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Revisiting the Elder Bush’s Kiev Speech

Via WhiteHouse.gov

Michael Rubin dredges up a very tired talking point to argue for U.S. support for protests in Iran:

Both Democrats and Republicans mocked President George H.W. Bush for initial opposition to Ukrainian independence because he prioritized preserving non-proliferation agreements struck with Moscow over support for freedom, no matter that the regime on the verge of collapse had held the world hostage for almost a half century.

The elder Bush’s handling of the collapse of communism in Europe and the dissolution of the USSR was by far his greatest foreign policy success, so it is bizarre that he is still criticized almost thirty years later for a speech he gave in Kiev that epitomized the sober, responsible approach that worked so well. Rubin refers here to Bush’s so-called “Chicken Kiev” speech from the summer of 1991. In that speech, Bush warned against the dangers of “suicidal nationalism” and ethnic hatred, but also expressed support for and solidarity with those working for liberal and democratic political reform. I recommend reading the speech in its entirety. Readers should understand the speech as part of Bush’s efforts to manage the winding down of the Cold War and interpret it accordingly. This may have been the most important part of the speech:

In Moscow, I outlined our approach: We will support those in the center and the Republics who pursue freedom, democracy, and economic liberty. We will determine our support not on the basis of personalities but on the basis of principles. We cannot tell you how to reform your society. We will not try to pick winners and losers in political competitions between Republics or between Republics and the center. That is your business; that’s not the business of the United States of America.

In other words, the elder Bush expressed support for freedom and democracy in Ukraine and all of the other then-Soviet republics. He also pursued arms control agreements during his presidency, but he did not do so at the expense of offering that support. Bush did not necessarily oppose independence for any of the republics, but he did say this:

Yet freedom is not the same as independence. Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local depotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.

When we remember that Bush was saying this while the Balkan Wars were just beginning, it is hard to understand why we are supposed to fault him for saying it. Should he have encouraged “suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred”? I don’t think so. Should he have backed nationalist causes without regard for the possible consequences? That would have been reckless and stupid. There was good reason to fear that the breakup of the Soviet Union would unleash much more violence and instability than it did, and there was nothing wrong with responding cautiously to that development. Hawkish objections to Bush’s Kiev speech were petty and short-sighted when they were first made, and they still are today.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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