“We didn’t think it was going to be a peaceful world:” Brent Scowcroft & the world he helped fashion

Almost exactly thirty years ago, on August 2, 1990, Brent Scowcroft sat on a small airplane. Crammed in the seat in front of him, their knees touching, sat George H.W. Bush, the President of the United States. Bush spent the flight on the phone, calling up leaders around the world.

Scowcroft, who was the American President’s principal foreign policy advisor, was madly revising the speech Bush was going to give at their destination in Colorado – he had to make it compatible with the things that had happened the day before. Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s dictator, had sent his troops to invade neighboring Kuwait. The entire world was now watching the United States. The Cold War was almost over. The Berlin wall had fallen. Two Germanies would soon become one. Faced with naked aggression in a somewhat less-than-crucial context, would American leaders look the other way? Or would they conclude that it was in their country’s interest to intervene?

He had had “absolutely no doubt” about Bush’s determination, Scowcroft subsequently recalled (1). A few days later, after landing back at the White House, Bush told journalists that “this will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” And another few months later, an international coalition led by US military forces defeated Iraq’s army, with broad reverberations throughout the international system (2). Brent Scowcroft died a few weeks ago, on 6 August 2020. He was 95. Today, the question on many an analyst’s mind is whether America was very much a different country three decades ago, or whether Washington’s key policymakers back then were a different type of people.

Despite Bush’s clear words and Scowcroft apparent lack of doubt, the decision to intervene had not come easy. “Yours is a society which cannot accept [ten thousand] dead in one battle,” Iraq’s dictator had told the US envoy in Baghdad before his daring move. He was implying that Americans had no stomach for long wars in far-away places. For as long as America’s capitalist democracy had been engaged in a deadly battle with Soviet totalitarian communism, leaders in both Washington and Moscow had had little choice but to intervene. But now the Soviets were down and the Americans were surprised by their sudden success, the Iraqis reasoned. The world seemed remarkably unrestrained. These circumstances “will not happen again for fifty years,” an adviser told the Iraqi dictator. It was the “opportunity of a lifetime.” Moscow had its own fish to fry and Washington would swallow his land grabbing, Saddam concluded (3).

“We were trying to set up a method of behavior for the post-Cold War world,” Scowcroft later remembered, and this was the key moment where Washington needed to set the tone for the future.

The Iraqi despot was not alone with his assumption. Before boarding for Colorado, Bush and Scowcroft had attended a meeting that seemed to reach that very conclusion. The US government’s key policymakers had congregated for an hour at the White House. “There was sort of a fait acompli atmosphere,” Scowcroft later recalled (4). All gathered had agreed that they had to protect Saudi Arabia – it was inimical to US interests to permit any power to “gain dominance over Gulf oil supplies,” Pentagon planners had argued before. But the world needed oil, and Saddam would provide it, the officials at the meeting had concluded. Liberating Kuwait was “not viable,” budget officials concerned with the costs of a potential deployment had opined. Military leaders doubted whether their political masters possessed the resolve to go to war over Kuwait. Some had even argued that the crisis offered an “interesting opportunity” to boost production and drive down the global price of oil – to the benefit of US consumers. Dick Cheney, Bush’s Secretary of Defense at the time, later remembered that the general feeling had been that most citizens of Kuwait lived “in the south of France anyway.” (5)

Mere hours later, jam-packed on their small plane, Scowcroft told Bush that he was very disturbed at the tone of the morning meeting. It had skipped over “the enormous stake the United States had in the situation, or the ramification of the aggression on the emerging post-Cold War world.” (6) First, there was a regional dimension. Washington wanted to stabilize the Gulf, and Saddam’s actions were reinforcing old antagonisms. Also, neither Iraq nor Iran could be allowed to dominate the region, and Saddam’s incursion was threatening to start tilting the balance in his direction. However, the second – the global order – dimension was dominating. “We were trying to set up a method of behavior for the post-Cold War world,” Scowcroft later remembered, and this was the key moment where Washington needed to set the tone for the future. (7)

