On Friday, former President George Herbert Walker Bush passed away at the age of 94, and historians, journalists and the public have begun trying to construct the legacy the 41st president left behind. Despite only being commander in chief for four years, Bush’s legacy is arguably most influential in the realm of international relations. In his career, Bush fought in World War II, served as ambassador to the United Nations, chief of the U.S. Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, vice president, and finally as president of the United States.
Read more: George H.W. Bush: The Man In The Middle
In one lifetime, Bush witnessed firsthand the transformation of the United States from an isolationist mid-level world power to the, arguably, most powerful nation on the planet. When he took office in 1989, his experience in foreign relations surpassed that of any other incoming president. As a career Cold Warrior, Bush was firm in his fear of Soviet communism, and as CIA director would oversee several insidious efforts to subvert democracy throughout Latin America. Battle-hardened as a soldier during World War II and witness to the political fallout of the Vietnam War, he looked toward diplomacy as a preferred and more politically expedient way of steering the United States through the tension of the Cold War and the uncertainty of the fall of the Soviet Union.
“Bush’s foreign policy was prudent,” Charlie Sennott, WGBH News analyst and CEO of the GroundTruth Project, said. “He was steady, he operated by a set of rules that really kept the world order going, he held fast on to them, he believed in them.”
In his presidency, the two moments that would come to define the man years after he left office were his handling of the 1990 Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the run-up to the war, Bush was praised for securing approval for an invasion of Kuwait from the United Nations and for creating a coalition of allies from every corner of the globe to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Later, he would be criticized for choosing not to push into Iraq and topple the Iraqi dictatorship altogether, but Sennott said to do so would have been against Bush’s appreciation for international rules and order.
“He believed that when he said ‘This aggression will not stand’ he was within the UN Charter, Article 7, to tell Iraq it needs to get out of Kuwait, and it had the full force of Article 7,” Sennott said. “He believed in that order to have gone further would have gone past the UN Mandate and would have not been within that order.”
After Kuwait, the American public showed an overwhelming confidence in Bush as a war time leader, and the following year he would impress the nation once more in his role as a diplomat. After half a century of subtle global warfare, the Soviet Union was faced with a struggling economy and revolutions from formerly socialist states within the Warsaw Pact. Faced with a crisis, the Soviet Union began to crumble internally, and due to a lack of intelligence-gathering capabilities, the United States was completely unaware of what was going on. In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and against the advice of hardliners in his party and cabinet, Bush met with former Secretary General of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta, where Gorbachev impressed on Bush his desire for reforms within the Soviet Union. While no formal agreements came out of the summit, the meeting marked a change of tone in the previously heated rhetoric of the Cold War.
“The way he negotiated the end of the Cold War, the way he fought alongside President Reagan to be tough on the Soviet Union, then to be conciliatory with Gorbachev [all made him] really the perfect president to execute the end of the Cold War and the transition to a new relationship,” Sennott said.
Like all leaders, Bush’s death has left many scrambling to make sense of his time in office. His supporters, like former President Obama, have praised him for a calm foreign policy and signing the Immigration Act of 1990, which allowed more than 600,000 people to legally immigrate to the United States. Others contend his elevation of racist political operative Lee Atwater and escalation of the War on Drugs have left indelible stains on the Republican Party and the United States. Sennott acknowledged that both sides of the coin are true, but even given this, said policies and politics aside, Bush was a “gentleman.”