Brzezinski’s Strategic Vision Rather Short on Vision

Former president Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor disappoints with his latest book.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power (2012)
Zbigniew Brzezinski, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power (2012)

In Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, Zbigniew Brzezinski promises to map out a broad vision for American foreign policy, but his recommendations aren’t particularly visionary, nor is his vision particularly compelling.

Since Brzezinski served as President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor in the late 1970s, he has been among the United States’ leading foreign-policy thinkers, even when his realist views weren’t always in vogue.

During the administrations of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, America’s foreign policy more often served its values than its interests. Left-wing internationalists in the 1990s and right-wing neoconservatives in the early 2000s refused to recognize a tension between the two. The saddest failure of this tendency in strategic thinking — or lack thereof — was the Iraq War, which not only ruptured sectarian relations across the Middle East but emboldened America’s nemesis, Iran.

Brzezinski, who opposed the most recent expedition in Iraq from the start, cautions against ever pursuing a similar adventure in his latest book. But he falls short of making the necessary philosophical case against interventionism altogether. Rather, he lists all the repercussions of the war — how it divided the West, tainted America’s image around the world, weakened its position in the Middle East — to say, “this didn’t work,” without explaining why.

Which is especially unfortunate because Brzezinski laments the lack of strategic, well, vision on the part of American policymakers as well as the American public, both of whom are too susceptible to moralistic notions in foreign policy. If he wanted to remedy the lack of a realist perspective in American foreign policy, he should have challenged the notion that the United States have a moral obligation to promote democracy and freedom abroad. He doesn’t.

Without such an ethical basis, Brzezinski’s vision seems too calculating. He shirks from explaining that states have a moral imperative to pursue their own interests even if it is the very premise of his realism. The artificial distinction between a foreign policy that is practical and one that is right remains.

The more astute reader, who doesn’t need a philosophy lesson, is similarly let down when Brzezinski spend an awful lot of pages giving background information that every student of Western history should be familiar with. His central argument — while America “pivots” to Asia, it cannot abandon Europe but should rather strengthen the “West” to support the Pacific operation — could have been made in the space of a Foreign Affairs essay.

Which is not to say his thesis isn’t worthwhile. It’s a welcome reminder of Europe’s relevance to American foreign policy, including Turkey’s, and why the United States should continue to deepen relations with Russia. If these powers share a “Western” experience, the world America has built since the end of the Second World War can survive. But you don’t need hundreds of pages to make that argument.

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