George Shultz: In search of assertiveness and common ground


This is a transcript of an interview with George Shultz, the U.S. Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan. This interview is part of The Daily’s “Ideas of an International Order” series, running from April 27-30, 2014, which explores the potential for evolving and contrasting concepts of an international system in the 21st century, and what America can or should do in response.

The Stanford Daily (TSD):What do you think recent events in international affairs show us about our current situation?

George Shultz (GS):In recent years, Putin has been taking steps to implement his broad objectives of seeking dominance in all of the former Soviet states. That’s what he wants to do. That’s what the Georgia business was about. That’s what the Ukrainian and Crimean business is about. That’s his objective. He may make tactical moves now and then or say things, but we should realize, that’s his objective.

So when we say to ourselves, what are his tools, his biggest tool is his supply of oil and gas in most of these countries. It means that they are pretty much dependent on the Russians. The Baltic States are almost wholly dependent. He’s shown that he’s perfectly willing to cut off those supplies if he thinks that it will further his objectives. That means that from our standpoint we want to lessen that dependence, and while I don’t claim to have studied this issue extensively, my instinct is that if we go about it with some energy and cohesion among our allies, we can do that.

For example, an LNG-receiving ship has put into port in Lithuania recently, so it’s got to have some LNG coming. It is reported that there is potential shale oil possible in Poland if we work at it. There has recently been some discoveries around Cyprus. And so we should be working hard to create these developments and lessen that dependence.

We also know that he is threatening military action all the time. So we need to be sure that our NATO forces are adequate and alert. We have been falling behind in that regard. But it is not a huge cost to the United States to get ourselves in better shape, so we should.

We also need to recognize that to some degree, his strengths are his weaknesses. That is, his economy is dependent on selling oil and gas. Very dependent. He also has a demographic catastrophe on his hands. That is, fertility is very low. Men only live to the age of 60 on average—it’s appalling! And then the working-age groups, 35-50—men die at a rate far in excess of normal OECD countries. So he has that problem. He has practically an open rebellion on his hands in the Caucasus, in Islamic lands there. And while he has recently had an agreement with China, the reality is also that [there is a] long border with China—on one side are lots of resources and hardly anybody, on the other side are lots of people and seepage is taking place. So there’s an instability there.

We need to be conscious of what he’s trying to do and have a strategy for countering it. Having in mind that we don’t want to see an outcome that is a kind of revival of the Cold War, and we certainly wouldn’t want to see the collapse of Russia, that’s where we are.


TSD: Do you believe that we’re at risk of that kind of situation resembling a second Cold War?

GS: There’s a risk of that. We don’t want to fall into that trap. We want to align up, having called all this off and given Putin a lesson, and we want to see Russia be part of the larger community, not isolated from it. After all, Russia brings a lot to the world. It has world-class music and dance and literature and science. Its best young people are emigrating—Silicon Valley’s full of them.


TSD: What about China, then? Do you believe that China’s presenting any sort of alternative, or do you believe that it’s working within the same framework whose institutions we have in part designed?

GS: China is in much healthier shape, really, than Russia. And of course it’s much larger. I think having a reasonably constructive relationship with China is both possible and desirable, but we have to work at it.

For example, China has a huge pollution problem. And that pollution is related to the more global issue of carbon in the air and the warming of the planet. I believe, for example, that we ought to get together with the Chinese and make a deal on intellectual [property] so you get that out of the way, and then work to see everything possible that we can do—underline the word do—that will help with these problems.

It’s okay to see aspirations, but aspirations aren’t the same as doing. Here’s an example. I was in Beijing a couple of years ago and I had a meeting with the Premier. It took me about three-quarters of an hour to go from my hotel to where he was. If there were no traffic, it would have taken about ten minutes. Most of the time my car was parked, idling. While it’s idling, it’s polluting the air. I said to him, you know, when I drive around Stanford, when my car is stopped nothing is happening because the electric motor carries it forward—it doesn’t have to idle. If you made a big effort to introduce hybrid cars or electric cars, you’d clear up a lot of this pollution. It isn’t like it’s a no-no. If we could make common cause and if we had success between the two countries, other countries would join in.


TSD: What do you think should be the guiding principles for the sort of strategies that you’re talking about going forward—not just for Russia but for other countries as well? What should be our aims, what should be our goals going forward?

GS: We should help the other world with peace and prosperity. So we want to do what we can to help bring that about. The key, to begin with, is having our own economy be more prosperous than it has been recently. I believe that can be done.

I think it’s also important that we be strong, and strength is not just military strength but economic strength, and strength of willpower—to be willing to go and help peoples. We shouldn’t be a spectator, we should be a participant, and a helpful participant.

Another example—let’s take the country of Jordan. Jordan sits next to Syria. It is being inundated with Syrian refugees, and refugee camps—and only a minority of refugees are in the camps. They are also all over Jordan, so it’s a huge problem. How do you cope with it? And we should be helping them cope. There are medical issues, I’m sure; there are all kinds of issues. But we should be helping them solve the problem. That’s another example of something we should be ready to do.

George Shultz served as Secretary of Labor, Director of the Office of Management and Budget and Secretary of the Treasury under President Richard Nixon, and Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan. He is currently the Thomas W. and Susan B. Ford Distinguished Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and chair of Hoover’s Energy Policy Task Force.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 “at”

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Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.