In this era of “Mission Accomplished” and the “JV squad” known as ISIS, U.S. foreign policy has frequently been triumphal in rhetoric, and decidedly less effective in practice. Perhaps the defining example of this trend was President George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural, which pledged the United States to “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” As far as actionable foreign policy doctrines go, I must admit that I find that sentiment to be wonderfully stirring. So too is that often bandied-about phrase, “the indispensable nation,” which will probably make a comeback in at least once 2016 presidential campaign. Has there ever been a foreign policy slogan more eloquent? It even fits on a bumper sticker.
Yet the recent anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall provides space to reflect on a different model of American power, one wherein modesty plays a more important role than braggadocio. The foreign policy of the George H.W. Bush administration was like most in that it was heavily influenced by the character and personality of the man at the top. It never rhetorically soared like a Reagan or a Kennedy speech, but it did display a quiet belief in the possibilities of American power to influence the world in a positive way.
What always comes to mind for me was a comical moment at a 1989 press conference, in which the value of humility was displayed definitively. Hours after the border between East and West Germany was opened, President Bush gave a press conference. When asked how he felt about the sudden collapse of the most visible symbol of the Iron Curtain, he merely responded that he was “very pleased.” As the press kept trying to goad him into making a more grandiose statement, he elaborated that he simply wasn’t “an emotional kind of guy.” Though pundits had a field day with the muted tone of the statement, in fact it was this very refusal to boast that prevented a stronger backlash among hardliners in Moscow. President H.W. Bush had the interpersonal wisdom to realize that speaking softly actually gave the United States more rather than less leverage in world events.
When looking at the foreign policy decisions of the last several decades, American policymakers have most erred when they have forgotten this lesson of humility, and instead viewed rhetorical statements of principle as successes in and of themselves. Even at a time of rapid democratization of the Communist world, the first President Bush was reluctant to hop on board. His 1991 speech in Kiev was denounced as the “chicken Kiev” speech, mostly because it cautioned the Ukrainians not to replace “far-off tyranny with local despotism.” The astonishing thing about that statement was that it was viewed with contempt by many in the United States, who wanted chest beating and celebration instead of the measured prudence they were offered.
The most stunning facet of this switch in American values from humility to swagger is that it is emblemized by the differences between the first and second Presidents Bush. A recent NPR interview of Bush 43 by David Greene got right to the heart of the matter. Greene asked the President how he reconciled his praise of his father’s modesty in 1991 with his own statement after the Orange Revolution in 2004 that “freedom is spreading” in reference to Ukraine. The contrast between their rhetorical styles could not have been more apparent, but the second President Bush could only meekly offer that he was a “different leader” in a “different time.” As always, it would be fascinating to sit at the Bush family table and decipher whatever could be gleaned about foreign policy.
In terms of what caused this spirit of humility to fade, part of the answer is clearly 9/11. It is only normal for a country wounded by terror to react by searching for certainties and renewed confidence. For a while, maybe it was psychologically necessary to look for clear and simple answers when it came to what vexed the world. But now that we’re as far from 9/11 as that dark day was itself from 11/9/89, we need to ask ourselves, has our rhetorical triumphalism been useful? If not, it may be time that to relearn the importance of being prudent.
Jack Weller, a sophomore studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.