James A. Baker III was U.S. secretary of state from 1989 to 1992.
I vividly remember the time and place when I knew that the Cold War had ended. It was Aug. 3, 1990, at Vnukovo II Airport outside Moscow. I stood shoulder to shoulder with the foreign minister of the Soviet Union as history was made when we jointly declared our countries’ opposition to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and called for an arms embargo on Iraq, then a Soviet client state. My counterpart was Eduard Shevardnadze. While he was an adversary, he was also a trusted diplomatic partner. In time, he would become a close friend. My biases should therefore be clear: I liked and admired the man.
But I believe that history, too, will judge Shevardnadze kindly. For the Cold War could not have ended peacefully without him. He helped shepherd the Soviet Union, Europe and, indeed, the world through a period of profound and unpredictable change. Looking back, it is easy to say that the Soviet empire would inevitably have collapsed with a whimper, not a bang. But there was nothing inevitable about it.
A staunch supporter of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of reform, Shevardnadze struggled mightily against powerful domestic forces with a vested interest in sustaining ruthless repression at home and permanent Cold War abroad. At one point, he even resigned, saying “dictatorship is coming.” And shortly it did, with the coup attempt on Gorbachev. Shevardnadze was tough; he was tenacious; above all, he was brave.
His political courage was on display for the world to see when we made our joint statement on Iraq. Just before doing that, a weary Shevardnadze privately told me that the hard-liners in his country had warned him that there would be “blood on his hands” if he took that stance. But Shevardnadze was willing to confront those hard-liners. “This aggression,” he announced at the airport, “is inconsistent with the principles of new political thinking.”
Time and time again, Shevardnadze demonstrated such courage. He was a perfect partner for Gorbachev, who was a tremendously optimistic leader, not unlike Ronald Reagan in his ability to buoy a room with his confidence and upbeat outlook. Shevardnadze, on the other hand, was like a wise owl who carried the aura — and burden — of intelligence and insight. He was a soft-spoken man — but one to whom it was always worth listening. And one who was always willing to consider the arguments of others.
Together, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze had the vision to work with their Cold War adversaries to reunite Germany in NATO, negotiate far-reaching nuclear and chemical arms treaties and allow members of the Warsaw Pact to determine their own futures. Above all, they refused — in the face of massive pressure from reactionaries at home — to use force to keep the Soviet empire together. This helped ease the path to freedom for tens of millions of Central and Eastern Europeans.
There was no other foreign official with whom I worked as productively, although it didn’t start out that way. Initially, our meetings were the formal and stilted affairs that were often the norm when the U.S. secretary of state and the Soviet foreign minister met. But as time wore on, we gained more and more trust in one another. Eventually, when just the two of us were together, he would seek my objective counsel about problems that his country was having with the rapid changes occurring there.
He was a man of contradictions and surprises. Born and raised in an authoritarian Soviet Union, Shevardnadze was a committed Communist. But at the height of his power, he promoted reforms. Although his government had espoused universal atheism his entire life, he was baptized into the Georgian Orthodox Church in 1991. During an exchange of gifts at our arms control negotiations in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in 1989, I was amazed when Shevardnadze gave me an enamel picture of Christ teaching the people. “You see, even we Communists are changing our worldview,” he said
With the end of the Soviet Union, he would return to his homeland, Georgia, and eventually become its president. His legacy as leader of Georgia is admittedly more ambiguous. Nothing, however, can overshadow his historic accomplishments as foreign minister of the Soviet Union.
Eduard Shevardnadze was truly one of the great statesmen of my lifetime.