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The enduring lessons for Joe Biden from Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and George Shultz

Three Republican foreign policy luminaries have died in 2021, and their collective record helps illuminate our path forward

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in November 2003. (Reuters Photographer/Reuters)

Colin L. Powell, a trailblazing figure who served as the nation’s first Black national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state, died on Oct. 18 at 84 of complications from covid-19.

For all his ceiling-smashing accomplishments, one of Powell’s greatest legacies is vastly underappreciated by most observers: He understood that the true nature of American power in the international system was the ability to quickly adapt and adjust to new threats and external security environments.

It was an insight he shared with George Shultz and Donald H. Rumsfeld, other leading Republican foreign policy voices who have died in 2021. Over their six shared decades together in public life, this trio played a role in many transformational moments in American history. Yet it was their service between the final days of the Cold War and the beginning of the war on terrorism that particularly stands out. As the three men labored under extraordinary shifts in global politics, they helped steer U.S. foreign policy into a position to take advantage of these changes — with both positive and negative consequences. Recalling this lesson is valuable as the United States enters a new era of global competition and rivalry.

Serving under President Ronald Reagan for 6½ years as his second secretary of state, George Shultz witnessed both the highest levels of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union since the Cuban missile crisis and a later thaw in relations that eventually led to the Soviet collapse.

After Shultz entered the State Department, he supported Reagan’s dual-track strategy of escalating the Cold War through a major military buildup and bellicose rhetoric while overseeing quiet diplomacy with the Soviets, which Reagan hoped would eventually produce a better relationship. Yet Shultz was adaptable; when Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union in March 1985, the secretary of state sensed opportunity and steadily pushed Reagan to establish a personal dialogue with his new counterpart.

As Reagan and Gorbachev made progress and forged a bond, Shultz encouraged a general relaxation of friction in the Soviet-American relationship, precisely because he understood Gorbachev and his advisers represented a new type of Soviet leadership. Faced with a prime opportunity to reshape the superpower dynamic and shift the tenor of international politics, Shultz readily seized it.

No moment better illustrated this adjustment than when Shultz personally greeted Eduard Shevardnadze, Gorbachev’s foreign minister, at an international conference in Finland in 1985 shortly after Shevardnadze took up his post. The gesture was a sensation after years of frosty dealings with Shevardnadze’s predecessor, Andrei Gromyko. With it, Shultz abetted the creation of a productive working partnership between the two men. In doing so, he helped shift U.S. foreign policy toward cooperation with the Soviets.

In the final years of Reagan’s second term, Powell worked alongside Shultz as the president’s national security adviser. From his position in the White House, Powell built on the progress made between the superpowers by helping to negotiate arms control agreements that demonstrated Soviet-American relations had reached a new stage. Toiling to lock in the new dynamic, Powell equally comprehended that the international environment had shifted and that U.S. power must adjust with it.

Not all of Reagan’s advisers agreed with Powell and Schultz’s embrace of a more conciliatory Soviet policy. Others, including Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick, did not trust the Soviets and believed Washington was repeating the mistakes of detente in the 1970s. Their opposition made cooperation a risky political move. But Powell and Shultz believed that warmer Soviet-American relations could help end the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union proved they were right.

Under President George H.W. Bush, Powell became chairman of the Joint Chiefs, where he once again pushed for a rethinking of the United States’ foreign policy approach — this time with regards to using the military. Powell was the architect of the 1989 invasion of Panama and the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which seemingly defined a new period of U.S. hegemony as the world’s sole remaining superpower. In orchestrating these military operations, he came to define what became known as the Powell Doctrine: Identify clear political objectives, have a transparent exit strategy, obtain substantial public support, and use decisive and overpowering force to vanquish enemies.

The Powell Doctrine provided a coherent, workable test for when to use the U.S. military in the changed world — one that comprehended the traumas of Vietnam and corrected for the mistakes made in that conflict. With the smashing victory against Saddam Hussein in Kuwait and a new security environment devoid of obvious foes, Powell argued that future conflicts would be regional rather than global in scope. Accordingly, the United States needed to reorient its armed forces to be prepared to meet these new challenges, which in his mind would include humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, “limited wars” and extended deterrence. In a world with fresh problems, U.S. power needed to adapt to meet them.

But recognizing opportunities provided by global politics and being flexible enough to try to capitalize upon them alone did not equal good policy. Powell learned this lesson when butting heads with a new rival after he returned to public office in 2001 as President George W. Bush’s secretary of state.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks plunged the United States into the forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, forcing Powell to grapple with a new type of conflict.

He quickly began clashing with Rumsfeld, Bush’s defense secretary, and other hawks on the national security team. While Rumsfeld, who had also been defense secretary under President Gerald Ford in the 1970s, agreed with Powell that the United States was sitting at the apex of world power, they differed on how to utilize that reality. Powell remained committed to the criteria he had laid out a decade earlier for when to use force. Rumsfeld felt differently. He saw this period as perhaps the United States’ only opportunity to remake the world in its image.

At the same time, he was skeptical of Powell’s emphasis on large military forces and the immense defense budget that went along with them. To that end, he pushed the Pentagon to modernize with new technology and force structures. In his mind, exerting U.S. power required this new type of military because the types of threats the United States now faced no longer came from other nation-states like the U.S.S.R. With future dangers largely emanating from nonstate actors like terrorist groups, a large military had little value.

Yet there was a fatal flaw to Rumsfeld’s thinking: what he wanted to use this more agile military to accomplish. While a nimbler armed forces made sense for hunting terrorists and securing American security in a new age, he instead pressed to use it to help spread democracy in the Middle East and remove hostile regimes — a rejection of Powell’s carefully calibrated criteria for action. Rumsfeld understood the moment required novel thinking but for objectives ill-conceived for a military mission and with little sense of the risk entailed.

Rumsfeld’s vision of what could be accomplished in Iraq and how turned out to be wrong, with disastrous consequences. He set the United States on a course that permanently altered the Middle East and left the nation mired in conflicts.

The lesson: Adaptability and flexibility matter. But it is also essential to appropriately match means and ends. Rumsfeld correctly identified the unparalleled reaches of U.S. power in the early 2000s. Yet he chose the wrong goal for the moment. It led to the largest catastrophe in U.S. foreign policy since the Vietnam War.

With China rising and the Biden administration looking to retool U.S. national security policy to engage in a new phase of competition and friction, Washington would be wise to heed these lessons. Difficult challenges are growing on the horizon, and they can only be overcome if Washington can correctly calibrate its policies to match the opportunities and threats it now faces.