Why this centenarian statesman is hopeful – but cautious – about the future

George Shultz, seen here seated at his office at the Hoover Institution on the Stanford University campus, served as secretary of state to President Reagan and in several cabinet posts under President Nixon.
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George Shultz is calling on renewed American leadership to tackle today’s existential challenges: climate change, nuclear weapons proliferation, human migration, cyber threats to governance, and new disruptions to the global trading system. 

Mr. Shultz, who served as secretary of state to President Ronald Reagan and served under President Richard Nixon, has, after all, lived through great historical moments, from the Great Depression, to the rise of fascism in Europe, World War II, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. He hasn’t just witnessed them, he’s had a hand in influencing some of the defining features of the 20th century, including the rebottling of the nuclear genie and the demise of the Cold War. 

Why We Wrote This

As one of only two people in U.S. history who has served in four Cabinet posts, George Shultz has seen a lot of the workings – and nonworkings – of American policy up close. Now, as he nears 100, he gives his state of the world and outlines why trust is “the coin of the realm” for effective governing.

So when this centenarian declares in a quiet yet firm voice that the world stands at a turning point that will require every bit of the leadership and determination that got mankind through the 20th century, it seems wise to listen.

“We are now on a major hinge of history,” says Mr. Shultz, who turns 100 this year. “There’s no withdrawing from the world; we’re part of it. So we might as well see what we can do to make it better.”

George Shultz turns 100 this year – and like anyone reaching that age, he has lived through great historical moments. These range from the Great Depression, to the rise of fascism in Europe and World War II, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union.

But much more than most, Mr. Shultz – one of only two people in U.S. history to have served in four Cabinet positions – has not just witnessed these moments. He had a hand in influencing some of the defining features of the 20th century, including the postwar reign of the dollar, the rebottling of the menacing nuclear genie, and the management and ultimate demise of the Cold War.

Perhaps above all, he has taken part in the establishment and consolidation of the postwar American-led international order.

Why We Wrote This

As one of only two people in U.S. history who has served in four Cabinet posts, George Shultz has seen a lot of the workings – and nonworkings – of American policy up close. Now, as he nears 100, he gives his state of the world and outlines why trust is “the coin of the realm” for effective governing.

So when this centenarian declares in a quiet yet firm voice that the world stands at a turning point that will require every bit of the leadership and determination that got mankind through the 20th century, it seems wise to listen.

“We are now on a major hinge of history, comparable to but different from the hinge we were on at the end of World War II,” says Mr. Shultz, who was secretary of state to President Ronald Reagan and treasury secretary, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and labor secretary to President Richard Nixon. 

He’s seated at a modest, book-piled desk in his corner office at the Hoover Institution on the Stanford University campus.

Now as then, he says, the world faces existential threats, and at both times the temptation to pull in and withdraw loomed large – a temptation the United States indeed succumbed to after World War I.

But not after the Second World War, given the devastation of the conflict, the millions of deaths, the Holocaust, and the advent of the nuclear bomb. “[Unlike] after World War I when we withdrew from the world, they said, ‘We are part of it, whether we like it or not,’” says Mr. Shultz. Thanks to “some gifted people,” he adds, ticking off names like Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and diplomats George Marshall and William Clayton, American leadership guided the world out of the ruin into an era of growing security and prosperity.

In 1962 George Shultz becomes dean of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

“There were 44 countries at Bretton Woods,” the 1944 conference that established a new international monetary system, he says, and “out of that came basically the rules of the road on international economic arrangements.” In quick succession came the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, and NATO, which successfully defended the West from the Soviet Union. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, born at Bretton Woods, eventually “got around to the World Trade Organization.”

Out of devastation, Mr. Shultz says, had come renewal and progress – in no small part because of inspired leadership.

As he talks, the art deco Hoover Tower, Stanford’s most imposing landmark, looms outside his window. Visible in the distance are Northern California’s signature oaks and redwoods, while somewhere a babbling fountain interrupts the campus hush. In the office, every space not taken by a book seems occupied by the memorabilia of decades of public service: signed photos of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, an autographed biography of Margaret Thatcher, Russian nesting dolls, a framed letter in which President Reagan thanks “George” for his service. A glass tray proclaims, “WHY NOT HAVE A BIG LIFE?”

Yet Mr. Shultz, who just published a book, “Thinking About the Future,” is these days not so much dwelling on the past as considering how the glory years of American leadership might provide signposts for the challenges now on the world’s doorstep. Seven decades after World War II, he says, the world faces complex issues as real as and perhaps even more life-threatening than it did then.  

Climate change, nuclear weapons development and proliferation, human migration, cyber and social media challenges to governance, new means of production that disrupt the global trading system – all are going to test leadership capacity and human ingenuity to new limits, he says. 

It’s perhaps not surprising that Mr. Shultz calls for renewed American leadership to take on today’s existential challenges with, as he puts it, determination and faith in progress, as well as respect for others’ formative experiences and points of view. He is, after all, surrounded by many artifacts of the postwar American era and reminders of the role he played in it. He also thinks the U.S. is the only country that can help the world surmount these issues “because I don’t see who else is going to lead. Not China or Russia. Europe can’t do it.”

