Zbigniew Brzezinski believes the world is eager for strong, purposeful, effective American leadership, which in his opinion has been long overdue since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But he also warns that people are — with good reason — growing very impatient with the United States and this might be the last chance for America to regain its international standing.
Since 1990, U.S. leadership has not only failed to win the confidence of allies, but has emboldened adversaries, Brzezinski told The Washington Diplomat, arguing that this leadership has varied from competent but not visionary, to visionary but not disciplined, to utterly catastrophic.
The net result, according to this former national security advisor, is that the United States has squandered almost two decades during which it could have helped build a strong and secure global structure.
“We’ve missed a great opportunity, but more importantly we’ve damaged our position in the world very grievously. We’re neither as liked as before, nor as feared as before, nor as respected as before,” he said.
Brzezinski is widely viewed as one of the wise men of U.S. foreign policy who — unlike anyone in his generation except for Henry Kissinger — has successfully inhabited the worlds of both ideas and action.
A former State Department official, director of President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council, and member of a host of high-level advisory panels, Brzezinski has worked in the trenches of U.S. foreign policy since the 1960s. Brzezinski also clearly resides in the world of ideas as the author of more than a half dozen highly regarded books, a professor at such distinguished universities as Harvard, Columbia and Johns Hopkins, and currently a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Brzezinski’s most recent book,“Second Chance:Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower,” chronicles U.S. leadership since the end of the Cold War. He concludes that U.S. foreign policy during this time has been highly erratic, sometimes bewildering, and in several instances, deeply destabilizing and even self-destructive.
Brzezinski charges that the presidencies of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have all failed to adequately meet the challenges they confronted, although he singles out the first Bush as the best of the three post-Cold War presidents.
Although not a visionary, Bush Sr. was a skilled practitioner of power politics and traditional diplomacy, Brzezinski says, calling him a superb crisis manager who handled the collapse of the Soviet Union with skill and dealt with Saddam Hussein with toughness and adroit coalition-building. Bush’s finest hour, accord•ing to Brzezinski, was his role in the peaceful reunification of Germany in 1990.
Yet Bush failed to translate these victories into enduring successes, Brzezinski says, arguing that America’s political influence and moral legitimacy were not strategically applied to transforming Russia, pacifying the Middle East or bolstering the Atlantic alliance.
As an example, Brzezinski praises the first Bush for convening the Madrid Conference in 1991, which persuaded the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to recognize Israel’s right to exist in return for which the PLO was allowed to set up a subordinate administration under continued Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
But Bush never built on this tactical success, Brzezinski says, criticizing the 41st president for not having come out firmly against the right of return for Palestinians and Israeli expansion beyond 1967 borders. He believes Bush should have also backed territorial compensation for any border changes, a formula for sharing Jerusalem, and demilitarization of the eventual Palestinian state.
Brzezinski concludes that Bush was competent but failed to leave behind a compelling sense of direction, offer a sweeping global vision, or undertake creative institution building such as that which followed World War II.
On President Clinton, Brzezinski admires the 42nd president’s political skills, his understanding of the power of globalization, and his strong commitment to integrating the United States into the world economy by expanding international trade and investment. Brzezinski also notes that Clinton supported a stronger U.S. relationship with Russia and an expanded NATO.
But he faults Clinton for lacking the toughness and discipline to transform U.S. foreign policy so that by the end of his presidency, Clinton’s hopeful agenda was in doubt and only his embrace of globalization and the consolidation of the Atlantic community stood out as enduring strategic achievements.
Brzezinski is especially critical of Clinton’s work in the Middle East, arguing that the president missed several historic opportunities to advance peace and that under the Clinton administration, U.S. policy gradually drifted from impartial commitment toward a fair settlement to an increasingly one-sided pro-Israel posture.
Near the end of his presidency, Clinton did offer a comprehensive Middle East peace formula that was calibrated to moderates in both communities, but the Palestinian leadership insisted that the package was never spelled out in sufficient detail to give them enough confidence to sign onto it.
According to Brzezinski, Clinton left office with the Israeli-Palestinian relationship worse off and the Middle East more volatile than when he has assumed the presidency.“His casual style and strategic timidity hurt the U.S.’s long-term interests, and he didn’t leave a historically grand imprint on the world,” Brzezinski charged.
But Brzezinski saves some of his sharpest attacks for the younger Bush, blasting his presidency as a crushing failure. George W. Bush assumed office focusing on missile defense, military transformation and big power relationships, paying little attention to fighting terrorism or other transnational challenges. But after Sept. 11, 2001, Brzezinski says Bush became so preoccupied with terrorism that he lost sight of other issues.
