Foreign Affairs: Zbigniew Brzezinski on the NATO agenda

An article on possible reform of NATO appearing in the latest issue of  Foreign Affairs magazine written by the noted strategist of global American leadership Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor of President Jimmy Carter and present member of the Obama foreign policy team, has generated considerable professional interest. Here we offer a critique.



Foreign Affairs: Zbigniew Brzezinski on the NATO agenda


by Gilbert S. Doctorow, Ph.D.



As I discuss in a four-part analytical paper scheduled for release on this blog in the coming week and dealing with several of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s books published after 1997, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor is probably the most influential and experienced American strategist on international relations in the post-Cold War period. For that reason, the appearance of a new contribution by Brzezinski on adapting NATO’s mission and structure to the present global environment, previewed as an op-ed page in the New York Times (‘NATO and World Security,’ August 20) and now published as a full length article in the September-October 2009 issue Foreign Affairs magazine (‘An agenda for NATO’) is a major event in the profession.


In the opening to his article, Mr. Brzezinski remarks that the 60th anniversary of the founding of NATO back in April did not generate much public interest though it did highlight the question ‘what next?’ The incoming Secretary General Anders Rasmussen was given the task of drafting a new Strategic Concept as well as proposals for its implementation to be approved at the next NATO summit. Brzezinski’s essay is intended to inform this work of redefining NATO.


Brzezinski states that the institution is facing four fundamental challenges which any reform of NATO must respond to. The challenges and the order of their appearance tell us a lot about where Mr. Brzezinski’s feet are pointed.


Given the way the war in Afghanistan has dominated foreign policy thinking in the new administration, which has reordered relations with friends and adversaries according to their potential for assisting the war effort, it is not surprising that Afghanistan/Pakistan is listed in first place among the challenges. A number of European member states, both the founding members and the new NATO states in Central Europe, would disagree vigorously with this choice for number one, though their reasons vary and are themselves contradictory.


The process which ended this spring in the selection of Anders Rasmussen as NATO Secretary General was in fact more about policy priorities for NATO than about the personal qualities of the Danish Prime Minister. The leading alternative candidate, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, represented a refocusing of NATO on Europe as opposed to global responsibilities. He and his supporters sought in particular to improve the military integration and standing of the new member states. The establishment of U.S. missile defense installations in the Czech Republic and Poland would be just one element in the broader upgrading of the region’s weight within NATO if the new members had their way.


For their part, the key founding members of NATO, France and Germany, have become increasingly skeptical of U.S. initiatives out-of-region to the point where, beginning a year ago, they have systematically resisted the further expansion of NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia demanded by the Bush administration or further contributions of troops to the ground campaign in Afghanistan sought now by the Obama administration.


In this context, Mr Brzezinski’s highlighting in the second paragraph of his article the decision of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to return to full participation in NATO is hardly the clear-cut proof of ‘NATO’s vital political role as a regional alliance with growing global potential’ that he would have us believe. On the contrary, the experience of the past year suggests that the French merely discovered it would be easier to control American adventurism by acting within the power structure of NATO than from outside.


Mr Brzezinski’s article at a later point presents us with a brief but comprehensive overview of the conflict in Afghanistan. His description of various foreign interests at play in the country supports very well the image of a proxy war between India and Pakistan which has drawn in all neighboring states. This is exactly how the Afghani situation was presented by Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid in their article “From Great Game to Grand Bargain” published in the November-December 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs. Rubin and Rashid urged a shift from emphasis on military solutions to a complex diplomatic process to find a political solution. They specifically urged the setting up of contact group on the region authorized by the UN Security Council and bringing in the neighboring states to resolve the bigger regional disputes including the future of the Punjab which currently make any solution in Afghanistan impossible, least of all by military means. It is highly regrettable that this well-informed and reasonable advice seems to have made no impression on Mr. Brzezinski.


The second challenge identified by Mr. Brzezinski, ‘to update the meaning and obligations of ‘collective security’ as embodied in Article 5 of the alliance’s treaty,’ sounds technical but actual goes to the heart of what the alliance is all about: an association of democracies resolving in a consensual manner issues of their vital collective security. What Brzezinski has in mind is to revisit the obligation of members to join the common cause and the mechanism for deciding to act.


Under existing rules, unanimity is required among all NATO members for major business to be done. Brzezinski is saying now that in the expanded NATO of 28 members it is unreasonable for two or three countries to exercise a veto and frustrate the consensual will of a large majority.


All of this would sound reasonable if it were an abstract debating point. However, the reality has to be teased out. In effect, his call for procedural change is a consequence of the fundamental disagreements within the alliance over the challenge of Afghanistan and it is disappointing that Mr Brzezinski is putting his considerable authority behind modifications to NATO procedures intended to stifle democracy within the institution for the sake of further prosecution of the war on the Taliban, a war which Mr Brzezinski is helping to make ‘Obama’s War.’


