Modern history


The End of the Cold War

A new world is within our reach.


ON NOVEMBER 8, 1988, REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE GEORGE BUSH EASILY defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis in a presidential race in which foreign policy had not been a major issue. The Democrats retained their hold on the Senate, 55-45, and increased their margin in the House, to 262-173, continuing the pattern of Republican presidents and a Democratic Congress.

Bush was pledged to continue the policies of the man he had served under for eight years. That meant a commitment to the Contras, to SDI, to a strong NATO, to a peace process in the Middle East, to liberalization in South Africa but without imposing further sanctions, to trade adjustments with Japan, to improved relations with China, and to a continuation of détente with the Soviets, among other things. The incoming administration—with James Baker 3d, Reagan’s former chief of staff and secretary of the treasury, replacing George Shultz as secretary of state—indicated there would be no sudden shifts in policy. Prudence would be the guiding principle.

It was Bush’s fate to take office in what proved to be the most momentous year in world history since 1945. So sweeping were the changes around the globe in 1989 that it seemed appropriate for the momentous transformations to occur in the year of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. There was much that was remarkable about 1989, including unprecedented, unpredictable, and unimaginable events in China, in Eastern Europe, in the Soviet Union, in South Africa, and in Central America. But what was perhaps most remarkable was that, except in Central America, the United States played almost no role in the worldwide revolution.

The United States at the beginning of the last decade of the twentieth century—the century Henry Luce had proclaimed would be “the American Century”—was the most powerful military nation in the world, capable of destroying the planet. The country had the largest gross national product of any nation. Yet it was almost irrelevant to the events taking place in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Forty years earlier, Dean Acheson had observed that the United States was the locomotive at the head of mankind and the rest of the world the caboose. In 1989 the American president was a bystander, observing as the train sped down the tracks toward who knew what destination.

The absence of an American response to the world revolution of 1989 was in part a consequence of self-imposed limitations placed by President Bush, but in many ways he had no real choice. He was the leader of the leading debtor nation; one of the heritages he received from Reagan was the simple fact that there was no money in the bank. He could not offer help to emerging democracies desperate for the kind of aid the United States had extended after World War II in the Marshall Plan because the U.S. treasury was empty. Nor was there much prospect of generating capital to replenish it, because another legacy from Reagan was a pledge from the Republican party to never raise taxes under any circumstances. “Read my lips,” Bush had said during the campaign: “No new taxes.” This in a country in which the tax rates were the lowest of all industrial countries.


On January 20, 1989, in his inaugural address as the forty-first president, Bush had little to say about, foreign policy, except that he intended to take strong measures to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. With regard to the Soviet Union, he indicated that he would be reassessing relations.

That same month, eighty-seven-year-old Emperor Hirohito died. In his first foreign trip as president, Bush went to Tokyo for the funeral. While there, he conferred with Japanese leaders. Bush urged them to open their market to American-made goods, to allow American farm products to come into Japan duty free, and to stop subsidizing Japanese goods sold in America. These were themes that had dominated American-Japanese talks for more than a decade; as usual, Bush got some promises and no action.

From Tokyo, Bush went to the Asian mainland. In Seoul, he promised that “there [were] no plans to reduce United States forces in South Korea.” In Beijing, where he spent two days, he conferred with Chinese leaders on increasing trade and said that the upcoming Chinese-Soviet summit, the first in thirty years, would not be “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” As a former ambassador to China, Bush had good relations with the Chinese leaders and high hopes of creating a warmer, closer relationship. American Congressmen, however, were making progress difficult because of their criticisms of Chinese policy.

There was much to criticize. The Chinese had imposed martial law in Tibet (where they had seized control in 1959) in response to rioting by Tibetans demanding independence. The U.S. Senate passed a resolution denouncing the imposition of martial law; the Chinese responded by objecting to the resolution as a “gross interference” in China’s domestic affairs. The Chinese also objected to Congressional critics who were making an issue of Chinese policies with regard to family planning and the Chinese record on human rights.

All this was but a prelude to the events of the spring of 1989. In April, students began staging mass demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to demand more freedom, an open government, an end to the privileges enjoyed by the elite, and democracy. The government issued a ban on public demonstrations; the students defied it and began to boycott classes, Police moved in on Tiananmen Square, but instead of breaking up the demonstrations, the number of protesters increased, to 200,000 and more. On May 15, Gorbachev arrived for the summit meeting with Deng Xiaoping. In Tiananmen Square, intellectuals, workers, and bureaucrats joined the students, some of whom were engaging in hunger strikes. The number of demonstrators swelled to over one million. Innumerable posters praised Gorbachev and his reforms. The Soviet leader called the student uprising part of a “painful but healthy” process leading Communist countries to greater democracy.

That was not a direction in which Deng Xiaoping and his cohorts wanted to go. It was embarrassing to their regime to have so many of their people praising a foreign leader; it was dangerous to them to have such broadly based demonstrations demanding democracy; it was humiliating to have the massive protests witnessed by the entire world, as television cameras from the United States, Europe, and Japan were in Beijing to cover the summit. The government responded to the challenge by imposing martial law on May 19 and banning live Western TV coverage. The following day, in open defiance of martial law, crowds of about one million demonstrators blocked troops and tanks attempting to take control of Tiananmen. The scene was reminiscent of Hungarian students defying Red Army tanks in 1956, only on a much larger scale.

On June 2, Deng made his decision. The following day, the unarmed protestors were shot and killed as troops and tanks moved into Tiananmen Square to break up the protests. Submachine guns mowed down students by the hundreds, perhaps by the thousands. We cannot know the full toll, as the government immediately began a massive cover-up, blaming the demonstrators for the bloodshed, praising the army for upholding law and order, and arresting and executing student leaders.

