Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower
Reviewed by David Criekemans
One of the most important American geopolitical thinkers alive is Zbigniew Brzezinski. Today, he is one of the foreign policy advisors of Democratic nominee Barack Obama. In the 1950s and '60s, he was one of the leading thinkers on Soviet politics and communist ideology. Thanks to these credentials, he became national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter between 1977 and 1980. At that time, Brzezinski was considered to be a 'hawk.' When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, he convinced Carter to put aside his idealist policies and arrange things so as to provide the Soviets a bloody nose, a Vietnam of their own. (Interestingly, the presidential directive to authorize covert American support for Afghan resistance against communism predated Soviet direct military invasion; it was issued on July 3, 1979.) The Afghan rebels were secretly armed by the CIA.
Brzezinski's interest in geopolitics stems from these years in office. At that time, he developed the Arc of Crisis concept. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Brzezinski claimed that a zone of instability had developed in South Asia and communists were trying to get control of this area.
Unlike his contemporary Henry Kissinger, Brzezinski defines geopolitics in a more traditional way, which respects the original definition of this field's founder, the Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén, in 1899. Whereas Kissinger reduces geopolitics to a mere balance of power game, Brzezinski also researches the main territorially embedded variables which steer geopolitical trends and dynamics: demography, ecology, natural resources, military capabilities, economic growth, ethnicity, etc. One could call him a neo-classical global geopolitical thinker. In his book Game Plan (1986), he reiterated an old idea of the British geopolitical scholar Halford John Mackinder (1861-1947): Democracy [ ] refuses to think strategically unless and until compelled to do so for purposes of defence. This somewhat summarizes the essence of the mission Brzezinski has pursued during the past 20 years, both as a scholar and elder statesman: trying to identify the main geopolitical dynamics in world politics, and above all the challenges therein for America's position in the world. His final goal is to try to formulate concrete ideas so as to 'correct' and enhance American foreign policy.
Analysis of the Post-1989 Era
The author starts his analysis in Chapter Two by introducing the reader into the clashing historical visions about world politics, which fought for support at the beginning of the 1990s. This useful section provides an insight into the intellectual undercurrents which tried to 'seize' the dynamics of international politics at that specific juncture in time. The first of these two world-organizing visions is globalization; the second is neo-conservatism. Globalization was catchy, trendy, and appealing world-wide (p. 31). It suggested American leadership, but did not aggressively postulate it. Implicitly, it nevertheless entailed a central source of inspiration and impulse, and America fitted all the requirements. Globalization suggested a new equilibrium, but was 'cheerfully optimistic', as Brzezinski puts it. It became the ideological basis upon which President Bill Clinton built his (foreign) policy, convenient because it suggested a watering down of the relationship between domestic and foreign, and attributed explanatory power to (socio)economic variables. Brzezinski quite harshly labels it economic determinism.
The rival doctrine, neo-conservatism, was much more pessimistic in outlook, with political origins dating back to Reagan's Committee on the Present Danger. It also made a caricature of history, and formed the basis for George W. Bush's 'politics of fear' after 9/11. As Brzezinski puts it: To be successful, American foreign policy had to be derived from moral certitudes and pursued through a clear-cut, good-versus-evil deciphering of the inevitably ambiguous historical imponderables. (p. 36). The intellectual basis for this approach was, amongst others, created out of the ideas of Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man (1992) and Samuel P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). Both authors generated an unintended political impact and were somewhat fused together; after 9/11, international politics was seen through the 'looking glass' of Bush junior's administration as a clash between civilizations (cf. Huntington) in which only democracies were able to provide what it took to create a better world (cf. Fukuyama's democratic 'end of history' concept). The stage was set for a grand neocon collision with fundamentalist Islam.
But Bush senior was conservative; when the Soviet Union started to disintegrate, his status quo orientation led him to try to keep the USSR together, for instance initially denying the Ukrainian people their independence. Brzezinski thinks that the sheer pace of events left the Bush administration intellectually exhausted and creatively drained.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Bush senior quickly decided that the United States had to act: This aggression will not stand. An impressive international coalition was forged to free Kuwait, but Saddam was finally left in office. Bush I always claimed that the international coalition (made up also of Arabic countries) would have shattered if he would have pressed on to Baghdad. Brzezinski, however, feels that the desert victory in Iraq was not exploited strategically by Bush senior. This unconsummated success became the original sin of his legacy, which would haunt his successors. The American moral victory at the end of the Cold War was not used as an instrument to give Bush's new world order substance, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was left to an inconclusive stalemate. Bush also did little to nip in the bud the increasing efforts by North Korea, India, and Pakistan to acquire nuclear weapons. All in all, the unique historical momentum of 1989-91 withered away without the United States really redefining the geopolitics of that era as it had done in the immediate aftermath of 1945.
By 1999, the United States became sceptical about far-reaching global cooperation; the WTO meeting in Seattle was already a foretaste of changing moods. Clinton withdrew U.S. troops from Somalia and did not interfere in the genocide in Rwanda; and only after hesitations did he intervene in Yugoslavia.
Clinton's foreign policy decision making on strategic issues was chaotic at best. In a revealing quote, Brzezinski writes the following (p.115): Clinton's critics charged, legitimately, that globaloney is no substitute for geostrategy. And geostrategy calls for a design that prioritizes geopolitical challenges in order to facilitate prompt and decisive responses. That kind of measured American leadership was just not there.
Brzezinski does give Clinton credit for establishing a pipeline between Baku in Azerbaijan, Tbilisi in Georgia, and Çeyhan in Turkey, via which Central Asian oil in the Caspian area is turned into Anglo-American 'freedom' oil. But Brzezinski also makes his own role in this geostrategic BTC pipeline project very clear still a Cold Warrior in disguise? Also, in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, Clinton wasted several opportunities. In short, according to Brzezinski, Clinton's strategic timidity had dangerous implications for America's long term interests.
In an enlightening quote, Brzezinksi writes (p. 176-177): Bush misunderstood the historical moment, and in just five years dangerously undermined America's geopolitical position. The challenge ahead for the next U.S. president, 'Global Leader IV,' is thus monumental.
But what is important is that Brzezinski acknowledges that a new world is taking shape, with the Geopolitics of Global Political Awakening, which is anti-imperial. The indications are seen everywhere on the globe: political activism in Latin America, increased economic power of the Asian states, Chinese-Indian-Russian anti-hegemonic cooperation, America's rising national debts and trade deficits, etc. Brzezinski almost plays the role of Halford John Mackinder during the inter-war years; he too foretold the demise of the empire at a time when no one in Britain wanted to look the undeniable variables straight in the eyes. This constitutes Brzezinski's bravery as an author and independent thinker.
However, one can debate the final geopolitical advice he gives his fellow countrymen (p. 212). He claims it is essential for America to preserve and fortify its special transatlantic ties. He bluntly suggests that if Europe does not cooperate, it could lapse into self-centered and divisive nationalism, devoid of a larger global mission. Seen from this part of the Atlantic Ocean, that remark is almost a scare-mongering statement, without much empirical basis. Also he writes that if Turkey and the Ukraine feel their road to Europe is closed, the former may slide into the restless and religiously stirring Middle East. What a pity that Brzezinski ends his otherwise quite balanced book with such a platitude. One should bear in mind that he wrote elsewhere that a further enlargement of the European Union is just the tool the United States needs to water down the European project, so as to avoid its becoming a real political player on the international scene.
Apart from this lapse, this book can nevertheless be recommended; undoubtedly it will become a reference document for future U.S. foreign policy under the next administration, irrespective of the political party in office.