Hoover Institution distinguished fellow George P. Shultz was invited to speak at Stanford Memorial Church on May 11, 2009, as part of the Rathbun Visiting Fellow Program—named in honor of the late Stanford law professor Harry Rathbun, whose annual “Harry’s Last Lecture” at the end of term was a campus tradition for three decades. Rathbun would talk to students about the values and commitments that make up a meaningful life. The following address is the second annual “Harry’s Last Lecture” as revived and sponsored by the Foundation for Global Community.

Scotty McLennan, Stanford’s dean for religious life, once said this about one of “Harry’s Last Lectures”: Harry Rathbun, he said, “asked all of us as enlightened adults to see things as they are—the is—while at the same time we strive to overcome the shackles of ego in order to be loyal instead to a much larger vision of ultimacy and wholeness”—the ought.

So I title my talk “The Power of the Ought”: the idea that you have a vision of a place you should go, and that the vision has the power to help you get there. This principle has wide applicability. Take the game of golf. Why do so many of us love it? Here is Tiger Woods on the green. He holds the putter, he hits the ball, and when the ball stops rolling, the result is unambiguous. People love golf for that relentless accountability. Everybody plays by the rules. You don’t get mulligans and you don’t improve your lie in the rough. For the game to be good, that’s the way it ought to be. And in the game of golf, the is is right next to the ought.

Another example is our economic system. We ought to have a system in which a company and its executives are accountable for their results; when they blow it, they fail. Why are the huge bailouts we’ve seen recently so deeply unpopular with the American people? The people thought about the ought and they saw it going down the drain. The bailout bill passed anyway because there are other oughts: you ought to be careful that you don’t allow something to happen that results in tremendous costs to lots of other people. The risk of systemic failure leads us to approve bailouts even though we ought not to. We are now uneasy as we head into a situation where, in a great many enterprises, the ought will be a little elusive and the job of getting close to it will be difficult.

I argue for the tremendous importance of the ought. Sometimes an action is taken under great pressure that deviates in important respects from the ought. The internment of ethnic Japanese-Americans at the start of World War II is one example; we look back on that and see that we ought to have looked at these individuals one by one instead of basing our decision on a generalization.

Sometimes the ought needs help. That’s why scientists believe in peer review and expect experiments to be replicable if they are to be believed. When I was treasury secretary, IRS officials reported to me (and they were proud to say) that they administered the largest, most successful, voluntary system of taxpaying in the world. This voluntarism works, they said, in part because everyone knows that somebody may be watching. As Ronald Reagan kept saying as we negotiated agreements with the Soviet Union, “Trust but verify.” In other words, the job of keeping the is close to the ought needs help.


A small group of us gathered at a Hoover Institution conference in 2006 on the twentieth anniversary of the Reykjavik summit meeting to discuss the continuing relevance of the Reagan-Gorbachev vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Max Kampelman, a close friend of mine and a colleague when I was secretary of state, gave a stirring opening speech about the importance in America of the movement from is to ought, and how that movement has made our democracy the country we cherish today. Our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution contain many oughts, such as “All men are created equal.” Of course it has taken us many years to end slavery, grant voting rights to all our citizens, and guarantee civil rights, but Max argued that the ought has been hugely powerful in helping us move the is in the right direction.

In a great many enterprises, the ought will be a little elusive and the job of getting close to it will be difficult.

Then Max suggested that we should put forward another ought: abolishing nuclear weapons.

One of the things that emerged from the Hoover conference was an essay published in the Wall Street Journal that I co-authored with my colleagues Bill Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn. Many others signed on, most particularly Sid Drell, an eminent physicist who is a moving force in this effort. We set forth a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and identified a series of steps to achieve that goal. We argued, “Without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair or urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible.”

The response to our essay was positive—and remarkable, especially for me. I remembered the response in 1986 when we came home from Reykjavik. There, in a little room in Hofdi House, sat President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev at opposite ends of a small table. I was beside President Reagan; my counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze, was seated beside President Gorbachev. We sat there for two days and talked about all kinds of reductions in nuclear arms and the desirability of ending nuclear weapons. We also agreed—and this was a first—that human rights would be a regular, legitimate subject on our agendas for future meetings. That was a breakthrough because when we had brought up such issues in the past, the Soviets always said, “It’s none of your business.”