In other words, had the remaining superpower allowed a rogue dictator to do what he wanted, others would have registered the message. Scowcroft, together with his principal White House staffers, worked in the background. Luckily, upon further consideration, various other decisionmakers throughout the US government came to the same conclusion. By the time of the next meeting on the crisis, the tenor had changed. “This is the first test of the postwar system,” Larry Eagleburger, the Deputy Secretary of State, underlined. If Saddam succeeded, “others may try the same thing.” This would be a “bad lesson.” The world would become a more dangerous place – with long-term negative consequences for America’s goals of constructing a liberal and democratic global order. Both US security and prosperity would suffer (8). The bottom line was that the US leadership had to accept the costs of intervention now in order to prevent larger future threats to the national interest.

And yet, Bush’s choice – as preordained as it appears in the rearview mirror – was anything but easy (9). For instance, US military leaders were aware that high losses would once again damage their reputation and, hence, their position within the American society. Scarred by the war in Vietnam a few decades prior, military commanders wanted the armed forces to have the support of the population. Their “number one priority was to rearrange the relation with the American people,” a former official told me a few years ago. Thus, military leaders pushed the President to authorize an overpowering but very expensive deployment – they believed that decisive force would end the war quickly and save (American) lives. (10)

This type of military expedition ultimately delivered a crushing victory, but significantly increased Bush’s political costs in case of defeat. Towards the end of August 1990, Bush met Secretary of State James Baker – who was also his best friend – at the White House. Baker cautioned that the Iraq crisis had “all the ingredients that brought down three of the last five Presidents: A hostage crisis, body bags, and a full-fledged economic recession caused by [expensive] oil.” Bush replied: “I know that, Jimmy, I know that. But we’re doing what’s right; we’re doing what is clearly in the national interest of the United States. Whatever else happens, so be it.” (11) Thus, when the military leadership asked for very large forces to be dispatched to the Gulf, Bush – at Scowcroft’s advice – listened carefully and then stood up and said, “You’ve got it. Let me know if you need more.” He then promptly walked out of the room, leaving everyone stunned. (12)

Bush, Scowcroft, and many of their advisers believed that the international arena remained a highly competitive environment. Thus, they thought it was “romantic” and “wrong” to imagine that history could have ended.

Ultimately, Bush and Scowcroft’s choices were grounded in a particular reading of international affairs and, implicitly, of the post-Cold War era. “We didn’t think it was going to be a peaceful world,” Scowcroft later remembered his and the President’s thinking. “We thought it was going to be a messy world.” (13) Francis Fukuyama, who was at that point the deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, had just advanced his famous and popular end-of-history thesis: With communism dead, nations would converge, and conflict would be avoided. But Bush, Scowcroft, and many of their advisers believed that the international arena remained a highly competitive environment. Thus, they thought it was “romantic” and “wrong” to imagine that history could have ended. Regional disputes, long suppressed by the US-Soviet competition, would be reawakened, and new “political and economic” forces would be “unleashed.” Without the US global engagement, Washington’s international politico-economic designs would be imperiled.(14)

Today, we face a chicken and the egg problem. We see how Donald Trump, the current US President, is abandoning long-held American responsibilities. Was America so different three decades ago that it brough people like Scowcroft and Bush to power to served its interests at that point in time? If this is the case, we should brace ourselves – any American President will be transactional, less interested in global order and stability, and more likely to question the utility of the transatlantic alliance. Conversely, maybe the United States did not change that much, but the people who governed it three decades ago were different individuals, with different priorities and different ideas. Should this be the case, there is hope. Maybe the next President will be able to go back on some of the steps this Administration has taken, especially towards mending Washington’s relationship to Western Europe. In any case, the future remains interesting and uncertain. What is certain is that Scowcroft wisdom will be sorely missed.


