads and 3500 American ones. The US Senate ratified the treaty four years afterward, and the Russian Duma took another four to do the same.

Engagement with the Gorbachev government was not confined to an arms-control treaty. The Bush foreign policy team swung into action to secure a range of American interests. Weeks after the Berlin Wall crumbled in November 1989, US and Soviet officials sat down to discuss the dramatic, unfolding events in Eastern Europe as the Kremlin’s satellites strove to break from its tyranny. The face-to-face talks took place off the island of Malta on board American and Russian naval craft. Consciously selected to be reminiscent of the famous World War II shipboard meeting between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland in 1941, the Mediterranean negotiations produced no stirring Atlantic Charter, which proclaimed the goals for the war against fascism. But they were historic nonetheless.

The Soviet-American rendezvous afforded the opportunity for the leaders to develop a personal bond. More concretely, President Bush put incentives on the table for his Soviet counterpart. He offered inducements to the economically strapped Moscow, including financial credits, most favored trade status, and promises to work for Russia to obtain observer status to the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade, which would lead to more international commerce. Gorbachev happily accepted these benefits as they would bolster his perestroika reforms of the Soviet’s centrally controlled economy. In reciprocation, the Soviet chief declared his intentions to halt supplying arms to the El Salvadoran rebels and to refrain from meddling in Nicaragua’s free elections. The Central American country’s polling unexpectedly posted a win for Violeta Chamorro, the non-revolutionary candidate, over the Marxist-influenced Sandinista incumbent Daniel Ortega. The White House interpreted the outcome as a victory. It secured peace in Nicaragua and then in the rest of Central America.

Not insignificantly, the vital question of German reunification evaded the Americans at the shipboard talks in Maltese waters. The East-West German divide lay at the heart of Cold War in Europe. For Washington, reuniting the split country rose to be the sine qua non-factor in making the Continent “whole and free” as President Bush phrased his goal. The Soviet position reflected the sober remembrance of two German invasions accompanied by immense destruction and loss of life during the first half of the twentieth century. Merely contemplating a strong, reunited Germany astride the Continent caused deep unease within the Kremlin and even the chanceries in London and Paris. France, for instance, recalled three German historic cross-border invasions deep into French lands within a 70-year period. And Britain suffered huge losses in blood and treasure during both twentieth-century conflicts, leading to its imperial decline. The Bush White House had its work cut out for it in convincing all parties to bury history.

American objectives were strategically clear but diplomatically problematic. The United States desired the Red Army out of Europe and the three Baltic nations, the East and West German states reunited, and the reunified Germany a member of NATO. While US statesmen eventually attained these lofty goals, they faced a strenuously uphill effort which seemed unattainable from the start. They concentrated on effectuating their objectives while soft-peddling calls for democratic and market reforms in the tottering Soviet Union. In fact, keeping Gorbachev in power served US interests more than liberalizing its old foe’s economy or political system. In some respects, Gorbachev nearly became a quasi-ally of the Bush government. Elements within the floundering Soviet structure regarded Gorbachev as a traitor. Military officers staged coup against him in August 1991, months before the USSR dissolved. Held by his captors for days, the General Secretary reemerged physically unscathed but politically neutralized for his final months in office.

Moscow had deep reservations about a powerful, prosperous, and reconsolidated Germany within NATO, the West’s premiere anti-Soviet alliance since 1949. Events, however, conspired to leave Moscow behind in the rapidly unfolding developments in Central Europe. The Germans themselves waited for neither time nor tide. The Federal German Republic, led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, offered funds to sustain its smaller, bankrupt cousins in the East. There, the GDR felt the pressure of its own citizens for a brighter future with the Western state. For their part, communist functionaries dragged their feet, fearing a loss of political power in a new reality.

By early 1990, the political tide rose against the status quo. Beyond Germany’s borders, its neighbors leapt ahead in casting off the Red Army- buttressed regimes in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. The GDR stood at a standstill, however. The East Germans stopped paying their taxes. Many citizens no long worked. They flocked to urban squares where they protested for elections and reunification with West Germany. In Berlin, the communist party reluctantly moved up elections to March to satisfy popular demand for a change in regime. The electoral results stunned the party, which believed that 40 years of communism would predispose the voters to its brand of socialism. The former Communist Party received just 16 percent of the ballots, whereas Chancellor Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union’s Alliance won 48 percent. The Social Democratic Party took 22 percent, and smaller parties got the balance. The fact that the two top vote getters were offshoots of West German political movements was not lost on any observer.

