The Ecology of International Change

George P. Shultz

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This article was originally published in the Spring 1989 issue of the Harvard International Review.

Americans have, once again, just carried out one of history’s most remarkable developments; our nation’s electoral rite of self-renewal. It happens every four years, rain or shine. Every presidential campaign season leads each of us, whatever our politics, to reflect on our society and our nation’s role in the world. As we look ahead following this presidential election, more so than any in recent recollection, we need to consider deeply our course ahead. Why? Because we have come to a turning point in world affairs. Enormous changes are underway. As Shakespeare wrote, “ere is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…on such a sea we are now a float, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”

We have reached this moment in history not because of fate or forces beyond our control but because our own drive and creativity and commitment to freedom and openness brought us here and brought us success. Just look at what has been achieved.

The shadow of a third World has faded; for the first time ever, nuclear weapons have been reduced; the once-small handful of embattled democracies find themselves growing in strength and number, and viewed around the world as the wave of the future; the tide of Marxism—and with it communism as the model for development—is a tide that is going out. National economies—once thought destined to be buffeted by change, disaster, and bitter rivalry—are finding new ways to cooperate and prosper in openness. And, most significantly for the future, we have entered a new era of revolutionary change. Knowledge, and its rapid transmission as information, has become the key to progress, and a global process of economic integration is underway, with little regard for national borders and beyond the capacity of governments to control in familiar ways.

All these changes are in our interest—for Americans, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted 150 years ago, are eager for change and confident in their ability to master the future.

It is US political, scientific, technological, and commercial creativity and dynamism that has brought us to this point. This is our kind of world, and it presents our kind of challenge. It is a picture of stunning success. But with it have come enormous complexities, uncertainties, and difficulties.

About a year ago, at the World Affairs Council of Washington, I addressed the scientific and technological dimensions of the problems we now face. Six months ago, at an annual Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) meeting, I spoke about the need to maintain US leadership in the new global economy. Needless to say, these are “must reads” for all serious and responsible Americans. This essay is the third and final installment in the series. It deals with the new political complexities we face as a result of our recent years of accomplishments.

The Ecology of International Change

I call this “the ecology of international change.” The relatively recent concept of ecology teaches us that our natural environment is interrelated; beneficial activity in one location can create unexpected problems in another. We increased dependence on coal and oil when people grew concerned about nuclear energy—but now we know that fossil fuels are producing the gases that lead to global warming problems.

We are beginning to realize that we do not live in a world of totally distinct phenomena; it is not a world of yes or no, up or down, this or that. In the past, Americans tended to believe that war and peace were two different situations; we were either in a happy state of tranquility, or we were embarked on a crusade for all-out victory—after which we hoped to retire into inward-looking innocence, spurning “power politics” and all that it represents.

In this decade, I believe Americans have come to recognize that we are not likely to face either an era of total war or of total peace. Nor does the future hold either an era of perpetual economic success or a destiny of economic decline. We face instead a spectrum of often-ambiguous challenges, of uncertain possibilities, of fresh developments that overflow traditional lines of control.

I see three areas where new political developments will outstrip old approaches unless we identify what is happening and deal more flexibly with the difficulties involved. First, the Soviet-US relationship: it will not in the future be the same kind of rivalry that has taken center stage in world affairs for the past forty-plus years. Second, the politics of preventing war: the old diplomacy is not going to be sufficient to meet the novel threats to world security that have already begun to emerge. And finally, the nature of nations, their peoples, and their associations is changing the international environment in ways not felt since the birth of the nation-state at the end of the Middle Ages.

US-Soviet Relations

The vastly different histories, cultures, economies, governmental systems, force structures, geographical circumstances, and visions of the future held by the two superpowers have transfixed international politics since World War II. It has been not only a rivalry between giants, but a contest between different models for progress for governments everywhere. Our achievement has been a product of open debate, deliberations, and political competition guided by constitutional processes; theirs, the dictate of a massive central authority marked by repression and hostility to free political, intellectual, or religious expression. A nation whose system is the legacy of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin bears scant resemblance to one that draws inspiration from Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.

