OK, so that newspaper op-ed on the U.S.-China trade truce I mentioned in yesterday’s post won’t be appearing on-line till tonight. That enables me to sound off about the other big news of the past weekend: the passing of former President George H.W. Bush.
The fawning reactions by the nation’s intertwined bipartisan political establishment and Mainstream Media were off-putting in any number of ways – only beginning with the transparently crude, self-serving attempts to contrast the alleged courtly golden age of selfless, noble American politics and policy he represented (and that they allegedly champion today) with the triumph of coarseness, hyper-partisanship and grifter-ism supposedly represented by Donald Trump’s election as President.
Not that Bush wasn’t an admirable personality in many ways, including his unmistakable record as a devoted, loving husband and father, and his courageous service in World War II. And not that he didn’t display some equally admirable traits as President – including a willingness to compromise, an ability to learn and evolve, a refusal to demonize political opponents, and that famous “prudence” lampooned by Saturday Night Live’s Dana Carvey.
But Bush’s presidency was marked by way too many major blind spots and outright failures to deserve canonization, and it’s no coincidence that the most serious entailed a refusal to recognize the obsolescence and flaws of the globalist priorities and strategies to which the nation’s chattering classes still cling.
It’s possible to single out significant individual Bush blunders, like his enthusiasm for offshoring-friendly trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the global agreement that created the World Trade Organization (WTO); his indifference to predatory foreign trade and broader economic practices that were undermining American industrial competitiveness; and his belief that greater U.S. and other foreign engagement with China would produce a People’s Republic that was more democratic, capitalist, and friendly to the West.
Way more important, however, is the broader globalist outlook he almost defiantly epitomized, and which was responsible for his biggest, closely related strategic and political mistakes.
On the strategic front, Bush does deserve credit for contributing to the overwhelmingly peaceful demise of the Soviet Union and the equally smooth unification of Germany – neither of was inevitable. But he squandered a critical opportunity to begin preparing Americans for the kind of fundamental transition away from intertwined Cold War approaches to both national security and economics that would have left the nation much safer and more prosperous than today.
Bush’s fans have a point when they insist that strong support of America’s Cold War alliance system was essential to ensure that the fall of communism didn’t trigger broader and potentially dangerous worldwide instability. Too much simultaneous upheaval could well have produced worrisome consequences in Europe in particular.
Yet Bush wasn’t content to view or portray the preservation of alliances and other Cold War institutions as temporary expedients needed to ensure a successful closure to that era. He repeatedly spoke of these arrangements and their survival as ends in and of themselves that were vital to defend and advance core American interests because those interests required nothing less than a thoroughly peaceful, stable, prosperous world. And in this respect, he embodied what I have described in The National Interest as the fatal mistake of American globalism, and one that, through endeavors that sought to achieve this utopian ambition, over the longer term has kept the nation exposed to utterly unnecessary risks, strapped it with equally unnecessary economic burdens, and left it less secure and economically healthy in the long run.
In other words, Bush repeatedly championed the globalist conviction that the best guarantors of America’s security and prosperity were not America’s own power, wealth, and potential, but those very international institutions whose effectiveness he prioritized. As a result, he dismissed the idea that genuine pragmatism recognized the superiority of a fundamentally different approach – ensuring the well-being of an already substantially secure and prosperous nation regardless of international conditions. And therefore, whenever expanding or consolidating the nation’s own material capabilities, or capitalizing on its geopolitical blessings, clashed with expensive and or risky efforts to bolster the institutions and inch toward globalism’s grandiose worldwide goals, he invariably chose the latter.
The political results were devastating, and if you accept the above analysis, they rightly limited Bush to a single term as president. For, as I wrote in The Atlantic back then, the objectives of U.S. foreign policy became increasingly remote from the most pressing concerns of the American people, and Bush never understood the gap. Indeed, he not only became known as a “foreign policy president.” He actually admitted he found dealing with overseas matters much more interesting than addressing issues on the home front – notably a short, shallow recession that struck the electorate as much more serious because the recovery remained “jobless” for so long. When his main 1992 rival for the White House, Bill Clinton, ribbed Bush’s indifference with the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid,” the fate of “41” was all but sealed, and history served up what should have been a glaringly obvious lesson for the globalists.
That this political lesson has been both ignored and often emphatically rejected by America’s bipartisan globalist establishment is clear from its ostentatiously teary eulogies for Bush – and its contempt for a chief executive with at least a gut-level awareness of the popular appeal of the non-globalist approach he calls “America First.”
Moreover, in a stunning irony, the globalists keep ignoring how thoroughly their own approach has failed – and how quickly. How else to explain that, over the course of the three globalist post-41 presidents, Russia and China have reemerged as major security threats to the order they constantly deem an unprecedented and historic success? And don’t forget how globalism’s economic and political roots have been shredded by a worldwide financial crisis and painful recession stemming directly from its failures on the trade and investment front.
At the same time, precisely because this globalist establishment remains so powerful, and President Trump’s departure from its orthodoxy so partial, it’s premature to view George H.W. Bush’s passing as symbolizing the true end of a policy era. As the former president once said in another context, that would require more of a “vision thing” than the nation has been capable of producing for many decades.