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On Zbigniew Brzezinski: Geopolitical Mastermind, Realist Practitioner

3 Jun

Personal Prelude

 

I never knew Zbigniew Brzezinski well, and was certainly not a friend, hardly an acquaintance, but we interacted on several occasions, directly and indirectly. We were both members of the Editorial Board of Foreign Policy magazine founded in 1970 during its early years, which featured lively meetings every few months at the home of the founding co-Chair, a liberal banker named Warren Damien Manshel (the other founding co-Chair was his Harvard friend from graduate school, Samuel Huntington). I was a kind of outlier at these meetings, which featured several editors who made no secret of their ambition to be soon chosen by political leaders to serve at the highest levels of government. Other than Zbig the editor who flaunted his ambition most unabashedly was Richard Holbrook; Joseph Nye should be included among the Washington aspirants, although he was far more discreet about displaying such goals.

 

In these years, Zbig was a Cold War hawk. I came to a lecture he gave at Princeton, and to my surprise while sitting quietly near the front of the lecture hall, Zbig started his talk by saying words to the effect, “I notice that Professor Falk is in the audience, and know that he regards me as a war criminal.” This was a gratuitous remark as I had never made such an accusation, although I also never hid my disagreements with Brzezinski’s anti-Soviet militancy that seemed unduly confrontational and dangerous. Indicative of this outlook, I recall a joke told by Zbig at the time: a general in Poland was asked by the political leader when the country came under attack from both Germany in the East and the Soviet Union in the West, which front he preferred to be assigned. He responded “Germany—duty before pleasure.”

 

In these years Zbig rose to prominence as the intellectual architect and Executive Director who together with David Rockefeller established The Trilateral Commission in 1973. The Trilateral Commission (North America, Western Europe, and Japan) was best understood as a global capitalist response to the Third World challenge being mounted in the early 1970s with the principal goal of establishing a new international economic order. Brzezinski promoted the idea that it was important to aggregate the capitalist democracies in Europe along with Japan in a trilateral arrangement that could develop a common front on questions of political economy. On the Commission was an obscure Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, who seemed handpicked by this elite constellation of forces to be the Democratic Party’s candidate for president in 1976. It was natural for Brzezinski to be a foreign policy advisor to Carter during his campaign and then to be chosen as National Security Advisor (1977-1981) by President Carter.

 

My most significant contact with Brzezinski related to Iran Revolution during its last phases. In January of 1979 I accompanied Ramsey Clark and Philip Luce on what can best be described as a fact-finding visit in the last phases of the revolutionary ferment in the country. Toward the end of our time in Iran we paid a visit to the American Embassy to meet with Ambassador William Sullivan who understood that revolution was on the cusp of success and the Shah’s government was on the verge of collapse. What he told us was that the White House rejected his efforts to convey this unfolding reality, blaming Brzezinski for being stubbornly committed to saving the Shah’s regime, suggesting that Brzezinski’s friendship with the influential Iranian ambassador in Washington, Ardeshir Zahedi, apparently blinded him to the realities unfolding in Iran. It should be noted that Sullivan was no shrinking violent. Sullivan had a deserved reputation as an unrepentant counterinsurgency diplomat, who General Westmoreland once characterized as more of a field marshal than a diplomat, given his belligerent use of the American embassy in Laos to carry out bombing attacks in the so-called ‘secret war.’

 

Less than a year later I was asked to accompany Andrew Young to Iran with the hope of securing the release of the Americans being held hostage in the embassy in Tehran. The mission was planned in response to Ayatollah Khomeini’s hint that he would favor negotiating the release of the hostages if the U.S. Government sent an African American to conduct the negotiations. Young, former ambassador to the UN, was the natural choice for such an assignment, but was only willing to go if the White House gave a green light, which was never given, and the mission cancelled. At the time, the head of the Iran desk in the State Department told me privately that “Brzezinski would rather see the hostages held forever than see Andy Young get credit for their release.” Of course, I have no way of knowing whether this was a fair statement or not, although this career bureaucrat spoke of his frustrating relationship with Brzezinski. Of course, there was never an assurance that if such a mission had been allowed to go forward, it would have been successful, but even in retrospect it seemed to warrant a try, and might have led to an entirely different U.S./Iran relationship than what has ensued over the past 38 years.

