Around the World With Zbigniew

June 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Executive Summary 

This is an essay based on a book, “Strategic Vision” by Zbigniew Brzezinski.  The book describes what the author regards as America’s strengths and weaknesses.  It warns of the  consequences that will ensue if America does not right itself and recover from its presently disfunctional condition and becomes incapable of acting as a world leader and agent for stability and peace.

Professor Brzezinski

Before my attention was diverted by Jonathan Heidt, I read and then re-read parts of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s latest book, “Strategic Vision”.  The experience was entirely different from reading Heidt’s book.  Heidt proceeds step by step, building a complex and many-faceted argument.  He doesn’t fully disclose what he thinks about the subject of the book until the last few dozen pages.   His intent is more beguiling than Brzezinski’s:  He wants nothing less than changing the way the reader thinks.  Reading Brzezinski’s book is more like attending a series of lectures on world politics and tactics, complete with colored maps, graphs,  really interesting sidebar comments and a bulleted outline.

Brzezinski is not subtle.  His intent is to warn and to predict dire consequences of failing to heed the warning.   l found his book fascinating and somewhat frightening, although he is, to use an over-used phrase, “cautiously optimistic.”

The Early Years

He first describes a series of instances when events and conditions launched the United States as world leader.  The first occurred in the 18th and part of the 19th centuries, when the combination of free land on the American frontier and democratic government based on its Constitution beckoned immigrants from all over the world to the “New World”.   The idealization was so intense that, as Brzezinski remarks, “It . . . helped to obscure, and even justify, what otherwise should have been profoundly troubling:  the progressive eviction and then extinction of the Indians (with the Indian Removal Act, passed by Congress in 1830, representing the first formalized case of ethnic cleansing), and the persistence of slavery followed by prolonged social repression and segregation of black Americans.” (39)

During this period, the image of America in Europe was generally more favorable than in Mexico and South America, where American territorial and economic  expansion was accomplished by forcibly annexing a large portion of Mexico and by claiming hegemony over South America through the Monroe Doctrine.  Brzezinski mentions these events because he sees them as historically  embedded sources of resentment, potentially ripe for resurrection if the U.S. becomes weak and vulnerable, unable to act as a world leader.

World War I

After participating in achieving victory in WWI,  America led the negotiations that followed and, for the first time, was recognized as a world power, espousing a doctrine of self-determination and re-alignment of European powers.  It is interesting to me that Brzezinski does not criticize these negotiations as did Walter Lippmann, who participated in them.  Their significance to Brzezinski is that they served to establish America’s reputation, at least in Europe, as a world power.

World War II and its Aftermath

America survived WWII as the only major industrialized power whose homeland had not been damaged by the war.  Brzezinski, however, marks the aftermath of that war as the beginning of the decline of Western power because, with the tacit support and approval of FDR, the empires of Britain, France and Holland were gradually dismantled and the westward expansion of the USSR began a period of nuclear confrontation between the US and the USSR.

The Cold War

Brzezinski regards the US victory in the Cold War as one of the high points in US world power.  He notes the spectacle of America’s leaders basking in the glow of self-congratulation, with G.W. Bush declaring, “Our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to a model for the world.” (44)  He then, however, recounts how this fleeting flirtation with “American exceptionalism” was followed closely by what he believes were strategic and tactical blunders of significant magnitude.  “After 9/11, the vaguely defined ‘war on terror’ and its expansion in 2003 into a unilateral war of choice against Iraq precipitated a wide-spread delegitimation of US foreign policy even among its friends.  The financial crisis of 2008-2009 then shook confidence in the United States’ capacity to sustain its economic leadership over the long haul while simultaneously posing basic questions about the social justice and business ethics of the American system.” (45)

Six Threats to America’s Future

Brzezinski lists six liabilities that threaten our future:

First, our national debt.

Second, our greed-driven out-of-control financial system that poses a continuing threat to the world’s economic health, coupled with the inability or disinclination of Congress effectively to control it.

Third, the gross inequality of wealth distribution.  1% controls 38% of total wealth, while the bottom 50% control 2.5 %.  Income inequality in the US, measured by the Gini coefficient (an accepted measure)  is highest among the world’s major economies. (49)

Fourth, our decaying infrastructure.

