Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security advisor to President Carter from 1977 to 1981
No one disputes that Zbigniew Brzezinski resides within the circle of America’s most brilliant and prolific foreign-policy experts. The former White House national-security adviser under Jimmy Carter has written or coauthored eighteen books, including his most recent, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Order, a probing analysis of America’s challenges in a fast-changing world. Brzezinski is a counselor and trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a senior research professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. The National Interest caught up with Brzezinski at his CSIS office for an interview about his book and the current state of the world. The interview was conducted by TNI editor Robert W. Merry.
In your book, you talk about the Atlantic West’s grand opportunity for what you called a "new era of Western global supremacy” after the Soviet collapse. But it didn’t happen. To what extent do you think this failure resulted from human folly, and to what extent was it a product of forces beyond the control of the Atlantic West or its leaders?
I think both. But the West was fatigued, and Europe, certainly, lost a sense of its global responsibility and became more provincial in outlook. That, in part, was connected unavoidably with the task of constructing something that was called, originally, the European Community, that led to the European Union (although the two names should have been in a different sequence, because the European Community had more coherence than the current European Union). And the United States embarked on a kind of self‑gratification and self‑satisfaction, almost acting as if it really thought that history had come to an end. We did not anticipate the new, novel conditions of the world that were emerging, I think, with increasing clarity, which I try to address in my recent book, Strategic Vision.
So these forces were pretty substantial, but to what extent did some of the decisions of that time—the Iraq War, for example—lead to this result?
You know my views on the Iraq War. I think that it was a disaster. A disaster in the sense of undermining American legitimacy worldwide, damaging the credibility of the president and of the office of the president, and entailing costs for the United States, which were not insubstantial in terms of lives lost and people maimed, and enormous economically—all contributing to a more unstable Middle East. Because whether we liked Saddam Hussein or not, and he was obviously obnoxious, he was a strong source of containment of Iranian Middle Eastern ambitions. Today, a divided Iraq, an unstable Iraq, a porous Iraq is very susceptible to Iranian influence and, if need be, destabilization.
How do you think the world today would be different if we had not gone into Iraq?
Well, for one thing, the Middle East might be slightly more stable. And I had no objection to us going into Afghanistan, although I did urge our top decision makers to go in, knock out the Taliban, destroy it if we could, as well as Al Qaeda, and then get out militarily—not stay in for ten years with an ambition to build a modern democratic state within a medieval and fragmented society. So that’s not been very beneficial, but at least that would have been only one conflict. But then we had two conflicts, both very costly and not particularly helpful either.
You wrote recently about this consequential shift in the center of gravity in global power and economic dynamism, as you say, from the Atlantic toward the Pacific, and you also write that the West can maintain a powerful position in this new world. But isn’t it possible that this shift will simply leave the West and America behind, irrespective of what we do?
It is certainly possible, but if it should happen, it’ll be our own fault in the sense that it doesn’t have to happen. I don’t deny for a minute the vitality of the Far East, of Asia, but I’m also very much aware that major players there have internal difficulties and potentially very dangerous conflicts in dealing with each other. So we have lots of room for maneuvering, in that respect. But more importantly, for a long time they are not going to be superior to us in overall financial and social well‑being, or in standards of living. But of course if we flounder, if we stagnate, if we wallow in crisis, they may get ahead of us.
And I am very worried about the fact that we in the United States have a financial system that has become increasingly speculative rather than productive, in which personal greed rather than social growth is the main motive of the players. We have a tax system that favors the rich to a degree that I think is grossly unfair and not economically productive because it contributes to greater social disparities in our society. And such disparities in the long run tend to be very damaging and can even fracture national consensus and stimulate class conflicts. We have a political system in which privilege has been melded with opportunism. The Congress is a self-perpetuating body of relatively rich and privileged people who are not above passing legislation or making arrangements that favor them as a group. As a result, it’s increasingly difficult for us to intelligently address both domestic and foreign problems.
I have been watching this presidential election with dismay. Of all the elections that I have been part of, I think this is about the pits. Because in previous elections—in 2000, for example, which featured divisions as extreme as, say, Goldwater versus Johnson or later McGovern versus Nixon—they still involved large, comprehensive issues in which the outcomes, for better or worse, were predictable. Right now, it’s a mess of slogans and total confusion with gnawing societal anxiety.
