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June 2017

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Zbigniew Brzezinski

by Dr. Klaus Larres

Zbigniew Brzezinski died on 27 May 2017 at the age of 89. Polish born Brzezinski came to international attention as President Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser from 1977 to 1981. Brzezinski was a liberal Democrat in domestic American terms but a fiercely anti-communist hawk in the foreign policy realm. Enjoying the confidence of President Carter whom he served loyally, Brzezinski was closely involved in the 1978 Camp David talks that brought about a peace settlement between Egypt and Israel. It was the Carter administration's most important foreign policy success. He also guided the Panama Canal treaty negotiations of 1977-78. Brzezinski was the driving force behind President Carter's diplomatic recognition of mainland China which occurred in 1978 and required the severing of ties with Taiwan. He played a major role in the Carter administration's desperate and rather unsuccessful attempts to resolve the Iranian hostage crisis during which 52 US embassy personnel were held hostage in Tehran for 444 days. It was he who urged Carter to attempt getting the hostages out of Iran by means of an ill-fated rescue mission that turned into a major debacle.

Brzezinski was particularly interested in overseeing Carter's policy toward the Soviet Union. He directed the talks with Moscow that led in June 1979 to the signing of the never ratified SALT II disarmament treaty. He pushed the arming of the mujahedin after the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. There were contemporary but rather implausible suggestions that Brzezinski managed to manipulate the Soviet Union into invading Afghanistan as he could see the harm this would cause to Moscow. While Brzezinski's influence was formidable, it did not go that far. The arming of the mujahidin (which included early Al Qaida followers) was a rather ill-advised measure as the fiercely independent mujahidin would turn on the U.S. a decade or so later to throw yet another foreigner out of Afghanistan and other parts of the region.

Brzezinski was the Catholic son of a liberal aristocratic Polish diplomat who was posted to Nazi Berlin and Stalin's Moscow and then with a stroke of good luck to Canada where he stayed when Poland became communist after the end of World War II. In 1951 young "Zbig," as he was nicknamed, arrived for graduate studies in international affairs at Harvard, obtaining a doctorate three year later. Henry Kissinger, five years his senior and a fellow émigré from Europe, was already ensconced there. Brzezinski decamped to a professorship at Columbia University in New York in 1959 when, unlike Kissinger, he did not obtain a tenured professorship at Harvard. The year before he had become an American citizen. Ever since Brzezinski and Kissinger, a Republican, have had an ambiguous relationship of both rivalry and precarious friendship. But essentially during most of his career Brzezinski detested Kissinger.

Brzezinski and Kissinger were probably the only two National Security Advisers who ever really mattered since that position was established in 1947, when with the development of the Cold War President Truman re-organized the entire US foreign policy structure. Both men dominated the foreign policy of their presidents and largely ignored and denigrated their respective Secretaries of State.

Yet, while Kissinger was a hardline but comparatively detached realist, Brzezinski viewed US foreign policy through a much more ideological and emotional lens. While mellowing in old age, during his formative years and his time in the White House Brzezinski deeply distrusted the Soviet Union and some of its eastern European satellite states, such as the communist leaders in the GDR and in Poland, his home country. In the 1970s he also was highly skeptical of West German politics. Brzezinski's shouting matches with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt about Bonn's economic and security policies are well known.

Unlike Nixon and Kissinger and Carter's Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Brzezinski did not believe in a policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Instead he was in favor of a "deliberate 'strategic deterioration' in relations with Moscow, and closer ties with China," as the New York Times summarized it. Clearly, Brzezinski's was a more confrontational approach, perhaps foreshadowing Ronald Reagan's foreign policy a few years later.

Brzezinski's hawkishness had a significant influence on Carter who over time became increasingly hostile toward both the Soviet Union and America's European NATO allies. For in the foreign policy arena Carter greatly relied on Brzezinski. It was Brzezinski after all who had brought Carter into the Trilateral Commission which he had founded with David Rockefeller's help in 1973 to improve relations among the US, Europe and Japan. The parochial governor of Georgia was thus introduced to the established internationally minded US east coast elite. Two years later Brzezinski became Carter's foreign policy adviser and soon entered the White House when Carter won the election of 1976.

When Carter lost his re-election four years later, Brzezinski returned to academic life as a public intellectual, university professor and author. Unlike his old rival Kissinger, who had managed to be appointed Secretary of State, "Zbig" was never offered this opportunity. He also never attempted to go into business and set up a political consultancy to earn big money as Kissinger did successfully. Instead after his White House years Brzezinski again taught at Columbia. In his late 80s he was still teaching at Johns Hopkins University/SAIS in Washington, DC. Brzezinski was also much in demand by the international media. The present author organized and chaired a lively discussion about the state of transatlantic relations at the Library of Congress in Washington DC in 2004 with Brzezinski, Kissinger, Richard Holbrooke and Brent Scowcroft. His strategic insights coupled with his dry sense of humor ensured that Brzezinski had the audience on his side.

Brzezinski's books sold rather well. His 1983 volume of memoirs Power and Principle is more interesting and engaging than most books in this genre. Among his learned post-White House books two stand out in particular: The Grand Chessboard (1997) and Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power (2012). In the former he predicted a return of the 19th century 'great game', with the U.S. now Eurasia's dominant power. In the latter he urged the U.S. to recognize its responsibility to remain an engaged global leader.

With a minority of US foreign policy luminaries Brzezinski strongly opposed the Iraq War of 2003 (unlike Kissinger, who supported the war) . He also viewed George W. Bush's 'war on terror' highly critically. He believed that turning the conflict with "a bunch of fanatics" into a global conflict on a par with fighting the Nazis or Communism was absurd. It "either reflects profound ignorance or a totally manipulative desire to use public anxiety for political purposes," he wrote. Subsequently, Brzezinski endorsed Obama and was greatly dismayed by the election victory of Donald Trump in November 2016.

Despite his many misjudgments and fierce rows and conflicts with America's allies and foes when he was National Security Adviser, Brzezinski had a global outlook and believed in the necessity of global engagement and involvement. Brzezinski clearly believed that for better or worse global stability required a benign American empire. In his many books and articles, however, he also repeatedly warned against American hubris, arrogance and neo-isolationism. Former President Obama was right when he called Brzezinski a "passionate advocate of American leadership."bluestar

Author Klaus Larres is a Member (Fellow) of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, NJ, and the Richard M Krasno Distinguished Professor of History and International Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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