Has Zbigniew Brzezinski gone soft? Zbig was never a favorite among liberal Democrats. As the national security adviser in Jimmy Carter’s White House, he was the lone, strutting hawk, the adventurously steely Cold Warrior in an administration that valued detente and arms control. Yet there he was, on Oct. 28, at a conference sponsored by the American Prospect, arousing stormy applause from a crowd of liberal Democrats with a rigorous, passionate speech that slammed President Bush’s foreign policy and celebrated what seemed to be liberal principles.
He bemoaned what he called Bush’s “paranoiac view of the world,” which has resulted in “two very disturbing phenomena—the loss of U.S. international credibility [and] the growing U.S. international isolation.”
He called for “a return to fundamentals” in U.S. foreign policy, including the construction of genuine alliances, “particularly with Europe, which does share our values and interests even if it disagrees with us on specific policies.”
In an implicit indictment of Donald Rumsfeld, Brzezinski added, “We cannot have that relationship if we only dictate or threaten and condemn those who disagree. … We should seek to cooperate with Europe, not to divide Europe into a fictitious ‘new’ and a fictitious ‘old.’… While America is paramount, it isn’t omnipotent. We need the Europeans. We need the European Union.”
He asks whether a world power can “really mobilize support, and particularly the support of friends, when we tell them that if you are not with us, you are against us.” He says the “war on terrorism” cannot effectively be defined as an “abstract, vague and quasi-theological” struggle, or waged with pre-emptive attacks, which only “reinforce the worst tendencies in a theocratic fundamentalist regime” and “widen the zone of conflict in the Middle East.”
His conclusion: “If we want to lead, we have to have other countries trust us. When we speak, they have to think it is the truth. … We are going to live in an insecure world. It cannot be avoided. We have to learn to live in it with dignity, with idealism, with steadfastness.”
And the crowd went wild.
But many in that crowd were also a bit puzzled. Brzezinski has been out of the limelight for a couple of decades, hanging his hat at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a popular refuge for moderate conservatives out of power. So what was this speech all about? Was it the emergence of a kinder and gentler Zbig? Or was it a maneuver by a canny opportunist, regrooming his views for a comeback in the next Democratic administration?
Actually, it was neither. The principles recited in this speech are identical to those laid out in Brzezinski’s 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. In fact, they are not so different from those of any classical theorist of balance-of-power politics. It’s just that current U.S. political rhetoric has been so corrupted—especially when it comes to foreign policy—that an eloquent presentation of ideas dating back to Metternich, if not Thucydides, comes off as refreshing and modern.
Brzezinski’s book is worth a close look. In it he spells out more fully his reasons for valuing America’s alliance with Europe. His advocacy stems not from an idealistic internationalism for its own sake, but rather from a hard-boiled realpolitik.
“Eurasia is the chessboard on which the struggle for global primacy continues to be played,” Brzezinski writes. “How the United States both manipulates and accommodates the principal geostrategic players on the Eurasian chessboard …will be critical to the longevity and stability of America’s global primacy.” (The “key players” in Europe, by the way, “will continue to be France and Germany.”)
He sees the main goal as the perpetuation of “a benign American hegemony” that preserves—and allows the United States to arbitrate—a unified Europe as the “springboard for projecting into Eurasia the international democratic and cooperative order.” This goal requires “forging an enduring framework of global geopolitical cooperation,” which in turn requires “the fostering of genuine partnerships.”
“Thus,” he continues, “maneuver, diplomacy, coalition-building, co-optation and the very deliberate deployment of one’s political assets have become the key ingredients of the successful exercise of geostrategic power on the Eurasian chessboard.”
In this context, what clearly appalls Brzezinski about Bush and his top advisers is that they have not just blithely ignored but brazenly disparaged the “key ingredients” of proper policy for a democratic, global power.
The larger point here is that you don’t have to be a liberal—and, as the term is commonly understood, Brzezinski is not one—to criticize Bush’s aggressive unilateralism. Diplomacy and alliances (even alliances with France) are not exclusively liberal notions. They serve deeply self-interested ends, too. The excitement that Brzezinski’s speech inspired in a roomful of liberal Democrats—the American Prospect’s Web site headlines it “A Must-Read Speech”—suggests that the liberal critique of Bush’s foreign policy is at one with the conservative critique. It suggests that, on a basic level, Bush’s foreign policy is neither liberal nor conservative but, rather, callow, smug, and reckless.