The two or three member states applying the veto include precisely the founding member states who are the bed rock of the European Union, not some careless new member states. Moreover, given the traditional overwhelming influence of the United States within NATO and the bias of European states to go with the flow and not make trouble, it requires enormous discipline and self-confidence for any member state to stand up against the hegemon and fellow member states who have aligned themselves with the U.S. Accordingly the issue justifying such determination can almost certainly be of major importance to the health of the alliance and possibly to world peace.


When the neoconservatives attacked the UN as being unwieldy and no longer appropriate to world governance during the 1990s they proposed instead NATO and ad hoc groups which the US could dominate. This worked to legitimize the U.S-led operations in the Balkans during Bill Clinton’s second term. However, even NATO unity was problematic over the Iraq invasion and it remains so over Afghanistan.


Mr. Brzezinski came out against the ‘coalition of the willing’ as the legitimacy for invading Iraq. He bravely condemned the unilateralism practiced by George W. Bush. It is therefore very sad to see that when his voice is once again being heard in the corridors of power in Washington, he is trying to reform NATO into a pliant tool. This effort deserves to fail, as it surely will given the anticipated opposition of those same states who have come together to oppose the American Diktat.


Challenge number three is ‘to engage Russia in a binding and mutually beneficial relationship with Europe and the wider North Atlantic community.’ The relegation of the Russian question to slot number three is entirely in character for Mr. Brzezinski who has spent the greater part of his professional career arguing for the marginality of Russia to American interests. That was basic to the concept for the Trilateral Commission which he headed in the early 1970s, at a time when the Soviet Union enjoyed strategic parity with the United States. It is second nature to him today, when dealing with a much weaker Russian Federation.


And yet the question of dealings with Russia is cited by Brzezinski as having considerable potential for weakening NATO today. He argues that Russian policy, driven by resentment of its diminished status and nationalist hostility to NATO expansion, may “try to promote division between the United States and Europe and, within Europe, between NATO’s old members and NATO’s new members.” The conditionality of his statement and where he attributes blame is curious. The inverse might be better argued, namely that certain very experienced and even-tempered European founding members of NATO have been at odds with some of the more volatile, less experienced new states still weighed down by their grievances over past Soviet domination, such as the Baltics and Poland, over the peaceful intentions of the big neighbor to the East and this difference of opinion has made cooperation with Russia at the European level virtually impossible, to the detriment of Russia. I have in mind the EU’s failure for more than two years to agree on the renewal of its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the Russian Federation, an unavoidable issue which has forced Russia to seek and strike bilateral agreements with its most important partners in the West just to get on with essential business.


Within the space of the two pages devoted to Russia in his essay, Mr Brzezinski repeatedly uses the modifier ‘imperial’ to describe the mindset of the country’s leadership. We read about ‘imperial ambition’ and ‘imperial nostalgia’ as if the Russian Federation of Messrs Putin and Medvedev were guided by sentiment, by some outdated Weltanschauung rather than cool realism and defense of their country’s national economic and security interests. We are told that only a ‘postimperial Russia’ can ever truly be a candidate for NATO membership – and that this is unlikely to come within the foreseeable future. It is the task of the U.S. and NATO to coax and when necessary to coerce Russia to do the right thing by either flattering its craving for recognition to bring it along or depriving it of alternative options.


The proposal which Mr. Brzezinski sets out in this article to achieve a rapprochement between NATO and Russia falls into the first category. He tells us that Russia has long sought to negotiate a pact between the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) consisting of members of the CIS which it dominates and NATO, since that would create an appearance of equality between the two and so assuage Russian amour-propre. He suggests that NATO now should agree to do a deal on condition that Russia in return allow nonmembers to freely choose whether to join either of these alliances or both.


There are several problems with this solution. First, Mr. Brzezinski has poisoned the chalice by the frankness of his discussion of the trade-off. He himself calls the CSTO ‘somewhat fictitious,’ implying the pact is a mockery. He himself indicates that the objective of the exercise would be to pave the way for eventual NATO membership of Georgia and Ukraine. The unstated assumption is that Russians would find in this proposal a face-saving way to back away from their explicit opposition to further NATO expansion along their borders. It is hard to understand how Mr. Brzezinski, the self-professed realist, putting himself in the shoes of the Russians, would find any reason to back away from a position that was taken for valid strategic military reasons



Brzezinski’s proposal that NATO improve its relations with Russia has drawn greatest attention to his article. In a comment which the Editors posted on the online version of Foreign Affairs, NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen is said to be studying this point closely. Meanwhile the head of Russia’s Permanent Mission to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, responding to questions from Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a leading Russian newspaper known for its independence from the Kremlin, said he saw nothing new in Brzezinski’s article and that its only purpose was to make it easier for Russia to swallow the bitter pill of NATO expansion. It should come as no surprise to those sitting in Washington at the center of empire that these days the barbarians at the gate are literate and quick to grasp the essentials.


