from POLICY: Canadian Politics and Public Policy
Colin Robertson February 8, 2021
This was not the way I had wanted to meet the venerable George P. Shultz. Recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, Shultz had served four presidents: secretary of state to Ronald Reagan, Treasury secretary to Gerald Ford, labor secretary to Richard Nixon and on the Council of Economic Advisors under Dwight Eisenhower. A graduate of Princeton – its tiger mascot was allegedly tattooed on his formidable posterior – he’d joined the Marine Corps and seen combat in the Pacific.
My July 23, 2003 call on former Secretary Shultz in his conference room at the Hoover Institution on the Stanford University campus was a fine example of the delicacy of diplomacy. It was prompted by his remark “So my Canadian friends, why has Canada gone so soft?” — provoked by our refusal to participate in the invasion of Iraq. As Consul General for Canada in California, it was my responsibility to explain the Canadian position.
George Shultz, who died Sunday at the age of 100, mattered to us. He had played a lead role in getting Canada into the G7 in 1976 when he was at Treasury. He would later tell me it was both strategic and personal: the US wanted another non-European member and he liked his Canadian counterpart, then Finance Minister John Turner. As secretary of state, he instituted quarterly meetings with his Canadian counterpart: first, Allan MacEachen, whom he had taught economics at MIT; and then Joe Clark. Allan Gotlieb, our longest serving ambassador in Washington, used to have Shultz and his late first wife, Obie, over to the residence where they talked high policy while watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. Shultz was a vital ally in our campaigns for free trade and the acid rain agreement. While George W. Bush was in the White House, Shultz was still a player with influence on key members of the administration, notably Condi Rice, who was national security advisor and later took on his former role of secretary of state.
So, in California, I awaited the great man, surrounded by the pictures and mementos of a long public life. A picture with Senator Ted Kennedy, the “Lion of the Senate” inscribed, “George, A tiger who burned bright in the eyes of Congress and the world.” A sword presented to him by the Commandant of the Marines. “Semper Fidelis” — words that Shultz lived by. The only Canadian in the collection of presidents, prime ministers and foreign leaders was Brian Mulroney. If the intent was to intimidate, it succeeded.
And then the door opened and in trudged George Shultz, looking comfortable in a short-sleeved shirt and khaki trousers. He nodded and took his place at the head of the table, gestured for me to come closer, looked at me for a moment, and then in the measured tone that personified his diplomatic style said: “You asked to see me?”
I made my case, saying that nothing is more consequential that taking a country to war, noting that for Canada the First World War began in 1914, three years before the US joined in and the Second World War in 1939, two years before Pearl Harbour. I also noted that, unlike his father, George H. W. Bush, who had followed Brian Mulroney’s advice and secured a UN mandate for the first Gulf War, George W. Bush was leading a “coalition of the willing”. For us, the multilateral endorsement was essential.
My July 23, 2003 call on former Secretary Shultz was a fine example of the delicacy of diplomacy. It was prompted by his remark ‘So my Canadian friends, why has Canada gone so soft?’, provoked by our refusal to participate in the invasion of Iraq.
Shultz responded with one of his favourite maxims: “Good neighbours tend their gardens — they weed them and keep them in good order and don’t let them cause harm to that of their neighbour.” Is Canada ‘tending its garden?’ I responded that the ongoing Canada-bashing, especially from the Fox Network, saying that Canada was ‘weak on terrorism’ was not based on facts. He nodded, although I am not sure it was in agreement. I asked if I could see him again and he nodded again.
He meant it, and during my time in California he was an invaluable source of advice on politics and international affairs.
Mr. Shultz and his second wife, Charlotte, would come to our events and they graciously hosted a brunch for then Foreign Minister Bill Graham and his wife Cathy, at their splendid apartment atop Nob Hill.
While Shultz is being memorialized as a traditionalist — one who balked at the hair-brained Iran-Contra scheme and was viewed as the voice of reason in the Reagan cabinet — he also thought outside the box. In a conversation on California’s water shortage, he asked me if we would consider shipping water through our gas pipelines, telling me that when he was at Bechtel, they’d determined that the water they’d bring down from Canada would return through the atmosphere. I told him that water was a sovereignty issue for Canadians and that bulk water exports were explicitly rejected in legislation.
More recently, we would meet at the annual sessions of the North American Forum that he established with former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed and former Mexican Finance Minister Pedro Aspe to promote closer North American collaboration. He would use the occasions to press on his other preoccupations: the threat of nuclear proliferation, the need for a global migration strategy and the urgency of mitigating climate change.
He titled his memoir Turmoil and Triumph: Diplomacy, Power and the Victory of the American Deal (1993). It was the basis for a documentary series in 2010. He wrote or contributed to many books. My favourites are Learning from Experience, (2016) vignettes illustrating his wisdom, and Thinking about the Future (2019) that spans major policy challenges including technology, terrorism, drugs and climate change. A consistent theme in his work is ts that the United States has a vital stake in promoting democratic values and institutions, something that Joe Biden is determined to revive.
I learned many things over the years from George Shultz, especially about the importance of trust — a theme he returned to on his 100th birthday, when he published The 10 most important things I’ve learned about trust over my 100 years, in the Washington Post. For Shultz, successful diplomacy depends on trust, empathy, a knowledge of history and cultures, and ideas. “You always start with ideas” he would remind us time and again. “And if you don’t start with ideas, you’ll get lost.”
George Shultz was a good friend to Canada, and a champion of the North American idea. When I think of George Shultz, I think of the words from Ecclesiasticus 44:7, etched into the National War Memorial arch on Ottawa’s Wellington Street: “All these were honoured in their generations and were the glory of their times.”