Lunch With Zbigniew Brzezinski

The former national security adviser explains why he’s worried about Obama’s approach to China.

Former US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski

AFP/Getty Images.

For most people in their eighties, life is a gradual winding down. For Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the key architects of America’s cold war strategy – “Jimmy Carter’s Kissinger”, as he was once called – being 83 isn’t much different from 43. Brzezinski plays singles tennis every day – “one of my partners is older than me,” he tells me with some amusement. At the crack of dawn he is often found opining trenchantly on Morning Joe, the MSNBC daily news show co-hosted by his daughter Mika. And he remains a much sought-after adviser to secretaries of state and presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, though nowadays Brzezinski finds it hard to conceal his disappointment with his former mentee. “I’m all in favour of grand important speeches but the president then has to link his sermons to a strategy,” Brzezinski says. “Obama still has some way to go.”

We meet at Teatro Goldoni, one of Washington’s best Italian restaurants, located on the infamous K Street, home to many of the town’s lobbying groups. It is also a block from the Center for Strategic International Studies, one of DC’s biggest think-tanks, where Brzezinski, national security adviser to Carter from 1977 to 1981, is a trustee. I get there a few minutes early to fiddle with my tape recorder. Brzezinski strides in on the dot of our agreed time and grips my hand firmly. Dressed in a low-key suit and tie, Brzezinski is leathered and lean and still has almost a full head of hair. He talks in paragraphs, virtually without pause. Though I have known Brzezinski for years – and received news tips from him by email and fax – I still feel unsettled by his piercing gaze. Many of his Soviet interlocutors and White House colleagues were reportedly kept off balance by his hawkish manner.

“I don’t know much about food,” Brzezinski says as we settle down in his favourite booth, elevated slightly above the main restaurant floor. “I come here because it tastes nice and it’s convenient.” Despite having eaten here dozens of times, Brzezinski is still puzzled by the menu. “Remind me again, what is linguine?” he asks the waiter, who launches into a detailed description. “And what kind of meat do you have in your lasagne?” Brzezinski continues. The waiter explains that “as usual” it’s minced beef. Before ordering food, we had both chosen the same drink. “You know that red drink that they have before lunch in France?” says Brzezinski. “Perhaps wine?” the waiter suggests. “No, no, it’s stronger than that.” Remembering my maternal grandfather, who loved aperitifs, I have an epiphany. “Dubonnet?” I suggest. “Yes, yes, I’ll have a Dubonnet,” Brzezinski says. “It’s really a very good drink.”

When talking about the state of the world, Brzezinski, who still has traces of a Polish accent, chooses his language more forensically. His father was a Polish diplomat and Brzezinski, who was educated at a British prep school in Montreal during the second world war, had spent most of his first decade at diplomatic compounds in France and Hitler’s Berlin. Brzezinski Sr must have done something very right, or very wrong, to get posted to Canada after that. “In those days, the British still referred to it as BNA,” Brzezinski says. “British North America.” Brzezinski attributes his verbal skills to his prep school. “I entered the school not knowing a word of English and at the end of the first year in June I picked up a prize for literature,” he says. It must also have been there that he acquired his knowledge of food, I think to myself.

I spent the previous night reading through Brzezinski’s new book – Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power. “That must have been a sad evening,” says Brzezinski, chuckling. I had no difficulty staying awake, I reply. The book offers a bracing portrait of a “receding west” with one half, Europe, turning into a “comfortable retirement home”, and the other, the US, beset by relative economic decline and a dysfunctional politics. In this rapidly changing new world, America’s growing “strategic isolation” is matched only by China’s “strategic patience” in a challenge likely to strain the electoral horizons of US policymakers.

The book is full of sharp advice: the US should prod Europe to bring both Russia and Turkey into an enlarged west. America should hedge against China’s rise, without explicitly attempting to contain it. Most important, the US should revitalise its domestic economy if it wants to stave off further decline. On all counts, Brzezinski seems pessimistic about the likelihood that Washington’s elites will start to act strategically again. “If the US doesn’t revitalise at home, it will fail internationally,” he says. “If it does, we may not necessarily fail internationally – but we will have to be intelligent to succeed. But if we continue to fail domestically, we will have no chance internationally, even if we do the right things.”

We are already toying with our respective starters – Brzezinski has a mixed green salad and I have gone for a beet salad. The Dubonnet is going down nicely. “We [Americans] are too obsessed with today,” Brzezinski continues. “If we slide into a pattern of just thinking about today, we’ll end up reacting to yesterday instead of shaping something more constructive in the world.” By contrast, he says, the Chinese are thinking decades ahead. Alas, Brzezinski says, Obama has so far failed to move into a strategic habit of mind. To a far greater extent than the Chinese, he concedes, Obama has to respond to shifts in public mood. Brzezinski is not very complimentary about American public opinion.

