U.S. statesman George Shultz. Photo: Google

By EARL ANTHONY WAYNE, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico

(A modified version of this article first appeared on the website The National Interest and is being republished in Pulse News Mexico with specific prior permission.)  

George Shultz was one of the United States’ most outstanding secretaries of state, a distinguished four-time cabinet secretary, and a model of continued service for the public good through his 100 years. Shultz, who passed away last month, bequeathed the United States enduring wisdom of great value as it seeks to “build back better” America’s role in the world.

As he approached his 100th birthday, Shultz wrote two significant articles, for the Foreign Service Journal and the Washington Post. Both stressed the importance of building and maintaining trust in relations with friends and foes. The message to the U.S. State Department audience emphasized the tremendous value of investing in America’s diplomats as the United States seeks to rebuild relationships in a constantly changing international system filled with distrust, much focused the United States.

Shultz’s successor, Antony Blinkenpaid tribute to Shultz’ wisdom at his death and is beginning to rebuild damaged ties with other governments by reaching out in a manner Shultz would have approved of, including with a virtual visit to Mexico last Feb. 26 and as President Joe Biden is slated to do in a video call with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) on March 1.

Shultz’s counsel should provide ongoing inspiration to U.S. diplomacy to undo the serious damage done to America’s image and influence abroad over recent years.

For those of us who had the honor of serving with Shultz, his last messages were true to his career and life work. As secretary of state, Shultz lived the importance of building and maintaining trust-based partnerships with friends and trust-grounded understandings with rivals. He taught many of us that trust should be built while remaining true to America’s interests. This was the point of his famous practice of asking outgoing ambassadors to point out “their” country on the world globe in his office — the correct answer was the United States, not the country of the ambassador’s destination.

Grounded in U.S. interests and ideals, Secretary of State Shultz demonstrated the importance of understanding counterparts’ interests and needs, even if divergent from those of the United States. He worked with patience and determination to find a path to resolve differences and find solutions to vexing problems, even if this took years of effort.

Throughout my career, I benefited from lessons learned working for “Secretary” Shultz from 1982 to 1983. He arrived at the State Department during a difficult crisis in Lebanon, which had been the final straw leading to the resignation of his predecessor, Al Haig.

I was already working as a special assistant in the secretary’s office and was immediately stuck by Shultz’ ability to remain calm, collected and focused, even when faced with outrageous behavior by the players in the region, as well as with the bureaucratic infighting in the U.S. administration that had also plagued Haig. Shultz had a capacity to persevere, deal with the setbacks, create leverage to move forward, and step-by-step build the partnerships needed for progress. I still vividly remember him working with tears flowing on the draft message Shultz issued after the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut: Shultz was deeply saddened, but doubled down on pursuing the U.S. peace mission for Lebanon.

Gathering partners where possible was a key precept in Shultz’ approach to this and other issues in the months ahead. He devoted much attention to partners in Europe, Asia and the Western Hemisphere during my time with him. Schultz always emphasized the importance of economics in all we did, something I had not focused on before my work with him, but which became a priority later in my career. Importantly, throughout intense work on any given diplomatic crises, Shultz demonstrated great respect for his professional diplomatic team. He also believed in the value of continuous learning, which is why he championed until the end better training for U.S. diplomats. The secretary would relax and have fun with his staff, especially if there was an opportunity to dance. For he loved to dance. Not surprisingly, Shultz’s staff and the Foreign Service developed a deep affection for him.

I remember clearly an article that praised leaders who were likened to a large boulder on the seashore that survived the waves, tides and the storms unaffected and carried on. That symbolized to me George Shultz’ service in the 1980s. Despite the awful bureaucratic turmoil that he faced inside the Ronald Reagan administration’s flawed national security processes, Shultz soldiered on, letting the waves break over him while pursuing strategies that kept friends and allies together with his well-known diplomatic “gardening.” Simultaneously, Shultz engaged with rivals constructively to develop enough “trust” to forge areas of agreement, as he did successfully with the Soviets. Not hesitating to speak frankly or use the range of non-diplomatic U.S. leverage, Shultz demonstrated that building confidence with rivals, as well as with friends, is key to achieving U.S. goals, and it does not require putting core principles aside.

These messages and his devotion to improving America’s diplomacy won enduring admiration of my U.S. diplomat colleagues. The feeling was mutual, which explains why he chose the Foreign Service Journal to publish one his last articles, stressing the value of professional education for career diplomats and calling for a new “School of Diplomacy” at the State Department. Doubly impressive was Shultz’ continued engagement on key issues, whether it was championing North America’s global powerhouse potential, proposing the rethinking of the “failed War on Drugs,” highlighting the revolutionary impact of new technologies for energy and climate change, or flagging the dangers of short-sighted nuclear policies.

George Shultz’ counsel is vital for the United States today — invest in building trust abroad and at home. Be true to America’s interests and values and know those of your friends and rivals. Work with patience to create and sustain close partnerships. Forge trust-based understandings with competitors using the range of U.S. levers. Invest heavily in strengthening U.S. diplomacy and its diplomats to rebuild America’s role in the world. The Biden team’s initial weeks appear to reflect this spirit. We can look forward to them incorporating Shultz’ wisdom and advice into U.S. diplomacy for the years ahead.

EARL ANTHONY WAYNE is a retired U.S. career ambassador, a distinguished diplomat in residence at American University’s School of International Service, and co-chair of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute Board. He served as ambassador to Mexico and Argentina, deputy ambassador to Afghanistan, and assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, among other positions, during his 40-year diplomatic career.

…March 1, 2021


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