As I prepared for the press conference that followed our meeting, I said, “Mr. President, what do you want me to say?” He replied, “Well, just say everything that happened.” So everything was laid out fully. When I got back to Washington, I was summoned to the British ambassador’s residence. Remember, Margaret Thatcher always used to carry a stiff little handbag. I learned that there’s a verb in the British language: to be handbagged, and I got handbagged. She said, “George, how could you sit there and allow the president to agree to the idea of a world free of nuclear weapons?” I said, “But Margaret, he’s the president,” and she responded, “Yes, but you’re supposed to be the one with his feet on the ground.” I said, “But Margaret, I agree with him.” Her reaction was typical. People thought it was an outlandish idea.

Our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution contain many examples of the ought, such as “All men are created equal.”

During the Cold War, people bought into the idea that the threat of massive destruction kept the peace between us and the Soviet Union. But if you were closely involved—as I was, and as Bill Perry, Sam Nunn, and Henry Kissinger were—you know there have been too many close calls. You know you have a few thousand nuclear warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles that are set up to fire within thirty minutes. That is, you get a warning and that’s how long you have to decide whether the warning is accurate or a false alarm. You want to fire your missiles before they get hit. That’s still the case today and it’s insane, absolutely insane.

Today many countries have weapons and even more are trying to obtain them. This means that increasing amounts of fissile material are around, so the ingredients to make a bomb inevitably become more available.

Sam Nunn has a wonderful image. We should think of ourselves as being on the side of a mountain, he says. At the top of the mountain is a world free of nuclear weapons. We can’t even see it from where we are, but we know it’s there. At the bottom of the mountain is a world where more and more countries get nuclear weapons, where there is more and more fissile material available, and where the probability rises rapidly that someone who isn’t interested in deterrence will get a nuclear weapon and want to use it. We’re heading down the mountain now, and we need to turn around and start up. How can we do that? Well, we can identify steps to take as we weave our way up the mountain, and when we have made some progress toward the top, we will have done things that make the world safer.

During the Cold War, people bought into the idea that the threat of massive destruction kept the peace between us and the Soviet Union. But if you were closely involved, you knew that there were too many close calls.

Every step will help. We may get to a base camp where we can look up and see the peak of the mountain. Then we will figure out the steps necessary to get all the way to the top. Sid Drell, whom I mentioned earlier, and Jim Goodby, another Hoover colleague who plays an important role in this effort, have just published a brilliant paper on the complicated endstate issues of verification, deterrence, and international relationships that must be worked on to achieve the goal.


The top of the mountain is where we ought to be, but where are we now? Consider the London, April 1, 2009, joint statement by President Medvedev of Russia and President Obama of the United States: “We committed our two countries to achieving a nuclear-weapons-free world.” That is very important because the United States and Russia hold more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Moreover, this statement builds on a long history. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy spoke of a world without nuclear weapons. Rajiv Gandhi urged pursuit of this goal with eloquence and urgency before the U.N. General Assembly about twenty years ago. I remember, of course, Ronald Reagan’s dogged pursuit of this dream.

Many people don’t know that the first deal we made with the Soviet Union was a human rights agreement. President Reagan and I did this by ourselves because a lot of people thought we should not be talking with the Soviets. The Pentecostals who had rushed into our Moscow embassy during the Carter administration were still there, and we couldn’t expel them because they probably would be killed. President Reagan argued with Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin at a private meeting that I arranged, saying: “This is an eyesore. Everybody can see it is an advertisement of what a lousy way you treat people and you ought to do something about it.” Dobrynin said to me, “Let’s make this our special project,” so we did. When we were finally confident that the Pentecostals would be allowed to emigrate, we managed to get them out of the embassy, and a few months later they emigrated, along with their families. Nobody on the outside knew quite what had happened because the deal was “we’ll let them out if you don’t crow.” Ronald Reagan never said a word. That he kept his promise might have shown the Soviets that they could deal with the president, knowing that he would keep his word.