Fifth, the ignorance of Americans about the rest of the world.  Brzezinski writes that, except for the diminishing number of readers of “perhaps five newspapers”, the news about other countries is limited to sensational scraps of information, more designed to entertain or to frighten than to inform, provided by cable news and other forms of “news”.  He cites a 2006 survey that showed that 88% of young American adults could not find Afghanistan on a map; 63% could not locate Iraq.  He opines that this level of ignorance makes the general population gullible to “demagogically stimulated fear”.  (52)

Sixth, the grid-locked political system dominated by talk shows and vitriolic political discourse.  This prevents effective government policies to address the foregoing other five issues.

Six American Strengths

Brzezinski matches these weaknesses with a list of six American strengths.

First, America has the largest economy in the world.  Its 2010 GDP of over $14 trillion was about 25% of the total world GDP.  The second largest was China with a GDP of almost $6 trillion.  Current forecasts predict that, given their rates of growth, China and perhaps India will surpass the US GDP around 2030, but on a per capita basis, the US will continue to far surpass either of those economies.  This makes the US a powerful attractor of world talent with great economic clout in world markets.

Second, America ranks high in terms of a competitive culture and a system of higher education that attracts talent throughout the world.  According to a ranking of world universities, eight of the top ten are in the US; seventeen of the top twenty.  In other words, America has an abundance of human capital.

Third, America has a large population (318 million) and it is not aging at the rate of other industrial countries.   Also, while it is diverse, it is not fractured along religious or ethnic lines as are some other countries.   America’s proven ability to attract immigration and to assimilate immigrants into its national culture is one of its strengths.

Fourth, America has a proven capacity for reactive mobilization.   This was demonstrated after Pearl Harbor; it was demonstrated during the technological achievement of a moon landing in the 60’s.  Brzezinski has no doubt that, if called upon, the fraying infrastructure could be swiftly refurbished with American know-how and mobilized effort.

Fifth, America is not presently threatened by either of its neighbors.  The two oceans that surround the American continent afford it valuable maritime opportunity for trade and protect it from invasion by a land army from abroad.

Sixth, while there are serious current problems, as noted earlier, America is still identified with a set of values, individual liberty, democratic government and economic  opportunity that are unique and still widely recognized and admired in the world.

The Bush Fiasco

Brzezinski describes in painful detail the stupid and reckless policies of Bush and his neocon advisers.  Bush properly initiated military action in Afghanistan but, instead of limiting the mission to destroying Al Qaeda, he declared that we would establish American style democracy there, a  goal that Brzezinski regards as totally unrealistic and its declaration an indication of a level of stupidity he finds stunning.  Bush directed the invasion of Iraq based on unsubstantiated claims that we were threatened by WMD’s that never existed, although Secretary of State Rice chose to publicly scare people with references to “mushroom clouds”.   Instead of focusing on Al Qaeda, Bush declared a “war on terror” that committed us to unlimited war forever.

Brzezinski is particularly critical of Bush’s decision in the Spring of 2002, to endorse Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s policy of “crushing the PLO in the Palestinian West Bank”.  Brzezinski contends that this policy precluded any chance of a negotiated peace between Israel and Palestine and argues that Bush and his advisers well knew that and did not want peace.  After discussing these problems, Brzezinski concludes as follows:

“The ominous lessons implicit in the foregoing are pertinent for America’s near-term future.  In addition to the unfinished business of Afghanistan, and even still of Iraq, America continues to confront in the vast, unstable, heavily populated region east of Suez and west of Xinjiang three potentially larger geopolitical dilemmas:  the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in nuclear-armed Pakistan, the possibility of a direct conflict with Iran, and the probability  that a US failure to promote an equitable Israeli-Palestinian peace accord will generate more intense popular hostility against America in the politically awakening Middle East.” (71)

The Consequences of American Weakness

If America becomes weak and unable to serve as a world force for peace and stability, Brzezinski believes serious and dangerous consequences will result.  First, he does not believe that China will be either capable or inclined to fill the vacuum left by America’s weakness.   He cites historical evidence as well as current pronouncements by Chinese agents that China usually a pursues a foreign policy like Arkansas used to play football.  They would some times punt on first down, choosing to rely on the opponents’ fumbles and interceptions as a way of winning.  [my simile, not his]  China wants to develop domestic strength and forge alliances that are favorable for trade and commerce, but has little interest in building an empire, much less intervening in the conflicts between other nations.