  1. Philip Zelikow and James H. McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 61, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project, released August 2020.
  2. The best overview is Richard N. Haass, War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). For a more recent narrative, John Gans, White House Warriors (New York: Norton & Co, 2019), 89-114.
  3. Cited in Jeffrey A. Engel, When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 381 and 388.
  4. Zelikow and McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 59.
  5. Sandra Charles, “Memo for Haass: Minutes from NSC/DCM, August 2, 1990, on Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait,” January 22, 1991, Bush Library, Richard N. Haass Presidential Meeting File CF0118-019, NSC Meeting – August 2, 1990 Re: Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait; Philip Zelikow, “Interview with Dick Cheney,” March 16, 2000, 55, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project; and Norman Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero: The Autobiography of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (New York: Bantam, 1993), 297.
  6. George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 317–18; and Richard Haass, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order (New York, New York: Penguin Press, 2017). Also, Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 9.
  7. Zelikow and McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 61 and 72–73.
  8. John Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (New York: Random House, 2015), 426; and Andrea Mitchell, “Interview with Brent Scowcroft,” November 7, 2007, Princeton University Library, James A. Baker Oral History Project.
  9. For the same conclusion, see Stephen Knott, “Interview with Richard Haass,” May 27, 2004, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project.
  10. Interview with Joint Chiefs of Staff official, March 2018, Washington D.C. See also Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero.
  11. James A. Baker and Thomas DeFrank, The Politics of Diplomacy (New York: Putnam, 1995), 277.
  12. Robert M. Gates, “The Scowcroft Model,” Foreign Affairs, August 13, 2020.
  13. Philip Zelikow, “Interview #1 with Brent Scowcroft,” November 12, 1999, 52, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project.
  14. Brent Scowcroft, “Memo for Bush: US Diplomacy for the New Europe,” December 22, 1989, Bush Library, Scowcroft Collection, 91116 German Unification (December 1989). Also, “Memo for Bush: Your Meetings in Brussels with NATO Leaders,” November 29, 1989, and “US Policy in Eastern Europe in 1990,” January 1990, Bush Library, Scowcroft Collection, 91116 German Unification (November 1989) and NSC Collection, Robert D. Blackwill Chronological Files 30547-010, January 1990. For Francis Fukuyama’s essay, “The End of History?,” The National Interest, no. 16 (Summer 1989): 3–18.

The INF is dead. Now what?

By Michal Onderco | Rotterdam

On 2 August 2019, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, signed by the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, ended. The United States formally withdrew from the treaty, although it had already been clinically dead at least since the US suspended its compliance with the treaty in February 2019. The United States had already publicly accused Russia of noncompliance five years ago, during the Obama Administration.

At that time, the State Department noted (in a bureaucratic document outlining compliance with arms control agreements) that “[t]he United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty”.

A year later, the United States added a detail, noting that the violation was related to a groundlaunched cruise missile which Russia had developed. The US strategy at that time seems to have been to bring Russia into compliance, but also to develop its own potential responses to the violation.

 Russia for her part denied engaging in such activity, and instead also charged the United States with having violated the treaty. European countries’ response to the end of the INF should be based around stepping up their defence spending and commitments. Such steps would help Europeans to address the security vacuum emerging after the collapse of the INF, and would also reinvigorate Europe’s defence posture and strengthen its position within NATO.

The birth and the death of the INF found Europe in different states

During the Cold War, the treaty was of crucial importance for Europeans, who would have been the primary targets of Soviet intermediate-range missiles if conflict broke out between the USA and the Soviet Union. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, European leaders voiced concerns about Russian missiles, particularly the SS-20. For European policymakers, and especially West Germany, the development and deployment of the SS-20 tipped the balance of forces vis-à-vis any future conflict between West and East decidedly towards the Soviet Union.

Germany, as well as other Western NATO nations, demanded that the US react with the development and deployment of equivalent missiles. Yet Europe’s publics mainly perceived the crisis in the light of possible nuclear holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of citizens went onto the streets to demonstrate against nuclear weapons and in favour of nuclear disarmament.

