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George Shultz, 'America's greatest secretary of state'

A new biography recalls an era, long since vanished, when leaders of vision and integrity literally saved the world.

Analysis | Global Crises

A number of years ago, in a cramped conference room high above Washington D.C.’s Massachusetts Avenue (colloquially, if not pretentiously, known as ‘think tank row’), Charles Hill, a professor in the Grand Strategy program at Yale, commented, almost in passing, that in his view George Shultz was America’s greatest secretary of state, an opinion with which a man he simply referred to as “Henry” was sure to take issue. 

And while Hill, who served as Shultz’s executive assistant at the State Department, was not necessarily the most impartial observer regarding Shultz’s place in the diplomatic pantheon, he was surely correct. As the years have passed and the archives have opened and the books and articles have poured forth, it has become increasingly clear that, had it not been for Shultz’s dogged determination, the peaceful denouement of the Cold War may not have happened.

Jack Matlock, Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the USSR from 1987 to 1991, says in Philip Taubman’s new Shultz biography, In The Nation’s Service, that calling the 60th Secretary of State's role “essential” in ending the Cold War would be putting "it too mild. I cannot imagine relations with the Soviet Union developing the way they did if he had not been secretary of state.”

Yet few observers of Shultz’s first years on the job would have predicted the laurels to come. The dysfunction, backbiting, and occasional criminality within the Reagan administration’s national security apparatus came as a rude awakening to Shultz, who was about as experienced and hardened Washington hand as one could find, having held three cabinet posts (OMB, Labor, and Treasury) during the Nixon administration. To get his way on Soviet policy, Shultz had to make a herculean effort to overcome the opposition of a coterie of anti-Soviet hardliners within the administration, including CIA director William Casey, CIA deputy director Robert Gates, secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger, Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle and a revolving-door cast of second-raters who occupied the post of national security advisor until Frank Carlucci and Colin Powell stepped in during the final two years of the administration.

Still more, Shultz had to contend with the machinations (covered in more detail in James Mann’s superb The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan) of former President Richard Nixon and the aforementioned “Henry” who sought to undercut at every turn Shultz’s push for diplomatic engagement with the Soviets. Yet the difference between Shultz and the intelligence agencies and Reagan’s hawkish advisers was that Shultz was able, because he wasn’t blinded by ideology, to take an accurate measure of Gorbachev. After his first meeting with the new Soviet General Secretary, Shultz observed that “In Gorbachev we have an entirely different kind of leader in the Soviet Union than we have experienced before.”

Shultz (with a great deal of help along the way from First Lady Nancy Reagan) was also able to tap into the better angels of Reagan’s nature and convinced the president that Gorbachev was a man with whom he could do business. And over the course of four summit meetings in three years, Reagan and Gorbachev paved the way for the peaceful end to the four-decade Cold War, culminating in the latter’s December 7, 1988 address before the UN General Assembly, where, as Taubman writes, Gorbachev described a new world order governed by “the principle of freedom of choice.” 

In the speech, Gorbachev also declared reductions of half a million Soviet troops as well as the withdrawal of six divisions of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe — essentially ending the Cold War. Gorbachev also graciously acknowledged “the contribution of President Ronald Reagan and the members of his administration, above all Mr. George Shultz.” 

One criticism of Shultz that runs through In The Nation’s Service was that he was something less than a stellar bureaucratic infighter, by turns naive or too quick to salute his superiors. To which, given his accomplishments, one might respond: So what? If bureaucratic knife-fighting was the measure of statesmanship, we’d be constructing statues to Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney on the National Mall. 

At times, it seems that Taubman’s desire to make “news” with the book came at the expense of other, more relevant issues attaching to Shultz’s legacy. While the Paris Agreement to scrap the postwar Bretton Woods system of fixed currencies warrants a mere one paragraph, an obscure episode regarding a Nixon-inspired IRS audit of Democratic operative Larry O’Brien gets fifteen pages. Yet, surely the ramifications of the former have been far more consequential than the latter.

As the scholar Radhika Desai notes, in the decades since the agreement “the dollar has become reliant on a series of financializations, or a series of expansions of purely financial activity, so that the unattractiveness of the dollar for normal economic use, for trade use, and so on, is counteracted by vastly expanding the financial demand for the dollar And that is why this (post-1971) age of alleged dollar dominance…has also been an age of recurring financial crises.”

Surely an exploration of Shultz’s seeming blind faith in the power of “the markets” and the inherent promise of “globalization” (points which he repeatedly evangelized to Gorbachev and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze) merit greater scrutiny than Shultz’s unfortunate ties to Silicon Valley con artist (excuse the redundancy) Elizabeth Holmes. 

All of which is to say that if there is a weakness in Taubman’s otherwise important book, it is that it occasionally treats issues that are incidental to Shultz’s legacy as central to the plot, at the expense of issues of greater moment. For example, did Shultz regret not heeding Gorbachev’s warnings with regard to U.S. financial and military support for the so-called Islamic “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan, given the spectacular blowback that occurred a little over a decade after he and Mr. Reagan left office? Or why did Shultz, a man of great experience and sound judgment, so enthusiastically support the Iraq invasion?  

Nevertheless,given the long string of ideologues and political animals that have succeeded Shultz, In The Nation’s Serviceserves as a timely reminder of an era, long since vanished, when diplomats of experience, vision and integrity occupied the seventh floor of the Department of State.

Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard Shevardnadze (right) the U.S. Secretary of State George P Shultz (third from left) after signing the Agreement between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Concerning the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes. (April 14, 1987)(RIA Novosti archive/Wikimedia Commons)
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