These shocking events horrified the entire world. Free world and Communist leaders alike condemned Deng and his government. Bush stated that he “deplore[d] the decision to use force against Chinese citizens who were making a peaceful statement in favor of democracy.” On June 5, he suspended military sales to China and three days later said that the United States and China could not reestablish normal relations until China’s leaders “recognize the validity of the prodemocracy movement.” On June 20, the White House announced the suspension of high-level exchanges between U.S. officials and the Chinese government.

But within weeks, Bush secretly sent his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, to China to confer with the government. When this was discovered some months later, there were howls of outrage from many Democrats and some Republicans, both at the lies from the administration and the fact of resumed relations with a criminal regime. Bush nevertheless continued to defuse the tension between the two governments as he pursued a course designed to mollify the Chinese. When Congress passed a bill designed to protect Chinese students in the United States—students who were at risk because they had supported the demonstrations and who were clearly going to be punished by the government when they were forced to return to China—Bush vetoed it. In December, Bush waived a congressional ban on loans for companies doing business in China, and he agreed to allow the export of satellites to China. When China lifted martial law in Beijing at the beginning of 1990, most observers regarded it as a cosmetic device at best, but Vice President Danforth Quayle said it showed the “dividends” of Bush’s policy of accommodation, while Bush called it “a very sound step.” It was his policy to maintain relations with the Chinese government, no matter how it used that power.


That was his policy toward China. Toward another Communist government closer to home, he was not so accommodating. In Nicaragua, he continued the Reagan policy of unremitting hostility. Despite the peace plan that had been accepted by Ortega and other Central American leaders, which called for disbanding the Contras as a precondition to elections promised by the Sandinistas, Bush continued to supply the Contras and helped to keep them intact as a constant threat to the government of Nicaragua, He also maintained the economic embargo, which was having a dreadful effect on the Nicaraguan economy, where inflation was about the worst in the world, production was at disastrously low levels, and the economy in shambles. Ortega was forced to put into place a new austerity plan that called for a 44 percent reduction in the budget and the layoff of 35,000 government employees.

Such measures badly hurt Ortega’s popularity, even as he moved toward reconciliation with his internal foes and attempted to improve relations with the United States. In March 1989, the government announced the pardon of 1,800 former members of the Nicaraguan National Guard, in accord with the peace plan. The Bush administration response was to reaffirm American commitment to the Contras. Although all Central American presidents (except for Jose Azcona Hoyo of Honduras) had called for the immediate disarming of the Contras and their removal from Honduras, the United States announced that it was continuing “humanitarian aid” and requested that the Contras be allowed to remain in their Honduran base camps for another year. In August 1989, Ortega suspended the military draft until the conclusion of elections. He also signed an agreement with the internal opposition that asked the Contras to disband and set February 25, 1990, as election day. Still Bush supported the Contras in Honduras. Vice President Quayle, speaking in Honduras, predicted that the promised elections would be a “sham.”

In November, Ortega called off the nineteen-month-long cease-fire with the Contras because of Contra attacks in Nicaraguan villages. He offered to drop the demand that the Contras disband in Honduras if the Contra forces in Nicaragua would return to their bases in that country. Two months later, a Contra force ambushed and killed two nuns. Nevertheless, Ortega went ahead with the election. Despite the economic disaster that had befallen his country in the decade he had held power, he was confident of victory. He believed the people would blame the American economic blockade, not the Sandinistas, for their plight. Former president Jimmy Carter led a team of international observers to certify the fairness of the election, which was called the most closely watched in history.

The result was a stunning surprise. Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, leader of the opposition coalition, won easily. Almost as surprising, at least to the Bush administration officials who had been predicting that Ortega would never give up power, was Ortega’s immediate statement to respect the result and his declaration of a cease-fire. Four years earlier Ortega’s deputy foreign minister, Alexjandro Bendana, had told American reporters that the Sandinistas believed in democracy and would certainly abide by the results of a free and fair election, even if they lost. No one had believed him. But he had spoken the truth. The transfer of power from Ortega to Chamorro was an inspiring moment. It is a rare event when power changes hands peacefully in Latin America; it is a unique event when a revolutionary Marxist government abides by the rules, allows a free election, and hands over power as a result of an election called and conducted by that government.

The Bush administration had been expecting the worst. The American contribution to these unanticipated developments had been to keep the Contras supplied in Honduras, which had almost wrecked the peace process and endangered the elections. The damage that the American embargo did to the Nicaraguan economy helped make Ortega vulnerable to the voters; American financial contributions to the opposition coalition may have helped Chamorro; in general, however, it must be said that the American role was sterile if not negative, and that the credit for the triumph of democracy in Nicaragua goes to President Arias of Costa Rica, his fellow Central American presidents, but most of all to Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas.

In another Central American republic, Panama, elections were held on May 7, 1989. Unlike Nicaragua, international observers, led by former president Carter, denounced the election process; Carter said that the Noriega government was “taking the election by fraud.” General Noriega defied world public opinion; he seized the tally sheets and proclaimed his candidate the victor. On May 9, Bush charged that the election was marred by “massive irregularities” and urged the people of Panama to overthrow Noriega. But on September 1, Francisco Rodriguez was sworn in as president of Panama; the State Department called him “Noriega’s latest puppet president.”

Bush was not ready to deal with Rodriguez. The traditional American response to dictators in Latin America has been to organize a coup to overthrow them; the Bush administration did so in Panama in October, when it urged officers in the Panamian Defense Force (PDF) to overthrow Noriega. They tried, but the coup was put down by troops loyal to Noriega; the dictator then ordered the immediate execution of the officers involved. Bush came in for severe criticism, first for encouraging the coup, then for failing to support it.

