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Brzezinski: Second Chance
Book review of Zbigniew Brzezinski: Second Chance. Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower. Basic Books, 2007, 234 p. Get the book from,,,
Book review added on October 8, 2007; last update and enlargement on October 10, 2007 at 18.00 Swiss time.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, formerly President Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser, is a counselor and trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor of American foreign policy at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

In his latest book, Second Chance, Zbigniew Brzezinski analysis the foreign policy of the American presidents George H. W. Bush, William J. Clinton and George W. Bush. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the end of the Cold War, they were the first presidents able to act as global leaders - “without any official international blessing”, Brzezinski adds.

The subtitle Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower indicates what Brzezinski thinks of the work of his three fellow citizens: they wasted the opportunity  and squandered prestige.

George H. W. Bush

According to Brzezinski, George H. W. Bush was “the most experienced and diplomatically skillful” of the three global leaders, but he was “not guided by any bold vision”. He
 “sought to pursue a traditional policy in an nontraditional environment”. He was  “not a visionary but a skilled practitioner of power politics and a traditional diplomacy in an untraditional age. Lacking a historical imagination, he appropriated Gorbachev's slogan [of a new world order] but never seriously sought to implement it.” George H. W. Bush was “the policeman, relying on power and legitimacy to preserve traditional stability”.

According to Brzezinski, Bush senior responded with
 “with impressive diplomatic skill and military resolve” to the dismantling of the Soviet empire and to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.  “But he did not translate either triumph into an enduring historic success. America's unique political influence and moral legitimacy were not strategically applied to either transform Russia or pacify the Middle East”.

George H. W. Bush and his administration did not want a repetition of the crisis in Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, where
 “initial liberalization produced a retrogressive Soviet reaction”. The Bush team also wanted to  “prevent Gorbachev from exploiting his unprecedented call for new forms of global cooperation to sow a division within the Atlantic community”.

Brzezinski describes the reunification of Germany and its continued NATO membership as Bush's finest hour, not only in dealing with the Soviet Union. It also involved reassuring France and Britain that the reunification would not threaten their interests and for Germany to recognize the Oder-Neisse frontier. Bush managed to avoid Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan emerging as nuclear powers, a process completed in 1996 under Clinton.

The Bush team was concerned regarding the consequences of an eventual collapse of the political center in Moscow. James Baker even urged that the United States
 “do what we can to strengthen the center”. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was   “the lone dissenter flatly favoring the breakup of the Soviet Union”.

Brzezinski stresses that during Yeltsin's chaotic government Russian society was
 “plunging into unprecedented poverty” [a big claim].  “By 1992 economic conditions were comparable to those of the Great Depression”. Brzezinski justly mentions  “the presence of a swarm of Western, largely American, economic <consultants> who too often conspired with Russian <reformers> in rapid self-enrichment while <privatizing> Russian industrial and especially energy assets”.

The Bush Administration reacted cautiously to the 1989 protests in China that culminated in the massacre on Tiananmen Square. To the Chinese liberalizers, even within the Communist party, the Bush team's rhetoric signaled indifference to their cause.

In Iraq, Bush senior argued that ousting Saddam Hussein would have required storming Baghdad, which could have split the coalition and alienated its Arab participants. Brzezinski correctly argues that
 “a determined attempt to turn the shocked and demoralized Iraqi military leadership against Saddam might have worked.” Brzezinski should have gone further and insist that it was immoral to defeat a dictator and then leave him in office. Brzezinski concludes that the victory in Iraq was  “not exploited strategically, either in Iraq or in the region as a whole”.

Brzezinski concludes that
 “Bush's unconsummated success in Iraq became the original sin of his legacy: the inconclusive but increasingly resented and self-damaging American involvement in the Middle East”. The U.S. were increasingly perceived as pro-Israel,  “engaging in delaying tactics that facilitated the expansion of the [Israeli] settlements.

