Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, and executive director of The Red Lines Project, is the author of “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen” and host of its Evergreen podcast. He formerly was a correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary belong solely to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
George Shultz was a diplomat’s diplomat. But he was also much more: an economist, global business executive, a man of vision who had a sense of the long game that is so sadly absent among too many of those who lately have been guiding America’s fortunes in the world. Before taking over leadership of American diplomacy, he’d already served as secretary of Labor, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and secretary of the Treasury.
It was his prescience and his almost instant ability to size up an individual and divine an opportunity that led him to an early and most fortuitous embrace of the new, young leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, as an agent of change. America, Shultz believed, should welcome the young Russian apparatchik virtually from the moment he took over in March 1985, halfway through Shultz’s service as secretary of state.
Then-President Ronald Reagan, who tapped Shultz for the State Department, had come into office with the clear intention of bringing communism to an end in the Soviet Union, as his principal National Security Council advisor on Soviet affairs, Harvard professor Richard Pipes told me without hesitation on the evening before the inauguration in January 1981. But most of Reagan’s early counselors, ranging from Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger to his first Secretary of State Alexander Haig, were hardliners who trusted no Soviet leader.
When George Shultz arrived at the State Department, there had been virtually no substantive contact between the two adversaries for years. But Shultz had a longer view. It was Schultz who helped move Russia out of the grips of communism and guided America into the post-Cold War era.
A turning point came at the critical summit conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986. Shultz was beside himself when Reagan walked away from the table after Gorbachev had sprung an extraordinary and unheralded surprise on his American counterpart: an end to the nuclear arsenals of the two super powers. Zero nukes.
Shultz wanted to move toward an agreement. But Reagan, heeding the advice of his chief of staff Donald Regan and National Security Advisor Admiral John Poindexter, demurred. There was no agreement, and Reagan abruptly headed home. There were those who believed that his determination not to give an inch, insisting on retaining his fanciful Star Wars missile defense initiative or Strategic Defense Initiative (a central Soviet demand had been that it be mothballed) was what killed the deal. Indeed, this was a central object of Reagan’s efforts to spend communism out of existence in the Soviet Union, as Gorbachev knew it could not afford to match the American efforts.
As Guillaume Serina, the French journalist and historian put it in his book, “An Impossible Dream: Reagan, Gorbachev, and a World Without the Bomb” (which, in full disclosure, I translated from the French), Shultz described this summit as a “Poker game with the highest stakes ever played.” Shultz was a master when it came to diplomatic poker. He’d made good use of such skills, especially in the Middle East and in his sensitive dealings with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat – persuading him to abandon terrorist attacks on Israel, leading to Palestinian recognition of Israel’s right even to exist.
There is much to be said for Shultz’s tenure in office, six and a half years, longer than any of his post-war counterparts other than Dean Rusk. This kind of continuity and development of deep and abiding relationships with world leaders and their advisers – those who, like Shultz, pull the strings behind the curtain – is so essential in these difficult times. Certainly, his current successor, Antony Blinken, more than a generation younger, has all the makings with his kind of quiet self-confidence and grasp of the directions that America and the world need to take.
But there is even more to be learned from the lessons of this master diplomat and statesman: Pay close attention to your adversaries, understand what motivates them, their styles of diplomacy and statecraft, and above all, the domestic waters in which they swim. To whom or what do they answer, and how much latitude do they have to maneuver? What red lines have they established or to which they are obligated to hew?
“‘Never point your weapon unless you intend to fire it,’” one successor as secretary of state and close friend, Condoleezza Rice quoted him Sunday as saying, “recalling what his master sergeant had said to the young Marine. That was an admonition to be careful with threats and ‘red-lines’ that you could not or would not enforce.”
As Blinken put it Sunday evening, “An ardent champion of diplomacy, Secretary Shultz strengthened America’s relationships and advanced our interests with strategic brilliance and great patience. Every Secretary of State who came after George Shultz has studied him – his work, his judgment, his intellect. I know I have.”
Now it will be largely up to Joe Biden to give his own secretary of state the latitude and flexibility to chart a new path for America in a world that, in the final analysis, may not be quite so different in its complexity and dangers as those of a generation ago.