On December 15, 1989, the National Assembly of Panama named Noriega head of state, and he declared that “a state of war” existed with the United States. This gave Bush a heaven-sent opportunity, which he seized four days later when he sent a division-sized force of army and marine troops to invade Panama. He called it Operation Just Cause. After some days of confusion, in which 24 U.S. and 139 PDF troops were killed, along with some fairly heavy civilian casualties and widespread looting in Panama City, the Americans managed to capture the fugitive Noriega, who had found his last refuge in the Vatican mission. They had already installed as president Guillermo Endara, who had been the apparent winner of the May elections.

Reactions were predictable. Noriega, who was taken to Miami as a prisoner of war and held in a civilian jail, awaiting trial on his indictment for drug dealing, charged Yankee imperialism. So did Bush’s domestic political opponents and critics. Liberals who in the past had decried the use of the CIA for coup and assassination plots now asked why Bush had to use so much force to remove one man. Latin American leaders made pro forma complaints about the unilateral action. Soviet spokesmen wondered why it was that the United States assumed the right to dictate to the government of Panama and use its armed forces in that country, even as it denounced the Kremlin for using force in dealing with nations on its borders, such as Afghanistan.

Western European commentators found it ironic that the United States was practicing old-fashioned “Big Stick” diplomacy in its backyard at the moment when the Soviets were showing remarkable restraint during the unraveling of Communist regimes in the traditional Soviet sphere in Eastern Europe. American conservatives, meanwhile, praised the president for his bold and daring action. The American people generally gave Bush enthusiastic support: his approval rating went up to an astonishing 80 percent.

In January 1990, Bush announced a program to provide $1 billion in economic aid to Panama. In March, he asked for additional money to send aid to the Chamorro government in Nicaragua. He was already providing funds to the governments of Colombia to fight drug lords and to El Salvador (where President Alfredo Cristiani admitted in January 1990 that “elements of the armed forces” had massacred six Jesuit priests and two civilians in the previous November) to fight left-wing rebels. From 1985 on, the United States had provided economic aid to Honduras in exchange for Honduran support of the Contras. Taken together, these relatively tiny Central American countries were getting more American economic aid than all the countries of Europe.


Most American foreign aid was going to one small and one large Middle Eastern nation: Israel and Egypt, respectively. This was the consequence of a Democratic, not Republican, policy initiative. When Jimmy Carter persuaded Begin and Sadat to sign the Camp David Accords in 1979, bringing peace between Egypt and Israel, he had promised billions of dollars in ongoing aid to the two countries. Reagan and Bush continued the policy. Ten years later, when the total American foreign aid program, economic, and military, was a little less than $16 billion, more than one-third was going to Israel and Egypt (almost $6 billion). About $4 billion of that aid was in the form of military equipment, evenly split.

Israel and Egypt were willing to take American money, but not American advice. In February 1989, in its annual report on human rights around the world, the State Department charged that there had been “a substantial increase in human rights violations” by the Israelis in the occupied territories. American policy, as proclaimed by Secretary of State Shultz and his successor, James Baker, was to promote local elections in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem and to encourage the Israelis to talk directly to PLO leaders, but the Israelis consistently and even insultingly refused. When the Americans complained about Israel putting Russian Jews into permanent settlements in the occupied territories, the Israelis simply ignored the complaints.

The inability of the Bush administration to force Israel to negotiate with the PLO and to seek accommodation with its Arab neighbors must be seen in context: none of Bush’s predecessors had been any more successful. The Middle East remained an armed camp, with most of the arms supplied by the United States. In the spring of 1990 there was little basis for any hope or optimism about the end of the bloodshed there any time soon, especially as the Intifada, the uprising of the Arab teenage (and younger) boys on the West Bank and in Gaza continued.

The Middle East thus stood in sharp contrast to South Africa, where for the first time in decades there was hope for a genuine peace and real progress toward democracy. On February 2, 1990, yielding to the economic pressure of sanctions and the moral pressure of world public opinion, President F. W. de Klerk lifted a thirty-year ban on the ANC. Nine days later, in a dramatic event witnessed on television by millions of people around the world, ANC leader Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, after twenty-seven years in captivity. Apartheid had not come to an end, and South Africa was still far from one-man, one-vote; nevertheless those of goodwill everywhere could but cry tears of joy at this development, with its promise of a brighter future.

Even more joyful and startling events were taking place in Central and Eastern Europe, the area in which the Cold War had begun and where it finally came to an end. They were linked to developments in the Soviet Union; they were unanticipated because they were unpredictable; they brought about momentous change.

What caused the demise of Communism in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Hungary? In part, it was the culmination of four decades of patient containment by the NATO alliance and especially the NATO leader, the United States. In part, it was the burden of the arms race, which was bankrupting the Soviet Union to the point that the Kremlin could no longer afford to maintain its grip on the satellites. In part, it was the people of Eastern Europe themselves and their refusal to ever abandon their hopes for freedom. Mostly it was the objective fact that Communism is a rotten system. The people who lived under it hated it. Marx and Lenin had predicted that their system would produce a new socialist man, but it was precisely the young, who have lived all their lives under Communism, who hated it the most.

Still, a desire to be free is not enough, not when the government holds the guns—as the Chinese students had discovered in Tiananmen Square on June 3. Opportunity must be matched with desire. Gorbachev provided the opportunity. So the lion’s share of the credit must go to Gorbachev, who understood that he could not realize a revolution of glasnost and perestroika at home if he did not allow Eastern Europe to go its own way.

