The peace and prosperity America enjoyed in the postwar years did not arise by chance. They came about through the concerted efforts of individuals, working tirelessly in the service of their countries and overcoming unthinkable obstacles in the process. One of these people was George P. Shultz, who served in government at the highest levels under two administrations and, as Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State, was instrumental in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end. As new geopolitical threats loom, we spoke with Shultz about what we need to do to secure our future at home and abroad, and why the specter of nuclear war may be raising its head once again.
Octavian Report: What does the election of Donald Trump mean for global security?
George P. Shultz: Well, let’s start with the nuclear realm. Under President Reagan, who thought nuclear weapons should be reduced and gotten rid of, we worked with the Soviet Union and the number of nuclear weapons are about a third of what they were at the height of the Cold War as a result of that effort.
I think the situation now is particularly dangerous because the Russians are threatening, sort of casually almost, that they are developing what they call less-explosive weapons. It doesn’t matter. A nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon. We have North Korea, who have nuclear weapons. We have Iran wanting to get nuclear weapons. Probably sooner or later it will — with the potential for others like Saudi Arabia getting them from Pakistan, with Pakistan and India at odds. It’s a very threatening world right now.
I think it’s also true that the generations now dominant have forgotten how devastating a nuclear weapon is. Those of us a little older remember the pictures of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I’ll never forget seeing them. Bill Perry, of course, went there. I remember the big nuclear accident at Chernobyl — gigantic, even. I found that at the first meeting I had with Gorbachev after that accident, he had asked the same question that was on my mind. I said, “Suppose a nuclear weapon had been dropped there? What’s the relationship between the damage from the Chernobyl accident and what would have happened with a nuclear weapon?” He answered, “A nuclear weapon would have been much more damaging.”
I don’t think people have quite that appreciation. They’re not as concerned. That’s the first thing to be conscious of — how unacceptably powerful these weapons are. There is a wonderful man named Bill Swing. He’s the retired Episcopal bishop of California. He runs something now called the United Religions Initiative. It’s in almost a hundred countries. He has these cooperation circles that talk; I work with it. One of the subjects they talk about is nuclear weapons.
He wrote a piece before the election that said we’re not just electing a president, we’re electing a god. He says in the piece: you put your hand on the Bible and swear, then you become President. That’s the least of it. If we ever had a nuclear exchange, billions of people would get killed. The devastation is unbelievable. We have to realize this and do a better job than we’re now doing of getting this under control.
OR: What do you make of the rise of extremism and the seeming embrace of socialism and Communism by younger people?
Shultz: People have forgotten. We tried these things. They didn’t work. I think the bigger issues have to do with war and peace and the devastating consequences of war. At the end of World War II, some gifted people with names like Acheson and Marshall and Truman looked back — and what did they see? They saw two World Wars. They saw that the first one was settled on rather vindictive terms and helped lead to the second. They saw 51 million people killed in the second World War. They saw the Holocaust. They saw the Great Depression and the currency manipulation and protectionism that aggravated it. They said to themselves: “What a crummy world — and we’re part of it, whether we like it or not.” So they set out to create something better with leadership. It wasn’t the U.S. telling people what to do. It was the U.S. giving leadership and being willing to go and have a constructive conversation.
It’s worth remembering there were 44 countries at Bretton Woods, where basically the frameworks for global trade patterns and monetary and development aid were all created. Then came the Cold War. We developed a concept of containment — a non-aggressive concept of containment — and NATO. Gradually, the world got better. We settled Germany and Japan in a different way. By the time the Cold War ended, we had created a security and economic commons in the world that everybody benefited from, including these young people. Maybe they don’t realize what they had, because now it’s falling apart. It’s important that we recognize that fact and say to ourselves as the earlier giants did: “What a crummy world — and we’re part of it, whether we like it or not.” Then we have to be ready to take initiative to do something about it.
OR: What do you think we need to do right now?