In 2007 George Shultz joins Henry Kissinger and other statesmen to push for total nuclear disarmament.

To illustrate how others still look to the U.S., Mr. Shultz tells the story of when Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister, visited him at Stanford with hopes of learning about the ingenuity of adjacent Silicon Valley. 

“I reminded him that Silicon Valley is full of talent, the best and the brightest, from all over the world, not just from the U.S.,” Mr. Shultz recalls. “And he said, ‘Yes, but this could only happen in America.’”

Yet if Mr. Shultz is issuing a clarion call for renewed American leadership at a critical moment in history, it is in part because he doesn’t see such a response now. 

“Right now we’re not leading the world,” he says. “We’re withdrawing from it.” 

The four walls of the Shultz conference room at the Hoover Institution are chockablock with photos, magazine covers, yellowed political cartoons, tributes, and other remembrances of his career. Almost lost in the parade of frames is a photo of a smiling Secretary Shultz kicking up his heels with Ginger Rogers at a 1983 White House dinner.

“What a joy this was for me!” Ms. Rogers wrote in a handwritten note accompanying the photograph. “For the first two minutes I could swear I was dancing with Fred!”

No doubt it says something about Mr. Shultz’s smooth-stepping skills to be compared to Fred Astaire, Ms. Rogers’ longtime Hollywood dancing partner. (Or perhaps erstwhile skills: Mr. Shultz confirms with a slight grin that his dancing days are “no more.”)

But what the Rogers anecdote underscores is the personal side of the lifelong diplomat. Mr. Shultz is a storyteller, and many of his tales highlight the importance he always saw in the “softer” side of diplomacy – the “get to know you” prebusiness conversations, the glitzy dinners, the visits to cultural and historical sites – as a sign of the common humanity and respect for the “other side” that can pay big dividends.

To illustrate this point, Mr. Shultz goes back to one of the first visits he made to Russia while secretary of the treasury. His counterpart took him to Leningrad (today St. Petersburg) with a first stop at the vast cemetery where many from the battle of Leningrad are buried. Standing with his host on a platform overlooking “row after row after row of mass graves,” the American treasury secretary noticed that all the Russians around him were weeping.

“And I said to [my host], ‘I have a sense of community with these people because I also fought in World War II. I also had comrades shot down beside me. But furthermore these are the people who stopped Hitler.’ And I walked up to the front of the platform and gave a long salute.”

Years later, when Mr. Shultz returned to Leningrad as secretary of state, “I found that people knew about that little incident,” he says. “It teaches you that if you show respect to things that deserve it, then your criticisms of other things carry more weight instead of being just critical across the board.”

George Shultz dances with Ginger Rogers at a 1983 White House dinner.

Even well after his official years in government, Mr. Shultz has been called on to use some of his considerable personal skills to rescue a big foreign policy moment. He tells the story of being called by the State Department in 2013 with an SOS: China’s new president, Xi Jinping, wants to come with his wife a day before a scheduled summit with President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands estate in Southern California to get to know the area. Can the former secretary of state help out?

“That’s a statement [from President Xi] that, ‘I want to get to know you,’ have private communications where you get to know each other, and have confidence in each other,” he says.

Mr. Shultz says he dispatched his wife, Charlotte Mailliard Shultz – who, he notes, as chief of protocol for both the city of San Francisco and the state of California “knows a lot” on the subject – to Orange County. And the experienced diplomat who had worked closely with both Chinese and Soviet authorities in his day says he was horrified to learn from his wife that “no high federal official” was set to greet the Xis upon their arrival.

Ms. Shultz called on then-California Gov. Jerry Brown, who agreed to welcome the Xis at the airport, and the two wives spent the day together while President Xi “cooled his heels” before Mr. Obama’s arrival, he says.

The Obama White House would later characterize the Sunnylands summit as a big success. But Mr. Shultz recalls that presummit arrival and says, “This is not just a missed opportunity; this is an insult. That’s not the way you get along with people.”

These days Mr. Shultz may no longer be a practicing diplomat in the strict sense of the word, but he continues to write books, discuss economics with a group of Stanford and Bay Area academics, and keep a formidable social calendar.

He recently attended the annual dinner of Washington’s exclusive Alfalfa Club. His wife, at 86, continues to carry out duties that make the couple a regular feature of the San Francisco Chronicle’s society page.

Mr. Shultz gives every indication of relishing the role of an éminence grise of U.S. foreign policy. He continues to pen Op-Ed pieces on issues such as arms control and climate change, often with another sage of his era, like former Secretary of State James Baker or Defense Secretary William Perry.

He says his large and close-knit family offers him a window on today’s young people. And he rejects the notion that young Americans today, while different from those of three or four generations past, are dismissive of institutions, less patriotic, or less oriented toward public service than his generation, which was called on to serve in World War II.

George Shultz receives the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Reagan in 1989.

The Shultz family glue and the patriarch’s understanding of the millennial generation’s values were tested a few years ago by the ignominious fall of the onetime Silicon Valley darling Theranos – the supposedly revolutionary blood-analysis startup. The company’s high-powered board of directors included Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, Mr. Perry – and Mr. Shultz.

