Shadow Government

Rescuing George Shultz, the Best Secretary of State You’ve Never Heard Of

What if America had a remarkably effective secretary of state, yet almost 95 percent of international relations professors didn’t know it? That may sound like the lead-in to a bad joke, or an academic perversion of the “what if a tree falls in a forest but no one hears it” puzzle — and I wish ...


What if America had a remarkably effective secretary of state, yet almost 95 percent of international relations professors didn’t know it?

That may sound like the lead-in to a bad joke, or an academic perversion of the “what if a tree falls in a forest but no one hears it” puzzle — and I wish that’s all it were. But instead it is a depressing revelation from a new survey of 1,615 international relations (IR) scholars from 1,375 American colleges and universities. The annual Ivory Tower survey of the Teaching, Research, and International Politics (TRIP) project, in partnership with Foreign Policy, is a comprehensive and useful assessment of the views of American IR scholars on a range of topics in the field, including the leading programs, the most influential scholars, and the most serious problems facing the world. (I was one of the 1,615 respondents).

One of the survey questions is “Who was the most effective U.S. Secretary of State of the last 50 years?” Henry Kissinger handily took the top spot, with 32.21 percent. This is a plausible but debatable choice, especially since Kissinger was arguably more effective during his time as National Security Advisor than as secretary of state. Kissinger didn’t take over at Foggy Bottom until September 1973, after many notable achievements such as the opening to China, the Paris Peace Accords, and the SALT negotiations. I suspect that part of the reason for Kissinger’s runaway win stems from his high visibility and prolific writing in the almost 40 years since he left office, which can be mentally conflated with an assessment of his time as secretary of State. And the survey answer that has generated some headlines is that poor John Kerry finished dead last with only 0.31 percent (yes, you read that decimal point right). While I agree that thus far Kerry has been ineffective, it strikes me as unfair and methodologically unsound to have included him in the survey because his time in office is ongoing and we don’t yet know how effective he will be in his remaining two years.

But the stunning — and appalling — result is that only 5.65 percent picked George Shultz, ranking him barely ahead of Dean Rusk, and far behind Madeline Albright (8.7 percent), Hillary Clinton (8.7 percent), and “I Don’t Know” (18.32 percent — itself a troubling figure when you consider that the respondents are scholars who study this stuff for a living, yet almost one fifth of them can’t render a verdict on secretaries of state).*

Shultz’s relatively low ranking is baffling. Many foreign policy practitioners and diplomatic historians regard Shultz in the same pantheon as Acheson and Marshall, a giant in the annals of 20th century American diplomacy whose seven years at Foggy Bottom played an indispensable role in negotiating a peaceful end to the Cold War. Foreign Service Officers (FSO) who served under Shultz almost uniformly believe him to be the greatest secretary of state of the last 50 years. During my time working at the State Department, a standard question I would ask almost every senior FSO I worked with is “who is the best secretary you ever worked under,” and invariably the answer would be George Shultz – regardless of whether the FSO was a Democrat or Republican. Shultz’s broad acclaim among those who worked for him and those who have studied him comes from his rare ability to master two vital yet often conflicting tasks: the management of the department and the conduct of statecraft. Some secretaries excel at the former (e.g., Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton), others excel at the latter (e.g., Henry Kissinger and James Baker), but Shultz is singular in having excelled at both. [Disclosure: Shultz is one of five current or former cabinet secretaries on the Statecraft Board of Reference for the Clements Center at the University of Texas, where I serve as Executive Director.]

Now I imagine that some of my academic colleagues reading this who filled out the TRIP survey and didn’t pick Shultz are thinking “Enough whining, Inboden — I picked [insert another secretary of state name here] because in my expertise I think he/she is just better than Shultz.” While each of these individual choices may have their justifications, taken together Shultz’s paltry ranking seems to reveal a “collective ignorance” problem in academia. In the aggregate, IR scholars just don’t seem capable of rendering credible judgments on what makes an effective secretary of state.

So how is it that policy professionals and diplomatic historians hold Shultz in such high regard, yet IR scholars — who are overwhelmingly political scientists — would be so unaware of Shultz’s excellence?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but would speculate there are three possible reasons, perhaps overlapping. The first is that younger IR scholars are not being taught diplomatic history in graduate school. It is commonplace now for political science doctoral students to take numerous math and statistics classes, but not a single class on American diplomatic history or the Cold War. With this lack of historical awareness, someone like George Shultz appears as distant and unknown as Robert Lansing, and he can’t fit into a regression analysis of a large n data set (for a thoughtful reflection on this malady, see this essay by Frank Gavin). The second reason I suspect is ideological bias against the Reagan administration. Older IR scholars may have taken history classes in graduate school, and having lived through the Reagan years know who Shultz is, but they are overwhelmingly left of center and probably share academia’s general disdain for the Reagan administration. (Though as I noted here, some scholars are beginning to assess Reagan’s national security legacy much more positively. And this particular survey result doesn’t evince an anti-Republican bias, since the top two names are Kissinger and Baker — probably illustrating the large cohort of realists among IR scholars). The third possible reason, perhaps represented by the 18.32 percent of “I Don’t Knows,” is that IR theory emphasizes structural factors over individual leadership and policymaking. In this view, secretaries of state matter little in the shadow of the tectonic plates of the international system.

But for those scholars who believe that individual leaders do matter — and I am one of them — Shultz’s remarkable statecraft deserves a closer look, and a higher ranking.

*Yes, I was one of the 5.65 percent who picked Shultz.

Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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