Under President Reagan’s leadership in this decade we engaged our Soviet adversary with unprecedented vigor and effectiveness. We have put human rights at the top of our agenda. We have left the Soviets in no doubt that they could never be accepted as a responsible nation among nations so long as they abuse their own people’s hopes for justice. We have restored America’s military might; we reinvigorated the morale of our armed forces. We demonstrated the will to put power behind our diplomatic search for real solutions. We took the accepted notion that “a country once communist can never again be free” and stood it on its head. Freedom fighters everywhere took heart. And we have showed ourselves ready, with no illusions and no concessions to principle, to reach solid, negotiated agreements on the range of problems from strategic arms reductions to consular services.

Whatever the assessments of experts may be about what is now happening inside the Soviet Union, there are some undeniable realities. Marxism is discredited as a model for world development. Soviet troublemaking in regional conflicts has been reduced and even reversed, as in the current departure of the Soviet army from Afghanistan. An arms control treaty has been signed with the Soviets and our Senate gave its “advice and consent” to ratify it. And we have made real progress as of this date in the highly complex task of concluding an even farther-reaching agreement—the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)—that will serve our nation’s security interests significantly. Major developments undeniably are taking place inside the Soviet Union.

How far those changes go, and what they will mean to the Soviet people, remains to be seen. But real change can only come when an individual or a government faces up to the reality that it has a problem, and that it must change its ways of thought and action.

So read what the Soviets themselves are saying, firstly on human rights: “The image of a state is its attitude toward its own citizens, the respect for their rights and freedoms and recognition of the sovereignty of the individual…We must do a good deal to make certain that the principles of the presumption of innocence, the openness of a court trial, and ensuring the full right to defense become deeply rooted” (Foreign Minister Shevardnadze’s address to Senior Foreign Ministry and Military Officials, July 1988).

Next, on models for third world development: “The myth that the class interests of socialist and developing countries coincide in resisting imperialism does not hold up to criticism at all, first of all because the majority of developing countries already adhere to or tend toward the Western model of development, and second, because they suffer not so much from capitalism as from a lack of it” (Andrei Kozyrev, deputy chief of the International Organizations Bureau, Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in an article in International Life, October 1988).

On regional conflicts: “Our direct and indirect involvement in regional conflicts lead to colossal losses by increasing general international tension, justifying the arms race, and hindering the establishment of mutually advantageous ties with the West” (Kozyrev).

On military power: “…the notion established in the minds and actions of various strategists that the Soviet Union can be as strong as any possible coalition of states opposing it is absolutely fallacious” (Shevardnadze).

On the rule of law: “The work of the judicial bodies is of enormous importance. The fate of many people, the defense of their rights, and the inescapable punishment of those who have broken the law depend on how accurately the scales of justice function…it is extremely important to restore the Leninist vision of the role of the court in our system of democracy and strictly to observe the principle of the independence of judges and their subordination to law” (General Secretary Gorbachev’s speech to the 19th Conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, June 28, 1988).

Finally, on the Soviet economic system: “It is well known that from the late seventies, negative trends in our development have been emerging with increasing clarity. Socialism found that it had lost its advantage over capitalism, in terms of the pace of economic development. The essence of economic reform lies in the creation and intensification of economic incentives… In our conditions, the market is an irreplaceable instrument for the flexible economic coordination of production with the growing and constantly changing social needs” (Vadim Medvedev, Politburo Member, in October 1988 speech reported in Pravda, October 5, 1988).

These are communists talking. Their words are important words. Actions will be difficult, and results will take a while. But actions and results start from ideas and words, whether called “new thinking,” perestroika and glasnost, or just plain, pragmatic observation of what works.

Only one conclusion is possible from the facts and from the Soviet’s own perceptions of them: the state that Lenin founded and Stalin built is being reconstructed. Soviet leaders deserve credit for recognizing problems and seeking to solve them. The outcome cannot be foretold with precision, but this we do know already—the environment for America’s values of peace, freedom, and democracy is healthier than it has been in some time. We and our allies are the rising nations.

