President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker had participated in the evolving Soviet–U.S. relationship, but they found it difficult to keep up with the dynamic changes that Gorbachev had unleashed to end the Cold War as well as the increasing ethnic, national, and political tensions that erupted in the Soviet empire. Bush rejected Reagan's remark that the Cold War was over and initiated a strategic review that provided very little guidance when completed in mid-March 1989. Instead, the review reflected how American officials, like many of their Soviet counterparts, were finding it difficult to shift out of the Cold War paradigm of suspicion and competition. Bush, Baker, and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft preferred a return to stability and deterrence rather than the high-wire negotiations at Reykjavik and the antinuclear and anti-Soviet rhetoric of the hard-liners. Gorbachev's continuing moves to cut Soviet military spending and take Soviet missiles out of eastern Europe to support a request for the elimination of all short-range nuclear weapons in Europe, however, prompted the White House to return to negotiations with Moscow in May.
Gorbachev had urged Communist Party leaders in eastern Europe to implement reforms and warned them that the Soviet Union would not bail them out with force as it had done since 1945. Poland began belated changes in the spring of 1989 when Jaruzelski opened talks with Solidarity leaders that led to an election for the new upper house in the Polish parliament with Solidarity sweeping ninety-nine of one hundred seats. Solidarity joined a coalition government in July, an action endorsed by Gorbachev, and elected a Solidarity prime minister. Bush and his advisers recognized that the United States should support Gorbachev's willingness to allow freedom in eastern Europe by avoiding giving any ammunition to Soviet hard-liners through triumphal statements on the situation or by efforts to recruit the eastern European states to join the West against Moscow.
In the fall of 1989 the pace of change intensified as Hungary opened its western border to allow East Germans to escape to the West and the Hungarian Communist Party abandoned Leninism to become the Hungarian Socialist Party. By the end of October, Hungary had become a republic with a representative government, and national elections held in 1990 voted out the old Communist-Socialist Party. In November the East German communists dumped the veteran party leader Erich Honecker, and East Germans dramatically forced open the Berlin Wall on 9 November. On the same night, the Bulgarian Communist Party discarded Todor Zhivkov, the longest-ruling party leader in eastern Europe, and within little more than a year the party joined Zhivkov on the sidelines. Demonstrations also escalated in Czechoslovakia, leading to the resignation of Gustav Husák, another veteran communist leader, and the eventual election of Václav Havel, a leader of the opposition.
By the time Bush and Baker met with Gorbachev at a summit in Malta in December, Baker and Shevardnadze had met several times and resolved most remaining arms control issues as Gorbachev again offered to cut offensive strategic missiles without any agreement on SDI. Despite the stormy weather that kept the U.S. and Soviet leaders confined to a docked Soviet cruise liner, Bush successfully greeted Gorbachev with a series of proposals to remove Cold War economic restrictions against the Soviet Union and to step up the pace of the START negotiations.
Germany remained the most difficult challenge for Gorbachev and Bush. The collapse of eastern Europe in 1989 intensified Soviet conservative criticism of Gorbachev, with the prospect of a united Germany, raising memories of World War II, as the issue of greatest concern. With the assistance of Western allies and West German leaders, Bush and Baker successfully went to a "two plus four" negotiating approach, with the German regimes as the "two" and the World War II Allies as the "four." Despite the mounting problems that Gorbachev faced with independence movements in Lithuania and elsewhere, and increased resistance from the Red Army and Soviet hard-liners, Baker and Bush, in numerous meetings with Shevardnadze and Gorbachev including a Washington summit in May 1990, patiently achieved a favorable settlement on Germany.
Bush and Baker had less success in satisfying critics when the focus shifted to the emerging disintegration of the Soviet Union. Liberals and moderates in Congress and the media had urged the White House to back Gorbachev, but when Gorbachev fell behind the demands for change, such as the Baltic states' insistence upon independence, these critics urged Bush to shift U.S. support to Boris Yeltsin, a former Gorbachev ally who, as president of the Russian Federation in 1991, was now leading the opposition movement seeking to get rid of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. U.S. conservatives and hard-liners, on the other hand, resisted offering any support for Gorbachev both because they remained suspicious that his ultimate loyalty was to communism and the Soviet party and because they hoped the rollback of communism in eastern Europe would reach Moscow and other communist regimes.
By moving to negotiate with Gorbachev on a growing number of issues in 1989–1991, Bush and Baker established a successful relationship with him. Although Gorbachev and his advisers wanted quicker and more U.S. support, they came to view Bush and Baker as sympathetic officials even when the latter felt compelled to criticize Gorbachev for some of the Soviet pressure used to resist independence in Lithuania. In the context of the tremendous changes that took place in eastern Europe in 1989 and the fragmentation that occurred in the Soviet empire with the independence movements in the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, and the Central Asian regimes such as Kazakhstan, U.S. officials achieved essential objectives and at the same time avoided excessive involvement in the internal turmoil and disintegration of the Soviet empire and communist system.