George H. W. Bush's
 “greatest shortcoming was not in what he did but in what he did not do.” Brzezinski asserts that Bush senior should have come up with a  “global architecture innovation like the one that followed World War II [...] involving Russia, China, and other emerging powers”. However, it remains very unclear whether Russia, China, India and other powers were ready for such a bold new order.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton was “the brightest and most futuristic” of the three global leaders, “but he lacked strategic consistency in the use of American power”. Clinton had an optimistic view of globalization, of an increasingly interdependent world progressing through multilateral cooperation. Clinton
 “embraced a mythologized version of globalization in charge of mankind's destiny”.

Brzezinski's chapter dedicated to Clinton is entitled
 “The Impotence of Good intentions (and the Price of Self-Indulgence)”.  For Clinton, foreign policy was  “largely an extension of domestic politics”. Domestic renewal became the central theme of Clinton's first term. Globalization  “provided a convenient formula for melding the domestic and the foreign into a single, seemingly coherent theme while freeing him of the obligation to define and pursue a disciplined foreign policy strategy.” In a speech in the Russian Duma in 2000 Clinton said that the world's  “defining feature is globalization”.

During Clinton's second term, the secretary of state Madeleine Albright was
 “strongly committed to the expansion of NATO and infused a more sharply defined sense of geopolitical direction into NSC deliberations, with emphasis on Europe.” Bill Cohen, a former Republican senator, infused “a degree of bipartisanship into defense and national security issues.”

George H. W. Bush's management style was top-down, whereas under Clinton it “violated most rules of orderly process and defied easy characterization”. Brzezinski describes it as “kaffeeklatsch”. Even during Clinton's second term, there was no dominant voice regarding foreign policy. Lobbies became increasingly important, e.g. pressing Congress for sanctions.

North Korea's nuclear ambitions broke into the open only weeks before Clinton's first inauguration. The United States and North Korea engaged in years of “frutiless debates”. In 1996, the Clinton administration thought about a preemptive strike on North Korea's nuclear facilities, but instead decided to impose limited economic sanctions. Brzezinski concludes that:
“First, at no point was North Korea confronted with the prospect that the cost of its determination to acquire nuclear weapons might outweigh the benefit of acquiring them. Second, U.S. hesitations made it possible for Pyongyang to exploit South Korea's growing desire for reconciliation [...]. Third and most important, [...] by 2001 U.S. officials concluded that it had surreptitiously produced several [nuclear weapons].”

U.S. opposition to the Indian and Pakistani nuclear ambitions
 “showed a similar pattern of futility ”, although Brzezinski concedes that here the United States  “enjoyed even less leverage”. The French and, shortly afterwards, Chinese nuclear tests were not helpful either.

In 1993, Yeltsin responded positively to the desire of the Polish President Lech Walesa to join NATO. Clinton's advisers urged caution. The following year, the Russian position shifted to open opposition and by late 1994 Clinton had to reassure Yeltsin that there will be no surprises, no rush and no exclusion of Russia.

On the eve of the 1996 presidential election, Clinton was in favor of both a stronger relationship with Russia and an enlargement of NATO. After the re-election, the new secretary of state, “the more dynamic and politically well-connected Madeleine Albright”, a friend and former associate of Brzezinski, was personally committed to the enlargement of NATO.

Clinton helped establish the World Trade Organization on January 1, 1995. China was integrated in this new world economic order in 2001. Already in 1994, Clinton extended the most favored nation status to China, arguing that, in the long run, China would accept international rules.

Damaging Clinton's reputation was the fact that he signed the treaty for the new International Criminal Court, but did not submit it for ratification. It would have made U.S. military personnel subject to international prosecution for war crimes. Even more damaging for Clinton's reputation as as visionary leader was his failure to have the U.S. accept the Kyoto Protocol. Brzezinski reminds his readers that the U.S. Senate approved by a 95 to 0 vote a resolution opposing the protocol on the grounds that it was neither practical nor fair. Vice-President Gore signed the protocol in late 1998, but Clinton let the issue drift. Brzezinski argues that Clinton was “correctly gauging the public mood”, but he forgets to write that Clinton and Gore never came up with an alternative solution.

