How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
George Shultz was the nation's last Cold War secretary of state. When he came to office in the summer of 1982, the conflict with the Soviet Union appeared to have entered a phase more intense and threatening than it had been in a generation. Fears of a nuclear war were widespread. When he left office six and a half years later, Soviet-American relations were better than they had been since the years immediately following World War II. By the close of 1988 the stage was set for the end of the great rivalry that had dominated world politics and American foreign policy for more than four decades.
It is only reasonable to assume that the official who presided over so vast a change in American foreign policy would have a compelling story to relate. The history Shultz has written of his years in office is indeed almost consistently interesting and instructive. Turmoil and Triumph tells more about the foreign policy of the Reagan administration than any other published memoir of the period has done or, for that matter, is likely to do. Until historians have had the opportunity to examine the documentary record of those years, his book may be expected to remain the most informative source available for the diplomacy that marked the last years of the Cold War.
The memoirs, nevertheless, do not appear to have evoked the interest that might have been expected. His book is very long, but so were the more successful memoirs of some of Shultz's predecessors. Shultz, however, has neither the literary gifts of a Dean Acheson nor the power to delineate character of a Henry Kissinger. Both Acheson and Kissinger are masters of the ironic; Mr. Shultz clearly is not. His writing is always direct and one-dimensional; it is intended neither to amuse nor to outrage the reader. Although he pulls few punches in relating the behavior of leading figures in the Reagan administration (he seems less than candid only in discussing his superior in the White House), Mr. Shultz is no gossip. His character judgments of those with whom he had disagreements, often bitter ones, and who sought to frustrate his policies appear generous almost to a fault.
Shultz is also unwilling to probe much beneath the surface of issues when doing so raises questions he does not wish to ask. His treatment of the Iran-contra affair is ultimately unsatisfactory, not because Shultz is hiding something of his own role but because of his refusal to ask about the deeper reasons for the affair.
It is, I think, largely for these reasons that Shultz does not make the best copy. There is a further reason. The memoirs of earlier secretaries of state dealt with problems that promised to be, and were, the problems of their successors as well. Shultz, by contrast, has had the bad luck to be telling a story that ends at the threshold of one of the great transformations of modern history. In consequence, he has written of events that, while they occurred only yesterday, appear to many as ancient history, and no longer hold most of us in thrall.
Arms control, to which many of the book's pages are devoted, is the most obvious example of this. A sharp discontinuity is currently seen to separate the years of the Cold War from the period that has followed. Perhaps if Shultz had published his memoirs much later, they would have seemed much fresher.
THE SECRETS OF SUCCESS
Memoirs record successes. They do not dwell on failures. Certainly Shultz has recorded his successes as secretary of state. The memoirs deal with all of the major problems the American government confronted during Shultz's years as secretary of state, though the coverage does not always seem proportionate to an issue's significance. Too much attention is given to the account of Shultz's abortive efforts to achieve that most elusive of American diplomatic objectives, a Middle East peace. On the other hand, allied relations receive very little space despite the fact that the marked improvement in those relations in the 1980s was one of Shultz's chief accomplishments.
In reading the Shultz memoirs it is necessary to keep in mind that the period the memoirs cover is one of growing Soviet weakness and vulnerability. This simple though crucial fact largely accounts for a diplomatic record increasingly marked by Soviet concessions and retreats. It is to Shultz's credit that he perceived early on the favorable change occurring in the balance of power.
Persuaded that the Soviet empire was steadily weakening under the strains of its own internal problems and external entanglements, he pursued a diplomacy toward Moscow that took such advantage as prudence permitted. He did so, moreover, with considerable success. Dealt a good hand, he played it well.
While Shultz acknowledges having been favored by circumstances, he is also intent on attributing his successes to a diplomatic design that departed from that of his predecessors. He singles out the Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy. "I put aside the Nixon-era concepts 'linkage' and 'détente,' " he writes of a 1984 speech that developed his own conceptual framework for managing U.S.-Soviet relations, "and set out a new approach that I hoped would prove more effective and that reflected the reality of what we were in fact doing." Emphasized on several occasions in the memoirs, Shultz's concern to distinguish his diplomacy from the architects of the earlier "new structure of peace" is rather mystifying. Only the blind in these matters would confuse the two, and while there were the diplomatically sightless in the high reaches of the Reagan administration, as Shultz constantly reminds the reader, there is no apparent need today for the former secretary to make allowance for them.
