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New Conservatism: George H.W. Bush and Trump

By Evan Brady

Now that we’ve analyzed the presidency of both the founder of the Republican Party and it’s legendary champion, perhaps it’s time we analyze a Republican president of recent memory. George HW Bush won the presidential election in 1988 after serving as Reagan’s Vice President for 8 years. Prior to serving as VP to Reagan, however, Bush Senior served as ambassador to the UN under Nixon from 1971–1973, Chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1973–1974, ambassador to the People’s Republic of China from 1974–1975, and Director of the CIA from 1976–1977. This man was perhaps one of the most experienced, qualified members of the Republican Party to assume to presidency during his career.

In contrast to these qualifications, we currently have Donald Trump, whose only administrative experience includes producing reality television and managing a real estate company, as president of the United States and leader of the Republican Party. Almost 20 years ago, the man at the helm of the GOP had roughly two decades of political experience and had already lost a presidential election to Reagan before assuming his role as president. Bush Senior’s presidency, however, was very different from Lincoln’s, Reagan’s, or Trump’s for that matter. While these presidents faced numerous domestic issues including economics and social issues, Bush’s presidency was defined by his foreign policy.

The situations that forged Bush’s legacy as a foreign policy focused president started almost immediately after the man was inaugurated. First, there was the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre in China in June of 1989[1]. This tragedy had been a response by the Chinese government towards protests by Chinese university students who were advocating for democracy in China. While protesting in Beijing, the students were met with armored tanks and soldiers wielding assault rifles. Several hundred people lost their lives during the government’s armed quelling of the protests, which understandably upset many US politicians. However, instead of complying with the demands of upset politicians, Bush the Elder used the knowledge and experience he had gathered while working as the envoy to China to navigate the complicated diplomatic situation masterfully. Rather than doling out the harsh punishment Congress was eager for, Bush Senior imposed limited sanctions on China in an effort to preserve their newly formed relationship. This must have been an incredibly difficult initial challenge for Bush Senior, as the US had only recognized the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China roughly 2 years prior to the incident.

Trump’s foreign relations with China, on the other hand, have been less than stellar. While at a rally on the campaign trail in May 2016, Trump said “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country and that’s what we’re doing. It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world”in regards to America’s trade relationship with China[2]. While campaigning, Trump advocated for increased tariffs against the Asian power, labeling the country as a currency manipulator, and imposing harsh retaliatory measures to China’s trade practices. This rhetoric is exactly what H.W Bush was trying to avoid while dealing with the Tiananmen Square massacre. Instead of inflaming tensions between the two great powers, H.W Bush worked diligently to balance punishing China while maintaining relations with them.

In spite of the numerous diplomatic crises that Bush Senior faced during his 4 year presidency, he never lost hope in the ability of the international community to come together and work alongside one another. After the first Persian Gulf War, which brought together the United States, the Soviet Union, the Middle East and many other countries, Bush shared his vision of a “New World Order” that he believed was being forged from the victory against Iraq and created “an historic period of cooperation”[1]. This cooperation, Bush hoped, would lead to an age of collective security through multilateral cooperation, much like what was seen against Iraq after they invaded Kuwait. The fact that the US and the Soviet Union issued a joint statement condemning the invasion also helped strengthen the hope that the two superpowers could live side by side, and perhaps even work together in order to maintain security in the international system. While this belief of a cooperative “New World Order” was challenged by the struggles of Somalia and the conflict in the Balkans after the breakup of Yugoslavia, the fact that Bush Senior advocated for such a diplomacy centered, cooperative world order indicates the importance he placed on working together rather than each country going it alone.

Whereas Bush Senior worked to promote and even emphasize diplomacy and cooperation within the international system, Trump has actively undermined these very same principles. American leadership abroad has taken a serious hit since Trump has ascended to the presidency. According to an articlepublished in The Guardian, “Confidence in the US president has collapsed 42 points to just 22%, while favorable views of the country overall have dropped 15 points to 49%”[3]. Among the top 10 countries that have lost confidence in US leadership, two of the country’s closest allies, South Korea and Japan, are noticeably present. In fact, the only two countries that showed any kind of confidence in US leadership since Trump was elected are unsurprisingly Israel and Russia. Israel’s confidence has risen from 49% to 56%, while Russia’s has exploded from a lowly 11% to an astonishing 53%[3].

Bush Senior may have encouraged the world to work more closely together in order to solve their problems, but Trump has isolated more and more allies as the days go by. Whether it be frightening Japan and South Korea with his inflammatory and provocative rhetoric towards North Korea or calling into question the collective security provided to Europe under NATO, Trump has not refrained from casting doubt on America’s relationship with her allies. After openly criticizing the contributions of NATO allies to defense and floating the idea that the US may leave the alliance both on the campaign trail and during his presidency, Europe has noticeably drifted away from the US and relied more heavily on France and Europe to guide their movements. The “New World Order” that Bush Senior tried to establish for the betterment of all, the order that would be “Freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace”[2], has failed to blossom under American leadership since his presidency, with the failures culminating in the isolation of the United States under Donald Trump.

Works Cited

  1. Stephen Knott, “George HW Bush: Foreign Affairs”, UVA Miller Center, 2017

  2. Jeremy Diamond, “Trump Once Trashed China. Now They’re Friends” CNNPolitics, published November 8th, 2017

  3. Richard Wolffe, “How Trump’s foreign policy threatens to make America weak again”, The Guardian, published July 2 2017


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