Brzezinski concludes that by the end of the Clinton era, “the hopeful agenda of his presidency was much in doubt. Only the expansion and consolidation of the Atlantic community stood out as a lasting strategic achievement.”

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in Iraq, regarding the issue of terrorism as well as in Somalia and Rwanda Clinton was reluctant to involve the U.S. Only Madeleine Albright forcibly intervened in Ex-Yugoslavia, confronting Serbia with the choice to leave Kosovo or be forcibly expelled.

The 1998 financial crisis in Russia shifted “the Russian psyche toward self-sufficient economic nationalism and the discrediting of the Yeltsin regime”. On the Russo-Chechen war, “Clinton chose to remain indifferent, even comparing the war to the American Civil War, and Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln”.

However, Clinton deserves credit for an oil pipeline built from Azerbaijan to Western Europe bypassing Russia. Clinton's most disappointing legacy, according to Brzezinski, is his failure to exploit the opportunities for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. “[T]he disappointing outcome was widely perceived in America as a Palestinian rejection of a joint American-Israeli peace effort.”

During those Clinton years, “the issue of Iraq lingered on”, with the Clinton administration periodically ordering limited air strikes against Saddam Hussein's military assets. In 1998, Clinton received a public plea to intervene in Iraq. About two-thirds of the signers of the plea for a preemptive strike against Saddam before he possibly acquired weapons of mass destruction [in fact, Saddam had acquired and used some in the past] became officials in the administration of George W. Bush.

After the failed effort to blow up the World Trade Center in New York in 1993, the Clinton administration bombed al Qaeda's alleged base of operations in Sudan and later sites in Afghanistan, “by then firmly in the hands of the Taliban and offering shelter to al Qaeda.” Brzezinski could not find signs of serious efforts by the Clinton administration “to formulate a comprehensive preemptive strategy.”

Brzezinski writes that although Clinton was admired and liked, “with a personal appeal comparable to that of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy”, he did not exploit it to shape America's newly acquired global leadership. “He had the intellect and the personality to do so. But his casual and politically opportunistic style of decision making was not conductive to strategic clarity, and his faith in the historical determinism of globalization made such a strategy seem unnecessary”.

Due to his “complacent determinism, personal shortcoming, and rising domestic political obstacles”, Clinton bequeathed “an inconclusive and vulnerable legacy” to his “doctrinally antithetical successor”.

George W. Bush

George W. Bush “has strong gut instincts but no knowledge of global complexities and a temperament prone to dogmatic formulations”. Bush junior
 “pursued a militant commitment to prevail in a world dogmatically conceived as polarized between good and evil”.

Brzezinski entitled his chapter on Bush junior “Catastrophic Leadership (and the Politics of Fear).” According to the author, Condoleezza Rice, Lewis Libby (the vice president's chief of staff) and Paul Wolfowitz (Deputy Defense Secretary) were to three key sources of inspiration for President George W. Bush.

Rice had tutored Bush on foreign affairs during his electoral campaign, establishing a personal bond between them. According to Brzezinski, Rice “leaned toward a categorical perception of international complexities, congenial to the new president's proclivity for moralistic dichotomies and reinforcing (as well as justifying) his penchant for reductive rhetoric about good and evil.”

Brzezinski concedes however that Rice was “less effective in coordinating the decision-making system because both the secretary of state and the secretary of defense were more senior and not inclined to defer to her.” Furthermore, Cheney together with Libby created his own little National Security Council, cutting into Rice's territory.

Bush and his leaders within the administration were obsessed with Iraq, which overshadowed all other foreign policy issues for several years. “Most importantly,” Brzezinski notes, “the [Iraq] war has discredited America's global leadership”. The loss of soft power reduces hard power. The secretary of defense and his deputy should have been held accountable for the brutalities in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Brzezinski describers the war in Iraq as a “geopolitical disaster”, because it has “diverted resources and attention from the terrorist threat”. Therefore, the “initial successes in Afghanistan were followed by a resurgence of the Taliban, creating new havens for al Qaeda.” Furthermore, Brzezinski observes a similar development in Somalia as well as a lack of stability in Pakistan. Brzezinski deplores the death toll among Americans and Iraqis as well as the exorbitant cost of the war.