It may be that Shultz was at the time persuaded, and remains persuaded, that his views of détente and linkage broke new ground. But his critique of détente a la 1972 had long formed the stock in trade of Kissinger's critics; Kissinger himself had for all intents and purposes accepted the criticism. The same was true of linkage, the principal corollary of détente. By the 1980s few believed that linkage had the almost magical powers Nixon administration policymakers had once attributed to it. In attacking the diplomatic construction of the early 1970s, Shultz was assaulting an edifice that had already fallen.
His memoirs, moreover, neither recognize the circumstances that prompted the earlier diplomatic design nor persuade us that he put forth a grand design of his own. When Shultz informs the reader that he rejected Kissinger's "delicate web of interdependence" in dealing with Moscow and insisted on "fighting out each issue on its own," he does not add that in contrast to his predecessors he enjoyed the advantage of dealing with the adversary from a growing position of strength. Détente and linkage were the U.S. responses to a lost war and to a conviction that the growth of Soviet military power, together with a deepening reluctance at home to support a policy of global engagement, required that American interests be preserved through other and easier means than those employed prior to Vietnam. Furthermore, although never very promising, the Nixon-Kissinger détente might still have enjoyed a measure of success had Watergate not intervened. With Watergate, however, the institution that had forged America's global position-the presidency-lost its dominance over foreign policy, to regain it partially only in the 1980s. In this turn of affairs, George Shultz was a beneficiary.
Ronald Reagan's victory was the indispensable condition for the successful diplomacy Shultz subsequently pursued. Not only did Reagan partially restore presidential power over foreign policy, he articulated what was to become the principal thrust of U.S. policy in the 1980s. To stop and even reverse the decline in America's global role, restore the nation's reputation for power and its use, end the steady expansion of Soviet influence that had occurred in the 1970s, and in time even put Moscow on the defensive-these were the foreign policy ends to which President Reagan dedicated his administration. They are the same policy objectives Shultz articulated as secretary of state, with one exception-human rights. In promising to move beyond past strategies of containment and détente, in undertaking to counter Soviet challenges wherever they occurred, Shultz faithfully followed the path already marked out by Reagan.
These background considerations notwithstanding, Shultz did make a significant contribution to the Reagan foreign policy, one without which that policy might well have foundered. Reagan's initial foreign policy alarmed not only Moscow but much of the American public as well as a number of the nation's principal allies. It did so by virtue of its apparently casual attitude toward nuclear weapons, its indisposition to enter into arms control agreements with Moscow and, more generally, its seeming rejection of the traditions of postwar internationalism subscribed to by preceding Democratic and Republican administrations alike. The Reagan administration gave little indication that it shared the commitment to multilateralism of its predecessors. American allies sorely tested the administration's patience by their perceived unwillingness to bear their share of the common defense and by their susceptibility to the threats and promises of the adversary. Talk of abandoning the Western alliance in favor of a policy of global unilateralism became increasingly common.
REAGAN VS. REAGANISM
It was in these circumstances that George Shultz became the nation's secretary of state. Persuaded that the great historic tides were running in America's favor, he also believed that the United States was not playing its hand well and that the president was surrounded by advisers who were not serving him effectively. The new secretary set about altering the early face of Reagan foreign policy. In the critical area of arms control, he insisted on abandoning a posture of shunning arms control negotiations with the Soviets. The deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe against strong Soviet opposition, Shultz insisted, must be accompanied by a serious arms control negotiating position. Neither the American public nor the nation's allies would long support a policy of indefinite confrontation with Moscow. If the Soviets were to be opposed over missiles in Europe, if they were to be countered in some regional conflicts, and if they were to be pushed to live up to the 1975 Helsinki accords on human rights, Washington had to show its willingness to negotiate with Moscow. The Reagan administration's initial outlook, that the Soviets must first make major changes and only then could negotiations be seriously considered, would have to be abandoned. From the outset, Shultz sought to persuade an initially reluctant president that in taking the path of negotiation America had nothing to lose, so long as it was careful to structure the bargaining environment to its advantage. An ever more favorable balance of power, he argued, held out the promise that negotiations, if patiently pursued, would result in Soviet concessions and in an improved relationship as well. The memoirs trace how the Shultz view came to prevail over the opposition of almost the whole national security establishment outside the State Department.
