George Shultz served as the Secretary of State from 1982 to 1989 under President Ronald Reagan. He also served as the Secretary of Labor from 1969–1970 under President Richard Nixon, as the director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1970–1972 also under President Nixon, and as the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury from 1972–1974 also under President Nixon. Before his career in politics, he was a Professor of Economics at MIT and then at the University of Chicago, where he served as Dean of the Graduate School of Business as well. Between 1974 and 1982 he was an executive and then the president of Bechtel. He is currently the Thomas W. and Susan B. Ford Distinguished Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Jonathan Faust: What do you see as the biggest threat to the stability of the international system today, and what measures do you believe that the U.S. and others around the world should take to address such a threat or threats?
George Shultz: We face an attack on the state system. The threat comes, in large part, because for the first time in approximately three centuries, religion and war have been joined together. The so-called ISIS doesn’t believe in countries. Instead, they believe that everybody should live according to a religious creed, and they’re executing on that belief. They have now achieved a geographical space and have funding. A religiously based war differs from traditional war because it does not occur in one place. This war has spread out and is being waged in several places simultaneously, so it’s a different kind of war that represents a major shift.
The opposition of ISIS to borders is strengthened by Mr. Putin’s actions. He has demolished the border between Ukraine and Russia and he has annexed Crimea. He has not only violated the state system as such, but Russia has also violated an agreement with the United States and Britain. Under this agreement, which was made when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, Russia promised to respect Ukraine’s border. I think this is a big challenge. It isn’t only terrorism that we are concerned about; there is a general challenge to the state system involved.
JF: What do you think that the strategy of the United States toward Syria should be, and do you believe that Obama’s refusal to stand by his red line undermines the strength of our position both in Syria and the rest of the world?
GS: At the start of World War II, I was in Marine Corps boot camp, and the sergeant handed me my rifle. He said, “Take good care of this rifle. This is your best friend. And remember one thing: never point this rifle at anybody unless you are willing to pull the trigger.” No empty threats. If you make empty threats, people don’t pay any attention to what you say.
JF: So, you think that other countries do, in fact, take us less seriously?
GS: Of course.
JF: To what extent do you believe that North Korea poses a threat to the United States and the world community? What steps do you think we should take to address this threat?
GS: North Korea poses a threat in two ways: It has nuclear weapons, and it is certainly an erratic country. Any significant nuclear exchange affects not only the people directly involved but also the atmosphere, so it becomes a global event. I think the threat of nuclear weapons is very grave. For a long while, the number of nuclear weapons was in decline, which President Reagan strongly advocated. The number of nuclear weapons in the world today is one-third of the number of nuclear weapons in existence when President Reagan met with Gorbachev in Reykjavik — a meeting that I attended — so a huge amount of progress has been made. But recently things have changed, and there is now a threat of proliferation and a lot of careless talk from Russia, among other places.
JF: What do you propose that we do about North Korea? What kinds of steps do you propose that we take, given that sanctions haven’t worked?
GS: We need to work with China on this, and to be effective, this work should be done quietly. In the second term of the Clinton administration, Bill Perry, who had resigned as Secretary of Defense, was enlisted by President Clinton to work on nuclear security issues. He was very knowledgeable and well-respected, and he refrained from politicizing his work. As a result, he accomplished a lot. That’s the way to do it.
JF: You mentioned nuclear disarmament. Over the past few years, there have been reports about the Obama administration pursuing a trillion dollar effort to revitalize the nuclear program in order to make current nuclear weapons more efficient, which is creating greater tension with Russia. Do you think we are moving further away from the goal of disarmament?
GS: Well, Russia is doing everything it can to increase its nuclear arsenal, and that gets a reaction. President Obama has done well in his advocacy for getting rid of nuclear weapons. He’s convened four meetings at the head-of-state level with the objective of finding a way to get better control of fissile material. That’s a positive step because, although it is difficult to obtain fissile material, someone who has it will be able make a bomb.
JF: Has the Obama administration’s decision not to get involved in the events of the Arab Spring undermined the strength of the U.S.’s position of leadership in the world? What is your overall assessment of Obama’s foreign policy strategy?
GS: Well, the administration’s strategy has been inconsistent. There was a big effort in Libya to get rid of Qaddafi, and then nothing. In Egypt, Mubarak was abandoned. I think back to the Reagan years, when Marcos had outlived his usefulness in the Philippines and it was obvious he couldn’t govern. We went to him and said, “You can no longer govern, but you’ve been a friend, so we have a plane ready on Clark Field to fly you and your family to a comfortable life.” Because he had been a friend, we were loyal to him and didn’t abandon him.