The process began in January 1989, when Gorbachev reduced the Soviet military budget by 14 percent while cutting spending on weapons by 20 percent. He also announced the withdrawal of 200,000 troops from Asia. The Estonian legislature, meanwhile, voted to give Estonian preference over Russian as the official language of the small republic. While relatively insignificant by themselves, these actions pointed to a future that would be much different from the previous seventy years of Soviet rule.

On February 14, 1989, the last Soviet soldiers withdrew from Afghanistan. That same month, dissident playwright Vaclav Havel was convicted of inciting a riot in Prague and sentenced to nine months in jail. In April, the Polish government signed an agreement with the Solidarity labor union, making the union legal and setting open elections for June. Gorbachev called for more arms reductions in Europe; the U.S. secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, said that the United States would not begin to negotiate at any time in the near future and said Gorbachev’s call was a “dangerous trap.”

In May the Hungarian government, for some time the most liberal in the Warsaw Pact, dismantled the 150-mile-long barbed-wire fence along the Austrian border. The “Iron Curtain,” erected in 1946, was finally coming down. The most immediate consequence was the flight of hundreds, then thousands, of East Germans to Hungary, where they crossed over to Austria and then into West Germany. A mass exodus was under way, the likes of which the world had never seen. In the Soviet Union, meanwhile, ethnic unrest led to riots in virtually all the republics, accompanied by demands for more freedom from Moscow.

That same month, speaking in West Germany, President Bush called for an end to the political division of Europe and the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Gorbachev, who for some time had been speaking of Europe as “our common home,” took up the challenge. Speaking in Bonn while on a four-day visit to West Germany, he said that the Wall “can disappear when those conditions that created it fall away.” Meanwhile Solidarity candidates won a decisive victory over the Communists in elections for the Polish Parliament. General Wojciech Jaruzelski remained president, but a Solidarity leader became prime minister, while Lech Walesa, the hero of the Solidarity movement of 1980-81 a that had unleashed it all, stood hopefully in the wings.

While visiting France in June, Gorbachev told reporters that the political future of Poland and Hungary was “their affair.” Those two words effectively put an end to the Brezhnev Doctrine and all but invited the other East European nations to take their affairs into their own hands. It was a development of sufficient significance to justify Bush’s remark that “a new world is within our reach.”

It came with breathtaking suddenness. All summer thousands of young East Germans fled their country as if the black death had struck. In August, Solidarity took over the government of Poland, giving postwar Poland its first ever non-Communist government. When it asked for economic aid from the United States, Bush responded that the $119 million already promised was sufficient. One week earlier he had pledged $8 billion for drug control.

Despite American passivity, the pace of change of Eastern Europe speeded up. In October, demonstrations in Prague, Budapest, Leipzig, and East Berlin swelled to immense size, with half a million and more Czechs, Hungarians, and East Germans taking over the streets and chanting “We are the people.” In the Soviet Union, the Baltic republics demanded independence, while ethnic and economic unrest threatened to dismember the Soviet empire. Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze told the Supreme Soviet that the Red Army invasion of Afghanistan was a violation of Soviet and international law, and he confessed that the radar complex in Siberia was “an open violation” of the ABM treaty with the United States. Demonstrators outside KGB headquarters in Moscow demanded democratic changes.

Soviet confessions of wrongdoing and demonstrations in Moscow—these were events no one ever expected to see in the twentieth century. But even greater changes were at hand. November 1989 brought more shifts in the basic structure of the world system than had been seen since the summer of 1945. In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel came out of prison on his way to becoming president, as the Communist party gave up its monopoly of power after a week of massive demonstrations. The Warsaw Pact nations, including the Soviet Union, issued a statement condemning the Soviet-led 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia as “illegal” and promised not to interfere again in each other’s affairs. That was the official end to the Brezhnev Doctrine.

On November 9, the most astonishing, least expected, and most welcome event of all took place. The East German government, completely unable to stem the tide of the flight of its people, announced that “it is now possible for all citizens to leave this country through East German crossing points.” Within hours of the announcement, tens of thousands of East Germans had overrun the Berlin Wall.

It was one of the most remarkable days of the twentieth century. For twenty-eight years, the Wall had been the symbol of the Cold War. Suddenly it was gone. The unthinkable had become reality.

At the beginning of 1989, the Communists had been in complete—and seemingly permanent—control of Eastern Europe. At the end of the year, they were gone. Democratic coalitions, promising free elections in the immediate future, had taken power in East Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, and even Bucharest (where the Rumanian tyrant Nicolae Ceauşescu was overthrown on December 22, then executed on Christmas Day). As a result, the Warsaw Pact had been, in effect, dismantled. The Soviet Union had withdrawn inside its borders, which were themselves shrinking. The Cold War in Europe was over.

The United States had not played an active role in these events. The Bush administration stood on the sidelines. The CIA was not involved. No American guns were fired. But although the Americans and their European allies had “won”—or so at least American conservatives claimed—victory in 1989 was not at all like victory in 1945. American troops did not occupy the Soviet Union. The Soviet government, although weakened, confused, and groping toward an uncertain future, was still intact. The U.S.S.R. did show some of the signs of a defeated power—widespread unrest, severe economic dislocation, separatist movements of serious scope, general demoralization—but in other ways it did not. The Red Army, although retreating from Eastern Europe, remained the largest in the world. The strategic forces were still there—the navy, the missiles, the nuclear warheads—and the Soviets remained capable of destroying the world in a flash.

