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 in years to come 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 necessarily in vogue.

During the administrations of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, American foreign policy often served the country’s values instead of its interests. Left-wing internationalists in the 1990s and right-wing neoconservatives in the first decade of this century refused to see that there could a tension between the two. The saddest failure of this tendency in strategic thinking, or lack thereof, was the war in Iraq 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 interventions of this kind. Rather he lists all the repercussions of the war — how it divided the West, tainted America’s image in the world, weakened its position in the Middle East — and seems to say, “this didn’t work,” without explaining why. Which is particularly unfortunate because Brzezinski laments the lack of strategic, well, vision on the part of American policymakers and the American public, both of whom are too susceptible to moralistic notions in foreign policy for his liking. If he’d truly wanted to remedy the lack of a realist perspective in American foreign policy thinking, he should have challenged the notion that the United States have any moral obligations to promote democracy and freedom abroad. He doesn’t.

Without such an ethical basis, Brzezinski’s vision seems too calculating. He shrinks 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 morally right therefore still exists in this book.

The more astute reader, who doesn’t need a philosophy lesson, is similarly let down for Brzezinski spend an awful lot of pages giving background information that every student of Western history should be familiar with. His central argument — while the United States “pivot” to Asia, they cannot abandon Europe, rather should strengthen the “West” in the very interest of their Pacific endeavor — could well have been made in an article for Foreign Affairs magazine.

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 culturally, economically and politically. If these powers share a “Western” experience, the world that America has built since the Second World War can survive. It just didn’t have to take two hundred pages to explain why.