The Road to Engagement

By 1982, détente was on its way out. Beginning with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and continuing through the election of Ronald Reagan - who promised to restore American military might - it was clear that the foreign policy crafted under Nixon could not survive another decade. But what remained unclear was what was to come next. Secretary of State George Shultz wanted to pave the way to engagement with the Soviets. But how?


 

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The long-term goal of peace calls great men. But the players must always be firmly grounded and sensitive to the realities of the world around them. Evidence points to at least two basic qualities Shultz possessed that positioned him ideally as Secretary of State during the Cold War.

He seeks, inasmuch as possible, to stare through the lenses of others. During the Cold War, that gave Shultz the ability to see the players not merely as national abstractions but as people with unique perspectives.

First, Shultz was an empathetic economist. Most economists lack empathy as it applies to their work. To be sure, they see the world in terms of incentives and trade-offs, but they generally take a more distant bird’s-eye-view of matters. Shultz is a different sort of economist. He seeks, inasmuch as possible, to stare through the lenses of others. During the Cold War, that gave Shultz the ability to see the players not merely as national abstractions but as people with unique perspectives.

Consider Shultz’s introspection from the bestselling memoir Turmoil and Triumph:

“So an economist is by training a strategist who will try to understand the constellation of forces present in a situation and try to arrange them to point toward a desirable result. A sense of strategy is critical in any negotiation: when to make concessions, when to hold firm, when to let things cool off, when to be intransigent.” (T&T, p. 31)

To understand the “constellation of forces present in a situation” is one thing. It is quite another to know when “to let things cool off.” That sort of sensitivity requires a human touch that academic economists do not often employ in their work. Taking on the perspective of the many players acting within those constellations is a quality that made Shultz particularly gifted at diplomacy.

Indeed, a prerequisite of empathy may be a level of respect, which Shultz clearly had for the Soviets:

“I also learned that the Soviets were tough negotiators but that you could negotiate successfully with them. In my experience, they did their homework and had skill and patience and staying power. I respected them not only as able negotiators but as people who could make a deal and stick to it. They also, I realized, could turn negotiations into occasions for denunciation and deceit and shameless propagandizing. Their willingness to engage seriously would depend entirely on how they perceived their interests.” (T&T, p.119)

With respect and empathy, Shultz was confident that he could move beyond détente and towards engagement. But that would require patience. A patience that is, perhaps, Shultz’s second great quality.

First, Shultz would have to overcome obstacles within the White House itself. This included circumventing those with whom he disagreed on many matters. The very idea of thawing relations with Moscow was especially unwelcome in some of President Reagan’s inner circle.

“There was lots of powerful opposition around town to any effort to bridge the chasm separating Moscow from Washington. It came from Bill Clark and the NSC Staff, from Cap Weinberger and others at the Defense Department, and from Bill Casey and his soul mates at the CIA. Already there were voices warning the president that I, with my negotiating experience, and the State Deparment, with its bent to ‘better relations,’ posed a threat to the president’s crusade against communism.” (T&T, p.159)

Shultz would have to get closer to the president--at least as close as the rest of Reagan’s advisors. These advisors included such heavy hitters as Secretary of Defense, Caspar “Cap” Weinberger, who appears to have been Shultz’s intellectual adversary within the White House at that time. Getting the president’s ear, alone, would require patience and persistence. Getting the president to see his position, and allow him the leverage to act, was another matter altogether.

Then, Shultz would have to overcome a series of obstacles and breakdowns in U.S.-Soviet relations on the road to engagement. He had to overcome a Soviet pipeline controversy that emerged after President Reagan, at the advice of other members of his administration, decided to place economic sanctions against both the Soviets and key U.S. allies. The U.S. was refusing to sell the Soviets vital U.S. pipeline components, or to sell to allies who might sell such parts to the Soviets. The thinking behind the sanctions was that a Soviet pipeline to Europe would make European allies dependent on Soviet resources, which would, over time, give strategic advantage to the USSR . While this may have been the case, Shultz saw folly in such sanctions—both in terms of already strained relations with the Soviets, as well as in terms of the emergence of black markets to circumvent the sanctions.

“…I was skeptical of the effectiveness of sanctions, especially when applied unilaterally. The market is global and is simply too strong for sanctions applied by one country acting alone to have a decisive impact. The country applying sanctions can therefore wind up damaging its own trade more than that of the target country.” (T&T, p. 137)

The sanctions also had the potential to sour relations with key European allies. Eventually he convinced President Reagan to drop the sanctions. Again, both economics and empathy led Shultz to find a way out of a problem.

Reagan’s infamous “Evil Empire” speech also proved to be an obstacle for Shultz. The speech had not been good for any sort of thawing between the U.S. and the Soviets. Many today consider the speech to have sent a strong signal of support to Soviet satellite states and populations eager for liberalization. But in the foreign relations of the day, Shultz had something of a mess to clean up if he was going to get any sort of negotiations started. Despite the moralistic rhetoric, Shultz was able to guide the Soviets beyond the speech.

If there is a third quality in a trinity of characteristics that made Shultz successful as he set off toward a more promising relationship with the other Superpower, it was his simple ability to garner the trust of those who had every reason to distrust him. This included characters like Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and the fierce negotiator, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. And while that would require the sensibilities of the strategist, it would also require a dimension of human sensibility beyond simple description.

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