The firm, now defunct, would be brought down in large part by an employee named Tyler Shultz – who saw from the inside that the company’s technology was not the revolution it claimed to be and took his findings public. He was a whistleblower who happened to be the grandson of Theranos board member and iconic statesman George Shultz.

Versions vary as to how long it took for the elder Mr. Shultz to accept his grandson’s findings and to side with him in the Theranos affair. But the elder Shultz says he admires how his grandson never wavered and stuck by what he knew to be right.

“He has great integrity,” he says of Tyler. “What this [Theranos experience] tells me about my grandson is, he’s honest and he wants things to be good. It’s not that he doesn’t trust things,” he says, bringing a question about millennials back to his grandson. “He doesn’t put up with something that’s wrong.”

For some, Mr. Shultz’s plea for American leadership to guide the world through the 21st century’s grave challenges may seem like an exercise in nostalgia, especially when it is coming from someone who had a role in a bygone golden era of American power.

But that tempting perspective would fail to consider that over much of his career on key issues of the day, Mr. Shultz has been ahead of his time – as a realist with a knack for seeing beyond conventional thinking to solutions that would end up becoming mainstream.

That has been true on climate change, nuclear disarmament, and, above all, the nation’s half-century-old drug war.

“I think it’s just looking at the realities, an ability to see the realities, and using common sense,” he says. “It’s no big deal.”

As far back as the Nixon administration, Mr. Shultz has advocated a drug policy that focuses on reducing demand instead of supply. He says the drug war has done nothing to address the market for narcotics while ravaging America’s southern neighbors.

“We complain about Mexico being a source of drugs, come on – we’re the culprits, not them,” he says. “They [Mexicans] are the victims; they’ve had huge numbers of people killed by the drug lords” supplying our market.

George Shultz with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (right) in 1983.

His solution is not drug legalization, he says, but decriminalization of possession of small amounts for personal use, ramped-up access to treatment, and education to stop people from using in the first place. (He believes his friend Nancy Reagan was on the right track with her “Just Say No” campaign, but says then as now, in the devastating opioid epidemic, a “huge drug bureaucracy” has stood in the way of a demand-focused policy.)

Similarly on climate change, Mr. Shultz stands out as a lonely, though not lone, Republican voice who says the country is being “mugged by reality” and must act.

“There’s an ocean being created in the Arctic, why? Why is the ice cap over Greenland becoming a river? Australia, the whole continent is burning, why?” he says. Closer to home, he points to California’s intensifying fires and the repeated inundating storms in Houston over recent years and says, “The Gulf of Mexico is the warmest it’s ever been. That means you’ve got a lot of evaporation, and what goes up must come down. So it’s not a mystery.”

For years, Mr. Shultz has advocated what he calls a revenue-neutral carbon tax, which he says would cut fossil fuel consumption while encouraging renewable energy research and development, and job-creating innovation. 

And then there’s nuclear disarmament. President Reagan’s top diplomat notes that even in the 1980s his boss envisioned a world free of nuclear weapons, and he says that has been his goal ever since. It’s not dewy-eyed hopefulness that keeps him on the zero-nukes path but a realistic understanding of the unthinkable destruction, and indeed global annihilation, that nuclear weapons threaten. Calling it one of the “hinge of history” issues, Mr. Shultz notes that some nuclear powers, including the U.S., are once again talking about scenarios for nuclear arms use.

Instead of a focus on reduction, “you have ... proliferation of [nuclear] weapons and a lot of careless talk about using them. People seem to have forgotten by now Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cuban missile crisis,” he says.

He’s critical of what he sees as the Trump administration’s willingness to allow decades of arms control success with the Russians be lost and reversed. He displays a rare public annoyance with the Republican administration over the current state of nuclear diplomacy.

“Right now the Russians have said they’re ready to renew [the new START treaty] and we’re hesitating. Come on! We should grab that and then say to China, ‘Join with us and let’s see what we can do. ... You’ve got to be positive about these things,” he says.

As he goes about his 100th year determined to continue being a “doer” on the world’s critical issues, Mr. Shultz is taking his own advice. He’s optimistic that the world will be up to the challenge of addressing this moment in history, and he holds out hope that America will again rise to the occasion and lead the way.

“This country has always produced the leadership we needed at critical times,” he says, ticking off Washington and Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Reagan. “We seem to have a knack for identifying somebody. I don’t know who or what or whether or not somebody out there can stand up and be counted.” Fortunately, he says, America continues to have values that motivate people to action and keep it, he believes, the envy of the world.

“We have community spirit. We have a culture that encourages people to look out for themselves,” he says. “We have outstanding institutions in many ways, and, by and large, there’s kind of an atmosphere of trust. I always felt trust is the coin of the realm.”

And here the hopeful realist in Mr. Shultz surfaces. “Right now we’re pulling back [from the world] but we’re entwined,” he says. “There’s no withdrawing from the world; we’re part of it. So we might as well see what we can do to make it better.”

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