‘Strategic Vision,’ by Zbigniew Brzezinski
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Published: January 29, 2012
America and the Crisis of Global Power, By Zbigniew Brzezinski, Illustrated. 208 pages. Basic Books.
The 2008 crash and America and Europe’s continuing economic woes; the rise of China and worries about the decline of the West; and technology-fueled uprisings around the world from the Arab Spring protests to anti-Putin demonstrations in Russia — such developments underscore just how prescient Zbigniew Brzezinski has been in his earlier writings.
In the early 1990s, when some scholars were arguing that the end of the cold war and the implosion of the Soviet Union signified the advent of a new era in which liberal democracy would triumph around the planet, Mr. Brzezinski was warning about the forces of upheaval rumbling through the developing world and the weaknesses of the West that could undermine its global clout.
In his 1993 book “Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the 21st Century” Mr. Brzezinski argued that the acceleration of communication made possible by technology set contemporary history apart from the past, that China was more likely than Russia to assume a leadership role on the world stage, and that America’s emphasis on “material wealth, on consumption and on the propagation of self-indulgence as the definition of the good life” could endanger its pre-eminence as a global power.
Now, in his provocative new book, “Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power,” Mr. Brzezinski — the national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter — surveys the current state of world affairs. He provides a clear-eyed, sharp-tongued assessment of this hinge moment in time, when the world’s center of gravity is shifting “from the West to the East.”
This situation has come about, he says, because of America’s economic and political problems at home (including a growing and “eventually unsustainable national debt,” faltering public education and an increasingly gridlocked and highly partisan political process), misguided foreign policy decisions (most notably George W. Bush’s determination to wage an unnecessary and costly war in Iraq) and the growing mastery, by potential rivals, of “21st-century modernity.”
Certainly some of these observations will be familiar to readers of recent books by Bill Clinton (“Back to Work”) and Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum (“That Used to Be Us”), but Mr. Brzezinski does a cogent job here of situating America’s relationships with other countries in a geopolitical and historical context. And he uses his expertise in these areas to draw a harrowing portrait of what the world might look like without a re-energized and strategic-minded United States on the global stage.
In the 1990s the United States had become the “first truly global superpower”; since then, he says, there has been a global dispersal of power, with a weakened European Union, along with Russia, China, India and Japan all maneuvering for position. This dispersal of power, he goes on, is magnified by “the emergence of a volatile phenomenon: the worldwide political awakening of populations until recently politically passive or repressed.” He adds: “Occurring recently in Central and Eastern Europe and lately in the Arab world, this awakening is the cumulative product of an interactive and interdependent world connected by instant visual communications and of the demographic youth bulge in the less advanced societies composed of the easy-to-mobilize and politically restless university students and the socially deprived unemployed.”
In such an increasingly unstable world, Mr. Brzezinski suggests, the United States remains, in the words of the former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, the “indispensable nation.” Though no longer a hegemonic colossus, America remains essential, in his view, to promoting “a larger and more vital West” (embracing “perhaps in varying ways, both Turkey and a truly democratizing Russia”) while at the same time playing the “role of balancer and conciliator” in Asia. There it ought to engage China “in a serious dialogue regarding regional stability” to reduce the possibility not only of American-Chinese conflicts but also of miscalculations between China and Japan, or China and India, or China and Russia.
Mr. Brzezinski notes that President Obama has “failed to speak directly to the American people about America’s changing role in the world, its implications, and its demands,” but this book curiously lacks any detailed analysis of Mr. Obama’s policies so far — nothing remotely approaching the acute assessments of Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush contained in this author’s 2007 book, “Second Chance,” which charted the opportunities he considers missed at the end of the cold war (like using the victory in the first Gulf war strategically to press for an Israeli-Palestinian accord).
Also missing from this book are any substantive discussions of how the United States might overcome “its staggering domestic challenges and reorient its drifting foreign policy” and how the current European debt crisis might affect the United States and the future fortunes of the West.
What Mr. Brzezinski does do here — lucidly, and for the most part with great persuasiveness — is explore the consequences that a steady slide by America into impotence and irrelevance might have on the rest of the world. Such a development, he argues, would probably not result in the “ ‘coronation’ of an effective global successor” like China, but would likely lead to a “protracted phase of rather inconclusive and somewhat chaotic realignments of both global and regional power, with no grand winners and many more losers.”
An America “in serious decline for domestic and/or external reasons,” he says, would lead to a breakdown in the ability of the international system to prevent conflict once it became evident that “America is unwilling or unable to protect states it once considered, for national interest and/ or doctrinal reasons, worthy of its engagement.” As he sees it, a more Darwinian world of tumbling dominoes would most likely result: there would be little to prohibit regional powers (like Russia) from exerting claims on neighbors falling within traditional or claimed spheres of influence (like Georgia, Belarus and Ukraine). Taiwan would become increasingly vulnerable, and so too would Israel.
In the case of Afghanistan, Mr. Brzezinski says, a failure to sustain United States-sponsored international involvement in the region could turn that country into a haven again for international terrorism, while a decline in American power and aid could lead to a worst-case outcome in which Pakistan devolved into “some variation of nuclear warlordism” or became “a militant-Islamic and anti-Western government similar to Iran.”
For that matter, Mr. Brzezinski suggests, a weakened America would increase the dangers of nuclear proliferation around the world. Were doubts to be raised about the United States’ nuclear umbrella, he says, countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Turkey and Israel would have to seek security elsewhere — that elsewhere meaning “nuclear weapons of one’s own or from the extended deterrence of another power — most likely Russia, China or India.”
Global environmental issues — including climate change and growing water shortages — would be similarly affected. In a gloomy conclusion to this insightful book Mr. Brzezinski writes that without a revitalized America helping to manage the international commons, “progress on the issues of central importance to social well-being and ultimately to human survival would stall.”