Shultz's great achievement as secretary of state was that he developed and refined, and thereby insured the success of, Ronald Reagan's basic foreign policy. While preserving the essential Reagan, he discarded Reaganism. Shultz had the wit to see from the start that Reaganism-an outlook and style that embodied the traits of historical isolationism and obsessive anticommunism-was in conflict with the essential Reagan, a man who combined idealism with common sense. The realization of the essential Reagan required that both the American public and allies be confident and supportive. Reaganism jeopardized both. The essential Reagan required a policy of strength, consistency and patience in its pursuit of improved relations with Moscow. Reaganism held out little prospect that a policy driven by the crusaders' fervor and prone to unilateralism in action could stay this course.
It is in this light that the Shultz diplomatic record is best understood. In insisting on a two-track course toward Moscow, repairing allied relations, and reaffirming the essentials of postwar internationalism, Shultz made the Reagan foreign policy not only acceptable at home and abroad but also far more effective than it otherwise would have been. More than this, he added his own contribution to the fundamentals of that policy, if only in giving an emphasis to human rights that was absent before he became secretary of state. Reagan had come to office contemptuous of the Carter administration's human rights policy. He left office a self-proclaimed convert to the cause. The change was in no small measure the work of his secretary of state. The record may not quite bear out Shultz's claim to evenhandedness in the pursuit of human rights-certainly, evenhandedness was scarcely a part of Reagan's outlook. Despite some lapses, Shultz's commitment to human rights was nevertheless very real and is apparent in the pages of the memoirs.
In giving the Reagan foreign policy a different and more attractive look than it had initially possessed, Shultz was occasionally accused by more hawkish figures in the administration of being too soft on Moscow. The charge was ironic since Shultz consciously attempted to move away from an earlier period of the Cold War and a predecessor who was also accused by the right of being soft on Moscow. Shultz's policy of negotiation with the adversary bore a strong resemblance to Dean Acheson's concept of negotiation from strength. In both, negotiations were to be pursued in the expectation that they would have, in Shultz's words, "the right outcome," that is, one that reflected a favorable power position. But whereas Acheson was never able to negotiate from such a position, Shultz did, and with "the right outcome."
THE ODD COUPLE
The memoirs of a secretary of state are read for the light they throw on the relationship between a president and his chief cabinet officer. In this respect, however, memoirs usually prove disappointing. Secretaries of state are not given to speaking candidly of the presidents they served. Candor runs the risk of appearing disrespectful, not only toward the temporary holder of the office but toward the office itself. At the close of his book, Shultz devotes several pages to what he titles "Understanding Ronald Reagan." What must impress the reader is how unrevealing these pages are.
Taken as a whole, what the memoirs do show is a secretary of state who thought he seldom got the presidential support to which he felt entitled against bureaucratic aggressors in the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council. Perhaps the most serious of Shultz's complaints against his superior, it is voiced time and again. Although Shultz sees Reagan as a man of vision and sound instincts, he also sees him as a lazy man prone to rely excessively and uncritically on staff and friends who often gave him bad advice. Thus Reagan's visions were ever in danger of perversion. Shultz cites the Strategic Defense Initiative as an example of a great vision that came close to being fatally damaged by the bizarre way in which it was initially presented.
In Shultz's account, Reagan was the prisoner in foreign policy of the ideologues and hawks in his administration until Shultz became secretary of state and began to liberate him. The process of liberation, however, was never entirely successful; a continuing effort was required to keep the president from again becoming the captive of those bent on confrontation with adversary and ally alike. Shultz's account of his relationship with the president and his efforts on the president's behalf is yet another variation, this time by a political moderate, on the familiar theme: "Let Reagan be Reagan."
The question Shultz's portrait raises, assuming that it is largely accurate, is Reagan's own role as the president. Was the nation's 40th president the master of his domain or, when left to his own devices, the hapless victim of those who happened at the time to have his ear? Shultz clearly inclines toward the latter view, although not consistently and unambiguously. Thus, in his account of the Iran-contra affair, the reader is left uncertain over the role Shultz thinks the president played. If at one point in the story Reagan is presented as the initiator of the arms-for-hostages scheme, at another he is seen as the dupe of the National Security Council staff.
In the end Shultz sees his former boss as far more the dupe than the initiator in the Iran-contra affair. Perhaps that is the principal reason why Shultz did not resign over the affair, despite his strong opposition to it. He had offered his resignation before on occasions of far less gravity. In this case he did not do so because, in his words, "In order to get the ongoing arms-for-hostages efforts shut down for good, it had been essential for me to stay in there and slug it out." Had he left, Shultz appears to be saying, Ronald Reagan might well have remained the victim of those who had already used him so badly. It is a startling judgment of the nation's most popular president in the past quarter century.