Bush’s Foreign Policy

With the end of the Cold War, the Bush foreign policy team faced such radical and rapid global changes that the Department of State seemed capable only of reacting to events. The collapse of first the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union itself, the reunification of Germany, the end of apartheid in South Africa, pro-democracy demonstrations in China’s Tiananmen Square, the international coalition formed to combat Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the Middle East stretched the ability of the U.S. foreign policy establishment—from the President to the Department of State—to stay in front of events and formulate policy.

Despite Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost, the fate of Soviet reforms remained unknown. During his first summit meeting, when Bush asked what the Soviet Union would look like in several years, Gorbachev quipped, “Even Jesus Christ couldn’t answer that question!” Lacking both clairvoyance and an internal Soviet monitoring system, the Department of State struggled to keep abreast of the rapid changes within the disintegrating Soviet empire. Initially, the Department lagged behind the NSC in pushing the President to move U.S.-Soviet relations beyond confrontation to a period of engagement. Secretary of State Baker argued that until the division of Europe ended, the Administration had to be cautious about prematurely declaring an end to the Cold War.

Secretary Baker relied heavily on a trio of close advisers. He named Dennis Ross, a specialist on Soviet and Middle Eastern affairs, as Director of the Policy Planning staff. Ross operated as virtually a one-man command staff, proposing positions on critical issues that Baker often adopted wholesale. Equally influential was Robert Zoellick, dubbed the Secretary’s “second brain” by journalists. Appointed Counselor of the Department, Zoellick served as Baker’s “gatekeeper” for policy papers and personnel access. He also became the chief sub cabinet official on German reunification. To ensure that the Department’s views were presented to the public as Baker wanted, he appointed former Treasury staff aide Margaret deB. Tutwiler as Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs and Department Spokesman. Baker’s key aides built a valuable working partnership with their counterparts at the NSC, forging an alliance that oversaw German reunification and provided critical support for democratic change in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe.

Bush’s own active involvement and direct communications with foreign leaders surprised many career officers at the Department, and not everyone was comfortable with informal lines of communication. Vernon Walters, the U.S. Ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany, reportedly resigned in part due to frustration after continuously hearing second-hand reports from the West German Foreign Ministry of agreements reached independently by Bush and Chancellor Helmut Kohl.