Nor was the United States the dominant world power it had been in 1945. President Bush’s response to the world revolution of 1989 and the end of the Cold War was passive or prudent, depending on the point of view. He managed to restrain whatever emotion he felt as the Berlin Wall came down. He and the Pentagon continued to call for very high levels of defense expenditure. He refused to consider bringing the troops home from their forward NATO positions. He gave Lech Walesa of Poland and President Havel of Czechoslovakia a warm welcome in Washington but very little money. He continued to send large sums to Israel and Egypt (where no changes were taking place) and to Central America, but only a pittance to Eastern Europe.

On a per capita basis, Israel was the top recipient of American aid by far, but close behind were El Salvador and Honduras. The United States in 1990 was sending $588 million in military aid to Pakistan to oppose a Red Army in Afghanistan that had left two years earlier. The fourth-largest recipient of American aid was Turkey; next came Greece. They made up NATO’s “southern flank,” and supposedly the aid was designed to counter a Soviet threat that seemed to have disappeared; actually the Greeks and Turks used the weapons to threaten each other. The allocation of American foreign aid illustrated the way in which domestic politics, not foreign policy realities, dictated the policy. In 1990, when Senate Republican leader Robert Dole proposed redirecting 5 percent of the aid that went to Israel and Egypt to Eastern Europe, the Israeli lobby mobilized 73 Senators to oppose the idea.

Bush’s critics wanted him to reverse his priorities, to stop funding an unwinnable drug war, an unreasonable Israel, and unimportant Central American republics, and to start funding the creation of a new, democratic Central and Eastern Europe. His supporters thought that his go slow, go steady, don’t make any mistakes in a hurry approach was appropriate to fast-changing, confusing events.

Bush, like Reagan, regarded Gorbachev not only as preferable to any alternative in sight, but as a positive statesman whose reforms were as welcome as they were necessary. Bush wanted Gorbachev to prosper. Secretary of State Baker put it well when he told the Foreign Policy Association that the United States wanted to see “perestroika succeed” because improvements in the U.S.S.R. would lead to “Soviet actions more advantageous to our interests.” In that spirit, Bush announced an “informal” summit, quickly called. It took place in Soviet and U.S. naval vessels off the coast of Malta in the Mediterranean on December 2-4, 1989. The tone of the meeting was positive. The two leaders agreed to attempt to conclude a treaty on strategic nuclear arsenals and a treaty on conventional arms limitations in 1990—both sets of negotiations had been going on for many years—and to try to integrate the Soviet Union into the world market economy.

Even as Bush talked arms limitations with Gorbachev, he pursued a hard line on defense. Two weeks after the Malta summit, he rejected the recommendation of Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and the Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC) to reduce round-the-clock airborne nuclear command surveillance. The SAC recommended the reduction because, it said, there was less risk of a surprise Soviet nuclear attack than had been the case since Khrushchev’s day.

The Bush defense budget for 1990, while it did not call for the big increases that had marked Reagan’s budgets, did not call for any significant reductions, either. The Pentagon’s insistence on holding the line on forces in being and pushing ahead with such new and terribly expensive weapons systems as the B-2 bomber was severely criticized by Congressmen from both parties. The politicians wanted a “peace dividend” to spend on their favorite projects—the American poor, the American environment, reducing the deficit, economic aid to the emerging democracies in Europe, or whatever—but they evidently were not going to get it from Bush. Even though the Warsaw Pact was, at best, a hollow shell of its former self, even though the Red Army was pulling back from Eastern Europe, even though no one could imagine a Soviet ground offensive into Western Europe, Bush insisted on maintaining a large American army in Germany.

East and West Germany, meanwhile, were moving rapidly toward unification. American General John Galvin, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, told a news conference that he no longer knew what line he was supposed to defend. Before 1990, it had clearly been the Elbe River, which divided the two Germanies, but now the river united Germany, leaving NATO in an advanced stage of confusion about its role. The prospect of one Germany, meanwhile, aroused deep concern in France, Poland, and, indeed, throughout the world. There was much discussion about whether the new Germany would be neutral or a part of NATO. The Soviets preferred a neutral Germany, but West German politicians said it would undoubtedly remain a member of NATO; Western European politicians, and some from America, said it was necessary to keep U.S. forces in Germany as a way of reassuring her neighbors that Germany would not repeat the history of the 1930s. Moreover, as in Japan, which also was no longer threatened by the Soviets, it was necessary to maintain the alliance so that Germany and Japan could not feel a need to acquire their own nuclear weapons.

Such talk assumed that NATO would still be a functioning military alliance in the twenty-first century—a somewhat doubtful proposition, if only because it was difficult to see who the enemy would be. Alliances, after all, have to be directed against someone, especially defensive ones. In the 1950s, NATO may have had a mission of “double containment”—i.e., containment of both the Soviets and the Germans. But by the 1990s it was difficult to see the point of an alliance that was directed against one of the allies, or at least designed to hold one of the allies in check to reassure the others. What seemed more likely was that the Germans would exercise their rights of self-determination and decide their own future, whatever the Americans or the other NATO nations wanted.

The ongoing discussions highlighted the basic change that had taken place in the world. For nearly forty-five years, the two superpowers had dominated international politics, alliances, and trade arrangements. But by 1990 the world was no longer bipolar, except in strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems. In economics, the three major parts of the world were forming regional economic blocs—superblocs. Western Europe was the clearest case of a group of sovereign nations moving deliberately to form a closer union, with the goal of a single European market in 1992.

The second superbloc was forming across the Pacific in East Asia. From Melbourne to Seoul, intraregional trade and investments were rapidly expanding. In virtually every country except the Philippines, there was rapid economic growth. The dynamo propelling East Asian economic integration was Japan, the instrument was the strong yen.

