Thank You, President George H.W. Bush

The Atlantic Council mourns the passing of George H. W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States.

President Bush was one of the most distinguished international public servants of his generation. He was one of the greatest international statesmen and Atlanticists to ever serve as commander-in-chief.  Measured by his historic accomplishments, he was one of our greatest Presidents ever and perhaps the most consequential one-term President in American history.

Here are just a few reasons why:

He won the Cold War peacefully and graciously, thus liberating Eastern Europe and ending Soviet-style Communism. That defused a nuclear standoff that for decades hung over the world with the threat of mutually assured destruction. He played a decisive role in unifying a democratic Germany within NATO and the European Union. He pushed back the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait militarily and with limited casualties, liberating the country of its occupiers, setting the standard for the post-Cold War order.

Less recognized, Bush completed the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, which was later ratified during the Clinton administration. He helped pave the way for a new World Trade Organization through reaching an agricultural deal with Europe.  His administration also established the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum. Thus, he not only spoke about the possibility of a New World Order, he also laid some of its first foundation stones.  At the same time, he worked with an opposition Congress to pass landmark legislation for Americans with disabilities and for clear air.

President George H.W. Bush arrived in office uniquely prepared for the challenges he would face. He was shot down in the Pacific as a Navy pilot in World War II, he served in the House of Representatives, he was the US envoy to the United Nations and China, the director of the CIA, and for eight years was Vice President to President Ronald Reagan prior to becoming President.

Placing service above self, a characteristic that defined him throughout his life, he inspired those who worked with him from both sides of the political aisle to act with a similar sense of integrity and purpose. He set an example for his countrymen of decency, integrity and patriotic duty – a gentleman of admirable public and private character.

With his restrained and principled leadership, he safely guided the United States through an era of momentous change. It was his  collaborative leadership, in which he won the trust both of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, that made the peaceful liberation of Eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany and set in motion the first steps toward his still-unrealized goal of a Europe Whole and Free.  He brought along French President Francois Mitterrand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who doubted the wisdom of reunifying Germany.

“Few empires in history have fallen in such peaceful fashion,” wrote the Wall Street Journal this weekend, noting that Bush’s cautious temperament and long experience helped to negotiate a transition without firing a shot” after President Reagan’s boldness and ideological conviction “won the long twilight struggle.”

Said President Bush himself of this accomplishment in his last State of the Union Address in 1992: “The biggest thing that has happened in the world in my life, in our lives, is this: By the grace of God, America won the Cold War.”

In introducing him for the 2009 Atlantic Council Distinguished Leadership Award, our organization’s highest honor, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “One of the great privileges of my life was to be at President Bush’s side as he provided inspired leadership to a world that in a span of less than 36 months experienced the liberation of Eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany into NATO, the victory of the West in the Cold War, the first Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union … As the Communist Bloc was disintegrating, it was George Bush’s skilled yet quiet statecraft that made a revolutionary time seem much less dangerous than it actually was.”

Upon learning of the passing of George H. W. Bush, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “I mourn George Bush, the 41st president of the United States, as the chancellor of the German Federal Republic but also as a German who, without the results of his policies, would hardly be standing here.”

In accepting our award, President Bush as always wanted to shift the spotlight from himself and shine it on others. ”I would simply like to salute the capable men and women I had at my side during four years of genuine change and challenge. Together we not only upheld the public trust placed in us; we also helped to leave the world a safer and more secure place than we found it.“

Rest in Peace George H. W. Bush. Thank you for making the world a better place than you found it. In your passing, one prays today’s leaders will find inspiration to build upon your legacy with similar decency and determination.

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe. Subscribe to his weekly InflectionPoints newsletter.

Image: Atlantic Council President and CEO Frederick Kempe and President George H.W. Bush at the 2009 Atlantic Council Distinguished Leadership Awards.