The domestic pressure on Western European (democratic) governments was enormous. The mass protests were memorable: in 1983, over half million people came to the Malieveld park in the Hague to protest against nuclear war and oppose the deployment of American nuclear weapons in Europe.

The conclusion of the INF treaty therefore helped European leaders to solve two problems: both the external security problem, and the domestic public pressure. As opposed to the massive protests against intermediate-range missiles in 1980s, the Russian violation in the mid-2010s was not met even with a shudder. By that time, nuclear weapons had fallen out of the public’s attention, and Europe – convulsed by the Greek debt crisis and the migrants streaming across the Mediterranean – simply did not pay attention.

European response to the end of the INF should be based around stepping up the defence spending and commitments. Such steps would strengthen Europe’s position within NATO.

However, to be fair, the United States was also not exactly forthcoming with information, and shared only very few details with its allies. Therefore, while US analysts such as former State Department official Steven Pifer accused European governments of not confronting Russia about the violations in its bilateral interactions, the Americans did not make it any easier for Europeans by withdrawing and classifying much of the evidence of Russian noncompliance.

Conversely, European countries realised the gravity of the situation only when it became obvious that the United States would withdraw from the treaty. Numerous Western European governments, alarmed at the erosion of the treaty they saw as fundamental to their own security, perceived the situation as the epitome of their strategic predicament in 2019.

 European countries rely on the United States in strategic questions, even though the interests of the United States seem to diverge from theirs, and are confronted by challenges which Europe cannot address on its own. The end of the INF was a sign of tensions easing at the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new era, in which international institutions (whether treaties or organisations) held a promise of a more orderly future for European countries.

The end of the treaty punctures that image for Europeans. The collapse of the INF has special relevance for the Central European region. Intermediaterange missiles are often thought to influence the balance of power on the battlefield, rather than having an innate strategic importance (although it is arguably difficult to consider any use of nuclear weapons as non-strategic).

For numerous observers, any potential conflict between NATO and Russia will start in Eastern Europe, and will therefore involve (or at least take place on the territory of) Eastern Europe. The Eastern European countries should thus be most concerned about the collapse of the INF and its aftermath.

However, the governments of these countries, with the exception of governments in Poland and the Baltics, have remained conspicuously silent. The Polish and Baltic governments have, compared to their Western European counterparts, been more critical of Russia, and have raised louder appeals for the United States to provide a deterrent solution.

The European predicament

Because European countries did not possess the relevant technological capabilities, they usually left strategic discussions to the Americans and Russians, in order not to engage in what German political scientist Ulrich Kühn called “arms control without arms to control”.

This led European policy-makers to resort to “seeking allied unity” and calling on Russia to return to compliance with the treaty. European analysts, the above-mentioned Kühn prominent among them, suggested solutions as varied as strengthening missile defence, rotational deployment of bombers, and the deployment of conventional-tipped sea-launched ballistic missiles on US submarines in European waters.

While such solutions are within the realm of the technologically possible and politically feasible, they might potentially be strategically destabilising and could increase the chances that nuclear weapons might be used. For instance, a recent review by Beatrix Immenkamp of the European Parliament’s Research Service ruled out every solution offered as being impossible, either because it was technically unfeasible or because the necessary political will was lacking.

However pressured and worried about the United States’ future commitment to European security the European countries are, they nonetheless realise that they have no replacement for the key role that the United States has played in European security since the end of World War II. However, the potential for the use of intermediate-range missiles creates a different type of challenge to Europe than to the United States, particularly due to the former’s geographical proximity.

European countries should support the development of a conventional deterrent, including developing A2/AD capabilities. These could give Europeans a bargaining chip.

 While the end of the INF unties the United States’ hands in a certain way (especially in relation to responding to China’s development of intermediate-range missiles and the future of American alliances in Asia), for Europe the end of the treaty opens up the option of nuclear war on the continent. Although this problem is particularly acute in Eastern Europe, the whole region is caught in this predicament.

