Donald Trump Ignores All of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Advice

Former American national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski speaks at an event of the Atlantic Council in Washington DC, April 29, 2014
Former American national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski speaks at an event of the Atlantic Council in Washington DC, April 29, 2014 (ImageLink Photography/Dennis Kan)

For almost a century, America’s strategic priority has been to prevent the emergence of a dominant power in Eurasia that could challenge it for world supremacy.

Halford Mackinder recognized as early as 1904 that a single power could lord over the continent if it controlled the entire Eurasian “Heartland”, stretching from Moscow to Tehran to Vladivostok.

Alfred Thayer Mahan and Nicholas Spykman argued it was rather control of the “Rimlands” on the edge of Eurasia that could tip the balance of power: Europe, the Middle East and East Asia.

Their ideas were not mutually exclusive. They both informed the United States’ successful policy of containment during the Cold War. To block Russian ambitions, America allied with democratic Europe, Turkey, the shah’s Iran and Japan. It exploited the Sino-Soviet split and armed the mujahideen in Afghanistan to hasten the Soviet Union’s demise.

Now Donald Trump is overturning this century-old wisdom. Read more

It’s Too Late to Turn Ukraine Into a Buffer State

The skyline of Kiev, Ukraine, January 15
The skyline of Kiev, Ukraine, January 15 (Sergey Galyonkin)

Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, scholars who associate with the realist school of international relations have suggested turning the country into a neutral buffer state between East and West. It’s probably too late for that.

John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, most recently made the case in The New York Times, arguing that Russia can never accept a Ukraine that is aligned to the West. Rather, “It should look like Austria during the Cold War” — culturally and economically Western but unaligned to either bloc.

Toward that end, the West should explicitly take European Union and NATO expansion off the table and emphasize that its goal is a nonaligned Ukraine that does not threaten Russia.

Former American national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski first suggested in the Financial Times last year that Ukraine should imitate Finland’s Cold War experience, meaning “mutually respectful neighbors with wide-ranging economic relations with Russia and the EU; no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself but expanding its European connectivity.”

One of Brzezinski’s predecessors, Henry Kissinger, agreed, writing in The Washington Post that Ukraine “should pursue a posture comparable to that of Finland.”

Kissinger recognized that Ukraine was a divided country: a largely Catholic and Ukrainian-speaking west favored integration with the rest of Europe while the largely Orthodox and Russian-speaking east preferred closer relations with Russia. Efforts by either side to impose their will on the other part of the country marked Ukraine’s post-independence politics. The West, he argued, should “seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction.”

Share of Ukraine's ethnic Russian population per region, according to the 2001 census.

But Russia’s meddling in Ukraine’s affairs has changed the situation profoundly. Since the majority of the Crimea’s residents voted in a referendum to join the Russian Federation last year, public opinion in the remainder of the country has turned decidedly against Russia. Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for parties that advocated European Union and even NATO membership in an election in October. The Ukrainians made clear they don’t want to be “Finlandized.”

If Kissinger still believes that “Ukraine should have the right to choose freely its economic and political associations, including with Europe,” he cannot hold at the same time that “Ukraine should not join NATO.”

Of course, it’s up to existing NATO member states to decide if they want to let Ukraine into their alliance and doing so now would be problematic. What matters in this context is that by far most Ukrainians want to become part of the West in a broader sense, having witnessed, once again, that the alternative is subjugation to Russia.

Russia cannot allow a neutral Ukraine slowly tilting toward the West, like Austria and Finland did, for the very reasons Mearsheimer, Brzezinski and Kissinger pointed out: It regards Ukraine as vital to its national security. Russia must dominate Ukraine to defend its heartland against an imagined Western threat and in order to project power into the Black Sea and beyond. Having a nation of forty million on its frontier nominally neutral but clearly more interested in joining the West than serving its interest — which is the result of its own actions — won’t do.

Improving Russian-Turkish Relations a Threat to the West

Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia meet in Moscow, July 18, 2012
Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia meet in Moscow, July 18, 2012 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Russian and Turkish leaders Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced on Monday they would expand energy relations between their two countries. Russian-Turkish relations remain problematic but the prospect of a partnership poses a strategic threat to the West.

Putin told a news conference in Ankara he would grant Turkey a 6 percent discount on its gas imports next year. He also announced the cancellation of the planned South Stream pipeline, which was meant to deliver Russian gas through a pipeline under the Black Sea into Europe, and said it would be diverted into Turkey instead.

Russia provides up to two-thirds of Turkey’s gas supplies. It is also helping Turkey build its first nuclear power plant.

Last year, Russia became Turkey’s second trading partner, after Germany. Total trade between the countries reached $32 billion in 2013.