Some say we should change our approach because the Soviets are changing. I say we must keep to the course that has brought success. There are plenty of reasons to be vigilant. Soviet military forces are as large as ever; their defense spending has not decreased. The Soviets still knock on Europe’s door with 30,000 tanks parked in the driveway. Soviet-supported forces and arms are still contributing to violence and tension, especially in Central America. Half of all the arms shipped to the third world last year came from the Soviet Union. Human rights progress has been dramatic—but disappointingly short of international standards which even the Soviets themselves have accepted.

So the first principle to follow as we face the changes underway is to stay true to our principles. Realism, strength, and diplomacy have been our watchwords throughout the 1980s and will be just as valid for the rest of this century and beyond. We will continue to measure progress in US-Soviet relations through a four-part test: progress on human rights, on regional conflicts, on arms control, and on bilateral relations. The worst thing we could do now, just as our policy is succeeding, would be to accept the promise of constructive Soviet policy without the performance.

The direction General Secretary Gorbachev has set is one we welcome. It aims to make the Soviet Union a more rational, more lawful, and more competitive society. Such an achievement, should it come, can benefit not only the Soviet people but all the nations of the world.

But if we are to catch this tide toward a new, more helpful, and differently structured international scene, we need to look to other principles as well. For beyond the changing US-Soviet relationship we will encounter other new concerns in the next global era.

What guidelines are needed as we try to comprehend the changing picture before us? First, we must build on the bulwark of our strength—our alliances with the other great democracies. at means unswerving attention to our military capabilities: nuclear deterrence, conventional forces, and shared defense burdens.

Second, we must seek to widen our circle of like-minded friends. The world’s nations increasingly are turning toward more open economies and freer societies. And they are banding together in new multilateral associations. There is no part of the world that I have been more interested in, or worked harder to cooperate with, than that represented by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Our ties to them have been immensely fruitful and filled with potential. We want to help create and tie together such networks all over the globe.

Third, and most important, we need to speak out for, and stand up for, the values that have made us great, that others now emulate and that can further our success. That means a deepened commitment to the dignity and liberty of the individual, to open trade and market-based economies, and to government by the consent of the people. Let us not be shy about it; the world is catching on to the American way. It is not just our ship that will catch the tide, it’s a whole fleet of ships—and the United States is the flagship of that fleet.

This means we must stay engaged. Those who talk of protectionism or isolationism; those who say we should fear foreign competition or investment; those who say we have no business pursuing our interest abroad because we aren’t yet perfect at home—those people couldn’t by more wrong. This is the time to get out there and get going, for our sakes and for a better, safer tomorrow.

The Politics of Preventing War

Second, we face new dangers in weaponry. Such engagement is more needed than ever, for there are new dangers to the ecology of the world political body. Just at the point when we have begun to achieve greater strategic stability at lower levels of offensive nuclear arms, and just as we are getting a handle on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, we are seeing unexpected correlative dangers appear: the spread of sophisticated missile technology and the use of chemical weapons. These increase the potential for devastation in unstable regions of the third world. And the conflicts themselves may become far more difficult to contain or isolate.

The availability of sophisticated weapons presents many problems. But two dangers stand out.

The first is the increasing availability on the world arms market of relatively long-range surface-to-surface missiles. In the Iran-Iraq war we have seen Soviet Scud missiles employed by both belligerents. Across the Gulf, Saudi Arabia is acquiring Chinese CSS-2 missiles with a potential range exceeding 1,500 miles. Elsewhere in the Middle East, as well as in other regions, countries have acquired ballistic missiles. These weapons, which may be thought of as “obsolete” by the superpowers, are nothing of the sort when it comes to regional conflicts. And beyond the arms market, more and more nations will be able to build their own ballistic missiles. Weaponry of enormous destructive potential can reach the hands of parties with little regard for traditional inhibiting controls. With their minimal warning times and often substantial ranges, ballistic missiles will pose signi cant new threats to the stability of already tense regions. As a result, established doctrines designed to deter aggression and keep the peace may be undermined in more than one part of the world.

