The Foreign Policy Genius of George H. W. Bush

How He Changed the Policy Process Forever

President George H.W. Bush meets with his military advisors at the Pentagon to duscuss the Gulf crisis August 15, 1990. Gary Cameron / REUTERS

George H. W. Bush entered the presidency better prepared to lead the United States’ relations with the world than any U.S. president before or since. Like Richard Nixon, Bush had served in Congress and as vice president for two full terms. But he had also been the United States’ envoy to China and director of the Central Intelligence Agency. 

That experience allowed him to reimagine the way the U.S. government created and implemented its foreign policy. Together with his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, Bush fashioned a national security process that maximized internal cooperation and avoided the kind of conflict among senior officials that had tarnished the Nixon, Carter, and Reagan administrations.

That process has stood the test of time. Every president after Bush has embraced the formal process that Bush set out in a memorandum on his first day in office, and every national security adviser has explicitly sought to model his or her tenure on Scowcroft’s example. None, however, has lived up to the brilliance of Bush and Scowcroft.


Bush’s long service in government meant that when he was elected president, he knew a lot about the world and, crucially, how important it was to appoint the right people to deal with it. He knew he wanted James Baker, his close friend and political partner in Texas, in a senior role. Baker had brought order to the Reagan White House and, as Treasury secretary, defused a major crisis in trade policy. The day after the 1988 election, Bush named Baker as his secretary of state.

He knew he didn’t want Donald Rumsfeld, President Gerald Ford’s brilliant but irascible defense secretary, who had fought with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and would later help get Bush’s son George into deep trouble by mismanaging the Iraq war. Bush avoided appointing Rumsfeld to anything.

Above all, Bush wanted team players who would respect one another and work together to manage a fast-changing world. He knew that

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