Russia and Turkey do have considerable differences. Turkey advocates the overthrow of Russia’s Syrian ally, President Bashar al-Assad. It also opposed Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March and has expressed concerns about Russia’s treatment of area’s native Turkic Tatars.

Turkey is also a key European ally in the transfer of natural gas from the Caspian Sea region that bypasses Russia.

Improved Russian-Turkish relations pose a challenge to Europe beyond energy security, however. As NATO’s southeastern anchor, it acts as a check on Russian ambitions in the Black Sea. Since it controls the Dardanelles, it can prevent Russia from projecting power into the Mediterranean. It also enables pro-Western republics in the Caucasus — mainly Georgia and to a lesser extent Azerbaijan — to deepen their own relations with Europe.

A Russian-Turkish coalition, by contrast, would allow Russia to dominate both the Black Sea and the Caucasus region.

Former American national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski warned against such a possibility more than fifteen years ago in The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives (1997). “Turkey’s evolution and orientation are likely to be especially decisive for the future of the Caucasian states,” he predicted.

If Turkey sustains its path to Europe — and if Europe does not close its door to Turkey — the states of the Caucasus are also likely to gravitate into the European orbit, a prospect they fervently desire. But if Turkey’s Europeanization grinds to a halt, for either internal or external reasons, then Georgia and Armenia will have no choice but to adapt to Russia’s inclinations.

Turkey’s Europeanization has grind to a halt under Erdoğan’s Islamist leadership and European Union countries remain reluctant to admit a Muslim state of almost eighty million people that would be the second largest in the bloc.

Russia, on the other hand, facing recession as a result of falling oil prices and Western economic sanctions imposed after it invaded Ukraine, is anxious for new partners and seems determined to reassert itself in the Black Sea region. Since annexing the Crimea, it has supported a separatist insurgency in the southeast of Ukraine and strengthened security ties with the breakaway Georgian territory of Abkhazia.

Brzezinski Laments “Chaotic” American Policy in Syria

Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski appears on MSNBC's Morning Joe, June 14

Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski on Friday lamented the lack of a “strategic design” in Syria where the United States seem prepared to expand their support for opposition forces battling the regime of President Bashar Assad.

“It all seems to me rather sporadic, chaotic, unstructured, undirected,” Brzezinski said during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe television program a day after the administration had declared that chemical weapons were used in the Middle Eastern country’s civil war, crossing President Barack Obama’s “red line” and prompting America to start arming rebel fighters. Western diplomats said the United States were also considering to impose a no-fly zone over Syria, possibly from neighboring Jordan, an American ally.

Brzezinski pointed out the risks of deeper American involvement in the conflict which he believes is guided by “a lot of rhetoric, a lot of emotion, a lot of propaganda.”

The fact of the matter is that we are threatened by sliding into a sectarian civil war in which both sides are very brutal which can evolve into a larger regional war in which we will probably be pitted against Iran as an ally of Syria.

What began as a popular uprising against Assad’s secular dictatorship more than two years ago, inspired by similar revolts in neighboring Arab countries, has morphed into a sectarian conflict between the country’s majority Sunni Muslim population, that is backed by regional Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, and Assad’s minority Alawites, a Shiite tribe that is supported by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and its paymaster Iran. Assad is Iran’s only Arab ally.

Brzezinski, a foreign policy realist who was President Jimmy Carter’s chief advisor in the late 1970s, warned in July of last year that the West was “unintentionally recreating the Sino-Soviet bloc” by vilifying both countries’ stance in the Syrian crisis.

China and Russia repeatedly blocked United Nations Security Council resolutions that would have condemned Assad and could have cleared the way for international intervention.

“What motivates China and Russia is self-interest,” he told MSNBC in February. Neither power wants to sanction a repetition of Libya where, as they see it, NATO intervened in 2011 on the side of anti-government fighters not to protect civilians, as it was mandated to by the Security Council, rather to topple the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.

Intervention in Syria, Brzezinski predicted on Friday, “will affect the interest of Japan and of China,” which depend on oil imports from Iran that could be cut off if it is drawn into the war. “We should be building an international coalition to impose some sort of a solution,” he argued. “We should be seriously negotiating with the Chinese and the Russians.”

Russia, Assad’s only great power ally, has signaled an interest in diplomacy but not on the West’s condition that the Syrian president step down first.

Brzezinski’s Strategic Vision Rather Short on Vision

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. Read more

Brzezinski: West “Recreating Sino-Soviet Bloc” in Syria

Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski on the set of MSNBC's Morning Joe, January 24
Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski on the set of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, January 24 (MSNBC/Louis Burgdorf)

Former American national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski warned on Friday that the United States and their allies are “unintentionally recreating the Sino-Soviet bloc against” them by vilifying these countries’ stance in the Syrian crisis.