The third superbloc was forming in North America, around the United States and including Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean Basin. In 1988, the United States signed an important free-trade agreement with its neighbor to the north, creating a single integrated economic market. By 1990, one-third of all American investments abroad was in Canada. The United States was trading more with the province of Ontario than with Japan, while the Canadians had far more investment in America than did the Japanese. With free trade coming between the United States and Canada, the border had become—economically—meaningless.

By 1992, a free-trade agreement with Mexico and Canada was possible. As has been noted, insofar as the United States had a foreign aid program in the Bush years (outside of Israel and Egypt), it was directed toward Central America. The national mood was clearly to lessen the burdens of international leadership and to ask others to accept more responsibility for military security, foreign aid, and support for international organization. It was only a short step from that attitude to isolationism, 1930s style.

A chief characteristic of isolationism is not caring very much about what happens elsewhere. This is reflected in an unwillingness to spend on foreign affairs. Exactly that had happened in the United States. Although the national economy had doubled between 1960 and 1980, by 1980 the country was spending less in real terms on defense and foreign aid than in 1960. And while military expenditures had increased in the Reagan years, American outlays for other aspects of international affairs had declined, from $12.7 billion in 1981 to $10.5 billion in 1988. In the Bush years the outlays declined even further.

But if the U.S. was having financial problems that made it difficult for Bush to maintain the level of foreign aid of his predecessors, the Soviet Union was in a financial collapse that made it impossible for Gorbachev to maintain any level of assistance to his client states in the Third World. The competition between the superpowers to purchase the friendship of developing nations was over.

So too was the arms race between the superpowers. Gorbachev’s government was bankrupt while Bush was under relentless pressure to reduce the defense budget; with the Warsaw Pact gone and the Red Army in retreat, there was no reason to continue an American program of building newer, more expensive, and more destructive weapons; with Gorbachev looking to the U.S. for loans and grants, it made no sense for the Soviets to expand, or even to maintain, their threatening posture against Western Europe and the U.S. On June 1, 1990, the two leaders met at Camp David to sign arms control agreements. They pledged to reduce their reserves of long-range nuclear weapons by 30 percent and their chemical weapons stockpile by 80 percent. Within a year they had agreed to verification procedures that included on-site spot inspections at weapons sites. Existing nuclear warheads being destroyed instead of new ones being built, with on-site verification, meant that President Eisenhower’s hopes when he announced his Atoms for Peace and “Open Skies” proposals in the early 1950s had finally become reality.

This development vindicated four decades of American policy. In November, 1990, Bush announced, “The Cold War is over,” something Gorbachev had been saying for the past year. Credit for the victory went to all the Cold War presidents, who had maintained Truman’s containment policy with the expectation that sooner or later the Soviet Empire would collapse because of its own internal contradictions. The West, and especially the U.S., had shown remarkable patience and had practiced prudence in its statecraft to bring about the victory, which was much less expensive—despite the cost of the arms race and the cost to two generations of Poles, East Germans, Russians, and others who suffered under communist rule—than the victory in World War II had been (not to mention what the cost of World War III would have been).

For forty-five years, the people of the Western world had lived in dread of the day the Red Army marched across the Elbe River to undertake the conquest of Germany, France, and England. But by 1990, the Red Army was moving in the opposite direction, out of Central Europe, out of its never-digested gains from 1945. The Baltic States opted out of the Soviet Union; Gorbachev was unable (or unwilling) to stop them. Once the process of disintegration began, it could not be stopped.

Bush had given no support to the seceding Balkan States, except to criticize Gorbachev when the Red Army used force against nationalists in Lithuania and Latvia. Nor did he support separatists in Ukraine, Georgia, and the southern republics in the Soviet Union. He did support Gorbachev, with limited financial and food assistance, and with words. At the end of July 1991, following a summit meeting in Moscow in which he addressed Gorbachev as a friend and virtual ally, Bush told the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev that the U.S. would not choose sides between the Soviet government and the independence-seeking republics. He was much criticized for fence-straddling, but he was faced with a difficult dilemma. He liked Gorbachev, was accustomed to working with him, believed Gorbachev meant predictability and stability in foreign affairs, and feared the consequences of disunion. But he was an American: How could he not support peoples who wanted independence and freedom, especially when the independence of the various republics would further weaken the already badly damaged Soviet Union, America’s enemy for forty-five years?

Another factor making Bush hesitate to choose between Gorbachev and the republics was the help Gorbachev had given Bush in the 1990-91 crisis with Iraq (see chapter 17). Without Gorbachev’s cooperation, Bush almost surely could not have carried out his policy in that situation. The disappearance of the Soviet Union could only be good for the remaining superpower, but even better would be a reformed Soviet Union no longer posing a military threat but able to act as a great power in support of American policies.

For hard-liners, on both sides, the rapid movement toward a new world structure was alarming. In addition, on both sides the major form of employment was in defense and security-related industries that depended on the Cold War that had created them to sustain their existence. Between the true-believers and the job-seekers, there was a powerful potential to block change.

Less than three weeks after Bush’s departure from Moscow, in August 1991, reactionaries in the Red Army and the Communist Party staged a coup. On taking power and after arresting Gorbachev, they announced that the signing of the new union treaty, scheduled for the next day, would not take place. The treaty would have shifted power from the central government to the nine republics that had agreed to sign it. Blocking the union treaty may have been the proximate cause for the coup (if so, the plotters had surely made one of the all-time great mistakes); the larger cause was the desire to return to a Brezhnev-era—not Stalinist-era—style Communism.

Bush spoke out at once in support of Gorbachev and the established government. In Moscow, Russian President Boris Yeltsin called for a general strike and resistance to the coup. Citizens threw up roadblocks around the Kremlin and tens of thousands maintained a continuous vigil to keep the tanks away and to protest against the coup.