Brzezinski identifies various alliances that involve China:  China, Japan and South Korea; China, India and Pakistan.  China is surrounded by potentially troublesome neighbors.  Japan stands between China and the Pacific ocean’s maritime opportunities.  Russia stands between China and Europe.  India stands between China and the Indian Ocean’s access to the Middle East.  It is in China’s interest to maintain working relationships with these nations, not to invite their enmity by pursuing aggressive imperial policies.

Brzezinski is less optimistic about Russia.   If America is perceived to be weak, he thinks the Russians may decide to re-assemble the USSR empire.   For example, he thinks Georgia, Belarus and Ukraine could become enticing targets . He clearly has limited confidence that  wisdom or restraint will characterize Russian foreign policy.  He fears that the still smoldering resentment of the Cold War’s outcome will motivate Russia to take full advantage of a weakened US.

He thinks that, without the threat of US intervention, North Korea would threaten South Korea, which would then face a choice of seeking protection from either China or Japan.  He suspects that, without support from the US, Japan would hesitate to respond and, if China intervened, dangerous war could break out.

In the Middle East, he predicts that any evidence of American weakness would lead to rapid and dramatic reactions.  Here is his description of that reaction:  “Just thirty-five years ago, the United States benefited from strong relationships with the four most important countries in the Middle East: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey.  As a result, American interests in the region were secure.  Today, American influence with each of these four states is largely reduced.  America and Iran are locked in a hostile relationship; Saudi Arabia is critical of America’s evolving regional policy; Turkey is disappointed by the lack of American understanding for its regional ambitions; and Egypt’s rising skepticism regarding its relationship with Israel is setting it at odds with America’s priorities.  In brief, the US position in the Middle East is manifestly deteriorating.  An American decline would end it.”

Brzezinski’s analysis preceded the recent election in Egypt.  The few reports I have read indicate that a kind of  tension continues between the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, groups still supportive of the deposed Mubarak regime  and groups of Egyptians who favor tolerance and democracy, rather than any form of Muslim fundamentalism.  The two winners of the recent election were a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s former Prime Minister.  This result has outraged a significant part of Egypt’s population and large demonstrations have resumed in Tahrir Square.   The ultimate outcome is in doubt but,  regardless of the outcome, Brzezinski’s fears seem justified:  That perceived American weakness would increase the likelihood of instability and disorder and possibly a war that would involve the U.S..

Mexico Rising

Some of the most interesting speculations in the book regard Mexico.  Brzezinski believes that if the US becomes too weak to act as a world power, Mexico may decide to undo the loss of its territory in the 19th century, in the same way that Russia still cherishes a dream of rebuilding its empire.  He does not think the impetus for this kind of development would come from Mexico.  He expects that, as the US declines economically, the anti-immigrant forces will gather strength and they will focus on Mexico and on Mexican immigrants in the US.  If this leads to excessive measures and hostility, pressure will build in Mexico for some kind of response,  and those leading that effort will naturally use the events of the 1800’s and early 1900’s , when Vera Cruz was shelled, Mexico City invaded and Mexican territory was annexed to stoke the fires.  Brzezinski believes that scenario is, if not likely, at least a possibility.

The Commons

Brzezinski identifies the oceans, outer space and cyberspace is an area occupied in common by all nations.   In each, however, he states that the U.S. plays a vital role.  If, because of domestic economic problems or because its government continues to be disfunctional, the U.S. can no longer fill this role, he has little confidence that either of the other major powers, China, Russia, Brazil or India can or will do so.

One result would be, according to Brzezinski, that nuclear proliferation would resume.  The nuclear umbrella offered by the U.S. to other nations, as an inducement for their willingness to do without nuclear weapons would no longer be trusted.  The risk of nuclear war would correspondingly be increased.

He also  thinks competition for access to water and other resources would be more likely to result in dangerous conflicts if the U.S. role as a mediator and conciliator disappears.

Conflict With Iran  

Brzezinski believes that a U.S. war with Iran is both unwise and unnecessary.  He argues that it would destroy the moderate forces in Iran and fuse the population into unified hostility toward the U.S. and other Western nations who join in the conflict.  He argues that the U.S. should resist Israel’s demands for military action and, instead, contain Iran the same way the USSR was contained during the Cold War.

