The passing of the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, marks the end of an era that saw the bipolar superpower international system morph into a multipolar world of one superpower and several great powers.

There is no doubt that this sea change in international relations resulted in the most significant power shift that has taken place over the last 70 years. The decisive role that the US played in the first few years of the post-Cold War world through a foreign policy of selective engagement and multilateral cooperation, through such fora as the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, set the course for a more dynamic international community of states. 

The direct contribution that President Bush made during this historic moment in contemporary international relations is the hallmark of his legacy. Throughout his very long and distinguished career, George H.W. Bush demonstrated his lifelong commitment to international relations in numerous prestigious appointments including as American envoy to China, ambassador to the United Nations, director of the CIA, vice-president to president Ronald Reagan for eight years, and finally as president between 1988 and 1992.

It was during his four years in the White House that president Bush applied his lifelong international and diplomatic experience to navigate through the turbulent and uncertain moment that the end of the Cold War glacier unleashed.

The seismic paradigm shift that resulted from the implosion of the Soviet Union brought to an end the superpower patron-client system that had dominated international relations for most of the post-World War II era and ushered in a unipolar moment where the US was in a superior strategic position.

The Cold War ended peacefully in a manner that no one predicted, unlike so many other historic episodes of bloodshed through the ages

President Bush and his team of confidants including Secretary of State James Baker, National Security Adviser Brent Scrowcraft, chief of staff John Sununu, Secretary of Defence, Dick Cheney, and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Colin Powell, among others, acted in a decisive manner to mitigate the multitude of security challenges that the post-Cold War era provided.

The strategy sought to take advantage of the leadership position that the US had inherited but at the same time sought to include other international actors such as the EU in the decision-making process to manage the new landscape of strategic relations.

The pivotal moment of president Bush’s career came when he met his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, in Malta in December 1989, a decision that forever ties Bush’s legacy to Malta’s foreign policy strategic objective of championing diplomacy.

Together Bush and Gorbachev buried their Cold War rivalry and mapped out a future relationship that not only avoided an escalation of tensions at such a critical historic juncture but also contributed to establishing the parameters of cooperation that has guided international relations during the past three decades.

This achievement is a truly historic one when one appreciates the fact that the Cold War ended peacefully in a manner that no one predicted, unlike so many other historic episodes of bloodshed through the ages.  

During his tenure in the White House, president Bush influenced patterns of relations globally in a distinct manner including in the Horn of Africa with the emergence of the failed state of Somalia, across Europe with the reunification of Germany, in the Balkans with the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia and in the Middle East through the UN’s authorised ‘War in the Gulf’ to liberate Kuwait after the invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  

His strategic doctrine of a New World Order seemed inaccurate at the time with such a messy, chaotic and disorderly regional reality that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War.

But the benefit of hindsight reveals that president Bush is to be credited for navigating a course in international relations that both safeguarded America’s interests and championed international norms and principles simultaneously.

This will be president Bush’s lasting legacy for generations to come. 

Stephen Calleya is an international relations scholar.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece


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