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


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 Two


By Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.




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





The Grand Chessboard: Russia


The Russian Federation accounts for slightly more than 10% of the Earth’s surface and it occupies a central, though unenviable position in Brzezinski’s political map of Eurasia as a ‘black hole.’ Russia is where Brzezinski leaves behind his sober methodology of country risk analysis and engages heavily in speculation on how to change the country under study not only to avoid crossing American objectives elsewhere but also to meet an American. definition of what its self-interest should be. This is where his voluntarism, in the sense of will to act as the agent of history, comes to the fore. Indeed, one might say that the sections of the book dealing with Russia and its southern borderlands are what this book is all about,. Here Brzezinski does not merely reconfirm the logic of existing diplomatic arrangements but charts a new course for American foreign policy…


The most remarkable passages on Russia in The Grand Chessboard come at the very end, in the chapter entitled ‘Conclusion.’ This is something of a misnomer, since Brzezinski proceeds to make some recommendations in it which hardly follow from the preceding 193 pages.


Here, at last, he spells out his preferred solution for Russia: a decentralization which amounts to the break-up of Russia into three loosely federated states: European Russia, a Siberian Republic and a Far Eastern Republic.


This was written in 1997 when the results of a five-year devolution of power to the provinces under Boris Yeltsin and of economic shock therapy for the purpose of establishing a market economy on the ruins of state planning were perfectly clear. The relaxation of central controls from Moscow had already led to the development of virtual satrapies in the provinces run by local thugs or demagogues.  Within a year of Brzezinski’s publication of his master work, the widely expected bankruptcy of the country occurred and Russia defaulted on its state obligations.


These facts on the growing chaos resulting from decentralization and the likelihood of financial collapse were well known to all serious Western observers at the time when Brzezinski was writing The Grand Chessboard, so it is very difficult to accept his recommendations on Russia as having been made in good faith.


To be charitable, Brzezinski’s taking up and lending his authority to ideas which could only lead to still greater pauperization, disorder and armed conflict on the territory of the Russian Federation, is indicative of the epistemological limits of intelligence work underpinning state-building schemes from some foreign capital even when the master analyst is as experienced in the métier as Zbigniew Brzezinski.


The Grand Chessboard: The Eurasian Balkans


The one remaining region in Eurasia which Brzezinski serves up is what he calls the “Eurasian Balkans” which takes in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. The logic to this designation is that these countries are ethnically heterogeneous with many disaffected minority peoples and like the Balkans in southeast Europe they are unstable and potentially explosive. He provides us with tables to demonstrate the ethnic, religious, linguistic complexities. He sets out in the manner of a good intelligence officer the domestic political issues and the interests of neighboring powers which play out here.


However, Brzezinski’s explanation of commonality of these countries as a region is not persuasive One can say the same about large swathes of the world in general where nation states emerged from colonial rule and did not necessarily have a basis in ethnic and linguistic homogeneity or in borders that are well defined by topography.


The true distinguishing feature of most of this region to the South of Russia is vast energy and other natural resources. Its core area is Central Asia, where the various Soviet republics emerged as independent states in 1992. They remained for some time under Russian economic domination because they are landlocked and most pipelines and transportation routes to market passed north across Russia.


In The Grand Chessboard, Brzezinski argued the case for their liberation from the Russian embrace….into the waiting arms of the international community.


It bears mention that around the time he was writing these lines Brzezinski was providing counsel on promoting ‘geopolitical pluralism’ in Central Asia and the Caucasus to the Clinton administration and he accepted an assignment to assist negotiations surrounding the first major pipeline to realize the task of bringing regional energy resources to European markets: the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan project….



Triumphalism and other failings


As I mentioned at the beginning of this examination of The Grand Chessboard, the author devotes only a handful of pages to explaining why it is desirable and necessary to perpetuate American worldwide hegemony which came about suddenly and unexpectedly with the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1992.


Initially he contents himself with citing Harvard professor and doyen of American foreign policy studies Sam Huntington: “A world without U.S. primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs.”


We have to wait to the very end of the book for Brzezinski to present his own case for American worldwide domination and he does so in a manner which does not allow of contradiction, saying flatly: “Short of a deliberate or unintentional American abdication, the only real alternative to American global leadership in the foreseeable future is international anarchy.”


What then are the engines of disorder which can bring about calamity, indeed global anarchy, if America does not take the lead? Brzezinski offers a hodge-podge list of threats including the consequences of population explosion, poverty-driven migration, radicalizing urbanization, ethnic and religious hostility and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.


What we have here is scare-mongering on behalf of the favored scenario, continued American world domination. What is missing in this type of intelligence work or risk analysis is a review of alternative scenarios.


Brzezinski wrote The Grand Chessboard at the high point in U.S. power and, notwithstanding his reputation for steely reserve, his text is imbued with the triumphalism which held sway in Washington at the time. The overarching objective he is serving, maintaining U.S. worldwide domination, is frequently stated with astonishing lack of embarrassment in a way that borders on hubris. The following succinct statement of strategy is a perfect example.


“To put it in a terminology that hearkens back to the more brutal age of ancient empires, the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.”


In the context of his book, it would be safe to assume that the vassals are the Europeans; the tributaries are the Japanese, and the barbarians are the Russians, Chinese and Iranians. However, regardless of who is who, Brzezinski’s terminology is grossly offensive and it is almost as if he never expected these cynical remarks to be read by those he is describing. Yet the book was promoted by his publishers and sold widely abroad, where it laid bare the worst suspicions of many.


The disarming frankness of Brzezinski’s narrative is such that several of the reviews of the book which one finds on the internet consist of nothing other than clippings of the more bold if not outrageous quotations from the book. It is not without reason that one critic, Scott Thompson writing in the Executive Intelligence Review, entitled his article “Brzezinski testifies against himself.’

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© 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.