Was George Shultz America’s Best Secretary of State?

Reagan’s top diplomat ended the Cold War and reshaped the world.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz at the London Economic Summit on June 8, 1984.
U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz at the London Economic Summit on June 8, 1984. Chris Bacon/PA Images via Reuters

With George Shultz, the United States has lost its greatest secretary of state since Dean Acheson, the architect of the post-World War II global order under President Harry S. Truman. If that claim seems surprising, it should also prompt a fresh appraisal of Shultz’s extraordinary record. (Elliott Abrams, who served under Shultz, offers a similar assessment.) During his six and a half years at the helm of the U.S. Department of State, Shultz shaped the profound global transformations underway and worked with President Ronald Reagan to create a world more prosperous, peaceful, and free.

A few years ago, a survey of international relations scholars ranked Henry Kissinger and James Baker as the two greatest secretaries of the modern era, while Shultz barely registered in the poll. Kissinger and Baker are giants in their own right. But Shultz not only equaled them as a diplomat—he exceeded them in vision.

When he took office in 1982, Shultz recognized several emerging global trends that may appear clear in hindsight, but were seen by few other leaders at the time. He saw the coming wave of democratic transitions in Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe—and made supporting democracy a policy priority. He saw the emerging communications and information revolutions, and put the United States in the lead of shaping globalization worldwide. He saw the growing threat of terrorism and developed many of the counterterrorism doctrines that the United States would belatedly adopt only after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Of most consequence, Shultz—along with Reagan—saw the Cold War for what it was: a battle of ideas overlaid on a great-power contest. They inverted the conventional wisdom of the day that saw the conflict as a stable standoff between two rival power blocs. From this followed their new, offensive strategy of attacking Soviet communism as an illegitimate idea and promoting political, economic, and religious freedom worldwide as a better way of life.

It is perhaps fitting that Shultz died on Feb. 6, which would have been Reagan’s 110th birthday; they were a team. No secretary of state can succeed without a close partnership with the president—think of memorable tandems such as Teddy Roosevelt and John Hay, Harry Truman and Acheson, Richard Nixon and Kissinger, George H. W. Bush and James Baker. Shultz never forgot that his job was to serve and implement Reagan’s strategy. They had their occasional differences. Shultz was initially skeptical of the Strategic Defense Initiative—a massive research and engineering program to create a space-based missile shield—and objected to the line in Reagan’s 1987 speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate that would soon become iconic: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” More presciently, Shultz argued strongly against Reagan’s trading arms for hostages in the Iran-Contra affair, and urged the reluctant president to jettison support for the Philippine dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, in 1985.

Reagan and Shultz saw U.S. alliances as a source of strength and asymmetric advantage.

But on the big themes, such as combining pressure and diplomatic outreach towards the Soviet Union, seeing early that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was a genuine reformer and partner for peace, promoting human rights and democracy, expanding free trade, slashing nuclear arsenals, fortifying relations with allies, and bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end, Reagan and Shultz made a formidable pair. Shultz regarded Reagan as a strategic visionary and gifted negotiator, and served him faithfully until his final day in office.

Reagan personally recruited Shultz for the job after deciding to end Alexander Haig’s unhappy tenure as secretary of state at Foggy Bottom. Shultz took office in July 1982, when U.S. foreign policy seemed in crisis. U.S.-Soviet relations stood at the apex of tensions. The United States was in a severe rift with its NATO allies over sanctions on a pipeline project to bring oil and gas from Siberia to Western Europe and on the brink of a potential trade war with Japan, its most important ally in Asia. Washington was in a standoff with Beijing over arms sales to Taiwan. Israel had just invaded Lebanon. The Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and a communist insurgency in El Salvador made it seem that communism’s foothold in Central America was growing.

Shultz tackled these challenges by drawing on several principles that he held in common with Reagan. It began with allies: Reagan and Shultz saw U.S. alliances as a source of strength and asymmetric advantage, so Shultz immediately set out to repair the frayed relations with Washington’s closest friends. He negotiated an off-ramp with Germany and other NATO allies on the Siberian pipeline dispute and solidified their commitment to deploying U.S. nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and Pershing IIs to counter the newly deployed Soviet SS-20s menacing Europe—thus laying the foundation for the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty five years later that eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons.

The missile deployment and subsequent treaty drew on another Shultz principle: the integration of force and diplomacy. Rather than treating the display of power and negotiations as antinomies, Shultz saw them as mutually reinforcing. He shared Reagan’s belief in “peace through strength.” Shultz knew that a formidable military, and the willingness to use it, bolstered his hand at the negotiating table and made diplomatic solutions possible. Historian Gail Yoshitani calls this the “Shultz Doctrine,” which Shultz laid out in a 1984 speech: “Only if the Soviet leaders see the West as determined to modernize its own forces will they see an incentive to negotiate agreements. … The lesson is that power and diplomacy are not alternatives. They must go together.” For the same reason, Shultz enthusiastically backed Reagan’s doctrine of arming anticommunist insurgents, such as those in Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua, because the pressure thus placed on the Soviet bloc gave Reagan and Shultz a stronger diplomatic hand.

He knew that economic policy was foreign policy—and vice-versa.

Shultz also had more economic expertise than most treasury secretaries. He had not only served in that position himself, but also held a PhD in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had been a dean of the University of Chicago Business School, and had served as president of Bechtel International. Shultz drew on his economic expertise to help Reagan build the international trade architecture that eventually led to the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization. He knew that economic policy was foreign policy—and vice-versa.