I also remember a very tense situation in 1984 when there was a lot of talk of war and we sought to defuse it. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, President Jimmy Carter cut off all our relations with them: our athletes were not permitted to go to the 1980 Olympics, the arms control treaty was withdrawn, and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko’s annual visit to Washington was canceled. When I took office as secretary of state, one of my great friends, Helmut Schmidt, then chancellor of West Germany, said to me: “George, the situation is dangerous. There is no human contact.” So I set out to rebuild it.

As the summer of 1984 progressed, we got little indications that the Soviets might be trying, as well. One of our diplomats would be at a cocktail party in Vienna and a Soviet diplomat would come over and talk to him, hinting that Gromyko would accept if he were invited to Washington. That happened in three or four places and was reported to me. So I asked President Reagan for a private meeting, in which I said: “Mr. President, we have these indications, and I think Gromyko would like to come to Washington. It would be a terrific thing, but you probably want to think about it because Jimmy Carter stopped that practice when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and they’re still there.” He said, “I don’t have to think about it. Let’s get him here.”

So we performed a diplomatic minuet and Gromyko came to Washington. It was a good and very important meeting. It had a funny highlight that Nancy Reagan loved and that Dobrynin, in his memoir, said that Gromyko enjoyed relating to his Politburo comrades. We would meet in the Oval Office and then we’d all go down the colonnade to the mansion and have a working lunch. Nancy said: “George, I’m the hostess there. What if I came to the lunch?” I said, “Well, Nancy, I think it would be terrific if you were at the reception while we’re standing around. Then when it’s time for the working lunch, we’ll just go in.” She thought that was a good idea. At the reception, Gromyko was quick. He immediately spotted Nancy and ignored everybody else and went over to her. (He could be charming if he wanted to be.) As he talked to her he asked, “Does your husband want peace?” She said yes. Then he bent down and whispered in her ear, “Then every night before he goes to sleep, whisper in his ear, ‘Peace!’ ” Now, Nancy is pretty quick herself, so she drew him close and said, “I’ll whisper in your ear, ‘Peace!’ ”

Concerning the abolition of the nuclear weapons threat, I think we’re entitled to hope and maybe believe that this is an idea whose time has come.

After the president won the 1984 election in a landslide, it was arranged that I would meet with Gromyko in Geneva to restart the arms control talks. Then on December 20 I got a call from Ambassador Dobrynin. He said he had an urgent message for the president from General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko, so I said, “Come right over.” A lot of the oldtimers in the State Department said: “You can’t do that. It would take our ambassador in the Soviet Union weeks to get in to see the foreign minister.” I said, “Never mind. He’s coming.”

Dobrynin liked to play games. He handed me a text of the letter in Russian. I could play, too, so I looked at the letter very carefully and said, “This is fascinating.” He laughed because he knew I didn’t read Russian, and then he handed me the English translation. I looked at it and saw that it said, “Recently, you have spoken on more than one occasion in favor of moving along the road leading eventually to the liquidation of nuclear weapons completely and everywhere.” (It’s interesting: the Soviets had been reading President Reagan’s speeches while the American people were ignoring them.) “We, of course, welcome that. The Soviet Union, as is known as far back as the dawn of the nuclear age, came out for prohibiting and liquidating such weapons, but even today it is not yet too late to start practical movement toward this noble objective.”

That statement was something of a precursor to the dramatic effort in Reykjavik by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons. The effort continues today. I met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow recently and said, “Mr. Minister, in the speech you gave on March 7 in Geneva you quoted President Medvedev as saying, ‘Today we are facing a pressing need to move further along the road of nuclear disarmament. . . . Russia is fully committed to reaching the goal of a world free from these most deadly weapons.’ ” President Obama’s White House website has posted this unambiguous statement: “Obama and Biden will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons and pursue it.” Once Presidents Obama and Medvedev had made these separate statements, why not make a joint statement? They did just that on April 1 of this year in London.