Anti-American sentiments have risen because of the Iraq war and the terrorist threat to the United States has increased, writes Brzezinski.

According to Brzezinski, “when democracy is rapidly imposed in traditional societies not exposed to the progressive expansion of civil rights and the gradual emergence of the rule of law, it is  likely to precipitate intensified conflict, with mutually intolerant extremes colliding in violence.” The author asserts that Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that is exactly what “short-sighted American efforts to promote democracy have yielded”.

Brzezinski describes the possibility of America's competitors taking advantage of the situation, e.g. China and Russia collaborating on a number of international issues as well as oil producers tempted to gravitate towards China.

The only good outcome of the war in Iraq may be that it has become the “cemetery of neocon dreams”, otherwise “America by now might be at war with Syria and Iran”, driven more “by Manichaean notions and dubious motivations” rather than by the “sober definition of its national interest”, Brzezinski concludes.

The author asserts that Clinton's “geopolitically inconclusive but sympathetic partiality toward Israel gave way to overt identification with the Israeli approach, namely, to favor one-sided <accomplished facts> as the basis for eventual resolution.” It included the removal of Yasser Arafat from the political scene, U.S. indifference to the continued expansion of the settlements on the West Bank, the preemptive use of force through targeted assassinations, etc.

Brzezinski deplores that under George W. Bush U.S. policy toward the Middle East “became strategically self-defeating” because it ignored that, “left to themselves, the Israelis and the Palestinians could never resolve their differences” as well as that Israel “could never impose a durable settlement by force alone.”

The United States becoming a partisan of Israel had “the paradoxical effect of reducing U.S. ability to either decisively influence events (i.e. achieve peace) or enhance Israel's long-term security.”

Including Iran in the “axis of evil” led Iran to pursue a nuclear program. Brzezinski notes that, in late 2001, the later Iranian-American antagonism was “preceded by surprisingly helpful Iranian efforts to consolidate the government in Afghanistan after the United States removed the Taliban regime from power.” In other words, “[the] net effect of a policy (or rather a stance) on ostracism was to strengthen the fundamentalist elements in the Iranian regime”.

Brzezinski has hard word for George W. Bush and his then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice regarding U.S. policy towards Russia and China. In the case of Russia, the author reminds the readers of Bush's mid-2001 meeting with Putin. After 90 minutes - “half of that time consumed by official translations” - Bush concluded that he had looked the man in the eye and had been able to get a sense of his soul. Not history, geopolitics or shared values, but the personal relationship mattered, like the one between Clinton and Yeltsin, Brzezinski notes. “Putin's authoritarian restoration did not alter Bush's assessment of him.”

Of even graver concern for Brzezinski is “the growing strategic closeness of Russia and China, which neither Bush nor Secretary [of State] Rice seem to have noticed”. The author refers to North Korea, Iran, the Middle East and Central Asia as a whole.

The U.S. showed China the cold shoulder and instead “decided to forge a U.S.-Indian strategic partnership”. Brzezinski omits to outline that India is a democracy, as imperfect as it may be, continuing its path of (still imperfect) economic reforms whereas China is a pseudo-Communist dictatorship - where there is no rule of law - engaged on a path of economic reforms. Brzezinski insists that the increase of India's nuclear arsenal “could only increase the pressure on Beijing to abandon its strategic self-restraint” and the U.S. position “undoubtedly lessened Beijing's inclination to do America's bidding with regard to North Korea and Iran”. He also recalls the Bush administration's diplomatic blunders during President's Hu's trip to Washington in 2006 (playing the Taiwanese instead of the Chinese national anthem, refusing to hold a state dinner for Hu, etc.). However, Brzezinski forgets to add that China is part of many problems, from having its workforce exploited by Chinese and foreign capitalists (and that by a Communist regime), to Taiwan (the example of a democratic state with an ethnic Chinese population), Tibet, Darfur, North Korea, Burma...

