No one disputes that Zbigniew Brzezinski resides within the circle of America’s most brilliant and prolific foreign-policy experts. The former White House national-security adviser under Jimmy Carter has written or coauthored eighteen books, including his most recent, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Order, a probing analysis of America’s challenges in a fast-changing world. Brzezinski is a counselor and trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a senior research professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. The National Interest caught up with Brzezinski at his CSIS office for an interview about his book and the current state of the world. The interview was conducted by TNI editor Robert W. Merry.
In your book, you talk about the Atlantic West’s grand opportunity for what you called a “new era of Western global supremacy” after the Soviet collapse. But it didn’t happen. To what extent do you think this failure resulted from human folly, and to what extent was it a product of forces beyond the control of the Atlantic West or its leaders?
I think both. But the West was fatigued, and Europe, certainly, lost a sense of its global responsibility and became more provincial in outlook. That, in part, was connected unavoidably with the task of constructing something that was called, originally, the European Community, that led to the European Union (although the two names should have been in a different sequence, because the European Community had more coherence than the current European Union). And the United States embarked on a kind of self‑gratification and self‑satisfaction, almost acting as if it really thought that history had come to an end. We did not anticipate the new, novel conditions of the world that were emerging, I think, with increasing clarity, which I try to address in my recent book, Strategic Vision.
So these forces were pretty substantial, but to what extent did some of the decisions of that time—the Iraq War, for example—lead to this result?
You know my views on the Iraq War. I think that it was a disaster. A disaster in the sense of undermining American legitimacy worldwide, damaging the credibility of the president and of the office of the president, and entailing costs for the United States, which were not insubstantial in terms of lives lost and people maimed, and enormous economically—all contributing to a more unstable Middle East. Because whether we liked Saddam Hussein or not, and he was obviously obnoxious, he was a strong source of containment of Iranian Middle Eastern ambitions. Today, a divided Iraq, an unstable Iraq, a porous Iraq is very susceptible to Iranian influence and, if need be, destabilization.
How do you think the world today would be different if we had not gone into Iraq?
Well, for one thing, the Middle East might be slightly more stable. And I had no objection to us going into Afghanistan, although I did urge our top decision makers to go in, knock out the Taliban, destroy it if we could, as well as Al Qaeda, and then get out militarily—not stay in for ten years with an ambition to build a modern democratic state within a medieval and fragmented society. So that’s not been very beneficial, but at least that would have been only one conflict. But then we had two conflicts, both very costly and not particularly helpful either.
You wrote recently about this consequential shift in the center of gravity in global power and economic dynamism, as you say, from the Atlantic toward the Pacific, and you also write that the West can maintain a powerful position in this new world. But isn’t it possible that this shift will simply leave the West and America behind, irrespective of what we do?
It is certainly possible, but if it should happen, it’ll be our own fault in the sense that it doesn’t have to happen. I don’t deny for a minute the vitality of the Far East, of Asia, but I’m also very much aware that major players there have internal difficulties and potentially very dangerous conflicts in dealing with each other. So we have lots of room for maneuvering, in that respect. But more importantly, for a long time they are not going to be superior to us in overall financial and social well‑being, or in standards of living. But of course if we flounder, if we stagnate, if we wallow in crisis, they may get ahead of us.
And I am very worried about the fact that we in the United States have a financial system that has become increasingly speculative rather than productive, in which personal greed rather than social growth is the main motive of the players. We have a tax system that favors the rich to a degree that I think is grossly unfair and not economically productive because it contributes to greater social disparities in our society. And such disparities in the long run tend to be very damaging and can even fracture national consensus and stimulate class conflicts. We have a political system in which privilege has been melded with opportunism. The Congress is a self-perpetuating body of relatively rich and privileged people who are not above passing legislation or making arrangements that favor them as a group. As a result, it’s increasingly difficult for us to intelligently address both domestic and foreign problems.
I have been watching this presidential election with dismay. Of all the elections that I have been part of, I think this is about the pits. Because in previous elections—in 2000, for example, which featured divisions as extreme as, say, Goldwater versus Johnson or later McGovern versus Nixon—they still involved large, comprehensive issues in which the outcomes, for better or worse, were predictable. Right now, it’s a mess of slogans and total confusion with gnawing societal anxiety.
You talk in the book about today’s university students around the world, constituting—in your words—the equivalent of Marx’s proletariat: “The restless, resentful postpeasant workers of the early industrial age, susceptible to ideological agitation and revolutionary mobilization.” You suggest this is a major force for instability in the world. Do you think this destabilizing force can be tamed or controlled within the next twenty years?
I think it depends very much on the historical context in which these forces manifest themselves. They did in Central Europe, but one has to remember that Central Europe already had experienced the spring of nations more than a century earlier, in 1848. There was a genuine democratic tradition to be brought to the surface and harnessed by outstanding leaders such as Lech Walesa in Poland and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. So, the movement was democratic, and it could construct democracies. I think in many parts of the world today, and the Middle East is obviously one of them, you’re dealing with a phenomenon that is somewhat similar and yet different. These movements are populist. So were the ones in Central Europe. But they’re not imbued with democratic values or a widely shared understanding of what constitutionalism and a system of law really entail.
Therefore, they’re much more likely to be driven by either passions or historical narratives that are one-sided, potentially intolerant, maybe fanatical and in some cases even intolerantly religious. So I’m not so confident that every so-called populist uprising against a dictatorship is necessarily a turn toward democracy. It may be a rejection of corruption, of arbitrary rule, but then what follows may be eventually equally one-sided.
In the book you discuss the importance of America having an image in the world, an identity, that contributes to its ability to influence other nations and other peoples. To what extent do you see this as part of that, and to what extent has that been undermined by the war in Iraq and other things that we’ve been doing since the end of the Cold War?
I do think that we have unfortunately delegitimized ourselves, therefore making it easier for some parts of the world driven by historical narratives to be instinctively hostile to us. We have ignored that, and we have acted as if we were endowed with some special mission. George W. Bush even said, “Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world.” But there’s a further problem, and so America’s not to be blamed for everything. This century, I think, is already giving signs that it’s going to be fundamentally different from the previous century. What was the decisive quality of the twentieth century in terms of global power? It was the struggle for domination and hegemony among major powers, on three grand occasions that shaped the century—World War I, World War II and the Cold War. We emerged supreme, and then I think we fumbled it.
But it is not entirely our fault. We probably could not have become what we hoped to be, a model for the world, because the world has become much more diversified, much more complicated with the global political awakening making the world volatile, and then on top of that there are new global dangers that we face. We have to start understanding as a nation that we have to act differently. We have to rebuild coalitions. This is why I have written about a rejuvenated and bigger West, drawing in Russia and Turkey. This is why I wrote about America being involved in the Far East—but off the mainland, not involved in any wars on the mainland but balancing from outside, acting a little bit like Great Britain did toward Europe in the nineteenth century. If we are intelligent about it, we are still in position to be the most influential force in the world, but we have to be intelligent. And to be intelligent, we have to have leaders who understand this, who have a sense of the fundamental historical change that is making this century different from the preceding one. But more important, perhaps, or at least as important, we have to have a public that has some rudimentary understanding of foreign affairs.Image: Pullquote: If we are intelligent about it, we are still in position to be the most influential force in the world.Essay Types: Essay