Shultz: I think, first of all, we need to remember how to think about foreign policy. The first principle is you’ve got to mean what you say and carry out what you say you’re going to carry out. That’s essential. Right now nobody pays any attention to what we say because we’ve demonstrated that we don’t do it. I remember vividly being in Marine Corps boot camp at the start of World War II. The sergeant hands me my rifle. He says: “Take good care of this rifle, this is your best friend. And remember one thing: never point this rifle at anybody unless you’re willing to pull the trigger.” No empty threats. Boot camp wisdom. We’ve got to get back to boot camp wisdom. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is we have to look realistically out at the world. No rose-colored glasses. Let’s be realists. That doesn’t mean when you see an opportunity you don’t recognize it, but be realistic about what’s going on. Then we have to be strong. Obviously you want to be militarily strong, and we’ve been weakening our military. But you can’t have a really strong military unless you have a strong economy to support it. We’ve got to get that in place, which is not that hard. Then we have to have spirit. When we took office in the Reagan administration, people weren’t even wearing their uniforms into the Pentagon. We had an event down there, and President Reagan said, “Come on, wear your uniform, stand up, be proud.” So let’s get our spirit back. Those are things that are all part of being strong.
Then you have to say to yourself, “Okay, what is our agenda? What are we trying to achieve?” Never mind the other guy’s agenda. If you start talking about that, you’ll be negotiating with yourself. Then, on the basis of all that you engage. That’s the pattern that we need to develop as we engage with the Russians or with the Chinese or go after ISIS or Iran or whatever we’re contesting.
OR: Do you see the leadership emerging capable of doing that?
Shultz: I think there are plenty of terrific people around, like our new Defense Secretary General Mattis. I know General Mattis. He is extraordinary. He is so good. He is so smart. He’s so well-read. He’s so experienced. In other words, there are people here who know what they’re doing.
OR: Do you think a closer realignment with Russia is a good thing? Why did U.S.-Russia relations deteriorate after the end of the Cold War?
Shultz: It’s obviously a good thing and we should want it, but you can’t just wish for it and have it happen. In Putin we have an adversary who gains his popularity by his adventures, so we have to show our strengths. We have to lay down the principles that I talked about. He thinks he can get away with anything — and he has, because we don’t mean what we say. We’ve got to change that. We’ve got to mean what we say, and we have to say sensible things, and we have to show that we can carry them out. I’m glad to see, for example, that we’re deploying NATO troops in the Baltics. We ought to get up an energy initiative and be sure that they have supplies of LNG and oil from more places than just Russia so they’re not subject to that monopoly power. We need to crank up our communications capability. Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe made a huge difference in the Cold War. We communicated our view of what was going on and why. We’re not doing that anymore. We should do it. All kinds of things should be done.
OR: What about the problem of Islamic fundamentalism and terror? How would you handle the situation?
Shultz: I think what they’re doing is good. They’re taking on ISIS in Mosul and elsewhere. We’ve got to go to Raqqa. Somehow, I think we have to put out the word that civilian populations should get out because we don’t want to see them used as human shields, which is what happens. But we can go after them hard. We seem to be able to recruit Iraqis and Kurds and others to be boots on the ground, so mostly that’s where the boots should come from. Then we have to have an idea of after we win — what? Afghanistan is a perfect example. We went there and we had a dramatic victory, remember? We had a fantastic victory. Then we let our mission change. We decided that our mission was to turn Afghanistan into a democracy, with a capital in Kabul that ran the country. That’s just not Afghanistan. History and culture are like gravity: they assert themselves. We’re just there and there and there and there. We should be more clear. We have to watch out for mission creep.
I thought one of George H.W. Bush’s best moments was when he kicked the Iraqis out of Kuwait. He stopped. He didn’t allow mission creep. That was a good operation.
OR: Do you think it was a mistake for the U.S. not to enforce the terms of the Budapest Memorandum after Russia’s incursion into Ukraine?