The results rattled not only Moscow but also European capitals. Paris and London drew the conclusion that it was futile to resist the inevitable prospect of one German nation. The Soviet Union, nevertheless, dug in its heels against a reunified German powerhouse in Mitteleuropa. After the German elections and the Bonn government’s initiatives for economic and monetary union with East Germany, the Kremlin saw unification as inescapable. Moscow shifted to a fallback strategy of opposing a reconstituted Germany within NATO. At first, Moscow wanted Germany also in its Warsaw Pact of Soviet-controlled East European states and the USSR. This diversion evaporated when the Warsaw Pact went to pieces as the communist regimes fell apart in Poland, Hungary, and the Czechoslovakia. Next, the Kremlin flirted with notion of German neutrality from NATO. It looked with fear and loathing on German membership in the Western alliance, as simply an advancement of NATO toward the Russian border.

American officials beat back the Soviet feelers on a non-aligned Germany. They argued that an unaligned Germany could swing back and forth between East and West. It might also attract smaller states in Central Europe to its orbit, contributing to factionalism and instability on the Continent, especially if it adopted an anti-Moscow orientation. Washington, furthermore, argued that it was better for Soviet interests to have an economically ascendant Germany anchored within a democratic and peaceful NATO. As for American interest, German participation strengthened NATO, allowing for future US troop reductions in Europe. The US arguments were also intended to assuage apprehensions in Britain and France. None of its partners were eager for an American military withdrawal from Europe. The British, French, and Germans worried about a re-ascendant Russia, once it cast off its communist economic straitjacket. Even Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in his memoir that he favored the retention of US military forces in Europe as a stabilizing element and a defense against a German resurgence of militarism.18 Jumping ahead, the resolution of the German question did, indeed, open the way for the United States to drawdown substantial numbers of troops over the years from its 300,000 peak at the end of the Cold War. By 2016, American forces had shrunk to about 30,000 troops, with only two US Army combat brigades in place.

In the final analysis, Gorbachev could not block German reconciliation and its NATO membership. America twisted his arm, and the Federal Republic of Germany offered desperately needed funds to the Soviet leader. Gorbachev let it be known to Secretary of State Baker that Moscow required some $20 billion in money and credits. The Soviet economy was bankrupt. Moscow wanted a bailout for debt repayments, consumer goods for its restive population, and industrial conversion from military output to civil products. The Bush administration provided modest aid, believing that most of the financial assistance would just “go down the rat hole” in the Soviet-managed economy.19 The Helmut Kohl government reasoned that any money, if even misspent by the Russians, constituted an investment in attaining West German goals of reunifying with East Germany and ridding that state of the Red Army’s occupation. Thus, Chancellor Kohl extended DM 12 billion and a further DM 3 billion in interest-free credits (approximately $7 billion and $1.7 billion, respectively).20

As for the United States, it redoubled its campaign for one, reunited Germany and for its membership within the Atlantic alliance. Washington took up a negotiating format dubbed “Two Plus Four,” in which the “two” Germanys would meet with the “four” World War II victorious powers—the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union to deliberate on combing the Germanic halves. Four months later, the negotiating parties signed the Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany in September 1990. The signing in a Moscow hotel, not in one of the Kremlin’s chandeliered rooms, took place without the high drama and orchestrated state pageantry of major treaty signings. Make no mistake: the treaty marked a singular American achievement, whose terms and strictures remain in force today.

