The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

George Shultz, elder statesman, laments distrust of U.S. abroad under Trump administration

Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz says in an essay that a climate of distrust at home and abroad will take years to reverse.
Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz says in an essay that a climate of distrust at home and abroad will take years to reverse. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Former secretary of state George P. Shultz, who served in the Cabinets of two Republican presidents, has written a harsh assessment of the Trump administration, saying it has fostered a climate of distrust at home and abroad that will take years to reverse.

In an essay published in the November issue of the Foreign Service Journal, a monthly publication by the association representing U.S. diplomats, Shultz calls for a “rebuilding” of trust in the State Department and the federal government in general, as well as with allies and adversaries.

“After nearly four years of an administration that seems to have assumed that American relations with the rest of the world is a zero-sum game and that the game is based largely on the personal relations between national leaders, distrust abounds internationally,” Shultz wrote.

Shultz does not criticize anyone in the Trump administration by name, and insists he does not mean “to impute malign intent to the leaders of the current administration.” But his critique of U.S. foreign policy is often withering, saying the last four years have been marked by a lack of strategic thinking and rapid-fire policy changes announced by presidential tweets.

“The ability of the United States government to execute the president’s foreign policies has become severely limited by the lack of a clear and coherent method of formulating policy,” he wrote. “The president’s use of social media to make frequent public reversals and revisions in policies has made the job of America’s diplomats exceptionally complex.”

Shultz’s essay, titled simply “On Trust,” comes out days before the election. When asked about the timing, Shultz said in a telephone interview that he wrote the piece six to eight months ago. He did not address why he kept his criticisms private years ago when the damage he outlines was being done. He declined to say who he would vote for, and described his essay as “just saying what should be done, and here’s how to do it.”

“I think that the world right now is a critical moment,” said Shultz, who turns 100 in December. “We’re on the hinge of history. The population of the world is changing, radically and rapidly.”

Also citing the impact of climate change and technology on societies, he added, “Throw these things together and you have a problem. And somebody has to describe it to the world, and do something about it.”

His words are certain to reverberate through the State Department’s diplomatic corps, where morale has plummeted as career employees resigned or were pushed out and replaced by political appointees. The State Department has been the focus of some of Trump’s greatest wrath, as he has referred to it publicly as the “Deep State Department.”

During his career, Shultz served two presidents whose foreign policies were themselves the object of controversy and criticism. Under Richard M. Nixon, he was labor secretary, director of the Office of Management and Budget and treasury secretary. He resigned from the latter position on principle when Nixon reimposed wage and price controls.

Ronald Reagan tapped Shultz to become secretary of state, and he later was an informal adviser to George W. Bush. During his six and a half years leading the State Department, he established himself as the gold standard of what the country’s top diplomat should be. He often compared diplomacy to gardening, in need of constant tending.

As secretary of state, Shultz helped manage the end of the Cold War, as he urged Reagan to establish ties with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

In his essay, Shultz singled out former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch as the epitome of a successful diplomat, extolling her integrity, courage and patriotism and her ability to build trusting relationships. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recalled Yovanovitch from her posting in Ukraine last year, after she was accused of disloyalty. She eventually resigned, saying the Trump administration had conducted a smear campaign against her.

In the telephone interview, Shultz characterized trust as one of the cornerstones of international relationships with adversaries as well as allies. He recalled his interactions with then-Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who confided in Shultz that Moscow had decided to pull troops out of Afghanistan, an early warning to allow time for planning to minimize the loss of human life.

“He could never have told me that if he didn’t trust me,” Shultz said.

In his essay, Shultz focuses on the widespread lack of trust in the United States now, and how diplomacy has failed to mitigate it.

“Our relations with much of the rest of the world also have become characterized by distrust bordering on hostility, even in the way Washington deals with close allies in Europe and Asia,” Shultz wrote. “We are nearing a Cold War II situation in our relations with China and Russia. Reliance on military threats, with little or no effort at diplomacy, is the most prominent feature of our relations with nations that we associate with anti-American sentiments and actions.”

In one particularly devastating passage, Shultz writes about the need to “rebuild trust where now it is absent” to meet the challenges of technological and economic trends, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, in part by proving our fealty to democratic values.

“Our partners in this effort will have to regain trust that we do, indeed, share the same democratic values, and that we really are working for an international system of nations that benefits all of us,” he wrote.

“Even our adversaries will have to regain the trust that we can work together to manage global threats to humanity’s very existence even when we disagree on other issues. This task may require more than a single presidential term to accomplish.”

Asked about that part of his essay, Shultz said he does not think American values have been abandoned.

“It’s different,” he said. “But we’re still a democracy.”

Shultz also said in his essay that incoming diplomats need more training before being sent into the field. He recommended they be given a full year to study diplomatic history and skills at the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington.