Opportunities and Challenges in the Changing Post-Cold War World

Using the George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations as case studies, my research explores some of the foreign policy challenges that the United States currently faces in light of the opportunities the country saw in the aftermath of the Cold War. My paper analyzes the ideological and material realities that characterized the two administrations and then highlights their similarities and differences through a comparison of Obama’s handling of the recent and ongoing crises in Libya and Syria to Bush’s management of the Gulf War and the famine in Somalia.

One interesting point that I have come across in my research is the extent to which President Obama’s foreign policy aligns with that of President George H.W. Bush. I have found it particularly interesting to note some of the personal statements comparing the two. For example, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, put it thus: “Everyone always breaks it down between idealist and realist. If you had to put [Obama] in a category, he’s more realpolitik, like Bush 41.”[1] The two have also both been on the receiving end of accusations of being too willing to deal with dictators. In the 1992 campaign Bill Clinton accused President Bush of “coddling dictators from Baghdad to Beijing.”[2] In the 2008 campaign another Clinton, this time Hillary, similarly rebuked President Obama for his openness to meet with dictators without preconditions.[3] Perhaps most poignantly, President Obama himself has remarked, “I have enormous sympathy for the foreign policy of George H. W. Bush.”[4] At a town hall meeting he similarly explained, “The truth is that my foreign policy is actually a return to the traditional, bipartisan, realistic foreign policy of George Bush’s father, John F. Kennedy, of in some ways Ronald Reagan.”[5]

I have also found it interesting to note some of the ways in which the similarities between the two extend beyond these public pronouncements. Both Presidents have given great weight to the views of Brent Scowcroft, for example. President Bush appointed Scowcroft to be his National Security Advisor, a position he held for the entirety of the administration.[6] Obama did not appoint Scowcroft to a position in his administration, but he did defer to many of Scowcroft’s opinions when forming his team during the transition period after the 2008 election. Scowcroft’s influence was particularly visible when he recommended the appointment of former Marine Corps Commandant James Jones to the position of National Security Advisor and Obama acquiesced despite barely knowing Jones.[7] President Obama’s decision to keep Robert Gates as his Secretary of Defense is similarly telling. Gates was one of the only members of the George W. Bush administration to retain his position in the Obama administration. He was also a protégé of Scowcroft. Gates had served as Scowcroft’s deputy in the George H.W. Bush administration, during which time they worked together on the invasion of Panama and Operation Desert Storm.[8] Scowcroft had later endorsed Gates for the position of Director of Central Intelligence, which he assumed during the last year of the George H.W. Bush administration.[9] In fact, Scowcroft’s influence over the president has been so extensive that Denis McDonough, President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor, stated, “Scowcroft is someone the president really admires.”[10]


I am looking forward to sharing more about my research and learning more about everyone else’s!


Jonathan Messing

University of Pennsylvania



     [1] James Mann, The Obamians: How a Band of Newcomers Redefined American Power (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 166.

     [2] Ibid., 164.

     [4] David Brooks, “Obama Admires Bush.” New York Times, May 16, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/16/opinion/16brooks.html.

     [5] Maria Gavrilovich, “Obama Says on Foreign Policy He’s Like Reagan and Bush 41.” CBS News. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-502443_162-3978821-502443.html.

     [6] “Brent Scowcroft,” Center for Strategic and International Studies. http://csis.org/expert/brent-scowcroft.

     [7] Mann, 165.

     [8] Ibid.

     [9] Ibid.

     [10] Ibid., 166.

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