George H.W. Bush would not fit in today's Republican Party, former senior White House aide Philip Zelikow told DW. He also detailed why Bush was underappreciated and what the former president admired about Germany.
DW: What will George H.W. Bush and his four years in office be remembered for? What will be his legacy?
Philip Zelikow: You can tell from a lot of statements, including things President Obama said, that he is increasingly regarded as the most successful American president in foreign policy leadership since [Franklin D.] Roosevelt or [Harry] Truman. One of the reasons Bush is now so highly regarded is both for his own qualities, but also for the way those qualities helped him knit together an unusually strong team.
There is a tendency to discount the end of the Cold War stuff, because there is a widespread view that that was inevitable. And there is a part of that that's true. But there is a part of that that misses all the different ways that it could have run out. And on German unification of course all the German leaders of the time were extremely generous in ascribing a very important role to Bush and also to [Secretary of State James] Baker and you can see this in all their memoirs, of [former German Chancellor Helmut] Kohl and [German statesman Hans-Dieter] Genscher and others.
In Germany, Bush Sr. is remembered as the US president who was instrumental in achieving German unification…
In partnership with West Germany and the point of partnership is the essence of understanding Bush's achievements. Because Bush never claimed that America was driving all of this. The truth of the matter is that America organized successful partnerships — above all in this case with West Germany.
You were part of the German unification effort on the US side. How did Bush view Germany and why was he, unlike many other international leaders, supportive and not opposed to it?
He admired the way West Germany had come to terms with its past. He noticed it and he admired it. And remember, he is a World War II veteran himself, although he fought in the Pacific, and was nearly killed. So the war was not an abstraction to him. There is an interesting anecdote which he told me himself. The way he would put it, in his usual way, he said he admired [the Germans] had come to terms with [the past] and said, to quote, "at some point you got to let a guy up."
And another part of this was when he was vice president and he had a remarkable trip to West Germany, I think in 1983, at the height of the Euro Missile crisis. And you can remember or know what a stormy period this was in West Germany. There are these gigantic protests, there are people who are pushing and shoving right at his car. And he said to me, back in America if people had been acting this way the Secret Service might have shot some of them.
But the message he took away from all of this is "Wow, this is really a robust democracy. They are really making democracy work under great stress." And he admired that. And in a way that underscored to him that this is a different Germany. And that conclusion is a very important conclusion.
Would you say he was a friend of Germany?
Oh, yes. And in his administration the United States forms an operating partnership with the German government of a kind that never happened before. By operating partnership I don't mean that Germany was treated as a friend and supporter who you voted for in an argument. I mean a partner with whom you could plan together about the future of the world.
He said that repeatedly, partnership in leadership…
Yes, and he meant it!
But for Germans this was almost too much. The power structure is very different, Germany and the US are not equals in that sense.
He treated the Germans as peers in this way. The Americans are larger and have a lot of responsibilities the Germans don't have. We get that. On the other hand, we regarded the Germans as leaders of the emerging Europe. And Germany, including through its partnership with France, was kind of the operating directorate for Europe's future.
So in a way, the operating partnership with Germany supplanted the traditional partnership with London and became America's way of becoming a partner with the emerging future Europe. And in doing this in a really visionary way that is not just asking your friends to support you, but actually treating these people as equals.
The country Bush led and his Republican Party have changed a great deal since the time he served. Would you say George H.W. Bush was the last traditional, old school Republican president?
I think that's fair. It's a very different party now. And he was the last president whose attitude towards the world was profoundly formed by the experience of World War II and the post-war reconstruction. And then the passion to build a better world and the deep belief that America had to take some responsibility for building a better world.
Would he have any place in today's Republican Party?
Today - very little. In a way what would alienate him the most about a lot of today's Republican Party is not just the substance of the positions, but the style. The trash talking style is absolutely the opposite from the kind of person Bush was and what he thought of as civic virtue.
People can criticize his policy positions in one way or another. But for him actually most of what leadership was about was the way you lead, not so much the substance or the issues. It was about partnership and civic virtue, there was a way to act as a leader, beyond right/left distinctions. What makes him seem like such a distant figure right now and why I think a lot of people will be remembering him nostalgically is because he stood for a manner of leadership that is so entirely, utterly different from the current president. It is really the exact opposite of the current president.
Philip Zelikow worked on German reunification as a senior National Security Council official under President George H.W. Bush. Together with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he is the author of Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft (1995). Zelikow later also served as the executive director of the US 9/11 Commission and as a top adviser to Secretary of State Rice.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.