ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
When current events set us thinking about which former Washington policymaker might have something interesting to say about this story or that story, the name of George Shultz inevitably comes to mind. Shultz was the first director of the Office of Management and the Budget. He was secretary of labor and secretary of the treasury. And most notably, under President Ronald Reagan, he was secretary of state.
At age 96, Secretary Shultz is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. And this year, he is re-releasing his memoir of the Reagan years, "Turmoil And The Triumph." And he joins us from Stanford, Calif. Mr. Secretary, welcome to the program.
GEORGE SHULTZ: Thank you.
SIEGEL: I'd like to ask you first about Russia. You were central to the negotiations between Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, negotiations that led to the end of the Cold War. Are we in a new Cold War today?
SHULTZ: No, we're not, but we have our problems with Russia. They are playing a weak hand very aggressively. And just as the turning point in the Cold War came when we deployed Pershing missiles in Germany and that let them say that we were serious, I think there needs to be a Pershing moment, you might say, with Mr. Putin so he sobers up and realizes that he's much better off having a decent relationship with us than he is antagonism.
SIEGEL: A Pershing moment would be a demonstration of resolve of the United States?
SHULTZ: Exactly. For example, if we were to arm the Ukrainians so that they could let the Russians know they're no longer welcome in eastern Ukraine, that would be a Pershing moment. That would sober him up.
SIEGEL: One factor that enabled you and President Reagan to negotiate successfully with the Soviet Union was your recognizing that Mikhail Gorbachev was someone you could deal with and that his country was in a situation that made dealing with us sensible and - if not necessary for him. You say Putin is playing a weak hand. Is it in Vladimir Putin's interest to negotiate with us and to, at some point, withdraw from Ukraine?
SHULTZ: I think in the long run it is because his demography in Russia is terrible. Fertility is very low. His economy is not good at all. So he's got a weak hand. He has a strong military capability right now with lots of nuclear weapons. So that's what he's playing overly aggressively in my opinion.
SIEGEL: I want to ask you about North Korea. Secretary of State Tillerson has offered the North Koreans direct talks on their nuclear program and their missile program. At the same time, President Trump has tweeted, I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful secretary of state, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with the Little Rocket Man - meaning Kim Jong Un. If you were secretary of state in Mr. Tillerson's shoes, would you welcome a message like that from the president?
SHULTZ: Well, the president has pulled the rug out from under the secretary of state. When I was secretary of state, I had twice-a-week private meetings with President Reagan, and we talked through issues and what was coming up. And I don't think anything like that could possibly have happened. So I don't understand that. That's a total breakdown.
SIEGEL: If, though, the business about North Korea with the tweet - if it's a good cop-bad cop scenario on which the president effectively says, yes, Tillerson is negotiating, but I'm reminding you of the potential for a military option, does that make any sense to you?
SHULTZ: No, it doesn't because if you're negotiating, everybody realizes the president is the president. He's the guy who got elected. So if you're negotiating, people take you seriously if they know that you're negotiating on behalf of the president. If they think you're not, then how do you take that man seriously?
SIEGEL: From your vantage point at Stanford, does the political scene in Washington today strike you as remarkably different from what it was in the 1970s or the '80s, or is it more similar than it is different?
SHULTZ: Well, it's very different. They're getting ready to do tax reform, and everybody is at each other's throats already. The 1986 Tax Act, which was originally Ronald Reagan's proposal, worked its way through the Congress. And when it came to a vote in the Senate, it was voted 97 to 3. So by that time, it was basically nonpartisan. It was possible to do that in those days.
SIEGEL: When you try to think of what has - what's so different today that 97 to 3 on a tax bill sounds like science fiction to us right now, what's the first answer you would give us as to accounting for the difference?
SHULTZ: Well, first of all, President Reagan liked people, and he worked with them. There was a movie theater in the White House. And he'd have a movie, and he'd get some Hollywood stars there and invite people to come - nothing heavy, just become friends so you can talk to each other in a candid way without worrying that somebody's going to go to the press with something. And then you'd have the spirit in which you can get something accomplished.
SIEGEL: Former Secretary of State George Shultz, thank you very much for talking with us today. It's been a pleasure.
SHULTZ: OK. Thank you.
SIEGEL: And George Shultz's memoir, "Turmoil And Triumph," is being re-released this month. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.