China and Russia on Thursday again used their veto power in the United Nations Security Council to block a resolution that threatened sanctions against the Ba’athist regime of Bashar al-Assad if it did not suspend its brutal suppression of a sectarian uprising in Syria. It was the third time that China and Russia vetoed a resolution from Western members that aimed to put pressure on Assad.

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin said that his government could not accept a resolution that open the path to “external military involvement in Syrian domestic affairs.”

Moscow abstained from a resolution that allowed member states to take “all necessary measures” to stop a similar crackdown in Libya last year. That document quickly paved the way for an Arab and NATO military intervention in the North Africa that deposed Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi. The Chinese and Russians would not like to see a repetition of foreign military action against a Middle Eastern dictator that is hostile to the West.

The mistake that Western allies made, said Brzezinski on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, was that they “rushed the gun. We announced in advance what the outcome must be. Assad must go.” That left no room for negotiation and forced them into a standoff with the Chinese and Russians who are opposed to the notion that states have a right or even responsibility to protect civilians in other countries by toppling their government.

Brzezinski argued that the United States should still seek an understanding with China and especially Russia, which is an ally of Assad’s, about the future of Syria. “But we are not going to do it if we abuse them in the UN.”

Britain’s ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said on Thursday that he was “appalled” by the Sino-Russian veto. “The consequence of their decision is obvious,” he added. “Further bloodshed and the likelihood of descent into all out civil war.”

Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters that history will judge the two vetoing members “harshly” and announced in the Security Council that instead of waiting for the United Nations to take action, the United States “will intensify [its] work with a diverse range of partners outside the Security Council to bring pressure to bear on the Assad regime and to deliver assistance to those in need.”

What the Western allies are achieving with this sort of language is that they’re “pushing the Russians and the Chinese together,” said Brzezinski, “and that’s not good in a larger sense.”

Brzezinski: Let’s Not Be “Emotional” About Syria

Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski appears on MSNBC' Morning Joe, May 30
Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski appears on MSNBC’ Morning Joe, May 30

Although international pressure on the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is mounting after the massacre of Houla, former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski cautions against acting on outrage. Foreign intervention, he warns, could have deadly repercussions.

Civil war has raged in Syria for more than a year between forces that are loyal to the Ba’athist regime and opposition insurgents who enjoy the sympathy of neighboring Arab states and the West. After the apparently indiscriminate slaughter of civilians by the regime in the villages of Houla last week, the call for military action by outside powers is heard increasingly louder.

David Ignatius, a columnist for The Washington Post, reported on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Wednesday that the Obama Administration is preparing plans for a post-Assad transition in Syria. An interim government would have to be formed, comprised of all ethnic groups in the country.

The Syrian uprising increasingly seems one of majority Sunnis battling a minority Shia but secular regime. Rebels are mostly active in Sunni cities in the south and the oil rich eastern province of Syria while religious minorities and the coastal urban middle class are wary of regime change. They fear than an Islamist takeover would inhibit their economic and political freedoms.

Western allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia, would like to see a Sunni government take over. It would weaken the Iranian axis in the region and act as a counterweight to Iraq whose Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is moving the country closer to Tehran.

The regional dynamic undermines the case for intervention, said Brzezinski on the same program. “We’re dealing here with a region in which all of these issues are interconnected.”

Proponents of intervention criticize Russia for continuing to support Assad. This, argued Brzezinski, is a mistake if Western powers want to find a solution to the Syrian question.

If we act simply on the basis of emotion and sort of vague threats that the Russians have to be forced to be good boys, we are going to produce a regionwide outbreak in which the issues within Syria will become linked with a conflict between the Saudis and the Shiites, Iraq will become destabilized, Iran will be involved […], we may have a breakdown of the negotiating process with Iran on top of it and we’re going to have a major international problem in our hands with political and economic consequences that are very serious.

And what I hear is a lot of emotion and sloganeering but I haven’t heard what the secret plans that the White House is conceiving actually are and how they are going to be implemented unless we get international cooperation on it.

In February, Brzezinski also appeared on Morning Joe when he reacted to the hysteria that was prompted by China’s and Russia’s vetoes in the United Nations Security Council to a resolution that would have condemned President Assad. “What motivates China and Russia is self-interest,” he said. Neither country wants to sanction a repetition of Libya where, as they see it, NATO intervened last year on the side of anti-government fighters to topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

At the time, Brzezinski also cautioned against military intervention, pointing out that “the situation within the country is much more confused than the sort of black-white notions that we get from sweeping generalizations about what is happening.”

What happened in Houla was horrible but it changed very little about the dynamics of Syria’s revolt and so far, it changed nothing about the strategic landscape in which it takes place.