George Herbert Walker Bush was inaugurated as president of the United States in January 1989 at a watershed moment in twentieth-century history. As with 1918 and 1945, 1989 was a year when the old great-power order collapsed and the United States stood as preeminent in world affairs. In the first months of the Bush administration, the world was astounded as democracy arose everywhere in the communist bloc. Long oppressed by puppet regimes propped up by Soviet guns, Eastern Europe was revolutionized in just a few startling months in 1989. The Solidarity movement in Poland led the way when it toppled Poland's communist government in August. In rapid succession, communist regimes collapsed in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and even hyper-repressive Romania. In December 1989 jubilant Germans danced atop the hated Berlin Wall, symbol of the division of Germany and all of Europe into two armed and hostile camps. The two Germanys, divided since 1945, were at last reunited in October 1990, with the approval of the victorious allied powers of World War II.
But the changes that swept the heartland of world communism were the most startling of all. Mikhail Gorbachev's policies had set in motion a groundswell that surged out of his control. Waves of nationalistic fervor and long-suppressed ethnic and racial hatred rolled across the Soviet Union's constituent republics, overwhelming communist ideology. Old-guard hard-liners, in a last-gasp effort to preserve the tottering communist system, attempted to dislodge Gorbachev with a military coup in August 1991. With the support of Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Republic, Gorbachev foiled the plotters. But in December 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president and the Soviet Union dissolved into fifteen sovereign republics with Russia the most powerful state and Yeltsin the dominant leader. To varying degrees, all the new governments in the former Soviet republics repudiated communism and embraced democratic reforms and free-market economies.
By the time the Cold War came to an end, the international legal right of self-determination had been accepted in the context of decolonization. But it was not clear whether that right extended to noncolonial situations. Most scholars of government believed that the principle of political unity prevailed over any expression of self-determination within a state. However, events in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia at the close of the Cold War forced the international community to cope with the demands of groups seeking to break off from existing states. International law, with its traditional rejection of such claims, provided little guidance. The United States and the international community scrambled to respond, with decidedly mixed results.
More then twenty months passed from the time the Baltic republics of the Soviet Union took their initial steps in March 1990 toward independence to the dissolution of the USSR. U.S. policy toward the Baltics set a pattern that would be followed until shortly before the Soviet Union's dissolution. The United States did not support steps toward sovereignty for the Soviet republics in general, or even on a case-by-case basis. Rather, it adopted a wait-and-see approach as a means to a larger object: the survival of Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in a mostly unified Soviet Union. The United States had diplomatic relations with Lithuania in the 1920s and 1930s and never recognized Stalin's annexation in 1940. Further-more, it had permitted a Lithuanian diplomatic presence in Washington throughout the Cold War. Nonetheless, when Lithuania moved toward independence in 1990, the United States tilted toward Moscow.
American reluctance to move toward recognition of an independent Lithuania continued for nearly a year and a half. On 1 August 1991, weeks before the failed coup by communist hard-liners in Moscow, President Bush warned against "suicidal nationalism" in the republics and stated that the United States "would maintain the strongest possible relationship with the Soviet government." Even after the unsuccessful Soviet coup was launched and the three Baltic republics reasserted their independence, the United States stood back while European governments took the lead in responding to their claims.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union appearing more likely during the fall of 1991, the United States shifted its policy. Following Soviet president Gorbachev's resignation and the formal dissolution of the Soviet government on 25 December, the United States announced recognition of the twelve remaining Soviet republics as independent states. However, the United States proposed establishing full diplomatic relations with only six of the new states: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Ukraine, states that the administration claimed had made specific commitments to responsible security policy and democratic principles. However, Secretary of State James A. Baker's articulation of principles guiding the pace of U.S. recognition seemed governed more by political expedience than principle. Each of the four successor states that possessed strategic nuclear weapons—Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine—were among the first states to win U.S. recognition. This risked sending a dangerous message: that retaining nuclear weapons would offer the new states leverage with the West. Furthermore, the recognition of Armenia but not Azerbaijan may have exacerbated tension in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh—populated by Armenians but located in and administered by Azerbaijan—by undermining the U.S. neutral position regarding the conflict. Concern, however inflated, that a policy of selective recognition could prompt the Islamic republics of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in Central Asia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus to turn toward Iran prompted the United States to quickly accept perfunctory promises of support for democratic principles and to establish diplomatic ties. By the end of February 1992 the United States had granted formal diplomatic recognition to eleven of the twelve non-Baltic republics. It granted recognition to the final republic, Georgia, in March 1992, after its civil wars subsided and Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, offered appropriate commitments.