Seated in the White House’s cabinet room across from a phalanx of Soviet leaders, Brent Scowcroft was in shock. After a bit of prodding from US president George HW Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev had just agreed that, if a reunified Germany wanted to join Nato, he would not object.
After months of delicate US diplomacy, the Soviet president’s sudden capitulation at a 1990 Washington summit was unexpected — so much so that it surprised the rest of his delegation as much as it had Scowcroft.
Gorbachev’s top military adviser became angry, gesticulating and whispering loudly towards another hardline aide, Scowcroft would later recall. Eduard Shevardnadze, the liberalising foreign minister, tugged Gorbachev’s sleeve to warn his boss of the revolt in the room.
“I could scarcely believe what I was witnessing, let alone figure out what to make of it,” Scowcroft wrote. It was a close-up reminder, as if one were needed, that the collapse of Communist regimes in central and eastern Europe could meet a divisive, even violent end.
But only a year later, Germany would be peacefully reunited, Russia’s first democratically elected president would emerge triumphant after standing up to a revanchist coup, and former Warsaw Pact countries would be given a blueprint for joining Nato.
Scowcroft died on Thursday at the age of 95, and the masterful management of the end of the Cold War, in partnership with Bush and James Baker, the secretary of state, will be remembered as his most important historical legacy.
“He was, quite simply, a model national security adviser who helped guide the United States and the world through the peaceful conclusion of the cold war,” said Mr Baker, the last survivor of the long-living triumvirate.
Scowcroft was no ideologue. There is no philosophy of foreign policy bearing his name like there is for Henry Kissinger, Scowcroft’s first mentor, who tapped the 48-year-old three-star air force general to be his deputy in the Nixon White House and then watched as he succeeded him as national security adviser under Gerald Ford.
Instead, Scowcroft was the postwar world’s consummate foreign policy manager. He prodded a group as disparate as Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Gorbachev to sing from the same (mostly American) hymnal after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. He also, in the midst of that upheaval, helped weave together an international coalition to foist Saddam Hussein from Iraq. And, perhaps of equal import, he managed egos in the Pentagon, state department and CIA so that the president had the best advice from all centres of American power.
Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to Nato and author of a book on national security advisers, argued that it was this mastery of the Washington foreign policy bureaucracy — the ability to serve both as “honest broker” and “closest adviser” at the end of the cold war — that made Scowcroft the most successful national security adviser since the post was created in the aftermath of the second world war, surpassing even Mr Kissinger.
“It is because of the process, not the policy,” said Mr Daalder. “Every single national security adviser since, including John Bolton, has said: ‘I want to run this like Brent Scowcroft’.”
At a time of American hyperpartisanship, Scowcroft’s death is a reminder of a time when the bipartisan Washington foreign policy establishment still held considerable sway.
Just four years ago, it was Scowcroft who persuaded several mainstream Republicans to join Donald Trump’s national security team despite trepidation about the new president’s character. “If you’re asked to serve, please do,” he said at the time. “This man needs help.”
Scowcroft was born in 1925 to a Mormon family in Ogden, Utah, then just a small town of 25,000, the son of a prosperous wholesale grocer whose success enabled him to shield the Scowcrofts from the worst of the Great Depression.
Scowcroft once told an interviewer that he had wanted to attend the US Military Academy at West Point since he was 12; he started his studies there to become an officer in the Army Air Corps in the waning days of the second world war, graduating into what would become the US Air Force too late to see combat.
A training accident curtailed Scowcroft’s hopes of becoming a fighter pilot, forcing him to rethink his air force career. He chose the academy, studying for a masters and doctorate at Columbia University, a path that turned him into one of the military’s leading strategic thinkers.
“Scowcroft’s idea of recreation was attending a seminar on arms control, a subject he loved in all its obscure detail,” Bob Woodward wrote in his 1991 book of the Gulf war. “He had once spent an hour and half refereeing a debate over a single phrase proposed for a blue-ribbon commission report on strategic missiles.”
By his own account, Scowcroft’s introduction to the political world happened almost by accident. When he received his first star — “there aren’t any great jobs for a one-star general” — he was offered a post managing all the military assets used by the White House, including Air Force One and Camp David.
“In the absence of any attractive job, I said: ‘Fine. I’d be happy to do that’,” he said in an oral history of the Bush administration. “I spent about a year doing that, and then Henry Kissinger needed a new assistant . . . And that’s what launched me on a semipolitical career.”
It was while working as Mr Kissinger’s successor in the Ford White House that he became close to Bush, then director of the CIA. When Bush won the presidency a little more than a decade later, Scowcroft privately coveted becoming secretary of defence. Bush wanted him back as national security adviser.
“I briefly toyed with the idea of persuading him to accept defence or the CIA,” Bush would recall, finally deciding to press him to return to the top foreign policy post in the White House. “He would not try to run over the heads of cabinet members, or cut them off from contact with the president, yet I also knew he would give me his own experienced views on whatever problem would arise.”
It would be a fateful decision, helping Bush manage the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Gulf war, the enlargement of Nato and the Tiananmen Square crackdown. His deputy was Robert Gates, and his head of Soviet policy was Condoleezza Rice, choices that would seed the Washington foreign policy establishment for decades to come.
When Barack Obama became president, the young Democrat chose to organise his national security team on Scowcroft’s model rather than that of the White House’s previous Democratic occupant, Bill Clinton. He empowered strong cabinet secretaries — Mr Gates at the Pentagon, Hillary Clinton at state — in hopes that their views could be synthesised by the National Security Council.
“What didn’t he have?” recalled Mr Daalder. “He didn’t have a Scowcroft.”