“Americans don’t learn about the world, they don’t study world history, other than American history in a very one-sided fashion, and they don’t study geography,” Brzezinski says. “In that context of widespread ignorance, the ongoing and deliberately fanned fear about the outside world, which is connected with this grandiose war on jihadi terrorism, makes the American public extremely susceptible to extremist appeals.” But surely most Americans are tired of overseas adventures, I say. “There is more scepticism,” Brzezinski concedes. “But the susceptibility to demagoguery is still there.”

When our main courses arrive, Brzezinski looks suspiciously at his steaming plate of duck ragù pasta. “It’s quite a large portion,” he says to the waiter, who does not reply. “And your plate of lasagne is also very big,” he says pointing at my dish. Unlike Brzezinski, who picks discriminatingly but never wholeheartedly at his main course, I have little difficulty finishing mine. We decline the waiter’s offer to follow our Dubonnet with a glass of wine. “This is quite enough, thank you,” says Brzezinski.

We return to the subject of ignorance, which Brzezinski lists as one of America’s six “key vulnerabilities” in his book alongside “mounting debt’, a “flawed financial system”, “decaying national infrastructure”, “widening income inequality”, and “increasingly gridlocked politics”. He contrasts the level of knowledge of Chinese policymakers with that of their American counterparts. Having befriended Deng Xiaoping, China’s former leader, who led the country out of its long dark Maoist night, Brzezinski is an unabashed admirer of China’s diplomatic skills. He even had Deng round to his DC home for dinner. The diminutive Chinese leader was amused when Brzezinski served him from a bottle of Russian vodka he had been given for Christmas by the Soviet ambassador.

“The Chinese are really good at diplomacy – and even at making their interlocutors feel very uncomfortable,” Brzezinski says. “Sometimes they look at you while you’re making a point and they start laughing. And you’re saying to yourself, ‘Am I really a fool? What am I saying that’s so ridiculous?’ I very early on realised that their negotiating technique is a form of masterful manipulation. I was also struck by how well informed the top Chinese leaders are about the world,” he says. “And then you watch one of our Republican presidential debates … ” Brzezinski does not feel it necessary to complete the sentence but he later adds: “The GOP field is just embarrassing.”

I push him further on Obama. Shortly before our lunch, the president returned from Australia where he announced plans to deploy 2,500 Marines there to shore up alliances in Asia. This is exactly the kind of move that baffles Brzezinski. What’s wrong, I ask, with Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia? Doesn’t it make sense to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and shift attention to the rising east?

When Brzezinski feels strongly, he barely pauses between paragraphs. “I was not aware that Australia was about to be invaded by Papua New Guinea, or by Indonesia,” he replies. “I assume most people think Obama was thinking of China. What’s worse is that the Chinese will think he’s thinking of China and to define our engagements in the east in terms of China is a mistake. We have to focus on Asia but not in a manner that plays on everyone’s anxieties … It becomes very easy to demonise China and they will then demonise us in return. Is that what we want?”

The waiter removes our plates of which only mine is clean. We skip dessert and order coffee – a decaffeinated cappuccino for Brzezinski and a double espresso for me. I am curious about what Brzezinski thinks it will take to get the US back into a more pragmatic mindset. Could this year’s presidential election make a difference? Brzezinski looks pensive. “The question is, ‘Does Obama have it in his guts to strategise as well as sermonise?’ ” he asks. “I don’t know the answer to that. I really don’t know.”

Brzezinski quotes a senior Chinese official who reportedly said of America: “Please don’t decline too quickly”. He then lampoons the standard American candidate’s response to any talk of decline, which is simply to assert that America’s greatness will return if only people would believe in it. “ ‘Help is here. Smile a lot. Everything will disappear. It will be fine’ – well, sad to say, it doesn’t work that way. People are ignorant and scared. It will take more than that.”

Brzezinski admits he has voted Republican a couple of times in his life – notably in 1988 when he endorsed George HW Bush over Michael Dukakis. But in 2012 he would not dream of doing so. “A good election is one that would shape out in an intelligent victory by Obama,” he says. “There is no sign of that from the other side.” Which means Obama will win, I prompt? Not at all, says Brzezinski. “My fear is that two or three weeks before the election something will happen – an October surprise,” he continues. “If Iran was struck by Israelis during October, the negative effects would not be felt until late November and December. The first effect would be, ‘Ah, how wonderful. Let’s get behind the Israelis.’ Then all bets would be off.”

It seems like a downbeat note on which to conclude a lunch that has taken place at such high velocity. As the waiter hands me the bill, Brzezinski asks when was the last time I did something like this. I mention the late Christopher Hitchens with whom I had lunch a few years back. “Ah, now, that must have been lively,” says Brzezinski, his face brightening. I ask whether he watched the debate between Hitchens and Tony Blair about religion. Brzezinski’s expression alters. “That guy [Blair] is a lightweight,” he says. “I don’t like his political morals and how he’s been enriching himself since leaving office. He preaches high moral language but … ” Brzezinski pauses as if wondering whether to continue. “I have a visceral contempt for Blair,” he says. “Not dislike. Just contempt.” The bill settled, Brzezinski departs as briskly as he arrived, and with another of those iron handshakes.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.