 

While attending a conference on human rights at the Carter Center a decade later, I had the good fortune to sit next to President Carter at dinner, and seized the opportunity to ask him about his Iran policy, and specifically why he accepted the resignation of Cyrus Vance who sought a more moderate response to Iran than was favored by Brzezinski. Carter responded by explaining that “Zbig was loyal, while Vance was not,” which evaded the question as to which approach might have proved more effective and in the end beneficial. It should be remembered, as was very much known in Tehran, that Brzezinski was instrumental in persuading Carter to call the Shah to congratulate him on his show of toughness when Iranian forces shot and killed unarmed demonstrators in Jaleh Square in an atrocity labeled ‘bloody Friday,” and seen by many in Iran as epitomizing the Shah’s approach to security and the Iranian citizenry.

 

Brzezinski versus Kissinger

 

It is against this background that I take note of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s death at the age of 89 by finding myself much more favorable to his role as foreign policy and world order commentator in recent years than to my earlier experiences during the Cold War and Iranian Revolution. It is natural to compare Brzezinski with Henry Kissinger, the other foreign-born academic who rose to the top of the foreign policy pyramid in the United States by way of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American establishment. Kissinger was less eager than Brzezinski to defeat the Soviet Union than to create a stable balance, and even went so far as to anger the precursors of the alt-right by supporting détente and arms control during the Nixon years. Somehow, Kissinger managed to transcend all the ideological confusion in the United States to be still in 2017 to be courted and lionized by Democrats, including Hilary Clinton, and Republicans, including Trump. Despite being frequently wrong on key foreign policy issues Kissinger is treated as an iconic figure who was astonishingly able to impart nonpartisan wisdom on the American role in the world despite the highly polarized national scene. Brzezinski never attained this status, and maybe never tried. Despite this unique position of eminence, Kissinger’s extensive writings on global trends in recent years never managed to grasp the emerging complexity and originality of world order after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His line of vision was confined to what could be observed by looking through a neo-Westphalian prism. From this perspective Kissinger has been obsessed with China’s rise and how to reach a geopolitical accommodation with this new superpower so that a new statist balance of power with a global scope takes hold.

 

Post-Cold War Geopolitics: A Eurasian Scenario 

In my view, late Brzezinski developed a more sophisticated and illuminating understanding of the post-Cold War world than did Kissinger. While being sensitive to the importance of incorporating China in ways that were mutually beneficial, Brzezinski was also centrally focused on the non-geopolitical features of world affairs in the 21st century, as well as on the non-statist dimensions of geopolitics. In this regard, Brzezinski was convinced that the future world order would be determined by the outcome of competition among states for the control Eurasia, and that it was crucial for American political efforts to be calibrated to sustain its leadership role in this central arena of great power rivalry.

 

Brzezinski also appreciated that economic globalization was giving market forces a heightened significance that could not be adequately represented by continuing to rely on a state-centric frame of reference in crafting foreign policy. Brzezinski also recognized that a new political consciousness had arisen in the world that he associated with a global awakening that followed the collapse of European colonialism, and made the projection of hard power by the West much more problematic than in the past. This meant that the West must accept the need for consensual relations with the non-West, greater attentiveness to the interests of humanity, and an abandonment of hegemonic patterns of interaction, especially associated with military intervention. He also recognized the importance of emerging challenges of global scope, including climate change and global poverty, which could only be addressed by cooperative arrangements and collective action.

 

Late Brzezinski Foreign Policy Positions

 

What impressed me the most about the late Brzezinski was his clarity about three central issues of American foreign policy. I will mention them only briefly as a serious discussion would extend this essay well beyond a normal reader’s patience. (1) Perhaps, most importantly, Brzezinski’s refusal to embrace the war paradigm adopted by George W. Bush after 9/11 terrorism, regarding ‘the war on terror’ as a dysfunctional over-reaction; in this regard he weighted more highly the geopolitical dimensions of grand strategy, and refused to regard ‘terrorism’ as a strategic threat to American security. He summed up his dissenting view in a conversation on March 17, 2017 with Rachel Maddow as follows, “Yes, ISIS is a threat. It’s more than a nuisance. It’s also in many respects criminal violence. But it isn’t in my view, a central strategic issue facing humanity.” Elsewhere, he make clear that the American over-reaction to 9/11 handed Osama Bin Laden a major tactical victory, and diverted U.S. attention from other more pressing security and political challenges and opportunities.