The first point I want to make is that these statements show that the idea of a world free of nuclear weapons—our ought—has extraordinary staying power. Why? We know all too well that these weapons are unique in their immense and inhumane destructive power, that the consequences of their use are devastating, and that access to nuclear materials is proliferating.

Second, not only does this idea have staying power, but I think we’re entitled to hope and maybe even believe that it’s an idea whose time has come—thus the joint statement in London on April 1 by Presidents Medvedev and Obama. On April 5 in Prague, President Obama followed up powerfully with an ambitious agenda for the United States to lead in taking critical, concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons, beginning this year. (On June 3, in a powerful address on the floor of the Senate of the United States, Senator John McCain added his voice of support, lending a spirit of nonpartisanship to the effort.)

Now we must consider ourselves charged with the task of helping to bring the vision to reality. The ought needs help, so what does it take to get from here to there? It will take a lot of hard work on many fronts. Of course, major reductions in nuclear arms by Russia and the United States need to lead the way, but more vigorous attention to proliferation threats from North Korea and Iran must also be on the front burner. The Russian and U.S. presidents instructed their negotiators to get busy immediately to negotiate a follow-on agreement to the START treaty, which was negotiated fifteen years ago and is due to expire in December 2009. That treaty contains the most detailed verification measures that exist, so preventing its expiration preserves the essence of the treaty’s verification measures and the knowledge that has been acquired by administering them. Note that the U.S. stockpile is about one-fourth of its size at the height of the Cold War in 1986—the year of the Reykjavik meeting. Russian numbers have also come down sharply.

We have to beware of making too many empty threats, saying something is unacceptable and then doing nothing after it happens.

Third, based on the evidence of the past, dramatic progress is possible. This is no illusion. I believe we must go carefully, remembering that we are talking about the national security of each country and all of us collectively. To turn once again to the Obama White House website, the statement of the goal is followed by a pledge that the president “will always maintain a strong deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist.” That is necessary for each country and for the non-nuclear states that depend on the deterrent capability of others. But being careful does not mean that time is irrelevant. Time is not on our side. The key phrase must be “careful urgency.”

The agenda is reasonably well known, and it is daunting. Yes, there are steps for the United States and Russia to take because of their exceptionally large arsenals, and I’m glad to see that this process is getting under way. But there are numerous other necessary actions that involve many other countries—maybe all countries—so it is very important, I think, that this commence not as a U.S. initiative or even a U.S.-Russia initiative, but rather as a global enterprise on which we all pitch in. President Obama, in his stirring address in Prague, identified several of these steps: “A new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years, and building on our efforts to break up black markets, detect and intercept materials in transit, and use financial tools to disrupt this dangerous trade.”

Then there is the nuclear fuel cycle. As more nuclear power plants are built, we must get control of the fuel cycle. If uranium can be enriched to the necessary level for fuel for a nuclear power plant, it can be enriched for a weapon, and the spent fuel can be reprocessed into plutonium.

We know that verifying agreements is essential. A way should be found, for example, to make generally available what is learned from the verification procedures under the START treaty. Then there are issues of enforcement— what to do if some country or group steps out of line. As President Obama put it in his Prague speech, “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” In recent years, words have not meant much. Security Council statements and declarations by government leaders have been routinely ignored, most recently by North Korea’s test of a ballistic missile capability. If the threat of proliferation is to be handled successfully, violations must be punished.

remember vividly when I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in World War II. You don’t become a Marine; you become a boot, and you get kicked around for ten weeks in boot camp. I remember when my drill sergeant handed me my rifle. He said, “Take good care of this rifle. It’s your best friend. And remember one thing: never point this rifle at anybody unless you’re willing to pull the trigger.” No empty threats. We have to beware of making too many empty threats, saying something is unacceptable and then doing nothing after it happens. When we say something, we should know what we’re going to do and see that we carry through.

In our published articles, Bill Perry, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and I have identified many critical steps that must be taken to establish an agenda and create a commitment to implement it globally. Achieving a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons will require a willingness to be idealistic and realistic at the same time. By combining realism with idealism, we can use practical steps to find a way from what is, a world with an increasing risk of global disaster, to what ought to be: a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons.

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