Thanks to Yeltsin, the coup collapsed in three days. Rather than stopping change, it accelerated change. Gorbachev returned to Moscow to proclaim, “I am in full control of the situation.” But he was not. That same day, August 21, Yeltsin told the Russian Parliament that he was issuing decrees establishing Russia’s economic sovereignty, taking control of Soviet agencies, and abolishing the Communist party. Before the year was out, Gorbachev had resigned and the leaders of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine declared that “the U.S.S.R. as a subject of international law and geopolitical reality is ceasing its existence.”

It was a declaration of independence of the republics from the union; it was also a declaration of independence by the people of the old union from communism. Yeltsin took drastic steps to move his country toward a market economy, steps that required severe sacrifice for millions of people. Bush recognized and established relations with the new republics on December 25, 1991. Insofar as the republics were pledged to create a democratic, market-oriented state, it was a wonderful Christmas present for them and for the world.

The problem was, there was not much follow-up. The republics were poor, in a state of virtual economic catastrophe. Yeltsin and the other leaders wanted money, credits, high-technology skills, investment. Bush was only willing to offer food. Former president Nixon strongly criticized Bush for failing to respond to the crisis in the republics with a massive aid program.

This was the beginning of a debate over fundamentals—What should the foreign policy of the U.S. be in a totally new situation? The Cold War was over, no one threatened the security of the United States, indeed the Gulf War of 1990-91 made the United States and Russia virtual allies. All the great “isms” of the twentieth century against which the United States had fought—colonialism, fascism, Communism—had been defeated.36 This represented what Francis Fukuyama, in a widely read and highly influential article, called “the End of History.” Fukuyama postulated that the collapse of communism meant that liberal democracy had been proved superior to all its competitors. Everyone had not gotten there yet, but everyone strove for a democratic political system and a market economy. This meant the end of history, in the sense of searching for the best system. It also meant, Fukuyama indicated, the end of large-scale war.

If these predictions are true, the future is going to be radically different from the past. There are no guideposts. In this new world, Germany and Japan—premier examples of liberal democracies—pose more of a challenge to the well-being of the American people than any military power or enemy possibly could. Those who make better trucks are more of a threat than those who make better tanks. This brings us back to the subject of the debate— What foreign policy should the U.S. adopt in facing the new world situation?

With no conceivable threat to the United States, many people, including former CIA Director William Colby, called for a 50 percent reduction in defense and security funding. They pointed out that the United States already had more military might than the rest of the world combined. Others, led by President Bush, rejected any cuts. They argued that disarmament was always wrong and pointed to the Gulf War and to the possibility of a reactionary coup succeeding in Russia, which still, after all, had sufficient nuclear weapons and missiles to destroy the world.

The military question existed side-by-side with the political question: Should the U.S. make a major effort to help the republics? McGeorge Bundy, former special assistant for national security to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, said yes. He pointed out that for one-tenth of one-percent of the $4,000 billion dollars spent on the Cold War, “we could play our part in the Russian turn to freedom.” The United States could not possibly invest money more wisely than in helping Russia achieve a democratic future.

Opponents doubted that sending financial and technical aid to Russia would be affordable or would work. Beyond that, they wanted to keep the money at home. Thus, the debate went back to the most persistent question in American foreign policy for two centuries: Should the United States be isolationist or internationalist? An important corollary question was, should the nation be protectionist or free trade? Truman had faced the same questions as he met the responsibility of defining a new American foreign policy to meet the new situation of 1946. He chose internationalism. His doctrine, containment, proved to have been a wise choice over the long haul.

But in a world of economic rather than military threats, the machinery Truman had created to support his foreign policy choice was drastically out of date. The National Security Council is not organized to frame policy options regarding trade, resources, the environment, and so forth. The Department of Defense cannot defend the nation from drugs or Japanese imports. By their nature, these two great Cold War organizations, the ones most concerned with the formation of American foreign policy, were least prepared to lead a debate about it. Because the United States had made Cold War considerations the touchstone of its policy in all foreign relations, all relationships in a post-Cold War world required a new foreign policy.

Some of the basic elements that require debate included free trade versus protectionism, regional economic blocks, the role of the military, the role of the United Nations, the response to civil war and aggression around the world, the level of foreign aid, the endemic problems of the Middle East, the role of a NATO that has no enemy and perceives no threat, the relationship with the democracies in Central and South America and with South Africa, the relationship with China and Russia and the new republics, and more.

They are all complex questions. On all of them there are strong arguments on each side. Free trade with Mexico, for example, arouses the fear in organized labor that American manufacturers will move their plants south of the border to lower labor costs. But surely the United States will benefit, supporters point out, from a prosperous Mexico, not least because if there are no jobs for Mexicans in Mexico, the United States might as well abolish the border altogether, because nothing will be able to stem the flow of Mexicans to where the jobs are.

In the new world, arms sales abroad are a more critical problem than superpower arms control. The nuclear weapons and missile race came to an end not through negotiation but through the collapse of the Communist superpower. As that happened, and as the Soviets eliminated arms shipments to client or anti-American nations, the United States dramatically increased its arms sales, more than doubling the total (from $7.8 billion in 1989 to $18.5 billion in 1990) in the first year of the new world order. This was a great help, second only to agriculture, in meeting the nation’s balance of payments bill. Nevertheless, it made a world torn apart by nationalist and ethnic feuds far more dangerous, even dangerous to the seller, as Bush discovered when American forces had to face American armaments held by an Iraqi army he had helped to build.

