News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Harvard Professors Reflect on the Life and Impact of Secretary George P. Shultz

Professor Nicholas Burns on the legacy and impact of Secretary George P. Shultz.

With the passing this week of former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, the Harvard professors who direct the University’s American Secretaries of State Project reflected on this master diplomat who served the nation for more than two decades. Shultz died on February 6 at 100.  

Professors Nicholas Burns of Harvard Kennedy School, Robert Mnookin of Harvard Law School, and James Sebenius of Harvard Business School formally interviewed Shultz between 2014 and 2016 as part of Harvard’s Secretaries of State Project to gain insight into his effectiveness as the nation’s top diplomat. They have conducted extensive discussions with all past Secretaries of State about the most consequential negotiations they conducted while serving in the nation’s highest foreign policy office.  

Shultz served from 1982-89 as Secretary of State in the Reagan administration. Previously, he was Secretary of Treasury (1972-74), Director of the Office of Management and Budget (1970-72), and Secretary of Labor (1969-70) in the Nixon administration. 

Following is the statement from Professors Burns, Mnookin, and Sebenius: 

“We mourn the death of the great American statesman, George Shultz, at 100 years of age on February 6.   

We were honored to conduct lengthy, videotaped interviews with Secretary Shultz at Stanford in recent years for our American Secretaries of State project at Harvard University. The lessons we learned from him about diplomacy, negotiations and leadership in the public and private sectors were simply invaluable for our project.  

Secretary Shultz was one of the great public servants of the last half century. A Marine Corps combat veteran in the Pacific during the Second World War, he went on to pursue a life of achievement and commitment to our country that was remarkable in every respect.

As Secretary of State, George Shultz advocated that American diplomats should "tend the diplomatic garden." In other words, the U.S. had to be engaged in the world, and to show respect to countries, both large and small, so that when the crisis came, our friends and allies would be with us. He is admired and beloved by our career diplomats in the U.S. Foreign Service for his support for them and for his stewardship of the Foreign Service Institute.    

Among his most significant accomplishments as Secretary of State was his negotiation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement with the Soviet Union in 1987 that eliminated thousands of nuclear weapons in the heart of Europe.  He was the key American negotiator in the Reagan Administration in helping to bring the Cold War to a peaceful end. Late in life, he joined Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry and Sam Nunn in advocating the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.  

George Shultz taught us so much about negotiation, conflict resolution and leadership. Little wonder given his extraordinary career: labor-management expert as a M.I.T. professor; Dean at the University of Chicago Business School; professor and Distinguished fellow at Stanford; four cabinet posts: as head of the Office of Management and Budget, Secretary of Labor, Treasury and State; and as president and director at Bechtel Corporation for eight years.   

As part of our American Secretaries of State project, we three intensively prepared for and carried out days of videotaped discussions with George Shultz. We were struck by his sober wisdom and judgment about challenging negotiations.     

A few negotiation gems that gained power and resonance from the examples that he effortlessly cited from his wealth of experience:

  • of first-order importance, “trust is the coin of the realm;”
  • on the importance of showing respect; see video clip of Shultz at the St. Petersburg cemetery; 
  • on credibility, “don’t point this rifle at anyone unless you are willing to pull the trigger;”
  • on the essential complementarity of strength and negotiation, the eagle on the Great Seal of the Republic shows “an olive branch in one talon and thirteen arrows in the other;”  
  • that negotiation is more than across the table, “be in control of your constituency;”
  • against assuming full knowledge on all sides, “negotiation is an educational process;” and
  • our favorite, on tacitly getting controversial actions accomplished, “it is amazing what people will do if you don’t force them to agree to do it.”    

Our extensive discussions with Secretary Shultz were part of our American Secretaries of State project to interview all the living American Secretaries of State from Henry Kissinger to Rex Tillerson. We have drawn on their insights about negotiations and diplomacy for teaching in our Harvard classrooms and an eventual book and documentary film.  Jim Sebenius was lead author for our book "Kissinger the Negotiator: Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level" that was stimulated by this project.  

The three of us look forward to continuing this project in the years ahead with our able Research Director, Dr. Torrey Taussig.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Burns, Nicholas, Robert H. Mnookin and James K. Sebenius. “Harvard Professors Reflect on the Life and Impact of Secretary George P. Shultz .” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 9, 2021.

The Authors

Nicholas Burns