One can only hope that this analysis is faulty, because, in a nationally televised speech to a Jewish organization, President Obama specifically disclaimed any intention to contain Iran.  His statement was roundly applauded by the audience and it left little “wiggle room” for anything short of war if Iran comes closed to obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Shifting Power Centers 

Brzezinski’s world view projects a progressive shift of power from West to East.  He does not believe the U.S. and the EU can prevent it, but he argues that the U.S.  can maintain its status as a world power by accommodating its policies to the shift.  He thinks Russia and Turkey are a couple of the keys to this accommodation.

He sees Turkey as a bridge between Russia and the Western European industrial complex.  He thinks the U.S. should encourage the integration of Turkey into that complex as a way of facilitating the focus of Russian policy on becoming more involved in it.

While,  as stated earlier, Brzezinski expects Russia to be a potential trouble maker if the U.S. becomes too weak to oppose its expansionist dreams, he also believes that if Russia can be induced to regard itself as part of Europe and to allow changes in its culture and government environment that become more like Western European democracies, that will strengthen the western economy and serve the interests of the United States.

Brzezinski’s core strategy for the next quarter century is to build a stronger Western economy and let that serve as a balance to, and a limit on the power shift toward the eastern economic strength of China, India, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia.

Brzezinski writes:  “. . . to respond effectively in both the western and eastern parts of Eurasia, America must adopt a dual role.  It must be the promoter and guarantor of greater and broader unity in the West, and it must the balancer and conciliator between the major powers in the East.  Both roles are essential and each is needed to reinforce the other.  But to have the credibility and the capacity to pursue both successfully , America needs to show the world that it has the will to renovate itself at home.” (185)  He believes that  Europe’s gradual embrace of Turkey and “a truly democratizing Russia” will be essential.

He also believes that preserving and strengthening the European Union will be essential to accomplishing these goals.  If he is correct, the current threats to the long term viability of the EU take on added significance.  He warns that if European unity fails, Russia will probably try to exploit its energy resources to make alliances with Germany or Italy or both.  Britain and France would respond by becoming closer and both would seek closer ties to the U.S. as a defense against Russia.  The net effect will be to weaken Europe and the West as a counterbalance to the China and India in the East.  This would encourage Russia to try to absorb Ukraine and try to rebuild the Soviet empire.

In the east, Brzezinski writes that the U.S. should pursue the “balance of power” policies that Britain followed with respect to European powers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  He writes that the U.S. should never allow itself to be drawn into a military effort in the East, but it should ally itself with Japan, its closest ally there, while maintaining a cordial relationship with India as well as commercial arrangements with China.

So far as concerns India, Brzezinski warns that formal alliances with India will be perceived by the Muslim world as supporting India’s ongoing conflict with Pakistan and, thus escalate the already troublesome hostility of that population, engendered by the ill advised invasion of Iraq and U.S. strong support of Israel.  He thinks our relationship should be “cordial”, but not so close that it would imply any promise of support against either China or Pakistan.

Final Thoughts 

This is a book packed with information and written by a man with an impressive grasp of both current and historical world politics.  There is ample evidence that Brzezinski is a Cold Warrior who never really demobilized.  He recognizes that integrating Russia into the Western community of industrial nations is (his word) essential to a strong response to what he views as the inevitable shift of  power to China, India and other eastern industrial nations.  At the same time, he views Russia as a country governed by the same kind of communist elites that waged the Cold War.  He observes that the ashes of Nikolai Lenin and Joseph Stalin are located in honored crypts in the Kremlin.  He asks a pertinent question:   What would we conclude if Hitler’s tomb was an honored feature of Berlin’s tourist attractions?  Or if Mussolini’s death site was similarly featured in Rome?

He is suspicious of Russia and expects that a weak America will awaken a dormant  urge to make trouble.   He is hopeful that cultural changes inside Russia, combined with helpful encouragement from Turkey, will cause democracy to finally triumph in Russia, but I definitely get the impression that is, to him, a long shot.

Also, while he is not (as Jimmy Carter, whom he served as an adviser, has been called) an anti-Semite, he plainly sees protection of Israel through the prism of America’s interest in maintaining a successful and strong presence in the Middle East.  He counsels strongly against war with Iran and views the aggressive policies of Sharon as having been a mistake.

For me, this was an interesting and informative book.  It did not leave me with warm fuzzy hopes for the future of my children and grandchildren.


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