Zbigniew Brzezinski: From Grand Chessboard to Obama Advisor. Part One

This four-part analytical article reviews Zbigniew Brzezinski’s post-Cold War writings, from 1997 to 2008.


Zbigniew Brzezinski: From Grand Chessboard to Obama Advisor. Part One


By Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



Zbigniew Brzezinski has arguably been the most influential of all the American foreign policy thinkers in the post-Cold War period. The penetration of his ideas today may be noted in various specific policies of the Obama administration. We see Brzezinski’s hand in relentless pressure upon American allies to increase their contributions in men and materiel to the fight in Afghanistan. We see it in NATO expansion to the borders of the Russian Federation, meaning support for eventual membership of Ukraine and Georgia, and the principle that no non-member country may have a veto power over who is admitted to the North Atlantic alliance. We see it in US calls for Europe to admit Turkey into the European Union. We see it in the policy of taking charge of diversification of Europe’s energy supplies, the strong advocacy of the Nabucco gas pipeline and a ‘Southern Corridor’ energy strategy.


Although Brzezinski holds no patent on these ideas, and other centrist thinkers and statesmen have advocated one or another of them for a variety of separately argued reasons, they fit into a global strategy for the post-Cold War period which Brzezinski formulated in the 1990s as he proposed to perpetuate the unparalleled primacy of the United States in world affairs that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. His unique presentation of the interconnectedness of issues, the persuasiveness of his argumentation, and his staying power – his ability to remain active and influential in Washington whatever the administration – set him apart.


Brzezinski’s career goes back more than four decades before the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was the consummate Cold Warrior and one of the major tasks in this essay will be to determine to what extent his thinking after 1992 marked a break with his strategic concepts before the new age, to what extent it is new wine in old bottles.


Brzezinski’s first calling has been scholarship and university teaching. Among the general public, Brzezinski has probably been best known for his second career as a public servant in Washington.


Among both the general public and specialists, it is common to speak of Brzezinski as the Democratic Kissinger. Indeed there are numerous parallels in their careers. Both leveraged their Harvard doctoral degrees and scholarly credentials to become National Security Advisors. Of course, in the popular imagination, Kissinger had the greater career, since he went on to become Secretary of State, serving both President Nixon and his successor Gerald Ford. As the third ranking U.S. government official, Kissinger had greater public exposure and he reaped greater public recognition, being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the war with North Viet Nam.


However, the reality of influence on power over time tells a rather different story. With the defeat of Gerald Ford by Jimmy Carter, Kissinger’s standing in Washington waned and never returned to its former glory, though he was invited to participate in various security forums, as protocol demanded.

Meanwhile, as we shall see, the ideas which Brzezinski put forward in the post-Cold War period were a blend of what passes for patriotic, hard-nosed toughness and assertiveness against authoritarian regimes which the American public on both sides of the aisles has consistently found attractive. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and many of the high level staff in the Clinton administration clearly shared Brzezinski’s thinking on the way forward.


To be sure, even the highly adaptable Mr Brzezinski was unwilling to stand with the administration of George W. Bush once it veered off on its unilateralist path following 9/11. For those eight years he provided counsel on foreign policy to leading Democrats and positioned himself to once again be an authoritative voice in the inner circles of the next administration.


During all of this time, despite his advancing age, Brzezinski continued to travel widely, staying both informed and relevant. He maintained a freshness of thinking, a readiness to reason with his audience, that suggests a man in his 50s rather than his chronological age.


For all of these reasons, we will take our time considering Brzezinski’s writings. I propose to examine here first his seminal work in the post-Cold War period – The Grand Chessboard – which came out roughly in the same time period as Sam Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and had a worldwide influence that was not dissimilar. The book was translated into 19 languages.


It is not my intention to follow the twists and turns in the positions taken by our prominent thinkers in detail. By the nature of the genre, political science tracts have a relatively short shelf life and the best known authors are often prolific. Therefore we will fast forward from Chessboard to his monograph Second Chance written a decade later which picks up where Chessboard left off and gives a score card on how the US responded to an historic window of opportunity to provide worldwide leadership as the sole remaining superpower. In Second Chance, Brzezinski examines in detail the first 3 post Cold War presidencies of George Bush, Sr., Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.


I also propose to draw on his 2008 book America and the World, which records conversations with Brzezinski and Brent Snowcroft, his Republican counterpart as National Security Advisor (under George Bush, Sr), responding to questions posed by a moderator, Washington Post journalist David Ignatius. This work is useful precisely because the narrative was guided, and Brzezinski was encouraged to reveal more about himself than he allows in his own writings, which tend to be quite impersonal.


What are the questions before us?


First of all, I propose to examine whether Brzezinski is truly the realist, the single-minded defender of his nation’s interests which he projects by his austere, soldierly appearance, from the crew cut on down, and by the hawkish yet coldblooded statements he has issued regularly for the past half century. Or are we dealing with a more emotional, possibly less rational personality?


When this question was put to him by David Ignatius in 2008, Brzezinski waffled, saying: “..I don’t know whether I’m a realist or an idealist – I don’t classify myself…It seems to be that if you’re engaged in statecraft, you have to address the realities of power…..but that is not enough. Power has to be driven by principle and this is where the element of idealism comes in…And you try to strike a balance between the use of power to promote national security and interests, and trying to improve the human condition.” [America and the World, p. 241]


Given the way Neoconservative idealism has held sway in the American foreign policy establishment during the post-Cold War period with the support of both Republicans and Democrats, it will be useful to pin down Mr Brzezinski and find the precise balance between idealism and realism in his thinking.


To the extent that he may be an idealist, of what does this idealism consist?


Secondly, as mentioned above, we will consider the relationship between his past conceptual work and his post-Cold War thinking. This means tracing continuity of such formulations as the trilateral concept (US-Europe-Far East) which was meant to promote the centrality of our dealings with allies, the major industrial democracies, and only thereafter to allow us to invest our efforts in developing relations with other world powers. Then there is Brzezinski’s handling of the Russian issue which, despite his professions to the contrary, in fact seems to determine his approach to a great many other policy questions including relations with allies.


As with all the thinkers under review, I intend to devote some attention to the methodology of Brzezinski’s scholarship. He is not distracted by grand historical, political and philosophical schemes as often is the habit of American political scientists, who like to march us back to Plato and show off their erudition. Brzezinski is more down to earth. When you sift through his works, you uncover his debt to widely held notions of causality: a mixture of economics, demographics and intellectual currents. Indeed, one of the most interesting dimensions of Brzezinski’s writings is the interplay of determinism and voluntarism, which is the counterpoint to the strands of realism and idealism in his personality.


The Grand Chessboard: Overview


The book is both descriptive of the landscape of international relations at the time of writing in 1997 and prescriptive, offering a very lucid way forward across bilateral and multilateral relations with the world’s leading powers based on a carefully reasoned geopolitical strategy.


© Gilbert Doctorow 2009


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For the full analysis, see the author’s newly published book Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations. ISBN-13 9781453764473.  Now available from http://www.amazon.com and international amazon websites in paperback and in downloadable e-book edition. At Barnes & Noble and select bookstores. G. Doctorow is a 2010-2011 Visiting Scholar of the Harriman Institute of Columbia University.