Shultz: The Russians violated all kinds of things. The Budapest Memorandum was one. They clearly were on the line to respect Ukraine’s borders, and they didn’t, and we didn’t make a big thing out of that. We haven’t been willing to give the Ukrainian forces really first-class armaments, which I think we should do. I understand there are corruption issues, but we should be able to work them through those things. We’ve got willing boots on the ground and we should help them.
In the Cold War, we had a huge confrontation with the Soviets when we deployed ballistic missiles in Germany. That was a turning point in the Cold War. It was a massive show of strength. Things eased up after that, and by the next year I went to Geneva and renegotiated a resumption of arms-control talks. All this was before Gorbachev came into office.
Then things moved. In the first meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan they agreed: a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought — a very important statement.
At the same time, with Russia today, I think they basically are playing a very weak hand. They have a demographic catastrophe. Their economy has been hurt by the big decline in energy prices. If we can really deal forcefully with them as they seek to expand into various countries in the region and show them that’s not a good idea, then the worst result would be a deterioration of Russia. We don’t want that to happen either.
OR: Do you think we’ll ever get to President Reagan’s dream of a zero-nuclear world? Or is it a permanent management issue?
Shultz: Right now it’s an issue of managing what we have and trying to not have it get worse or go off. That’s what really worries people like Bill Perry and me — that somehow there will be miscalculations and we’ll have a nuclear exchange. That not only is devastating for the places where the nuclear weapons hit, but it changes the atmosphere. It’s a global event.
OR: To what extent were the negotiations that ended the Cold War driven by the personalities of Reagan and Gorbachev?
Shultz: I think these were strong personalities. President Reagan changed the whole atmosphere. You have to remember when he took office, inflation was in the teens, the prime rate was in the 20s, the economy was going nowhere. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan. Jimmy Carter had cut off all contact with the Soviet Union. Everything. Gromyko doesn’t come to Washington when he comes to the General Assembly. No athletes in the Olympics. Everything cut off, zero. The Cold War was as cold as it could get. By the time Reagan left office inflation was under control, the economy was going fine, and the Cold War was all over but the shouting. There’s a huge impact that he made. He was a strong person, but people can look at what he did and how he did it and learn.
OR: You’ve argued we need a version of Reagan’s ozone layer policy for climate change. Is the pragmatic, bipartisan Reagan spirit, which allowed Republicans to back such policies, alive and well today? If not, can it be rejuvenated?
Shultz: It can be rejuvenated. People need to understand what he did and why. You give us a good example. We saw a lot of scientists saying the ozone layer was depleting. There were some perfectly respectable people who thought otherwise, but they all agreed that if it happened, it would be a catastrophe. Nowadays what happens is when you have an opposition, you try to destroy them, and then you try to work a way up around them that’s close to unconstitutional. Instead, Reagan put his arm around the opposition and said, “We respect you, you’re okay — but you do agree that if it happens it’s a catastrophe. So why don’t we take out an insurance policy?”
An insurance policy is an appealing concept. You don’t take an insurance policy out on your house because you think it’s going to burn down. You take it just in case. That didn’t get them on our side, but it got them off our back. And so was created the Montreal Protocol. As I understand it, most scientists now think that that the people who were worried were right, and the Montreal Protocol came along just in time. President Reagan handled that well. When we got it done, he said, “That’s a magnificent achievement.”
OR: What do you think should be the top domestic policy priorities for the U.S. as we focus on our future?
Shultz: For the future, obviously, our K-12 child education system is the key. It’s in bad shape, and we know how to produce good schools. We’re just not doing it. I think the freedom-of-choice emphasis by president-elect Trump during the campaign was right on the mark, and I hope he can carry through on that in some manner. That’s a key thing.
