#4 A Tale of Two Terms: Ronald Reagan
When Ronald Reagan came into office in 1980 he had a reputation as perhaps the most stridently anti-Communist presidential candidate in the Cold War era. As President he failed to disappoint. He turned up the anti-Communist rhetoric; branded the Soviet Union an 'evil empire'; raised defense spending significantly; and increased support for anti-Communist rebels, and authoritarian regimes in Latin America, the Far East, Africa and perhaps most enduringly, Afghanistan. By escalating the containment doctrine to one of "rollback" his first term as President saw the Cold War reach, perhaps, its most fever pitch with both sides seriously entertaining the potentiality of nuclear conflict. An ABC television movie, The Day After, which portrayed a post-apocalyptic United States seemed like more than mere fantasy, but a distinct possibility.
Yet, in retrospect, for all his political bluster Reagan turned out to be quite the political pragmatist. When Mikhail Gorbachev took office in 1985, Reagan shelved the tough talk and got down to business, almost making a deal with the Soviet leader to eliminate all strategic nuclear weapons at the Reykjavik summit. But the very fact that he was willing to work with the Soviet premier; that he ignored the heated claims of many of his advisers that the US should remain on heightened sense of alert with the Soviets gave Gorbachev the political space he needed to enact reforms that eventually toppled his country. It's a telling reminder that sometimes restraint is the most effective foreign policy option.
Moreover, for all of Reagan's hawkish image he only ordered one major military intervention during his presidency, Grenada, and he wasn't afraid to cut his losses when necessary as he did in Lebanon after 241 Marines were killed on a peacekeeping mission. While the Iran-Contra affair would become a black mark on his second term in office and it's hard to look past the human toll of his support for anti-Communist and un-democratic groups around the world, he deserves enormous acclaim for helping peacefully end the Cold War (though not 'win' as Reagan partisans are prone to argue).
#3 The Underrated: George H. W Bush
Generally speaking when "president" and "Bush" are used in the same sentence these days, rarely does the word "success" also appear (more on that later). But when it comes to the foreign policy performance of the elder President Bush the track record is actually pretty good. He handled the Iraq War with great deftness; of particular note was the assembling of a multi-national coalition and getting a UN Security Council imprimatur to turn Saddam out of Kuwait. By laying out modest, achievable goals for the war and resisting the urge to "go to Baghdad" Bush offered a model for foreign intervention that faithfully subscribed to the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine . . . and was of course flagrantly violated by his son. Nonetheless, the Gulf War bolstered the notion of collective security in the international system and offered a warning to other countries intent on conducting cross-border invasions in the post-Cold War world.
Speaking of the Cold War, while Bush might have been a bit late in supporting Russian reformers, he was able to, in part, manage an international process that brought Soviet troops out of Eastern Europe, reunified Germany and eventually saw the demise of America's greatest strategic threat. All this was achieved with no violence and unfolded in such a way that saw vibrant democracies take root across Europe (if not Russia). That's no small accomplishment (even if the lion's share of credit belongs to European and Russian leaders). In the Middle East, the political pressure he put on Israel after the Gulf War (which hurt his re-election chances) led to the Madrid Peace conference. Even more important, open conflict with the Israeli government contributed, in part, to the election of Yitzhak Rabin and defeat of Yitzhak Shamir in 1991; these were two moves that helped pave the way for Oslo.
On the negative side, Bush's hands-off policy toward the Balkans while true to his realist impulses likely undermined the possibility of resolving the conflict before a full-scale civil war emerged. His encouragement of uprisings in Iraq that he failed to back up with use of force (not to mention a terrible cease fire deal with Saddam that allowed him to suppress Shiite and Kurdish revolts) are black marks on the Bush record. Criticism is perhaps also due for his failure to try and stabilize Afghanistan after the Soviet departure, but it's highly questionable as how to much the United States could have done to alter the situation. His post-Tiananmen support for Chinese leaders was morally dubious but may have, in the long-run, strengthened the process of reform in China. All in all Bush's success in his one-term suggests that had he served another his final ranking might have been even higher.