They are in their 80s and 90s now, national security titans from years past when certain values were broadly shared, like the imperative of America’s global leadership and the nation’s commitment to democracy, diplomacy and the North Atlantic alliance.
And with George H.W. Bush gone, it’s hard not to wonder how the tenor of American foreign policy discourse will change as the leaders of this bipartisan old guard — Republicans Henry Kissinger (95), George Shultz (98), James Baker (88), Colin Powell (81) and Richard Lugar (86); Democrats Madeleine Albright (81), Sam Nunn (80), William Perry (91) and Lee Hamilton (87) — also disappear from the scene.
In various ways, they have continued to try to shape national security policy even after leaving office. All are moderates reflecting varying realist, internationalist, pragmatic and political tendencies. They value America’s alliances, especially with Europe; believe in American strength but not winner-take-all dominance; support working within the United Nations and other multinational institutions; understand the sustained effort needed to build trust with friends and manage adversaries; include human rights and rule of law as part of the agenda; and recognize the limits of cozying up to despots. Some of these values — particularly the last — were observed mainly in the breach when these officials held high office.
While we will mourn the passing of members of this generation and their ideals, we should not canonize them. All made mistakes, starting with Mr. Kissinger, the grand strategist who was national security adviser and secretary of state under President Richard Nixon, a Republican, and will be forever stained by the needless bloodshed in Vietnam and clandestine support for the vicious coup in Chile.
Still, individually and sometimes in groups, they have brought reason, experience and a sense of history to bear on national security debates.
That’s a valuable contribution in an era when President Trump and his enablers are trampling on the values, norms, institutions, treaties and relationships that have maintained Western stability and democracy for decades. Mr. Trump may not care what these gray eminences have to say, but Congress and the public should listen and learn.
One place to start is with the essay written by Mr. Shultz, who served as secretary of state, the Treasury and labor, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, in The Washington Post this month after the Trump administration announced it would begin withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the first to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons.
Along with President Ronald Reagan, Mr. Shultz and Mr. Gorbachev were central to Cold War efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear war, and they are now pleading with Mr. Trump not to abandon the treaty but to “preserve and fix it.” The alternative, they argue, is “a new arms race, undermining strategic stability and increasing the threat of miscalculation or technical failure leading to an immensely destructive war.”
I cut my foreign policy teeth as a correspondent for Reuters first covering Congress, then traveling the world with eight secretaries of state, starting with Mr. Shultz in the late 1980s. Before interviewing him, I struggled to devise questions that would make news while avoiding a filibuster on foreign policy arcana. I usually failed, and I’m richer for it.
Over time, Mr. Shultz has continued to focus on nuclear weapons policy and in 2007 wrote a Wall Street Journal article with Mr. Kissinger, Mr. Perry, a Democrat and former defense secretary, and Mr. Nunn, a former Democratic senator from Georgia. They called for a world without nuclear weapons — a worthy goal, yet more remote today than ever. Nine countries possess a total of 14,575 nuclear weapons, with the United States and Russia accounting for 92 percent of them.
Mr. Perry has also dedicated himself to the nuclear threat, warning that the risk of an accidental nuclear conflagration, especially from Russia, is greater now than during the Cold War.
Meanwhile, General Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state, has defended existing arms control treaties and lamented that under the current administration “we are not demonstrating the kind of inspirational broad-based leadership” of President George H.W. Bush and Mr. Reagan.
Ms. Albright, who escaped European fascism during World War II and, under President Bill Clinton, became the first female secretary of state, is now chairwoman of the National Democratic Institute, which works to strengthen democratic institutions worldwide.
She has been outspoken in support of NATO and a searing critic of Mr. Putin and the global revival of fascist tendencies. Pulling no punches, she called Mr. Trump the most “undemocratic president in modern American history.”
From Mr. Hamilton, the former Indiana congressman and co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, and Mr. Lugar, the former Indiana senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has come a call for a renewed bipartisanship in foreign policy and a warning that “our partisan divide leaves us weaker as we face the world.”
No member of this old guard has been as ubiquitous as Mr. Kissinger. Though physically frail, he is still mentally acute and his insight is solicited by senior officials at home and abroad.
Having managed the opening to China and détente with the Soviet Union, he is seized with exploring the future world order, making sure China’s rise doesn’t end in conflict and raising questions about the unintended consequences of artificial intelligence. “I don’t pretend to have the answers,” he told The Financial Times in July.
Mr. Kissinger has briefed Mr. Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, but has declined to render a verdict on their tenure. Still, he has moved from predicting “something remarkable and new” possibly emerging from Trump’s presidency to warning, in The Financial Times, “I think we are in a very, very grave period for the world.”
Then there is James Baker, the former treasury secretary and White House chief of staff, who, empowered by President George H.W. Bush, was arguably the best secretary of state in the modern age, playing pivotal roles in German reunification, the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1991 Madrid peace conference that brought Israelis and Arabs into direct talks for the first time.
Mr. Baker tends to avoid pointing a direct finger at Mr. Trump, but the video message he delivered on receiving the annual excellence in diplomacy award from the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington, D.C. last month was unmistakable. He warned that walking away from the multinational system created after World War II would produce “greater economic and strategic instability.”
Then he laid down rules for effective diplomacy wholly at odds with Mr. Trump’s approach: Be discreet, since much important work between states is done in private. Pick your battles carefully. Compromise on small points in service of winning the important ones. Most successful agreements are based on mutual advantage, not zero-sum outcomes.
As these leaders pass from the scene, it will be left to a new generation to find a way forward from the wreckage Mr. Trump has already created.
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