We have to get our budget under control. We have a gigantic debt. When interest rates get up to even a conservative three or four percent, the burden of servicing that debt will be a significant fraction of the budget. The entitlement programs are continuing to add to the deficit. So at least as I see it, there’s no alternative but to do something about the entitlement programs. It can be done. Conceptually, it’s right there. Once again, there’s the Reagan precedent. The last time Social Security was dealt with was during the Reagan administration. What happened? He and Tip O’Neill got together and they worked a deal where they appointed a commission — Alan Greenspan was the head of it — and there was a general agreement that whatever that commission recommended would go into effect unless one house or the other voted it down. Nobody had to vote for anything. But changes were made.
Those were the days when people knew how to get something done. We’ve got to get back to that. Maybe that can’t be done. I don’t know. I have a lot of respect for Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell as two leaders. I think Schumer will be much better than Reid. Nancy Pelosi is okay. There are people there that know how to work things. Steny Hoyer I know from the old days when I worked with him. You can work with these people. That’s the way that people should go forward, with that determination and point of view.
OR: A final note on Reagan: how did his experiences as an actor and a union leader shape his presidency?
Shultz: Well, partly you’re a negotiator, right? He loved negotiations. I had two private meetings with him a week, and we’d often talk about negotiations and things that we were involved in, so I got a real feel for him as a negotiator. That was important. As far as his movie career is concerned, what an actor learns how to do is put something across to people. I’ll give you an instance on each of these things.
I was in Moscow. I was supposed to set the time and the agenda for the upcoming Washington summit between Reagan and Gorbachev, and I knew it was something the President wanted. I’m in a meeting with Gorbachev and all of a sudden he says, “The Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty,” which we had signed, “isn’t a big enough event to warrant a summit meeting.” It was a gigantic thing, of course. You’re eliminating 1,500 nuclear weapons on each side — a huge deal. Then he started on a whole bunch of things he knew were not fair.
I said to him, “Look, if you don’t think it’s a big enough deal to warrant a summit meeting, then why don’t we get our negotiators in Geneva to just sign it, pop the champagne, and have a toast — and let it go at that?” In other words, I called his bluff. When I left the Kremlin, I was afraid maybe I had done something wrong, so I got on a secure phone. I called the President. I said, “Mr. President, I’m still here for a little while, I can turn this around, but here’s what happened, and here’s what I did.” He laughed. He said, “You did exactly what I would’ve done.” Our long discussions on negotiation paid off there, and it wasn’t two days before the Soviets wanted to send Shevardnadze to Washington. He set the date. In other words, my negotiating tactics worked. I was completely in sync with Reagan.
Another example: at one point he assigned me the job of announcing and describing a recent and important foreign policy decision he’d made. I very carefully wrote out this speech, and I brought it over to him in one of our meetings, and I said, “Mr. President, you asked me to do this. I’ve written it out here. I want to be sure it’s what you want. Would you mind taking a look at it?” He flipped through it. He put it down on his desk, and he said “Perfect.” Then there was a dead silence. He said, “Of course if I was doing it, I wouldn’t do it this way.”
Then he picked it up and he flipped it open at random. He covered the page and I saw he was personalizing it. In one place, he put “story.” I said to him, “What’s the ‘story’ about there?” He said, “That’s the most important point on this page. It’s not enough to get it into people’s heads. You’ve got to get it into people’s guts. It’s only when it’s in their gut that they really get it. The way to get it into their gut is to tell them a story that they can understand. Then they get it.” This was the actor in him. He was saying: “Here’s the way you get something across.”
Another time I was at a luncheon with him and Margaret Thatcher. Margaret was going to make a speech in the joint session of Congress the next day, and she was going to use a teleprompter for the first time. She had her teleprompter running on a horizontal axis. He said, “You don’t want that. You’ll be looking back and forth. You want it the other way, so you look up and down.” Then he said, “When you turn to the other one, don’t just turn your head. Turn your whole body.” He said, “Have, a couple of times during your speech, a quote — and pick up the piece of paper and read it. That gives the illusion that everything else is not read.” He had thought about how to use a teleprompter, and if you watched him use one it was masterful. A person who has thought about how you get points across has learned a few things, and they helped.
George P. Shultz — one of two individuals who have held four different cabinet posts — served as Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State.