‘Master Negotiator’: James Baker and the end of the Cold War

Shayna Brennan/AP
President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III (left) meet with reporters on the White House lawn on May 17, 1991, in Washington. Writing about Mr. Baker years later, President Bush said, “I was blessed to have him by my side during four years of historic change in our world.”

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James A. Baker’s work as President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state built on their already-close friendship. Diana Villiers Negroponte highlights that closeness in her book “Master Negotiator: The Role of James A. Baker, III at the End of the Cold War.”

Both men, she says, were determined to make a clean break from the Reagan years, not wanting to be viewed as Ronald Reagan’s third term, despite having filled senior positions in his administration.

Why We Wrote This

With a decided shift in thought about foreign policy between the current and former U.S. administrations, a look at past approaches to stabilizing relations may hold useful lessons for today’s leaders.

“The guiding principle of [Mr. Baker’s] national security team was the stable management of the international system and the avoidance of risk,” Dr. Negroponte writes. The Bush-Baker team put that strategy into practice often. The author describes, for example, how the men supported Mikhail Gorbachev through a series of internal machinations that kept him in power until the Soviet Union was dismantled and the Russian flag had been raised. Allowing the Soviets to dissolve peacefully, she says, led to the ascendancy of the United States as the sole superpower.

Examining what worked in the last years of the Cold War reveals the importance of working with allies, the author notes. “Baker formed coalitions,” she says. “He never considered that America should act alone.”

It has been only 32 years – not that long ago, really – since President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III were sworn in. Their short four years in office, 1989-92, were rich in tumultuous events and policy decisions that continue to resonate today.

Historian and public policy analyst Diana Villiers Negroponte describes the two longtime friends and tennis-buddy Texans as “imbued with the modesty of gentlemen who sought power not to aggrandize themselves but to serve a nation.” Her new history, “Master Negotiator: The Role of James A. Baker, III at the End of the Cold War,” has a deliberately narrow focus, per Mr. Baker’s directive.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I covered the beginning of the George H.W. Bush presidency when I was a CBS News White House correspondent. I first came to know Diana and her husband, John Negroponte, about 10 years later during his stint as United Nations ambassador during the George W. Bush presidency. The three of us remain good friends.)

Why We Wrote This

With a decided shift in thought about foreign policy between the current and former U.S. administrations, a look at past approaches to stabilizing relations may hold useful lessons for today’s leaders.

Beginning with the foreword, written by the first President Bush in 2014, “Major Negotiator” highlights the men’s closeness. Mr. Bush writes of Mr. Baker, “Looking back, I was blessed to have him by my side during four years of historic change in our world.”  

The two men were determined to make a clean break from the Reagan years. They did not want to be viewed as Ronald Reagan’s third term, despite having filled senior positions in his administration. Both men wanted to assert fresh ideas and to bring in new people. Of Mr. Baker, Dr. Negroponte writes, “The guiding principle of his national security team was the stable management of the international system and the avoidance of risk.” The Bush-Baker team successfully put that strategy into practice in ending the Cold War, German reunification, Desert Storm, the Madrid peace conference, and the variety of political reforms they encouraged in Latin America.

The importance of allies

“Not a shot between Cold War enemies was fired.” That’s the author’s bottom-line measure of success for the Bush-Baker management of the end of the Soviet empire and the reunification of Germany. In great detail, she describes how the men supported Mikhail Gorbachev through a series of internal machinations that kept him in power until the Soviet Union was dismantled and the Russian flag had been raised. Allowing the Soviets to dissolve peacefully – reinforcing Mr. Gorbachev’s decisions not to repress dissidents within his country – led to the ascendancy of the United States as the sole superpower. “But how we have used that position is another question,” Dr. Negroponte says. 

With her own work coinciding with that of other historians and journalists writing about Mr. Baker, she suspects that interest in the Bush-Baker foreign policy is rooted in a need to stabilize the world order following four years of acrimony with traditional allies and an embrace of autocrats during Donald Trump’s presidency. Examining what worked in the last years of the Cold War reveals the importance of working with allies, she says. “Baker formed coalitions. He never considered that America should act alone.”

Dr. Negroponte also details the successful execution of the first U.S. war in Iraq, Desert Storm, weaving together competing strands of history and decision-making. Mr. Baker took a hands-off role in dealing with China, in part because of Mr. Bush’s own expertise in the region, where he served as U.S. envoy in the 1970s. The administration was criticized for not taking a stronger stand against Chinese repression of dissidents during the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing from April to June 1989. But Dr. Negroponte emphasizes that the U.S. decision to keep talking with the Chinese resulted, one year later, in their abstaining, rather than vetoing, U.N. Security Council Resolution 678, which provided the legal authorization for the first Gulf War. 

“You can’t destroy the Chinese,” she says. “You must assert your objections and punish the leaders who commit ruthless actions, but you don’t cut off relations.”

What if?

Asked what might have happened if the Bush-Baker team had had a second term, Dr. Negroponte points to two issues. “They would not have expanded NATO eastward into Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, which was seen as a deep threat by the Russians,” she says. And the U.S. might not have intervened in the civil war in the Balkans. The Europeans had assured the Americans that they could handle the conflict “in their backyard” among the Serbs, Bosnians, and Croatians as Yugoslavia came apart. Also, Mr. Baker questioned the U.S. security motive for intervening, she says.  

The Clinton administration changed course on both of those policies, Dr. Negroponte explains, in large part because Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s U.N. ambassador and, later, secretary of state, was an émigré from Czechoslovakia and felt a responsibility to “rescue her people.”  

There has been relatively muted criticism of Mr. Baker’s actions during and even after his stint as secretary of state. He and his team have been widely praised for their deliberate and effective media management. With a smile, Dr. Negroponte says that Mr. Baker needed the media to persuade the American public that his actions were rational. His standard operating principle was, “You feed the crocodiles, or you are on the menu.”

Jacqueline Adams is co-author of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive.”

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