Shultz’s economic statecraft also helped transform the U.S.-Japanese relationship from an economic rivalry to a strategic partnership and the cornerstone of the U.S. posture in the Asia-Pacific region that it remains to this day. This brought immediate strategic benefits. Under Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, Japan tripled its defense spending, deepened its military cooperation with the United States, and substantially increased pressure on the Soviet Union in its vulnerable Far East. For good reason, my fellow Shadow Government contributor (and renowned Asia hand) Michael J. Green praised Shultz as “the most effective U.S. secretary of state on Asia and the Pacific in the history of the republic.”

Another Shultz priority was human rights and democracy. He took office just one month after Reagan, who in his Westminster address heralded “the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.” Shultz took Reagan’s poetry and put it into policy prose. He placed human rights at the center of Washington’s policy toward the Soviet Union and—to the perpetual aggravation of the Kremlin—insisted on raising human rights in every single meeting with his Soviet counterparts. Many Soviet dissidents, including Natan Sharansky, Irina Ratushinskaya, and Yuri Orlov attribute their releases from prison to Reagan and Shultz’s advocacy. Shultz particularly loathed anti-Semitism; in addition to pressing for the rights of Soviet Jews to emigrate, he—an Episcopalian—held a special Passover Seder for Soviet Jews at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1987. This support for human rights also had a strategic objective: It further undermined the Kremlin’s hold on power and contributed to the eventual collapse of Soviet communism.

Shultz did not limit human-rights advocacy to the United States’ adversaries. He pressed authoritarian partners as well and helped midwife democratic transitions in countries including South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and El Salvador. Believing that democracies are more durable than dictatorships, and that alliances are between nations and not individual leaders, he preserved anticommunist cooperation while negotiating the release of dissidents from prison and extracting commitments to hold free elections.
Schulz helped midwife democratic transitions in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and El Salvador.

Despite Reagan’s aversion to staff conflict—of which his White House had no lack—he usually backed his secretary in internecine fights. At one point in 1984, when his nemeses Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and CIA Director William Casey tried to block Shultz’s diplomatic initiatives, Reagan worried to his diary that Shultz might resign. Reagan wrote: “I can’t let that happen. Actually George is carrying out my policy. I’m going to meet with Cap & Bill & lay it out to them.”

Many accounts of these bureaucratic skirmishes depict Shultz as a “moderate” or “pragmatist.” He believed in compromise and liked to get things done. But by conviction, he was an unmitigated conservative. Indeed, he stood to the right of Weinberger on several issues, such as the willingness to use force, hawkishness on terrorism, support for Israel, and the promotion of freedom.

Shultz was a skilled negotiator with friend and foe alike. He combined empathy and the ability to see the other side’s viewpoint with tenacity in pressing his own position. Sometimes that tenacity was tested. The venerable Paul Nitze served as Shultz’s top arms-control adviser, and regularly accompanied him to negotiations with the Soviets. Nitze described one such meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in Vienna. The session was scheduled to last three hours, and the obstreperous Gromyko consumed the entire time with a long-winded fulmination against U.S. policy. In Nitze’s words: “Finally Mr. Shultz got the floor and he began to go through his points one by one, very leisurely, accurately, precisely, and in an unhurried fashion … Gromyko felt called upon to rebut the various points Mr. Shultz had made, and so we continued on.” The meeting lasted for over six hours. Shultz himself recalled that he “was determined to go through every scrap of paper I had with me, and to sit there until [Gromyko] broke.”

Shultz also broke new diplomatic ground by rejecting the concept of “linkage” in U.S.-Soviet relations. Pioneered by Nixon and Kissinger, and continued under President Jimmy Carter, linkage conditioned progress in one area on Soviet actions in another. For example, Nixon and Kissinger tied U.S. concessions on arms control to Soviet concessions in Vietnam and Middle East. At the time, it was a sensible way to negotiate. But by the time Shultz took office, the Kremlin had become adept at using linkage to hold U.S. policy priorities hostage.

Shultz instead established a new negotiating framework with the Kremlin that divided contentious issues into four baskets: arms control, human rights, regional conflicts, and bilateral issues. Each track would be negotiated separately and treated as a priority in its own right. This created a breakthrough in the U.S.-Soviet relationship. Along with Reagan’s military modernization and economic revitalization, the new framework returned the diplomatic initiative to the United States. It enabled negotiations to resume even in the middle of crises such as the Soviet missile attack on a South Korean civilian airliner in 1983 and the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Most importantly, the new framework made it possible to achieve progress on issues such as human rights, nuclear arms reductions, and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan all at once—rather than having to trade one for the other.

Back in Washington, Shultz excelled in managing the State Department. He achieved the elusive balance of empowering the expertise of career Foreign Service officers while corralling the department behind the president’s policies. As I previously wrote in Foreign Policy about my own State Department experience, I made it a habit to ask senior career officers to choose the best secretary they ever worked under. Invariably, the answer would be Shultz—regardless of whether the officer was a Democrat or Republican.

Reagan and Shultz’s most enduring legacy came with the collapse of the Soviet Union, disintegration of the Iron Curtain, and peaceful end of the Cold War. Looking back, it is tempting to view those events as inevitable, but at the time they were anything but that. Reagan and Shultz both perceived the Soviet Union’s fragility when most expert opinion—including the CIA’s—regarded it as durable. Reagan and Shultz also recognized Gorbachev’s commitment to reform when most of their fellow Republicans, including Kissinger, viewed the Soviet leader skeptically. In the new Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, Shultz found a willing negotiating partner, and together with the two countries’ leaders they transformed U.S.-Soviet relations—and in the end, transformed the world.

Correction, Feb. 11, 2021: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Shultz died on Feb. 7, one day after what would have been Reagan’s 110th birthday. Shultz died at his home on Saturday, Feb. 6.

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.