At the end of the chapter, Brzezinski insists that American presidents “strove to project calm determination and inspire public confidence” and situations much more dangerous than today. At the height of the Cold War, a nuclear war “could have killed more than 150 million people in a few hours”. Brzezinski justly condemns George W. Bush's “politics of fear”, calling himself a “wartime president”.

Brzezinski concludes that President George W. Bush “dangerously undermined America's geopolitical position”, pursuing a policy “based on the delusion that <we are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality>”. For Brzezinski, it will take “a monumental effort to restore America's legitimacy as the major guarantor of global security [...].”

I contest the last assertion. It is not wishful that America alone takes care of global security. The U.S. should act together with the EU, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Canada, Australia and other democracies. Only if we are united, we can have an impact not only in Darfur, Burma, North Korea and similar hotspots, but also in Russia and China. In fact, in the final chapter “Beyond 2008”, Brzezinski writes that “American and Europe together could be the decisive force for good in the world”.

Brzezinski states that George W. Bush was “the vigilante, mobilizing domestic fears to pursue a self-declared existential struggle against the forces of evil”.

Beyond 2008 and conclusion

Unfortunately, in his outlook beyond 2008, Zbigniew Brzezinski does not give concrete advice or suggestions how to resolve the disastrous situation in Iraq, how to deal with North Korea and Communist China or what to do in Darfur, to mention just a few unresolved problems.

Furthermore, a more detailed discussion of several American interventions, non-interventions and strategies in the face of crisis (e.g. in Rwanda and Somalia) would have been useful. Instead, the reader gets some sharp formulas, which sum up Brzezinski's views on several topics.

Brzezinski deplores “the absence of any institutionalized mechanism engaging both the executive and the legislative branches in global planning [...]” as well as the growing impact of lobbies on foreign policy. He asks for stricter lobby laws, the “lobbies should be subject to closer scrutiny and their financial influence to more detailed public accountability.”

Brzezinski writes that each president tapped “the instincts of the American people, whose reactions magnified each leader's strength's and weaknesses.” For the author, “no other power is capable of playing the role that America potentially can and should play” Again, he also insists that “American and Europe together could be the decisive force for good in the world”.

The author insists that “the Western allies never made it clear to Moscow that it risked isolation if it chose to reestablish authoritarianism at home and engage in neoimperialist tactics toward Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia, not to mention the tragic case of Chechnya”.

The persisting Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “intensified by the war in Iraq, poses the long-range risk of America's eventual expulsion from the region”, of which China could profit.

“India has yet to prove that it can sustain unity and democracy if its religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity becomes politically charged.”

For Brzezinski, it remains “unclear how China will resolve the basic contradiction between its freewheeling economic momentum and the bureaucratic centralism of its political system” [that's an euphemism for the political system]. A rearming Japan integrated in NATO would be less a threat to China than a freewheeling Japan. China should be more integrated into international institutions and undertakings.

America has to overcome its indifference to global ecology - what if the Chinese and Indians consumed as much energy per capita as Americans - and must be socially attractive. Since the publication of his book Out of Control in 1995, most of the social shortcoming he listed then have not been overcome, on the contrary.

Due to TV, radio and the internet, there is a social awakening in the Third World, where the population is conscience of the social injustice, Brzezinski writes, without stressing that this is essentially due to incompetent and corrupt Third World leaders not ready for democracy and the free market. The emergence of the Third World shifts the world's power gravity; no single power will be able to dominate the world in the future. An anti-American alliance led by China, India and Russia could emerge.

Brzezinski believes in a second chance for the United States, but he warns his readers that there will be no third chance. - Overall, Second Chance is a non-partisan, critical but fair look an American foreign policy since the collapse of the Communist bloc.

Zbigniew Brzezinski: Second Chance. Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower. Basic Books, 2007, 234 p. Get the book from,,,

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Zbigniew Brzezinski: Second Chance. Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower. Basic Books, 2007, 234 p. Get the book from,,,

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 ©  Louis Gerber All rights reserved.