BookReviews

Blindingly obvious

A former foreign policy insider looks to what could, would and should happen next

Reviewed by Geoffrey Wheatcroft

When Jimmy Carter won the 1976 presidential election and formed his administration, he chose Zbigniew Brzezinski as his national security advisor. Brzezinski was perhaps an unlikely figure for such a role although a man of intellectual eminence. Born the son of an aristocratic diplomatist in Poland in 1928, Brzezinski had escaped the European catastrophe with his family and was educated in Canada. Like Henry Kissinger, his immediate predecessor in the Nixon and Ford administrations, he had made his name in academic life, at Harvard and then Columbia, and had not held public office before.

‘Zbig’ was the policy intellectual to end them all, a veteran of many a faculty, committee and task force, with an impressive record as an oracle of international affairs. He knew, and sympathised with, dissidents in his native Poland. And yet Brzezinski, unlike so many emigres, was far from a sabre-rattling Cold Warrior. He argued neither for confrontation nor appeasement, but for containment and what became known as détente. With considerable prescience he saw that, if left to itself, Soviet Russia would one day atrophy and collapse from internal contradictions (with a certain historical irony, since that was once a favourite phrase of the Marxists).

Besides that Brzezinski has also been a prolific author, with more than a dozen books to his name, including America and the World, The Grand Chessboard, and In Quest of National Security. But his new book is an interesting disappointment, if that’s not another internal contradiction.

Strategic Vision addresses the all too familiar question of American decline, not to say the Decline of the West, which has been with us as a supposed threat since Spengler introduced the concept in unhappy circumstances 90 years ago. When Communism did collapse, as Brzezinski had foreseen, it apparently left the United States in a unique and unparalleled position “as the first truly global superpower”, a new American imperium, which Brzezinski compares with the Roman and British empires. But the past 20 years have seen events take many courses quite unforeseen and unintended by American leaders, or those who gloated over an “end of history”. So now Brzezinski looks at what went wrong and asks what should be done.

He recognises that the unmistakable deterioration in the American strategic position is largely self-inflicted. This means, above all, the consequences of the catastrophic Iraq adventure and a broader regional intervention. As former State Department official Aaron David Miller all too truly says, these leave the Americans stuck in the Middle East, a place they cannot quit but cannot fix, and where the United States is not liked, not respected, and not feared.

At the same time, Brzezinski looks hard and honestly at the failings of American society, which impair its international moral authority. It’s all very well for presidents and secretaries of state to keep telling us that America is the indispensable nation, but in many other countries there is the feeling that violent crime matched by a ferocious penal system, pervasive financial and political corruption, and extremes of wealth and poverty, are all features of American life that could well be dispensed with.

Brzezinski also knows that declinism is an old song. He dates American concern about the threat from Japan to the 1980s, although Hakan Hedberg’s Le Defi Japonais was published in 1970, and of course “the yellow peril” was a cry much heard a hundred years ago. As to China, which perturbs Brzezinski and so many other Americans, we simply have no idea how long its explosive economic growth will continue or with what consequences. China might strike out at her neighbours (though probably not as far as Pearl Harbor), or she might reform her political system gently to introduce some degree of transparency. Or she might implode in a way comparable to but different from the Russian collapse, though with even more dangerous consequences. But then my “mights” seem to have been infectiously contracted from the author.

One problem with the book is the frankly undistinguished writing, using the rather wooden dialect that might be called policy-speak: “In recent decades, America and Mexico have succeeded in constructing a predominantly positive relationship”; “The forgoing will require both America’s and Europe’s persistence and strategic scrutiny.” And as that may suggest, Brzezinski has a knack for saying things that are not so much true as blindingly obvious.

More vexing is his addiction to subjunctive speculation: “The new Asian rivalry could at some point threaten regional stability,” is obvious but also speculative. In every chapter, “woulds” and “coulds” and “mights” abound: “ ... would become exponentially more difficult ... This would return ... such a state would stimulate...” are all found in the same paragraph. Doubtless this is so, just as it is true that if I crashed my car at high speed, or if my wife left me for a Polish-American policy wonk, my life would become exponentially more difficult, but there is, in the phrase, no way of telling.

For all his background, Brzezinski shares some American received views about Europe. He makes a nice point when he says that the European Community, as it was called until 1993 when it had no more than 12 members (although they already ominously included the ‘Club Med’ countries, Spain, Portugal and Greece, with their dubious finances) was actually more of a union than the so-called European Union today with its 27 highly disparate member states.

But he has to tell us, yet again, that Europe must accept Turkish partnership. Let me reply, also yet again, and wearily, that Turkey is not going to join the European Union, not in the lifetime of this writer or of anyone reading this, and probably not in this century. Why this is so might require another essay (though it should not), but what’s as interesting is the American inability to see this, or more generally to grasp that other countries will not always wish to arrange their affairs simply to suit the interests of the United States.

To talk of the US decline isn’t quite a begged question, but it makes an assumption that American superpower was a reality, or that such power meant an ability to dominate the world. But look back more than 60 years, to the time when the United States emerged from the Second World War as the mightiest country on earth, at least economically. Even now, as Brzezinski reminds us, America is quite obviously not declining economically. The American share of global economic product is about one quarter, as it has been, in notably stable fashion, for decades past.

What Brzezinski is really wrestling with is “the impotence of might”: why is it that this huge wealth, and a military budget dwarfing all others, has not allowed the Americans to impose their will on others? But then ask a truly provocative and unusual question: How many wars has the United States ever actually won? The initial rebellion of war of independence, no doubt, fought on a very small scale, but not the return match with England, the bicentenary of which we mark this year.

Innumerable campaigns to expropriate and largely to extirpate the indigenous peoples of North America scarcely count, and nor do the various wars against Latin American neighbours. Robert Kagan has just published The World America Made, his own contribution to the debate over American decline, or otherwise. In his previous book, Dangerous Nation, he argued, more ingeniously than persuasively, that the United States had been an international power from the beginning. But the fact is that for more than 140 years after the Declaration of Independence, no American soldier set foot in Europe.

Even then, the United States Army played a marginal part in the defeat of Germany in both great European wars in the first half of the 20th century. For the best part of a year after the United States entered the Great War in April 1917, the Americans did almost no fighting, with only a few hundred dead, while the British army—including Australians and Canadians, among others—was bled white, sustaining hundreds of thousands of casualties.

A quarter-century later, the United States did beat Japan, in the end by the drastic means of nuclear weapons and with few casualties (one way or another, more than 10 times as many Japanese as Americans were killed). But as to the European war, every serious military historian now stresses that the Third Reich was defeated by the Red Army: nine out of 10 German soldiers who died were killed on the eastern front. 

Since then, if one overlooks such triumphs for American arms as Panama and Grenada, it’s hard to find victories. Korea was at best what soccer players call a score draw, Vietnam was plainly an American defeat, while no one is going to call Afghanistan or Iraq American victories. And Brzezinski of all people might remember the woes of the Carter presidency, culminating in the Iranian humiliation. 

Nevertheless, his book is stimulating, and the thought it stimulates for this reviewer is that Ron Paul might be right, the supposedly cranky right-wing Congressman who says “we should withdraw from our empire”. Although, perhaps not surprisingly, his run for the Republican nomination has come to nothing, in the words of David Bromwich (no reactionary) writing in the New York Review of Books, “On issues of national security and war, he is the American politician who speaks to Americans as if they were grownups interested in their own condition…”. For all the flag waving and drum beating of the other Republicans, might America yet experience a Pauline conversion?