JF: Do you think that that action conflicted with the U.S. message of democracy?
GS: No. We are for democratic governance and we need to make it clear that when somebody who has been a friend has lost it, then we ought to help that person have a decent burial, so to speak.
JF: How is the energy landscape changing, and how can the United States take advantage of the new opportunities in energy?
GS: There’s a lot of research being done right here on campus by talented people who are working on improving solar power, batteries, and so on. I chair the MIT Energy Initiative External Energy Advisory Board, so I also see the important advances MIT is making in the energy field. Solar panels are now much more efficient and competitive. The solar panels on my house on the Stanford campus produce more electricity than the electric car that I drive uses, so I’m driving on sunshine, and my fuel costs are zero. What’s not to like?
JF: What’s your opinion on the divestment movement and Fossil-Free Stanford?
GS: I think that university endowments should be invested for the purpose of the endowments, which is to be as useful as possible in supporting the activities of the university. Economically, the emergence of natural gas has been displacing coal, and I read that US carbon emissions now are less than they were in 2005, largely due to that fact. Let the market work.
JF: Currently, Great Britain is considering exiting the European Union. I know that in the past you have been critical of the European Union. What path do you believe that Great Britain should take, and what kinds of benefits or consequences will its decision have on Great Britain and the rest of the European Union in years to come?
GS: I think it would be a mistake for Great Britain to leave the European Union for economic and security reasons. I do believe, as you were suggesting, that it’s too much effort to homogenize the European countries. Open borders are a good thing and openness to trade is a good thing, but the Euro has imposed a fixed exchange rate on very different economies, and that doesn’t work. So the idea is to have a unified Europe without trying to make the countries the same. Italians are not going to be like Swedes or Germans. These different cultures have been around for a long time and, to a certain extent, you don’t want them to change. If everyone were like the Germans, you’d never have good spaghetti.
The United States was founded in a very interesting way. You’ve probably seen the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware in the Metropolitan Museum. You probably haven’t looked closely at it though. People usually see only Washington with his vision and his sword, but there’s also a lieutenant holding a flag and 11 other people in that boat. If you look closely, you’ll see that they are all different. The 13 different colonies are represented, so George Washington was governing over diversity. He had the revolutionary objective as the unifying force, but he had a diverse constituency. For around six years, there was a question of whether we were going to have a country at all because the states were so jealous of their rights. Finally, as I understand it, James Madison persuaded Washington to be the chairman of the Constitutional Convention, where a novel system of governance was devised: a federal government with limited power, checked and balanced, with a bicameral legislature composed of a house, represented according to population and majority votes held, and a senate with equal representation for each state. So the proud Virginians — Washington, Jefferson, and Madison — in the populous state of Virginia had to agree that little Rhode Island would have the same number of votes as they had. In other words, large cannot vote over small. All of the powers of the federal government that were not allocated, that is, practically everything that affected daily life — went to the states, the municipalities, and individuals. It’s a way of allowing people to express their individuality. That’s an issue that has become much more prominent now because in this information and communication age, people everywhere know what’s going on and they can quickly organize and communicate on cellphones. This means that those who are governing have to pay attention to diversity. It cannot be ignored or suppressed.
JF: How has the nature and tone of political discourse today changed since your time in government?
GS: I think one of the problems is that campaigning is an act of division. Governance should unify by trying to figure out what different constituencies have in common. What can we work on? How can we accomplish something? In recent years, it seems we’ve been in a constant campaign mode, which is basically divisive. I think that Speaker Ryan is doing the right thing by telling Congress that it needs to put a budget together from the bottom up; that it’s going to have hearings on the various subcategories in government that receive our funding and work to understand them. That is operational in nature; it’s not partisan.
JF: Would you mind imparting some wisdom to Stanford students who seek to emulate you?
GS: Stanford students are a very able bunch of kids, and my contact with them suggests that they want to make a difference. Their instinct is to make the world a better place than the one they inherited, so I’m very impressed. I think people need to find what interests them and then pursue it. Whatever it is you are doing, do it well, and let one thing lead to the next. As a college student, I had no idea that I would become Secretary of State. Working hard at whatever it is that you’re interested in can lead to unexpected outcomes. As long as you are totally engaged in what you are doing, it will never seem like work in the usual sense of the word.
Jonathan Faust, a sophomore studying international relations, is a staff interviewer at Stanford Political Journal.