You talk in the book about today’s university students around the world, constituting—in your words—the equivalent of Marx’s proletariat: "The restless, resentful postpeasant workers of the early industrial age, susceptible to ideological agitation and revolutionary mobilization.” You suggest this is a major force for instability in the world. Do you think this destabilizing force can be tamed or controlled within the next twenty years?
I think it depends very much on the historical context in which these forces manifest themselves. They did in Central Europe, but one has to remember that Central Europe already had experienced the spring of nations more than a century earlier, in 1848. There was a genuine democratic tradition to be brought to the surface and harnessed by outstanding leaders such as Lech Walesa in Poland and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. So, the movement was democratic, and it could construct democracies. I think in many parts of the world today, and the Middle East is obviously one of them, you’re dealing with a phenomenon that is somewhat similar and yet different. These movements are populist. So were the ones in Central Europe. But they’re not imbued with democratic values or a widely shared understanding of what constitutionalism and a system of law really entail.
Therefore, they’re much more likely to be driven by either passions or historical narratives that are one-sided, potentially intolerant, maybe fanatical and in some cases even intolerantly religious. So I’m not so confident that every so-called populist uprising against a dictatorship is necessarily a turn toward democracy. It may be a rejection of corruption, of arbitrary rule, but then what follows may be eventually equally one-sided.
In the book you discuss the importance of America having an image in the world, an identity, that contributes to its ability to influence other nations and other peoples. To what extent do you see this as part of that, and to what extent has that been undermined by the war in Iraq and other things that we’ve been doing since the end of the Cold War?
I do think that we have unfortunately delegitimized ourselves, therefore making it easier for some parts of the world driven by historical narratives to be instinctively hostile to us. We have ignored that, and we have acted as if we were endowed with some special mission. George W. Bush even said, "Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world.” But there’s a further problem, and so America’s not to be blamed for everything. This century, I think, is already giving signs that it’s going to be fundamentally different from the previous century. What was the decisive quality of the twentieth century in terms of global power? It was the struggle for domination and hegemony among major powers, on three grand occasions that shaped the century—World War I, World War II and the Cold War. We emerged supreme, and then I think we fumbled it.
But it is not entirely our fault. We probably could not have become what we hoped to be, a model for the world, because the world has become much more diversified, much more complicated with the global political awakening making the world volatile, and then on top of that there are new global dangers that we face. We have to start understanding as a nation that we have to act differently. We have to rebuild coalitions. This is why I have written about a rejuvenated and bigger West, drawing in Russia and Turkey. This is why I wrote about America being involved in the Far East—but off the mainland, not involved in any wars on the mainland but balancing from outside, acting a little bit like Great Britain did toward Europe in the nineteenth century. If we are intelligent about it, we are still in position to be the most influential force in the world, but we have to be intelligent. And to be intelligent, we have to have leaders who understand this, who have a sense of the fundamental historical change that is making this century different from the preceding one. But more important, perhaps, or at least as important, we have to have a public that has some rudimentary understanding of foreign affairs.
What really makes me worried is that our public doesn’t understand the world. It’s not even informed about the world. Your magazine is important. But look at its circulation.
Yeah. And most people don’t read anything about the world because the newspapers don’t give it to them, except three or four major newspapers. We have a public that’s ignorant and susceptible to demagogy. And that handicaps leadership, even if it is intelligent. Of course, it becomes worse if the leadership is not very intelligent and itself operates with simplistic slogans.
Dr. Brzezinski, do you think that this problem has increased in recent years? Were we, as a nation, more aware of the world in a previous era?
I’ll tell you why I think the answer is yes. We are less aware for a very simple reason: because the world is much more complex. Americans weren’t better informed about global history before, and they are still abysmally informed about global history. Americans weren’t very informed about global geography. They’re still basically ignorant, even though that is scandalous. But they knew that Hitler was a global danger. They knew that communism was a menace. They knew that the Soviet Union was threatening us physically—talking about burying us and having nuclear weapons with which to do it. In that sense, the sentiments of the public captured some of the basic essence of reality. Today, that reality is much more complex, much more difficult to understand. President Obama started well, in my judgment, in conveying those themes to the public. Then he didn’t act on it systematically.