The other new danger is the recrudescence of chemical warfare—perhaps the most odious and despicable development of our day. Nations are now confronted by violations of the oldest and most widely observed arms control agreement, the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting poisonous gas and chemical warfare—a terrible change for the worse. Yet that is the case. Since World War II, there have been hundreds of conflicts and more than two dozen significant civil wars. But until recently, only a few conflicts—those in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Laos, had seen the use of chemical weapons.

Now the scourge is spreading. The Protocol has been repeatedly violated. We have stood up and criticized these violations—and have sometimes been almost alone in doing so.

The worst nightmare of all, of course, would be the eventual combination of ballistic missiles and chemical warheads in the hands of governments with terrorist histories. To meet this danger we took the lead to establish, with the seven largest industrial democracies, a Missile Technology Control Regime in April 1987, putting limits on the transfer of missiles and the means to build them. We have identified this problem in its early stages and gone after it energetically. As a result there is hope that the spread of such missiles can be curbed.

To ban all chemical weapons, we are working with 40 nations in Geneva on a treaty tabled by Vice President Bush in 1984. To further this effort, President Reagan called for a conference to strengthen the 1925 Geneva Protocol, and France agreed to host that conference in January. Our aim has been to reverse the erosion of respect for the norms which have held the line against the illegal use of such hideous weapons.

President Bush has announced a six-point action plan that combines international cooperation, tough penalties, and missile defense systems. A time when ballistic missiles are proliferating is no time to listen to those who cannot understand the need for defense against them.

The Imperative of Cooperative Effort

These new problems threaten the ecology of civi- lization and political reason. ey call for engaged US leadership, to build broad international cooperation, backed by tough measures of enforcement. These steps may sound obvious and simple. I can assure you they are not.

We know this from the experience of our fight against the scourges of terrorism and drugs. Last year terrorism claimed over 3,000 casualties in 80 countries. The terrorists in all too many cases work with drug traffickers, whose immense funds provide them money to finance the muscle of terror. Together they assault civilized societies. We and other countries must and do apply strenuous and increasing effort to win the war against drugs and terror. For the United States, the sweeping Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 makes a new level of commitment to say “no” to drugs. All aspects of the challenge are addressed: demand, education, law enforcement, and international cooperation.

But no country can deal with these problems alone. They respect no boundaries. So we take the lead to build international cooperation on intelligence and to apply pressure on states that use terrorism. We establish the conceptual recognition that terrorists and drug traffickers are criminals. We apply the rule of law and, through international cooperation, extend its reach so that there is no place to hide.

Cooperative international regimes are required. To build them takes immense energy, a worldwide effort, and heretofore unfound readiness to put aside old habits of thought and behavior limited to narrow nation-bound concepts. From the first recorded treaty in 3,100 BC between two Mesopotamian city-states, to the philosophic urgings of Grotius in the 17th century, to the efforts toward international law and cooperation of my predecessors Elihu Root, William Jennings Bryan, Charles Evans Hughes, and others in the first part of this century, the hope that nations would cooperate for peace has sprung eternal, and, just as eternally has fallen short of the dream.

The clear fact is, however, that all nations face a new imperative. In a way our global society of states is not unlike early American states when Benjamin Franklin said, “We must all hang together or, most assuredly, we will all hang separately.”

It is the people of the world who are telling us this. Their activities, their aspirations, their social, cultural, and spiritual associations are spilling out beyond the boundaries of conventional politics. They represent in many respects the most significant challenge of all.

The international political system we have today is several centuries old. Its key concepts are the nation as a unit; the state as its political form; well-defined borders as its geographical expression; the allegiance of its citizens to give it strength; and a patriotic focus to give them identity.

Today, people are pushing on this system from different directions. Sometimes, it’s through mass migratory movements. In other instances, people bewildered by change seek an identity beyond the state, such as religion or ethnicity. And what is happening to traditional concepts of national sovereignty in a world of instantaneous satellite communications and global nancial networks? Human and corporate connections are being forged that transact more business in more unorthodox ways than governments can comprehend or catch up with.