Brzezinski describes Bush’s decision to invade Iraq as a catastrophic mistake that has seriously damaged America’s image and power in the world. It has also been, in Brzezinski’s view, a geopolitical disaster that has diverted resources from the real terrorist threat brewing in Afghanistan and conversely increased terrorism in many parts of the world, most notably in Iraq.
“We started a war of choice and on top of that, we started it on false assumptions which became politically effective because of widespread demagogy exploiting the element of fear,” he said.“September 11th was a horrible event, but the administration has certainly exploited it to instill a degree of fear that is historically unprecedented. Never in its entire history has America been so prone to fear and so subjected to such intensive brainwashing that we are going to get hit at any moment.And the fear of the unknown is the worst of all.”
Brzezinski also disagrees with Bush for framing the battle against terrorism as a war. “The so-called war on terrorism is a fiction to some extent because the enemy is not a technique. The enemy has to be identified. It has been waged in America in such a way that has made it much more difficult to adopt a steady, persuasive and constructive world course which others could follow willingly and not by intimidation,” he said.
The cumulative effect of these three presidencies has been less than inspiring, Brzezinski laments, and the nation’s moral standing has been badly tarnished, as has its reputation for basic competence.“The United States’s capacity to mobilize, inspire, point in a shared direction and shape global realities has significantly declined,” he concludes.
Brzezinski says the United States has squandered two grand opportunities since fall of the Berlin Wall. First, it failed to capitalize on its post-Cold War victory to shape an Atlantic community with a shared strategic focus. Brzezinski notes that by not doing more to help the European Union and NATO expand, the United States missed an opportunity to create a transatlantic decision-making process to address peacekeeping and nonproliferation issues. Second, the country failed to move decisively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which could have made the Middle East more congenial to the United States.
All of this has added up to a string of major geopolitical trends lining up against the United States, Brzezinski says, citing Islam’s growing hostility to the West, an explosive Middle East, an Iran dominant in the Persian Gulf, a disaffected Europe, a resentful Russia, China’s creation of an East Asian community, a more isolated Japan, a strong wave of anti-Americanism in Latin America, and the breakdown of the nonproliferation regime.
Nevertheless, Brzezinski believes the United States will have another chance to lead the world again, in part because no other power is capable of playing the role that America can with its worldwide political clout, global military reach, powerful economy and peerless technological innovation.
But he cautions that hard work lies ahead.“It will take years of deliberate effort and genuine skill to restore America’s political credibility and legitimacy,” he said, admitting that he’s not sure if the United States is structurally equipped for such an effort.“During the Cold War, we had a coherent policy in response to an overwhelm•ing challenge that was easy to perceive. Today the problems are so complex and so manifold and we’re still a democracy. Generating a sustainable and widely supported course of action is very difficult.”
As a start, Brzezinski says the next U.S. president must describe to the American people the enormous challenges they face. “The public needs to understand the interrelationships between the complex traditional problems of power, such as those in the Middle East, and the new global problems that are beginning to confront us on an ominous scale — environment, climate, starvation, inequality — all in the context of a stirred-up and politically awakened mankind that craves dignity.That is a monumental task of public education that only a far-sighted and historically alert president can do,” he explained.
“We’re now in a qualitatively new historical era and we can’t protect ourselves by becoming a gated community,” Brzezinski continued. “We have to be globally engaged, but not by domination but by persuading and by engaging others in a give and take.The world has become politically awakened. It’s a totally new era in world history. Never before has the world’s population become so politically activated as it is now.”
Brzezinski was one of the first heavyweights in the U.S. foreign policy establishment to support Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as the Democratic candidate for president.
“I like and have enormous respect for John McCain. He is a true American hero. But he is a man of a previous era and I think it’s very difficult for him to break out of the mold,” Brzezinski said.“Sen. Obama is the kind of person who has the potential to do what is necessary.That is to say, sensing himself what is new about the historical era and seriously being able to articulate it effectively to the American public so he is able to bring people together on a trans-partisan basis.”
But whether the next president is Obama or McCain, Brzezinski says the United States — and the world — is in desperate need of a successful U.S. president.
“It is essential that America’s second chance after 2008 be more successful than the first — for there will be no third chance. America urgently needs to fashion a truly post-Cold War globalist foreign policy that tangibly relates American power to the aspirations of a politically awakened humanity.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.