I think today we have a real problem, one, of public education, and two, a real problem in that we need sustained presidential dialogue with the country about world affairs, explaining some of the points that I’m making. I think Obama started really great. I had conversations with him and so forth. I was really impressed by the fact that he senses this new reality. And he gave a number of really good speeches—Cairo, Istanbul, Brandenburg. But then he stopped. Of course he had domestic problems, a financial crisis. He has many reasons for exoneration, so to speak. But the fact is there’s a real problem. If you look at the public discourse about world affairs today and you compare it to what you publish in The National Interest or other magazines like yours, the gap is phenomenal.
I want to talk a little bit about the threat of the debt overhang. You identified that as one of the top threatening liabilities, as you say. Aren’t these problems becoming insoluble now? And what would it take for the country to get control over our debt problem, which is hanging over us like a huge sword of Damocles?
Well, first of all, I’m not a trained economist, and I don’t pretend to be one. But I think what it would take is some shared national consensus about how we define a decent and responsible life in the modern complex world. I don’t think we have that. We have slogans about being successful. We have slogans about "job creators.” We have slogans about everybody having the right to reach the sky in the quest for material self‑satisfaction. We have a definition of the good life, which involves the accumulation of material goods plus entertainment.
These are clusters of issues that are interrelated, and it will require a real jolt for us to start thinking seriously about how we can re-create a healthy society here that is still the compelling image for the world that it once was. Then, the American dream was widely shared. Today, it isn’t.
Do you think it’s going to take an even greater crisis to create the consensus that could fuel a president’s ability to cut through these problems?
I fear that you’re putting it just right. I hope it’s wrong, but I share the concern.
You repeatedly emphasize, in your new book and elsewhere, the importance of a solution to the Israeli‑Palestinian deadlock as a prerequisite to much of what needs to be accomplished in America’s diplomacy in that region. To what extent do you see the two-state solution as being perhaps moribund, and isn’t Israel’s aggressive settlement development eliminating the land needed for a contiguous Palestinian state?
I think that is certainly a problem; it is an impediment to the two-state solution. But I think a two-state solution is more likely to be an enduring solution to the difficulty both sides have faced over the last decades than the eventual alternative, which is a one-state approach, in which there are still such differences, such conflicting narratives, such bitter memories, that it’s hard to imagine how it could work as a democratic state. It would be one state in which somebody would be on top of the other, and whoever’s on the bottom would try to gain the top in order to repress those who are on the top. So I don’t think that’s a viable solution.
What I fear is, however, that it may be becoming too late for the two-state solution because, in order for the two-state solution to be enduring, it has to be a genuine compromise between the two. That’s extremely difficult to achieve in circumstances in which one party is much stronger than the other and therefore has no particular incentive to be making concessions. Meanwhile, the other party is so much weaker that it is afraid to make concessions. Simultaneously, there’s no one on the outside that is seriously committed to pushing the peace process forward for this or that reason, mostly because of the domestic difficulties that it entails for the American president. Yet we are the only party that could move the peace process forward.
I think we’re stuck, and I feel sorry for the people involved. I feel sorry for Israel. I’m a child of World War II, and I know what the Jewish people went through. I feel sorry for the Palestinians. It’s a bad situation, and I think the growing turmoil in the Middle East is increasingly making it more and more difficult to get a compromise adopted because one or the other side either feels aggrieved or outraged or endangered.
In the cover story of our previous issue, prominent Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar talks about the demographic changes in Israel that are making it increasingly difficult to go for a two-state solution or a liberal sensibility. To what extent do you think that’s closing off prospects for peace?
That may be, but I’m not really an expert on the social dynamics of either group. I tend to look at it more as an international problem with consequences for the United States, first of all, but, secondly in the longer run, with dire consequences for Israel as well. When I was commissioned by the president—whom I was serving in the seventies at the time of the Camp David accords—to go and try to convince the royalty in Saudi Arabia and Jordan to embrace a compromise, I was struck that some of them casually referred to the fact that the crusaders were in Jerusalem for ninety years, and now there’s absolutely nothing left of that. So their sense of time may be different. If we’re driven out of the Middle East, which I think is beginning to look increasingly possible, what is the future of Israel?
