Leadership experts and the public alike extol the virtues of transformational leaders — those who set out bold objectives and take risks to change the world. We tend to downplay “transactional” leaders, whose goals are more modest, as mere managers. But in looking closely at the leaders who presided over key periods of expanding American primacy in the past century, I found that while transformational presidents such as Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan changed how Americans viewed their nation’s role in the world, some transactional presidents, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush, were more effective in executing their policies.
He notes that transformational foreign policies are risks: they can be wildly successful, or tragic failures. Transactional policies, on the other hand, are more cautious, and make progress which is steady but perhaps less exciting:
Compare Woodrow Wilson, a failed transformational president, with the first George Bush, a successful transactional one. Wilson made a costly and mistaken bet on the Treaty of Versailles at the conclusion of the First World War. His noble vision of an American-led League of Nations was
revealed in the course of time to be good-hearted, well-intentioned, and idealistic. It was also doomed to failure. Not only were Wilson's internationalist visions destined for ineffectiveness because of their naively utopian nature, but also because of Wilson's poor managerial skills:
He lacked the leadership skills to implement this vision in his own time, and this shortcoming contributed to America’s retreat into isolationism in the 1930s. In the case of Bush 41, the president’s lack of what he called “the vision thing” limited his ability to sway Americans’ perceptions of the nation and its role in the world. But his execution and management of policy was first-rate.
Unlike Wilson, George H.W. Bush understood working relationships with other world governments - before becoming president, he had served as ambassador to the United Nations, as a diplomat to China, and as director of the CIA. Wilson, by contrast, had been a strictly domestic figure, with little understanding, experience, or contact to any government outside the United States; inside the USA, Wilson had been a somewhat distant and academic figure, not a hands-on manager. The elder Bush had played on a successful baseball team and managed successful energy companies: he knew how to work with people.
Woodrow Wilson's quixotic plans for international relations were perhaps naive, but not simplistic. The League of Nations, Wilson's brainchild, was tasked with enforcing not only the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, but also the other postwar agreements, like the Treaty of Saint-Germain and the Treaty of Trianon (both of which dealt primarily with the Balkans), and the Treaty of Sevres (which dismembered the Ottoman Empire). This tangled skein - composed between 1918 and 1920 - was so complex that the U.S. Senate feared unintended and perhaps disastrous consequences, should the USA become party to it. The Senate refused to ratify the USA's entry into the League of Nations, not wanting to saddle the country with the burden of enforcing all these treaties, and not wanting to obligate the country to enter wars in the future: entry into the League would have required the USA to come to the military defense of any other League nation which might find itself under attack.
By contrast, President George H.W. Bush gained the respect of other world leaders, not by a dramatic recasting of the world, but rather by patient, cautious, gradual and organic development of international relations. When the senior Bush proposed creating a coalition which would include both European states and the Islamic states of the Middle East, and use this coalition for the purposes of defeating Iraq, many of his critiques deemed this impossible. Yet he created a coalition of more than thirty nations, ranging from Saudi Arabia to South Korea, and including both Argentina and the United Kingdom. Bush's patient diplomacy drew Vietnam, China, Mongolia, Guatemala, and Senegal into the coalition. Most delicately, he persuaded Pakistan and other Islamic nations into a coalition which could have been perceived as a coalition which would benefit Israel. The 1990/1991 Gulf War coalition remains one of the most amazing feats of international diplomacy.