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

This is the third installment of a four-part analytical article reviewing Zbigniew Brzezinski’s post-Cold War writings from 1997 to 2008.


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


By Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



The onset of contrition


The U.S. presidential election of the year 2000 was in good part fought over the future direction of foreign policy, with candidate George W. Bush calling for a trimming of the sails. Bush appeared to side with a traditional ‘Jacksonian’ strand of centrist thinking, which had been deeply critical of American military interventions under Bill Clinton in furtherance of human rights and other soft causes. The climate was so propitious to a return of ‘realism’ that Henry Kissinger came out of semi-retirement and published his own volume of advice to the new Prince.


However, the events of September 11, 2001 brought about a cardinal change in the thinking of the President and his security and foreign policy team around a crudely formulated ‘war on terrorism.’ A new national security strategy was put in place in 2002, setting out the principles of pre-emptive war and unilateralism which justified and explained America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. President Bush put the nations of the world on notice that they were either ‘with us or against us,’ a theological crusade against an axis of evil was launched, and the hubris implicit in American post-Cold War triumphalism was exposed in a bullying foreign policy which abandoned all pretence at diplomatic niceties and generated enormous ill will towards the country in foreign capitals.


Brzezinski, the realist, rejected the policies of George W. Bush, because they violated the rules of statecraft and his own warnings on the finite nature of U.S. resources and the need to enlist others to maximize the effect of American actions. Moreover, a great many of the specific policy recommendations for managing relations with Europe and the Far East which Brzezinski had advanced in The Grand Chessboard fell among the broken china as the United States prioritized formation of its ‘coalition of the willing.’ Relations with traditional close allies soured over French and German unwillingness to support a military campaign for ‘regime change’ in Baghdad without cover of legitimacy from the United Nations Security Council. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld strove to drive a wedge between squeamish Old Europe and the dynamic and supportive New European states like Poland which generously contributed troops to the U.S. coalition. In the Far East, great pressure was applied to the Japanese to raise their level of participation in other related American military operations (logistics for the Afghanistan effort). Eventually this led to formation of a U.S.-Australian-Japanese axis in the Far East which worked directly counter to the strategic partnership with China which Brzezinski had urged. However, I am getting ahead of events.


Brzezinski was among the minority of foreign policy specialists who came out against the invasion of Iraq both before and after the United States brought down Saddam Hussein. He was quick to appreciate the damage, actual and potential, to his painstakingly designed architecture of international relations and he acted. In 2004 he published his response to American unilateralism: The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership….



The central thesis of the book was that the US should stand by its traditional orientation to Europe in the West and China/Japan in the East and not be distracted by coalitions of the willing nor turn its entire foreign policy around the issues of war on terrorism, which are insufficient to guide foreign policy. Brzezinski condemned unilateralism because it might precipitate an anti-American turn in East and West, encouraging local pan-Asianism and pan-Europeanism with America being squeezed out of Eurasia.


I would maintain that the book’s real contribution to the debate was linguistic.As I noted here earlier, in his 1997 master work Brzezinski had imbibed fully the ambrosia of ‘primacy,’ ‘dominance’ and ‘empire.’ Now he learned to watch his p’s and q’s much better and his language becomes almost, if not quite contrite…


Now let us move on to Brzezinski’s latest monograph, Second Chance which I will supplement with related items from Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy, published in 2008, in which he is jointly featured with Brent Snowcroft in a free flowing question and answer format.


Both books provide an affirmative answer to the question: can an old dog learn new tricks? From his renown as hands-on fighter in the trenches of Washington and polemicist of note in the past, Brzezinski emerges here as an even-tempered observer who is generous in his appraisals of adversaries as well as friends and colleagues – with the possible exception of President George W Bush, whose thinking he obviously does not hold in high regard. Throughout the book, Brzezinski reasons with his reader rather than lectures him.


One reason for the change in style of his writing has to do with the perspective. Second Chance is a primarily a work of history rather than futurology or strategizing. It looks back at the past fifteen years since the end of the Cold War and explores how each of the three presidents of this period– George W. H. Bush (Sr), Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (Jr) – responded to the historic window of opportunity to transform the world in circumstances of American worldwide hegemony. Conversations is largely a document in the memoir genre of personal recollections.


The basic point of the narrative is missed opportunities and a concluding reaffirmation that the United States would have a ‘second chance’ to fulfill them if its next president learned from the errors of the recent past. Along the way Brzezinski provides a lot of very interesting material answering questions which I posed at the start of this four part analytical article on his post-Cold War thinking….



© Gilbert Doctorow 2009-2010



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For the full analysis, see the author’s 2010 book Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations.   G. Doctorow was a 2010-2011 Visiting Scholar of the Harriman Institute of Columbia University. He is today (2013) an occasional lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and a Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest work, published in April 2013, is Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Non-conformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12. Both works are available from amazon.com and amazon websites worldwide in paperback and e-book editions. They are also on sale at Barnes & Noble and other leading bookstores.