President George H. W. Bush belongs to history now. Since I am a professor of history, I got a jolt when I opened my mailbox yesterday—the real-world, analog one—to find a heavy envelope from the Bush Presidential Library, stuffed with paper notices about documents I’d gotten released from his archive. These notices are hardly new to me, as I have been declassifying presidential files for over a decade. But it was with a new mixture of sadness and responsibility that I started reading the latest releases: the era of Bush the elder is now past, and when an era ends, it is incumbent upon my profession to discern its leading lessons.

One of those lessons concerns the importance of level-headed leadership and the value of U.S. allies, specifically those across the Atlantic. At no time was this more apparent than at the end of the Cold War, following the sudden opening of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. As Bush explained in A World Transformed, his joint memoir with former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, the fall of the Wall came to represent, more than anything else, the momentous shifts that marked his presidency. There was no shortage of such dramatic episodes, even though Bush served only one term: the massacre in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. But for Bush, the events in Berlin stood out as the iconic and symbolic point of no return in the profound changes that were under way.

Even those who question Bush's larger strategic choices have to admire his professionalism.

How did Bush handle the end of the Cold War? Even those who question his larger strategic choices—and I am one of them, having criticized in these pages the manner in which he oversaw NATO’s expansion to eastern Germany in 1990—have to admire his professionalism. Tempers stayed cool in the face of turmoil. Internal disagreements over how to deal with Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, remained internal. Public statements were consistently on message, emphasizing that a new world order was emerging (even as Bush’s policy emphasized continuity, perpetuating many Cold War institutions).

Above all, key allies heard early and often directly from Bush about any major upcoming move. The documents that I have gotten declassified include stacks upon stacks of these conversations, on the phone and in person. They represent the many hours of precious presidential time spent seeking the advice and wisdom of fellow leaders in Europe: statecraft as it should be done.

Matching Bush’s concern for allied consultation was an intuitive sense that public exultation over Moscow’s failures would be inappropriate and counterproductive. As Bush frequently remarked in post-presidency interviews, he felt that the worst step he could have taken in November 1989 would have been to go to Berlin for the diplomatic equivalent of a triumphant dance on the Wall. To do so, Bush argued, would have been like sticking his finger in Gorbachev’s eye.

Critics faulted Bush for this restraint, but he was right to avoid friction when he had much left to negotiate with Gorbachev. Even though the Warsaw Pact was crumbling, the Soviet leader still had two strong cards to play. Moscow had unassailable legal rights over divided Germany, emanating from Germany’s unconditional surrender in 1945 to four occupiers—the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Moscow also had nearly 400,000 troops on German soil. To capitalize on the fall of the Wall and unify Germany, Bush would have to convince Gorbachev to give up both his territorial claim and his military presence. Embarrassing the Soviet leader would have been of no service whatsoever in that goal.

Bush’s moderation in public did not mean that he backed off in private. In a series of meetings, ranging from the presidential summits in Malta and Washington to the “two plus four” sessions between the two Germanies and the four occupying powers, Bush and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker outmaneuvered the Soviet leader at every critical juncture.

Working in regular consultation with the West German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who became more of an Oval Office regular than even some senior U.S. policymakers, Bush convinced Gorbachev not only to restore sovereignty to Germany and to withdraw his troops but also, critically, to let the unified state become part of NATO. The final two plus four agreement contained language allowing NATO to become active east of the former 1989 dividing line, with some restrictions. Bush and his team persuaded Moscow to sign this accord, thus opening an important door to the alliance’s future. Soon NATO would be expanding even farther beyond that line, into former Warsaw Pact and Soviet territory.

Bush showed restraint in public; in private, he outmaneuvered Gorbachev at every critical juncture.

Of course, success in politics is rarely complete. I often quote a maxim that Baker wrote about his time as a diplomat: “Almost every achievement contains within its success the seeds of a future problem.” Bush’s accomplishments proved to be no exception to Baker’s rule. My fellow historian Arne Westad has written that, from today’s vantage point, it is “clear that the West should have dealt with post-Cold War Russia better than it did.” In light of later developments, Westad has argued, it would have been “in the interest of the West, and especially the Europeans, to begin integrating the country into European security and trade arrangements as soon as possible after 1991.” But when Gorbachev asked Baker if Moscow could join NATO or a new pan-European security organization, the secretary of state immediately ruled it out as “only a dream.”

Whether you agree with Bush’s strategic goals or not, there is no doubt about his success in accomplishing them. The foundation of that success was a willingness to work closely, and respectfully, with European partners throughout the process. His presidency showed just how much Washington could achieve together with its strongest allies.

The contrast with today’s leadership is too obvious and painful to be worth mentioning at any length. The fact that European strategists are now seriously debating concepts such as strategic autonomy from the United States, or how to deal with Washington as an adversary, speaks for itself. As we mourn the passing of a president, there is much else to be sad about besides. We can only hope that the strong transatlantic partnership established after 1945 does not soon belong to history, too.

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  • MARY ELISE SAROTTE is the Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis Distinguished Professor of Historical Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS and the author of The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall.
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