But at the same time, people whose dreams for national self-determination have been frustrated see new opportunities for self-assertion. Rigid governments face the alternatives of political pluralism and economic reform, or violent resistance and rapid decline. The problems of managing these tensions can be seen all over the world and they are difficult to handle. Look at Fiji. Look at Sri Lanka. Look at what’s happening in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

What we see is a paradox. National borders are transcended by the forces of change—even as nationalism grows more intense. National sovereignty has never been more cherished—even as sovereign prerogatives must yield to new global realities.

Prime Minister Thatcher addressed this when she spoke at Bruges recently on the coming single market in Europe. She said that “willing and active cooperation between independent sovereign states” is the best way to build an international community.

Sooner or later nations will orient themselves to a world grown too small for violent conflict and too big for rigid attitudes, wild ambitions, and self-centered policies. Sooner or later, governments will be forced to see that joining with others is the only way to meet the challenges of the future.

Our diplomatic imperatives must be to use what has worked, such as collective security, while recognizing that new tactics may be required. For most problems, the answer can only be found in a pragmatic working-out. There are no blueprints because we are as yet too unfamiliar with the terrain to know where or how to build.

This gives me heart. The American philosophy is pragmatism. Pragmatism dictates that problem-solving be a cooperative process—just as our pioneers came together to work as one when a prairie house had to be built.

This century has not been friendly to freedom, or to democracy or even to peace. The environment for those values began to improve when America, so long content to cultivate its own garden, become fully engaged. Now, as we near the end of the century, the ecology is changing for the better—with critical help from our engagement.

When we have kept that in mind in the past, we have succeeded. My message is one of change, of hope, of the challenges of a bright new world. But it’s also a call for continued US engagement with our allies and friends, and, yes, also with our rivals, to bring that new world to its promise. at’s what we can give to ourselves, to our children, and to our grandchildren—the ecology of peace and freedom.

Note from the Editor

The United States has become a “picture of stunning success.” This success has also come with “enormous complexities.” is was the problem then, and, in some respects, such as healthcare reform and occasional government gridlocks, the problem continues today. But what Shultz prioritized, engagement with allies and standing up for its values, is what the United States has followed through with in the past two decades.

Shultz championed “nuclear deterrence, shared defense burdens, and conventional forces,” all of which have become major parts of international diplomatic agendas today. Collective security was a political strategy that was heavily used in the Cold War. It is a system in which a country in an alliance accepts the responsibility of the security of every other member in that alliance. NATO comes to mind as an obvious example of collective security, but there have been newer types that have taken center stage since the end of the Cold War. One of them is peacekeeping. The United Nations budget for peacekeeping operations in the 2013-14 year is about US$7.5 billion; over 98,000 uniformed personnel and 16,000 civilians take part in these e orts. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, the UN’s expenditure on peacekeeping operations was US$490 billion. is shows how the world has reacted to what Shultz calls “the imperative of cooperative effort.”

As for new weaponry, nuclear arsenals are continuing to decrease in size: over 1,500 nuclear weapons by eight nations were decommissioned in 2011. New countries have found solace in freedom; the 15 states of the Soviet Union became independent, self-governing states in the period 1989-91. Amongst them, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania hold some of the highest Human Development Indices in the world. In this context, Shultz’s emphasis on strengthening military and diplomatic ties, managing machinery and power, as well as ushering in new forms of government have all been realized, to one extent or another.

Shultz was a revolutionary thinker. He predicted the implications of US success and how the world would react to new regimes, broadened alliances, and military efforts. Nations have become much more strict enforcers of law, have disbanded the idea of individualistic efforts and rely more on cooperative ones, and certain countries, like the United States, have taken on stronger leadership roles as well. The United States, as Shultz said it should, shows greater commitment to the individual, with more equality and less subjectivity, and has welcomed more open and market-based economics, which has led to the growth of more consumer-based industries. He advocated peace and freedom in how the United States should engage with its allies and even its foes to bring the new world to its promise, a world that rests on new ideas, advances in technology, and democracy. Nations have started to not only “promise constructive efforts” but have “performed” them as well.

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George P. Schultz