Often referred to as the “two-plus-four” treaty, the agreement’s articles set forth specific stipulations. Among the weighty provisions, it specified that East and West Germany constituted the new united Germany with the borders of the two pre-existing states. The treaty permitted the reunited country to join any alliances of its choosing, meaning NATO participation. The newly created state renounced any preparations “for aggressive war,” and the manufacture or possession of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The united Germany pledged adherence to the terms of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation on Nuclear Weapons. The new sovereignty also committed itself to a Bundeswehr of no more than 350,000 troops. The Bundeswehr forces were permitted to move into the former Eastern zone but without nuclear arms. Moscow also agreed to withdraw the Red Army forces from this zone by 1995 but did so two years earlier. Lastly, the treaty dissolved the Four Power framework that presided over a vanquished Germany since 1945.

Before assessing the legacy of the Bush government, a short account of the dismal fate of its Soviet partner must be briefly drawn. By the time Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1985, the USSR’s decrepitude was in its terminal stage. Perhaps, had he mimicked Deng Xiaoping’s model of freeing the economy in China during the late 1970s while holding tight the CPSU’s political power, then Russia’s fate might have been different. But Gorbachev’s pronouncements and reforms let loose mighty centrifugal forces that tore at the republic-structured political entity that spanned eleven (now nine) times zones and encompassed an array of ethnic groups. Moscow’s plight was widely recognized before Ronald Reagan left the presidency in early 1989. As George Bush settled into the White House, the political crosscurrents assailing Gorbachev’s hold on power accelerated. He lost the backing of the military and the KGB secret police which looked with dismay at his retreats. They interpreted as muddled thinking his reluctance to clamp down on East European dissent the way his Kremlin predecessors had in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Gorbachev worsened his standing and the cohesiveness of the dissolving USSR by endorsing the misnamed Union Treaty, which devolved Moscow’s political and economic power to the constituent republics that made up the Soviet Union. The treaty soon cleared the way the USSR’s breakup when republics asserted their sovereignty from the Kremlin. By August 1991, the hard-liners were fed up when they learned that Gorbachev intended to sign the Union Treaty with Kazakhstan. Elements of military leadership and KGB staged a coup, whereby they sequestered Gorbachev, who had been vacationing at his dacha in the Crimea. Almost in opera buffa-style, the ring leaders hurriedly released their charge when flummoxed by their own soldiers’ refusal to fire on anti-coup protestors in Moscow and other cities. The coup flopped but not its consequences.

Although Gorbachev soon returned to power, his days were numbered as chief of the unraveling Soviet enterprise. A raft of republics declared their independence from the failing USSR. Foremost among them was the Russian Republic, the largest of the sub-states. Led by Boris Yeltsin, chairman of the Supreme Soviet in the Russian Republic, this polity became the Russian Federation. Yeltsin’s star rose and Gorbachev’s crashed. With the USSR’s breakup, the Secretary General had no political platform. In fact, Gorbachev was left standing on a deck that had no ship beneath it. The Soviet Union dissolved and sank with just scattered debris left floating on the surface.

The Bush administration simply shifted horses from Gorbachev to Yeltsin, who stood as the best guarantor of the arms-control agreements and the German reunification treaty. The latter two-state settlements came off as low-profile denouement when compared to the toppling Berlin Wall drama. Yet, the two-plus-four accord diplomatically bound and codified the inter-state relationships of post-Cold War Europe. It stacked up as a far-reaching achievement, transforming Europe and America’s relations with that continent and post-Soviet Russia. It capped the economic and political growth of what evolved into the EU during the 1990s from the far looser framework of the European Community. Securing the EU’s ascent, the United States midwifed a prosperous bloc of democratic nations that, in effect, constituted another geopolitical pole in the multipolar world that followed the Soviet Union’s vanishing.

President Bush and Secretary of State Baker strong-armed their reluctant, worried, and resistant counterparts to accept the American agenda. Behind the scenes, they drove a unilateral bargain that ruffled allied feathers. The White House firmly held that only a reunited Germany in NATO and a total Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe would guarantee peace on the war-wracked Continent. They dragged along the French, British, and Russians. On occasion, George Bush ignored London and Paris because US policy was “too important ... to review with allies in the usual way.”21 High-handed and cavalier, the Bush administration propelled the negotiations that led to a reunited Europe and saner nuclear arms levels with Moscow. This achievement endures to this day, even if it is underlauded by contemporary commentators. It stands in stark contrast to so many American train wrecks in the years afterward.

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