Review: Jeffrey A. Engel's "When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War"

The end of the Cold War is, without question, one of the most important series of events of the 20th century. Despite its importance, it feels surprisingly underappreciated thirty years later. As someone who lived through this period, I can recall it only in broad strokes. I remember watching the Berlin Wall being breached by jubilant East and West Germans. I remember seeing the drama building in the Tiananmen Square protests. But witnessing is not the same thing as understanding. I was too young at the moment to grasp the significance of what was playing out on my television. With the passage of time and the relative calm that accompanied it, it feels as if these events have faded unfairly into the background. 

Thankfully, Jeffrey A. Engel's new book is a much needed reminder of the era's importance. In When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War, Engel takes the reader through the momentous events of the late 1980s/early 1990s with a focus on the George H.W. Bush presidency. In doing so, Engel makes a rather bold claim about Bush's importance: "Bush's presidency [was] the most internationally complex since that of Franklin D. Roosevelt...By the time he left office, Bush was even more powerful, in a global sense, than FDR. The United States he left to his successors appeared hegemonic as never before in the Cold War's wake" (4). I have always thought of the Bush presidency as a failure, so it surprised me to consider this underwhelming, one-term president in such a favorable light. Despite my initial skepticism, I left this book largely convinced by Engel's reading. 

An essential part of the success of Engel's work is his ability to capture the deep uncertainty and anxiety that accompanied this period. He writes, "No one was predicting these events in 1987, and it was unthinkable that they might be accomplished without bloodshed" (3). To shift from an assumption of an ongoing Cold War with the Soviet Union to an acceptance of a post-Soviet era less than three years later is astonishing, and it's easy to see these events as inevitable from the present perspective. But Engel brings the shock and surprise experienced by a range of leaders and their teams into light in an effective way. 


While this story involves a range of world leaders, Engel makes the case that Bush was the man who held it all together. Without Bush in the White House, it seems likely that the Cold War's swift end would have been much rockier and, perhaps, bloodier than it played out. This would seem to fly in the face of a common view of Bush as a fairly ineffective leader. In Engel's reading, however, it was what Bush didn't do that made him the right man for this perilous moment. "Bush was no Reagan, and he was fine with that...He knew the price of indiscreet words" (248). Along with the painful recognition of how far we've strayed from such self-awareness, this moment makes clear that Bush's restrained, rational approach to the events in China, Russia, and Europe helped bring things to a largely positive conclusion (for the United States, that is.) This is particularly clear when talking about Bush's ability to repair the United States's frayed relationship with China. After a series of publicly embarrassing clashes between the U.S. and China, Bush decided to send his close friend and adviser, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft to meet with the Chinese. As Engel notes, "An angrier president, one less convinced history flowed in his direction, or more easily swayed by public opinion, would never have sent so personal an envoy" (248). Bush emerges as a confident man who understands that diplomacy requires compromise and, as a result, he avoids making a bad situation worse. 

This confident reserve is never clearer than in Bush's refusal to celebrate the collapse of the Berlin Wall and other clear indicators that the Cold War was ending in his favor. Engel turns to the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to show why this restraint was so crucial. "The Cold War was indeed ending, Gorbachev told an audience...but 'not because there are victors and vanquished, but precisely because there are none of either'" (292). Bush was well aware the he was winning and that his side was "right," but he wouldn't dance on the Soviet Union's grave. Asked repeatedly by members of the media and Congress to take a victory lap, Bush simply declined the opportunity and let events play out. It's easy to imagine a less restrained president gloating at this moment and causing the Soviets to push back in the face of public humiliation. Bush's calm demeanor, which would in many ways doom his presidency to a single term, likely made their defeat easier to handle. 

While I expected to see a close examination of Berlin, Russia, and China in this book, I was surprised by Engel's inclusion of the first Gulf War as a crucial moment in the Cold War's conclusion. This war marked the high point of Bush's time in office, but Engel believes it also marked "the Cold War's final act" (233). For decades, the Middle East was a zone of intense competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. On a number of occasions, the two nations nearly came to blows over events in Egypt, Iran, and Israel. But it was the way in which the Soviet leader stood aside in Bush's crusade against Iraq's Saddam Hussein that made clear how much things had changed. "That era climaxed not with a tectonic struggle for Europe, but with Soviet capitulation to the hard realities of American power...It was Gorbachev--weakened, embarrassed, and increasingly alone--who became the Gulf War's final casualty" (395). 

Ultimately, Engel makes a compelling case for a renewed respect for the Bush presidency. While I remain skeptical about much of his domestic agenda, I walked away from this book convinced of his superb handling of an almost impossibly complex foreign situation.  As Engel writes, "the world, fortuitously, had a prudent practitioner of Hippocratic diplomacy...He was neither creative nor innovative, neither a radical nor a revolutionary, but was instead content to follow 'what worked.' This is what made him a success" (484). It feels off in some way to rest so much of Bush's success on what he wasn't. As our current moment makes clear, however, restraint is far more important than we realize until we are led by impetuous and inexperienced people. 

Three and a half stars out of a possible four