On September the 11th, 1990, President George H. W. Bush addressed the US Congress and proclaimed the dawning of a “new world order” intended to replace that of a 20th century which most Americans had become accustomed to. This was the era which two years later the pseudo-intellectual Francis Fukuyama would summarise as “The end of history” – a period when the dynamics of the Cold War would give way to an era where American power was unchallenged and more crucially, an era in which American corporate power and political soft power would rise to hegemonic heights having lost its Soviet rival to the sands of time, while the rapid rise of China was being ignored by the US throughout much of the 1990s as few Americans believed that China would actually achieve what it has subsequently come to achieve.
To his credit and those around him, the one-sided, unilateral, unchallenged and hegemonic new world order about which Bush spoke did in fact arise during the 1990s. Just as rapidly as the USSR collapsed from within, the United States began hinting at policies which were a foretaste of the kinds of aggression that the country would commit at the turn of the 21st century. In a single term, Bush dramatically betrayed two close US allies, first when he politically defenestrated former CIA asset President Manuel Noriega of Panama, before unceremoniously sending him to a US prison cell and later by invading Iraq after selling Saddam Hussein’s nation weapons throughout the 1980s within the context of an Iran-Iraq war in which the US publicly backed Saddam but covertly sold weapons to Iran in order to finance the far-right Contra rebellion in Nicaragua.
Beyond this, Bush set the stage for NATO expansion into the former Warsaw Pact nations of central and eastern Europe – something which of course was done in direct contravention to what he once promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who like Noriega and Saddam foolishly believed that George H.W. Bush was an honest man.
It was also Bush who set the stage for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a “free trade” agreement which unlike an actual fully fledged free trading agreement, prioritised corporate interests over those of medium and small sized businesses and traders.
But while the ultra-professional, cynical and publicly disengaged Bush worked throughout his single presidential term to help formulate the new world order about which he spoke in 1990, many Americans favoured the ‘old world order’ in which they had higher living standards, more secure jobs and stronger sense of attachment to their local communities. The recession of the early 1990s dealt a fatal blow to Bush’s reputation domestically while the so-called recovery after the economy hit the rocks in 1990 was one which left much of middle America behind as the return of modest economic growth did not restore the jobs lost by the onset of the recession.
Although Bush is famous for proclaiming “read my lips: no new taxes”, this phrase represented a betrayal of the American people. As it was with Gorbachev, Noriega and Saddam, Bush lied to his own countrymen and ended up increasing federal taxation.
As the first US President to openly revel in economic neo-liberalism and foreign policy post-Cold War interventionism, many traditional conservatives decided that they had had enough of George H.W. Bush by 1992. In the 1992 election, Bush was challenged from within his own Republican Party by anti-interventionist conservative Patrick Buchanan while the unpopularity of Bush’s corporatist approach to domestic affairs and his pro-war approach to foreign affairs led to the appearance of a major third party candidate Ross Perot – an eccentric political outsider who campaigned against all of Bush’s flagship economic, managerial and fiscal policies while also sharing much of Buchanan’s opposition to Bush’s foreign policies.
At the end of the day, Bush lost the 1992 election not to the proto-populist Perot but to Bill Clinton, a man whose policies were not all too different from those of Bush but whose charismatic “everyman” personality was miles away from the cold, calculating and un-compassionate demeanour of George H. W. Bush.
And yet, while Bush remains one of the few one-term Presidents of modern US history, his legacy continued to live on as the hegemonic military interventionism and neo-liberal economic policies he pursued became mainstays of the Clinton years, while his son George W. Bush took his father’s policies to an even more abruptly pronounced level when he won the 2000 Presidential election. Perhaps Bush’s greatest victory was creating a professionalised post-Cold War deep state that managed to craft policies for President Barack Obama that were highly similar to those which Bush pursued. While Obama was “young, gifted and black”, his policies were old, scripted and Bush.
And then something happened in 2016 which George H.W. Bush and the political elite he represented did not expect. While American voters in 1992 rejected Bush’s personality more than his policies, by 2016 Americans had grown tired of “Bushism” and opted to vote for Donald Trump, a man who constantly attacked the legacy of the Bush dynasty while on the campaign trail, while promising to undo the legacy of George H. W. Bush by ending the culture of military interventionism, withdrawing from NAFTA, creating new jobs, delivering substantial tax reform and ending the atmosphere of a de-facto one party state that Bushism increasingly came to stand for.
The English parliamentarian Enoch Powell once wrote,
“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”.
For George H. W. Bush, Powell’s proclamation applies at several levels. On the one hand, Bush witnessed the decline and fall of the Soviet Union and re-asserted Washington’s domination over the Middle East and Latin America, all the while setting up base in central and eastern Europe during his signal term as President of the United States. Yet his ignominious defeat to the fast food eating, saxophone playing, casually womanising Bill Clinton represented a personal blow to his legacy. And yet Bush’s legacy continued to live on through his successors in terms of the new world order policies he set forth in 1990.
But in 2016, the arrival of Donald Trump meant that the legacy of the Bush dynasty became as fiercely rejected as George H. W. Bush was himself at a personal level in 1992. The man who somewhat gracefully survived electoral defeat in 1992 ultimately could not survive the rejection of what he stood for in the form of Donald Trump.
Today, while Trump continues to fling slings and arrows at the Bush legacy, George H. W. Bush has died at the age of 94. The man who on 9/11, 1990 declared a new world order is no more.