For the same reason, the European countries need to consider their own unity in the aftermath of the INF’s end. Such unity is important both for the symbolic image of Europe as a global actor, as well as for the adoption of any future Europewide solution to the INF crisis.

Therefore, while Europeans should not stop seeking cooperative solutions together with the United States, they should also think about the potential steps that they themselves could take to mitigate the threat from Russian intermediate-range missiles in the future. The first step in mitigating this threat is to think about what scenarios might lead to the use of intermediate-range nuclear weapons, and then think about how to prevent any such scenarios from emerging through deterrence.

One of the most likely scenarios for a future nuclear conflict between NATO and Russia usually revolves around a miscalculated Russian attack on NATO’s Eastern flank, one in which Russia would start to lose ground. To prevent such a scenario, European countries should support the development of a conventional deterrent, including developing capabilities in the anti-access and area-denial fields.

There is no doubt that such a development would be a sea change from the practices of the past, but the upside of such capabilities is that Europeans might actually build capabilities which Russians might want to limit, which could give Europeans a bargaining chip for future negotiations on intermediate-range missiles.

Cross-domain deterrence offers another avenue for deterring future conflicts. The principle of cross-domain deterrence is to deter attack in one domain (in this instance, nuclear) by developing tools in another domain.

For European countries, there are multiple possible options. European countries could, either within the framework of NATO or outside it, develop deterrent tools in cyberspace which could significantly deter Russia from ever contemplating the use of intermediate-range missiles.

To ensure long-term security in the region, the countries on the continent need to start thinking and acting for themselves .

Of course, it remains questionable whether such tools could persuasively signal Europe’s willingness to use them, and whether they would lead to more stability or not, but offensive cyber weapons provide an option for Europe. The framework of Permanent Structured Cooperation within the EU creates an opportunity for both economies of scale and opening new avenues for European cooperation. The potential is enormous, especially for Central European countries, to both expand their industrial bases and to develop their own defence capabilities.

What not to do and the way out

One pipedream that European countries should not continue chasing is bringing Russia into compliance with the INF, or attempting to revive the INF in its original form. For starters, it seems that neither of the original parties to the INF is unhappy with its collapse. However, Europeans should recognise the fundamental security considerations at play.

If Russia considers intermediate-range missiles as fundamental to its security, it is very unlikely to give them up. The same applies to the dream of universalising the INF through a global regime. Not only are the United States and Russia uninterested in such treaty, but China – about whose intermediate range missiles both the US and Russia are concerned – as well as other countries currently developing such missiles also have no interest in limiting such development.

While the costs of developing technological, military, and political solutions are sizeable, the domestic political costs should not be forgotten. While European societies are no longer aroused by the potential of nuclear war, they are in no way pro-nuclear. However, citizens also tend to be sensitive to military expenditure, and would probably be opposed to steps which could be seen as escalatory towards Russia.

However, the aversion to nuclear weapons among European publics might provide a conduit to supporting the deployment of responses to Russian norm-breaking. The post-INF crisis should make it clear to European countries that, as much as they need to work with the United States to maintain their security, the interests of the United States are different from those of European allies.

Primarily, the United States – like Russia – is concerned about developments in China, and might therefore view the collapse of INF through a different lens. Proposals to develop European capabilities should not mean the end of cooperation in NATO. However, they would mean a development of European military muscle – something that even the United States has called for within the framework of NATO.

Relying on American-supplied solutions will not address the security concerns felt in Europe. To ensure long-term stability and security in the region, the countries on the continent need to start thinking and acting for themselves. In the same way as the European countries learn to represent each other’s interests in trade negotiations, they should get serious about security considerations, especially the Central and Eastern European member states.

Even if Europeans have a natural predilection for negotiations – and some analysts suggested that Europe should negotiate with Russia on a future grand bargain for European security – Europeans know too well that it is much easier to negotiate when one has something to offer. The fate of Europe’s counterparts when it comes to trade negotiations should have taught them that.