Foreign Policy

George Shultz, Revered U.S. Diplomat, Dies at 100

A story George P. Shultz’s admirers love to tell is that when he was President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, he would call newly appointed U.S. ambassadors into his office, where he had a giant globe of the Earth. Shultz would ask the ambassadors to point to the country they represented, and when they did, Shultz would spin the globe back to the United States. “No,” Shultz would say, “this is the country you represent,” according to several accounts from former State Department officials.

“It goes to the fact that he really understood the importance of a domestic constituency” in forming foreign policy, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said of Shultz, who died Saturday at age 100. “It’s very similar to what we’re facing today.”

Shultz, an economist who served as President Richard Nixon’s treasury secretary as well, was revered on both sides of the political aisle for his integrity and broad non-ideological approach to issues, which put him in a position to negotiate arms reduction and an end to the Cold War in the late 1980s, to the consternation of Reagan hard-liners.

One of the longest-serving secretaries of state, Shultz also worked hard to forge peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, setting the stage for later efforts such as the Oslo process by recognizing Palestinian rights. He emerged unscathed from the Iran-Contra scandal after opposing the delivery of secret money to anti-Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua that came from the illegal sale of weapons to Iran. 

During a congressional investigation into the Reagan administration’s deceptions in 1986, Shultz laid out the credo he became most famous for. As he recalled in the Washington Post upon turning 100 last December:

“I’m struck that there is one lesson I learned early and then relearned over and over: Trust is the coin of the realm. When trust was in the room, whatever room that was—the family room, the schoolroom, the locker room, the office room, the government room or the military room—good things happened. When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details.”

“He will surely be remembered as one of the seminal figures in American diplomacy,” said the Princeton University scholar G. John Ikenberry, the author of the new book A World Safe for Democracy. “His greatest contribution was probably in helping end the Cold War. As secretary of state, Shultz picked up on Reagan’s deep antipathy for nuclear weapons and worked to protect the emerging convergence of thinking between Reagan and [then-Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev.”

Charles Kupchan, a former U.S. diplomat and political scientist at Georgetown University, said Shultz will be remembered as a “pragmatic realist who embraced a centrist and reasoned brand of internationalism that has by now been virtually abandoned by his fellow Republicans.”

Shultz negotiated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which former President Donald Trump pulled out of—and in later life, Shultz joined with senior Democratic counterparts such as former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry to warn against nuclear proliferation.

Indeed, Shultz never gave up in this effort. “Within months of his 100th birthday he was still participating in Zoom calls on topics as serious as the dangers of nuclear proliferation and as hopeful as developments in energy innovation,” said Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of another renowned Republican pragmatist, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and the author of the recent book How Ike Led. Shultz began his career as an economist in Eisenhower’s administration.

“We will always remember him with admiration, as well as a deep and abiding  sense of gratitude for his extraordinary life,” said Susan Eisenhower, who served with Shultz on the board of the MIT Energy Initiative. In a statement, former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, who also worked with Shultz on nuclear non-proliferation, said: “George accomplished more in 100 years than most of us could do if given 400 years.”

A bear of a man who had fought as a Marine in World War II and won the respect of the Soviets as a result, Shultz was also admired for his “studied, sometimes Buddha-like calm,” L. Paul Bremer III, another prominent Republican diplomat, recalled in an email. “Asked tough questions, considered options carefully and rarely put a foot wrong.”

Shultz was famous for being part of a ferocious rivalry during the Reagan years with then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Later in life, he was publicly tarnished one of the few times in his career for backing Elizabeth Holmes’s fraudulent blood-testing company Theranos. Ironically, his grandson Tyler Shultz was one of the whistleblowers. 

But what most distinguished Shultz, Steinberg said, was his profound understanding of the interconnections between the United States’ economic success and its strength in foreign policy. After attending Princeton University, Shultz earned a Ph.D. in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1949 and later taught business and economics. His first major appointment was as Nixon’s secretary of labor, then director of the Office of Management and Budget. 

“He wasn’t a great strategist, but he was actually one of the first secretaries of state who really understood that foreign policy was more than a game of Risk because he was an economist. He had an integrated idea of the full range of power that a nation brings to bear,” Steinberg said. That lesson was driven home by the internal collapse of the Soviet Union shortly after Shultz left office in 1989, largely because of economic failure.

Strikingly, the new Biden administration is today sounding much the same theme, saying that the United States must restore its economic and social stature at home before it can fully win back the respect of the rest of the world. 

Though a lifelong Republican, in 2016 Shultz declined to endorse Trump for president, reportedly remarking, “God help us.”

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