I acknowledge that this is a question that might be asked on a cable channel, but how do you assess the percentage chance that the United States will attack Iran to delay or stop its nuclear-weapons program, and what about the chance that Israel would do so?
I think the chance that Israel will do it is greater. I doubt that we would do it just like that, because I think no matter how deep our concerns over that issue are, the fact is it’s easy to start a war, and we know that it’s very hard to end it. Suppose we do get into a war with Iran. How do we end it? How long will it last? Who else is going to be in it with us to help us? How will it play domestically over the longer haul? But the Israelis may be guided by different logic, and certainly [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak do convey the impression, if not of eagerness, then at least of impatient determination to strike.
If there were to be such an attack, spin out what you think would happen in terms of stability of the region and the world at large.
Well, I have said this publicly. I think, first of all, the Iranians will not really retaliate very effectively against Israel. They’ll try, but it’s going to be fragmentary, marginally painful but not decisive. The Iranians will be absolutely convinced that this was done in connivance with us. They’ll retaliate against us, and what are their options? They may not be able to close the Strait of Hormuz, but they’ll certainly try. We’ll keep it open, but the cost of energy will skyrocket anyway, inevitably. For one thing, insurance rates will go up, and there may be some other damages. That will be bad for the global economy.
But much worse, we will drive the Europeans into the hands of the Russians, who will be rubbing their hands. The Russians are very worried that the price of energy, which oscillates between $90 and $120 right now, is not sufficiently high to meet their budgetary expectations. But if the price of a barrel goes up $200, they’ll be sitting pretty. The Europeans will be totally dependent. The Chinese will be hurt; so will the Japanese. That will not help the global economy either. Secondly, they can certainly attack some of our military facilities nearby, and they can destabilize Iraq in no time flat by stimulating a Shia‑Sunni collision. Next, they can certainly make life uncomfortable for us in western Afghanistan, which had been very stable. That means that our disengagement from Afghanistan will be very costly or difficult and so forth. But then there are all sorts of other possibilities involving terrorism or whatever, which will simply mean that the region and the United States are going to be intertwined in warlike instability that may last for a long time.
So the broader inflammation of the whole Middle East region could result?
That’s right. And you certainly have to face the fact that you’re not being confronted with a situation in which you have no choice. We have a choice. We have a choice of avoiding that and of convincing the Israelis not to do it. It’s not like Pearl Harbor, where we were attacked and had to respond. Last but not least, I don’t exclude the possibility of negotiations succeeding, provided they are real negotiations.
Which they haven’t been so far?
Which they haven’t been so far. They have to be based on the principle that Iran is entitled as a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory to have a nuclear-energy program, and they have a right to enrich but at a very low level. I think something along those lines is workable, but if the idea is that the agreement has to involve some sort of a humiliating arrangement for Iran that puts it in a cage quite apart from the arrangements for every other NPT signatory, then they probably won’t accept.
Last but not least, I think we certainly have the means and even a moral obligation to do for the people in the Middle East, and particularly for the Israelis, what we have been prepared over the years to do for the Europeans, and then for the Japanese and the Koreans. Namely, we should give them a really binding, reliable commitment that they are fully covered by the American nuclear deterrent, by stating publicly that "any threat to Israel, or worse, direct action against anybody in the Middle East would be viewed as an action directed at the United States, with all of the consequences that might entail.” We succeeded in protecting the Europeans and deterring the Soviets. We have protected successfully the Japanese and the Koreans. We certainly can do it for the Middle East.
Last question. Could you give our president, Barack Obama, an overall grade in terms of his foreign policy?
Well, I’ve been asked that, so I’m not sure you even want to do this because I’ve been asked and cited in the press about it. I said A‑minus, B-plus.
And could you give me three things that contribute to that?
Well, I think he has tried to put the U.S.-Chinese relationship on a stable basis in which the necessity of partnership is tempered by the need to be vigilant but balanced, and that’s okay. I think he has been patient, maybe a little too patient but wisely patient, in dealing with the Russians. I think with the Europeans, they know that we are still seriously interested in Europe. I think the Middle East represents the biggest liability, but that is not entirely his fault.
Thank you very much.