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In Defense of Non-Visionaries

OXFORD – Many of the recent tributes for Margaret Thatcher following her death celebrated her as a “transformational” leader who brought about great changes. There were frequent references to her equally transformational American counterpart, Ronald Reagan. But a more interesting comparison is with her other presidential contemporary, George H. W. Bush.

Though often dismissed as a mere “transactional” manager, Bush had one of the best foreign-policy records of the past half-century. His administration managed the end of the Cold War, the dismantlement of the Soviet Union, and the unification of Germany within NATO – all without violence. At the same time, he led a broad United Nations-backed coalition that repelled Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Kuwait. Had he dropped any of the balls he was juggling, today’s world would be much worse.

Although he presided over a major global transformation, Bush, by his own account, did not have transformational objectives. On the unification of Germany, he resisted the advice of Thatcher and others, apparently out of a sense of fairness and responsiveness to his friend, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. In October 1989, Bush responded to a call from Kohl by publicly stating that he did not “share the concern that some European countries have about a reunified Germany.”

At the same time, he was careful to let Kohl and others take the lead. When the Berlin Wall was opened a month later, partly owing to an East German mistake, Bush was criticized for his low-key response. But Bush had made a deliberate choice not to humiliate the Soviets or gloat: “I won’t beat on my chest and dance on the wall,” was his response – a model of emotional intelligence in a leader. Such self-restraint helped to set the stage for the successful Malta Summit with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev a month later. The Cold War ended quietly, and the dismantlement of the Soviet empire followed.