Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

The Diplomat as Gardener

| Feb. 19, 2021

What George Shultz Understood About American Power

In July 1988, during his final year as secretary of state, George Shultz embarked on an eight-country, three-week tour of Asia. No crisis or urgent diplomatic objective had spurred the trip—unthinkably long by today’s standards. With the Soviet Union in decline and China focused inward, the United States’ global position was strong. But Shultz had a deep commitment to what he called “tending the diplomatic garden.” I was a young Foreign Service Officer accompanying Shultz. Watching the way he treated his hosts in each capital city was a powerful lesson in American diplomacy and why it matters.

Upon his arrival in Tokyo, Shultz raised the confidence of the Japanese—long insecure about the attention lavished on China ever since President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit—by proclaiming that the United States had no more important ally in the world. In Beijing, Shultz, the rare American leader who listened more than he spoke, sat through long meetings and an even longer ceremonial dinner at the Summer Palace with his proud but prickly Chinese hosts. From Bangkok and Manila to Seoul, Hong Kong, Jakarta, and the Marshall Islands, he spent meeting after meeting weeding, watering, and watching over the diplomatic garden. His commitment to building personal relationships with his foreign counterparts demonstrated the United States’ keen interest in the fortunes of a rapidly changing and ascending region.

Shultz’s gardening metaphor was grounded in a simple core belief: even a superpower had to show up in distant capitals, demonstrate interest and respect, get to know the leaders, and build familiarity and trust, so that when the crises came—as they surely would—it would have a network of friends and allies to turn to for help. The costs of neglecting that insight have become all too clear on multiple occasions in the decades since.


When Shultz died in California at the age of 100 earlier this month, he left a record of public service that few Americans have attained in recent history. For my generation of career diplomats, Shultz represents an American leadership that exercised power with a level of confidence, purpose, and effectiveness that has been noticeably absent in recent years.

The sheer breadth and depth of Shultz’s long service to the United States was extraordinary by any standard. A Marine Corps combat veteran of World War II, Shultz returned home from the Pacific to earn a doctorate in economics at MIT and go on to a stint as a member of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisers before moving to the University of Chicago, where he was a professor and ultimately dean of the business school. Brought back to Washington by President Nixon, Shultz subsequently became one of only two people in U.S. history to serve in four cabinet positions (the other was his contemporary Elliot Richardson).

As secretary of labor, Shultz tried to create greater opportunities for Black businesses in the construction industry. As the first director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), he brought an intellectual rigor and practical sensibility to one of the least heralded but most important jobs in the executive branch. Succeeding John Connally as secretary of the Treasury, he implemented Nixon’s historic move off the gold standard, before leaving government to run Bechtel in 1974. Even if he’d never gone back to Washington, Shultz would have had a storied government career.

But it was his service over six and one-half years as President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state that was his crowning achievement in public life. Taking office in 1982, at a time of deep tension and division in the Cold War, Shultz was a primary architect of Reagan’s confrontational posture toward Moscow and the major U.S. defense buildup that the Soviets ultimately could not match. Yet following Mikhail Gorbachev’s appointment as Communist Party general secretary in 1985 and the launch of the reformist policies of glasnost and perestroika, Shultz detected earlier than Reagan and most others in Washington that this was a genuine opportunity to transform the long and contentious relationship with the Kremlin.

Ever the diplomatic gardener, Shultz worked hard to develop a close and ultimately trusting relationship with another Soviet reformer, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. At the Reykjavik Summit in 1986, Shultz and Reagan even came close to agreeing with Gorbachev on the abolishment of their respective nuclear weapons forces. While that brief and stunning vision vanished as quickly as it had materialized, Shultz and Shevardnadze succeeded in negotiating the elimination of thousands of intermediate-range nuclear weapons in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which brought the threat of conflict arguably to its lowest point in the nuclear age.

Such efforts brought a demonstrable thaw in the once frozen superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet at the same time, Shultz made it a personal mission to convince the Kremlin to permit Soviet Jews to immigrate to the West, remaining proud of that singular accomplishment throughout his life. And as a champion of free markets, free labor, and ideas, he encouraged those leaders across Eastern Europe challenging failing communist governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and beyond in a rapidly weakening Warsaw Pact.

Shultz had handed the baton of leadership in the State Department to his successor, James A. Baker III, by 1989 and was out of office for the astonishing events that followed—the fall of the Berlin Wall, unification of a long-divided Germany, and the stunning collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union itself on December 25, 1991. His consequential role in steering the Cold War to a mercifully peaceful end is secure, however, in the history books. And in the three decades that followed his departure from the State Department, Shultz enjoyed an impressively productive life as one of the United States’ most important foreign policy intellectuals. From his perch at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, he arrived each day at his office well into his late 90s, conducting a rolling seminar (as well as authoring papers and books) on everything from global economics to U.S.-Russian relations and waging a public campaign, alongside his contemporaries Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and William Perry, to imagine a world without nuclear weapons.


Shultz often returned to a few central themes about American power in the world—themes that are especially relevant today, when so many doubt the United States’ ability to sustain its role as the world’s most powerful country. He was a persistent advocate of American economic power in the world and, given prior experiences at the Treasury Department and OMB and as a corporate executive and economics professor, made an especially strong and persuasive case for economics as the vital foundation of U.S. global influence. (When my colleagues Bob Mnookin and Jim Sebenius and I interviewed Shultz a few years ago for a research project, he returned frequently to his conviction that Reagan’s revival of U.S. economic strength was a key factor in ending the Cold War.) Shultz was also early to recognize the significance of the information age and the relationship of technological innovation to U.S. power.

But throughout, Shultz pushed to give diplomacy a lead role in U.S. foreign policy. As secretary of state, he was a vigorous champion of the career Foreign Service and civil service and, in contrast to his successors in the Trump administration, listened to advice from career officers and appointed many to senior positions. He also created the Foreign Service Institute in Virginia, which trains diplomats in languages, global politics, regional studies, management, and leadership.

Shultz may be best remembered for his defiance of a 1983 Reagan administration edict that State Department officers be subjected to polygraph tests, like their brethren in the intelligence community. He spoke out publicly, for all State officials and for himself: “The minute in this government I am told that I’m not trusted is the day that I leave.” He won the argument. American diplomats were not polygraphed, and Shultz kept his job for six more years.  

For Shultz, diplomacy was more than the ends: the summits, arms control agreements, trade deals. In conversations in recent years, he returned time and again to the personal aspects of what it means to be an effective diplomat: the underrated value of listening, of personal relationships between leaders, especially antagonists, and of what he called the “coin of the realm,” trust.

One of the stories career diplomats recite most often about Shultz was about new ambassadors going to see him before leaving for foreign postings. In Shultz’s imposing office on the seventh floor of the State Department was a very large globe. After ushering the ambassador to stand beside it, he would ask each to point to his country. When, invariably, ambassadors would point to Peru or Mali or Singapore or wherever else they had been appointed, Shultz would point to the United States to remind them that this was “their country.”

With the United States unmoored by the presidency of Donald Trump and convulsed by the COVID-19 pandemic, a recession, racial injustice, and an insurrection, we would do well to adopt both Shultz’s fundamental optimism and his sense of American strength and purpose. But it will also take a renewed investment in Shultz’s model of diplomacy to convince a world questioning the U.S. commitment to global leadership that America can rise again.

  – Via the original publication source.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Burns, Nicholas.“The Diplomat as Gardener.” Foreign Affairs, February 19, 2021.