The Soviet Union was bound to collapse eventually. But the fact that it collapsed as peacefully as it did exactly 25 years ago on Sunday is largely a tribute to one leader: George H.W. Bush. History will remember America’s 41st President for ensuring that so large and authentically historic an event could take place so casually.
There are other reasons for the demise of the USSR on Christmas Day 1991: the U.S. defense build-up during the Reagan years, the forces of glasnost and perestroika that Mikhail Gorbachev unleashed, the implosion of central planning, the failure of Marxism-Leninism, and the revolt of the republics.
All true. But it was Bush’s prudent response to the revolutionary upheavals from 1989 to 1991 that helps explain why the blood-soaked superpower disappeared almost overnight and with virtually no bloodshed.
The temptation today is to regard all this as inevitable. But it could easily have been so much messier. When empires collapse, brutality and violence usually coincide: think of the British departure from Kenya, Malaya, and the Indian subcontinent; or the French from Vietnam and Algeria; or the Belgians from Congo. As the English scholar Martin Wight once observed: “Great power status is lost, as it is won, by violence. A Great Power does not die in its bed.”
What took place in the case of the Soviet Empire’s collapse was very much the exception. Why?
The answer lies in recognizing that Bush and his senior advisers James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, and Lawrence Eagleburger were deliberate and cautious conservatives, conscious that the dissolution of the totalitarian superpower into 15 separate nations could unleash turmoil and chaos. Such concerns were especially reasonable given that several successor states, such as Ukraine, held poorly guarded strategic nuclear weapons from the Soviet arsenal that were aimed at the United States.
Shortly after Eastern Europe was liberated in November 1989, Democrats condemned the Bush Administration’s caution. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell called on Bush to fly to West Berlin “to acknowledge the tremendous significance of the symbolic destruction of the Berlin Wall and to give voice to the exhilaration felt by all Americans.” But the President defended his “reserved behavior” for fear that triumphalism might provoke the Kremlin into cracking down on the revolutionary movements.
In 1990, Bush reached an implicit deal with Gorbachev that, in exchange for a reunified Germany’s inclusion in NATO, the Western alliance would not move east. The logic: Bush did not want to exploit Russia’s moment of weakness by expanding the U.S. security reach into what Moscow had viewed as its near abroad since well before Joseph Stalin appeared on the scene.
There was, to be sure, no formal treaty to codify this agreement. And debate rages among historians over whether Washington really gave such assurances to Gorbachev. What can’t be denied is that Russia’s democratic leaders in the 1990s cried foul, consistently opposing efforts to expand NATO eastwards and warning that doing so would upset Russia’s strategic sensibilities. With Moscow’s incursion in Ukraine in 2014—following years of NATO and EU expansion culminating in the Obama Administration’s efforts to help topple a democratically elected, pro-Russian regime in Kiev—the chickens came home to roost.
Bush felt that, although the Soviets were in serious decline, if made desperate and further demeaned, Moscow could lash out like a cornered, wounded animal. Add to this the fact that Russia maintained a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons, and it is no wonder Bush was restrained.
Sometimes, the caution was misplaced. In 1991, for example, he went to Kiev to warn that independence could lead to “suicidal nationalism”; New York Times columnist William Safire dubbed it the “Chicken Kiev” speech. Yet a few months later, more than 90 percent of Ukrainians voted to leave the Soviet Union, and Ukraine was globally recognized as a nation state.
Other times, Bush’s restraint was justified. When a diehard communist coup against Gorbachev unfolded in August 1991, he declared: “We’re not going to overexcite the American people or the world…. We will conduct our diplomacy in a prudent fashion, not driven by excess, not driven by extreme.” By Christmas 1991, Moscow allowed the Baltic states to separate from the Soviet Union and the USSR flag was lowered at the Kremlin for the last time.
American liberals and neo-conservatives slammed Bush for failing to celebrate the end of the Cold War and embrace national self-determination among the Soviet republics more enthusiastically. The New Republic, then a staple of Washington-elite reading, editorialized that his Administration “has failed to grasp the two essential movements of its world: the growing clamor for democracy and the related impulse for national sovereignty. Its instinct has always been the status quo.” Even George Will, an otherwise sober and sound conservative, wrote in the Washington Post: “Enough of the worship of stability.”
Such criticisms of Bush’s realpolitik reflected the spirit of the times. From left to right, journalists and intellectuals were celebrating the victory of Western liberal democracy, dismissing the importance of stability and predictability and drawing comparisons between America’s global predominance and that of Rome. These were the days of “the end of History,” (Francis Fukuyama) and the “unipolar moment” (Charles Krauthammer).
But the triumphalist worldview was alien to Bush, a balance-of-power realist whose low-profile use of U.S. diplomatic and economic leverage over the Kremlin constrained Gorbachev’s ability to crack down on nationalist movements in the Baltics. Bush was no wimp, as he was sometimes derided, but he recognized the folly of grinding the face of a defeated foe in the dirt.
“I did not want to encourage a course of events which might turn violent and get out of hand,” he later recalled in his memoirs, co-written with Scowcroft. For Bush, the enemy was unpredictability and instability.
It was only after the USSR’s collapse, in his January 1992 State of the Union address, when Bush boasted that America had “won” the Cold War through its biblical efforts. “That rhetoric would not have been particularly damaging on its own,” his Ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, later wrote. “But it was reinforced by actions taken under the next three Presidents.” Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama just assumed that the United States, as the world’s “indispensable nation” (as Madeleine Albright put it), could extend its strategic reach onto the former Soviet Union’s frontiers and offer security guarantees to almost any state that wanted them without ever provoking a Russian backlash.
Still, the 92-year-old former president deserves to be remembered for what he did in the lead up to the collapse of the Soviet Empire and, perhaps more important, what he refused to do during those heady days. As a result, he lived up to Winston Churchill’s maxim: “In Victory, magnanimity.”