The fourth challenge facing NATO in Mr Brzezinski’s view is what he calls ‘global security dilemmas.’


What we have here is a lightly edited repetition of the list of threats to world peace which the author first set out in the concluding chapter of his 1997 magisterial work The Grand Chessboard. In that book, these threats were used to justify consolidating and maintaining for as long as possible America’s empire-like global hegemony, its military, economic and political domination of world affairs which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is amusing, to say the least, to see them now produced to serve quite a different purpose.



According to Mr. Brzezinski, we are facing “historically unprecedented risks to global security.” That sounds pretty dramatic and is all the more perplexing coming from someone who chastised George W. Bush for running the country on policies of fear. In his recent book America and the World: Conversations, Mr. Brzezinski reminded his audience that when he was in charge of national security the ever-present threat of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union meant that perhaps 150 million Americans and Soviets could lose their lives in a six hour long exchange of missiles. Yet, at that time, the government maintained a policy of calm. What has now happened to raise the dangers facing the world to an ‘unprecedented level.’


Brzezinski names ‘popular unrest’ from national political awakenings going on at a global level. Then there is the ‘growing accessibility of weapons of mass destruction – not just to states but also, potentially, to extremist religious and political movements.”

After that he cites “the dramatic rise of China and India and the quick recovery of Japan” which are creating a shift of the global center of political and economic gravity away from the North Atlantic toward Asia and Pacific. Moreover two of the world’s powers, China and Russia are revisionist, meaning resentful of US domination. Together with India, they all desire a change in the global pecking order. He adds to this “powerful…emerging regional rebels, with some of them defiantly reaching for nuclear weapons” – meaning North Korea, Iran, unstable Pakistan. The end result of all these phenomena is a ‘dispersal of global power’ which mixes with ‘expanding political unrest’ to create a ‘combustible mixture.’


I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say all of this is a very heterogeneous blend of concerns which require responses at many different levels, only some of which bear on military alliances. Some indeed are soluble by local police measures. Others, such as the ‘revisionist’ emerging powers require adjustments to be made to the world’s ruling presidium, such as a G-14 or structural changes in international organizations to accommodate the new power dynamics.


In any case, Brzezinski lumps them all together to justify a globalization of NATO.

However, he makes it clear that this global future of NATO cannot be achieved by extending its membership worldwide, since that would deny its essence as an Atlantic alliance. Instead he says NATO must weave a web of global alliances with regional security organizations. The proposed pact between NATO and the Russia-dominated CSTO would be the first step on this path. The second step could be a similar pact with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which could be used to draw China into a constructive security relationship. Further steps might lead NATO into agreements with Japan and eventually India.


This approach to globalization of NATO is certainly interesting, though it is hard to see why Europeans will agree on the need to participate in American-led global security alliances however they are structured. Nor does it take into account what the other security alliances are all about. To be specific, in the past several years the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has evolved from a structure by which Russia and China managed their competing interests in Central Asia into the center of a growing ‘antihegemonic alliance’ directed against NATO expansion and other manifestations of America’s worldwide domination. It has brought in Iran and India as observer countries as the revulsion against U.S. unilateralism under George W. Bush fanned out among emerging nations. This is precisely the worst case scenario which Mr. Brzezinski foresaw as a remote possibility in The Grand Chessboard. It is improbable that the lame offer of alliances between alliances which he is proposing now can undo the damage of the past eight years. Moreover, the very transparency of his intentions borders on cynicism and makes the ado ption of his proposals that much more unlikely.


I propose to close this critique on a methodological note. I alluded earlier to Mr. Brzezinski’s re-processing his earlier writings to serve his latest essay. One other example stands out. We find in the introduction to The Grand Chessboard the following passage: “Ever since the continents started interacting politically, some five hundred years ago, Eurasia has been the center of world power.” In the article under review, he now tells us: “For the last 500 years, world politics has been dominated by states located on the shores of the North Atlantic.”


What we have here is an example of a very manipulative approach to the facts, the looting of history to serve the fleeting purposes of a political debate. Another instance from the latest article demonstrating the same problem may be found in Brzezinski’s cursory explanation of the origins of the global conflict of 1939-45. He correctly takes this back to the immediate consequences of the Great War of 1914-18 which, to use his images, bled France to exhaustion and nearly bankrupted the United Kingdom. Against this background, he says WWII was triggered by “Germany’s quick resurgence.” To omit mention of the punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty or the rise of totalitarian states in Germany and Russia during the interwar period when setting out causality means an unacceptable dumbing-down of the debate. It is all unworthy of a senior academic and underscores how easily scholarship is abused in political science tracts to promote preconceived objectives.


© Gilbert Doctorow 2009-2010


G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book  Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.