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
“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
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]
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 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
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”. Om 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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
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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