Relations with the great powers, Russia, Germany, and Japan, are at the center of the question of isolationism versus internationalism. All three were defeated in this century by the United States in a hot war (Germany twice) or a cold war. The relationship with Germany and Japan, now nearly a half-century old, is solid and sustaining for all concerned. As William Colby said, “I’d rather have them as economic competitors than as military foes.” The relationship with a defeated Russia has yet to be worked out. As the debate continues, it ought to include some of the lessons from history. The coming to power of Hitler, followed by World War II, taught Americans that it had been a mistake to subject a defeated nation to a vindictive peace settlement and to walk away from the responsibilities of victory. After World War II, the United States treated the defeated nations of Japan and Germany with magnanimity and stayed on the job to lead the defeated totalitarian states into a democratic future. Would the United States do for Russia what it did for Germany and Japan?

The question of the Russian relationship was a part of the broader question about the role of America in the new world. Within less than a year of Bush’s declaration that the Cold War was over, two crises erupted, one in the Persian Gulf and one in Yugoslavia. The crises gave Bush an opportunity to establish a new foreign policy, and beyond that a new world order. But his responses to Iraqi aggression in Kuwait and Serbian aggression in Yugoslavia were starkly different—massive intervention in the first case, studied indifference in the second.

President Bush called the crisis that began when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 the “defining moment” in setting a new foreign policy for a “new world order.” It was the first post- Cold War crisis. Although it took place in that home of crises, the Middle East, it had many new elements to it, the first of which was that the United States was able to operate freely as the only superpower. There were so many new elements, in fact, that the crisis may have been unique, which would mean there were no lessons that could be applied to other parts of the world and that therefore the debate on the American role in the world had to go on.

Bush insisted that his policy was clear: The United States would punish aggression to insure the new world order. In other words, the United States would act as world policeman defending the status quo.

Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson call this response “the Imperial Temptation.” Precisely because America’s military might is so great relative to that of everyone else, meaning America can today defeat any armed forces anywhere in the world using high technology and thus by suffering few American casualties, Americans will be tempted to intervene, to punish, then to walk away from the consequences and ignore the responsibilities of victory. To give into that temptation, Tucker and Hendrickson warn, would be to lose our soul.

Tucker and Hendrickson advise using economic sanctions in the post-Cold War world. They argue that the end of the Cold War transformed the world, and state that “The principal features of this transformation were the declining utility of force—above all, in the relations among the major developed states—and the increasing importance of economic power.”

In addressing the crisis in Yugoslavia, Bush did rely on economic sanctions and ruled out military intervention. His actual policy was far more pragmatic than his rhetoric about punishing aggression. The policy was selective isolationism, meaning only tepid, absolute minimal support for freedom and order in Yugoslavia or for Russia and other struggling democracies, balanced by selective internationalism, meaning quick and massive military intervention to protect genuine national interests (read “oil”). In short, a traditional statecraft rooted in the pre-Cold War era, a statecraft based on case-by-case judgments with the sole guiding principle being American national interests.

By their natures, then, the Gulf crisis of 1990-91 and the Yugoslavian crisis of 1990-95 raised basic questions in a way they would not have in the seventies or eighties. Because they were the first post-Cold War crises and because one occurred in the area most critical to the world economy, the other in an area of little concern to outsiders, how they were handled and what the lessons might be are precedent-setting. With the booming razzle-dazzle of a Tomahawk missile launch, Bush would unleash the full firing of the U.S. military on Iraq to protect Kuwait’s sovereignty and oil reserves. But by allowing genocide to take place in Yugoslavia Bush exposed the lack of U.S. resolve to intervene abroad on moral grounds. Nevertheless, the way they were handled and some of the repercussions need to be considered.

First, however, it needs to be noted that these first crises of the new world order took place in a world much different from what it had been at the time of the first crises of the Cold War. History does not repeat itself. The direction of the new world order will be greatly affected by chance. But history and chance take place in a context, a structure, a reality. Harry Truman worked from a position of overwhelming strength; George Bush was and his successors will continue to be in a position of weakness. Still, Truman had another superpower to deal with, unlike Bush and his successors.

The 1980s were a terrible decade for America’s position in the economic world. Even as her military forces were strengthened and were winning the Cold War, her power in the marketplace shrank. Consider that at the beginning of the 1980s, as had been the case since World War II, the United States was the world’s largest creditor nation. At the beginning of the 1990s, the United States was the largest debtor nation in history. Germany and Japan were the creditors.

In 1980, as had been true for forty years, the United States was the world’s largest exporting nation of manufactured goods. By 1991, West Germany, with a work force one fourth the size of America’s, had taken the lead. In 1980, Citicorp and Chase Manhattan were the two largest banks in the world. By 1991, the world’s ten largest banks were all Japanese. The biggest American bank, Citicorp, ranked twenty-seventh in the world.

This relative decline may be slowed, or even stopped, but its meaning for American foreign policy is permanent. Never again will the United States dominate the world economy as it did in the early Cold War. The United States will not be able to generate another Marshall Plan.

In the twentieth century, the United States turned back the forces of totalitarianism—the Kaiser’s Germany, Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Japan’s militarist and expansionist government, Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, and Soviet Communism. Surely justice has never been better served. The legacy of the American Century is a world in which more people are relatively freer to make their own choices, certainly far freer than they were under any of the isms, than ever before. That is a splendid legacy.

The counterpart is American hubris. The experience of the Cold War gives Americans a sense that they can run the world because their military power is so much greater than that of any other nation or group of nations. But the nation’s economic base is smaller than ever, so resources do not support expectations. In addressing the first crises of the new world order. Bush had to respond to both the expectation and the reality.

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