 

(2) Brzezinski was perceptively opposed to the Iraq attack of 2003, defying the Beltway consensus at the time. He along with Brent Scowcroft, and a few others, were deemed ‘courageous’ for their stand at the time, although to many of us of outside of Washington it seemed common sense not to repeat the counterinsurgency and state building failures oaf Vietnam in Iraq. I have long felt that this kind of assertion gives a strange and unfortunate meaning to the idea of courage, making it seem as if one is taking a dangerous risk in the Washington policy community if espousing a view that goes against the consensus of the moment. The implication is that it takes courage to stand up for beliefs and values, a sorry conclusion for a democracy, and indicative of the pressure on those with government ambitions to suppress dissident views.

 

(3) Unlike so many foreign policy wonks, Brzezinski pressed for a balanced solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, acknowledging, what so many advocates of the special relationship deny, that the continuation of the conflict is harmful to American wider interests in the region and is a major, perhaps a decisive, source of instability in the Middle East. In his words, “This conflict poisons the atmosphere of the Middle East, contributes to Muslim extremism, and is directly damaging to American interests.” [Strategic Vision, 124] As Jeremy Hammond and Rashid Khalidi, among others, have demonstrated is that the U.S. Government has actually facilitated the Israeli reluctance to achieve a sustainable peace, and at the same time denied linkage between the persistence of the conflict and American national interests.[See analysis of Nathan Thrall (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/16/the-real-reason-the-israel-palestine-peace-process-always-fails)].

 

 

I had not been very familiar with Brzezinski later views as expounded in several books: The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Geopolitical Imperatives (1997, reprinted with epilogue, 2012); (with Brent Scowcroft, America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy (2009); Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power (2012).

 

When it comes to Brzezinski’s legacy, I believe it to be mixed. He was a brilliant practitioner, always able to present his views lucidly, forcefully, and with a catchy quality of coherence. In my view, his Cold War outlook was driven toward unacceptable extremes by his anti-Soviet preoccupations. I believe he served President Carter poorly when it came to Iran, especially in fashioning a response to the anti-Shah revolutionary movement. After the Cold War he seemed more prudent and sensible, especially in the last twenty years, when his perceptions of world order were far more illuminating than those of Kissinger, his geopolitical other.

 

Erasing the UN

3 Mar

 

Donald Trump has articulated clearly, if somewhat vaguely and incoherently, his anti-globalist, anti-UN approach on foreign policy. For instance, in late February he told a right-wing audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference that “there is no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency, or a global flag. This is the United States that I am representing. I am not representing the globe.” A similar sentiment was expressed to Congress a few days later in a tone of voice and choice of words praised by media wonks as ‘presidential.’ On this occasion Trump said, “[m]y job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.” Such rhetoric coming from a normal American leader would probably be interpreted as an expression of geopolitical humility, implicitly rejecting the standard insistence on American exceptionalism, exemplified in recent times by the project to create and maintain the first global state in human history.

 

This potentially self-limiting language might even be understood as renouncing earlier claims to assert American global leadership as the keystone of world order. George W. Bush in 2002 gave this bold leadership claim a sharp edge when he insisted the that only the US model of market-based constitutionalism was a legitimate form of governance for sovereign states in the 21st century. Or even more grandiosely, in the spirit of Michael Mandelbaum and Thomas Friedman, that the United States as a consequence of its martial strength, technological prowess, democratic values and institutions, and skills of leadership provides the world with the benevolent reality of virtual ‘world government.’ Let’s face it, Donald Trump is not a normal political leader, nor is he someone disposed to embrace humility in any form, so we should take his pledge to represent American interests while leaving the world to fend for itself with many grains of salt, especially if we consider the specifics of the Trump worldview. What Trump seems to be offering is maximum disengagement from international and global arrangements designed to institutionalize cooperation among sovereign states, and that is where the UN figures in Trump’s unfolding game plan.

Even before being sworn in as president Trump engaged in UN-bashing on behalf of, and in concert with the Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu. His dismissive comment contained in a tweet is rather revealing: “The UN has great potential, but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk, and have a good time. So sad!” Of course, we are not told what Trump thinks might bring into being this ‘great potential’ of the UN. Also not surprisingly, the tweet was provoked by Security Resolution 2334, adopted December 23rd by a 14-0 vote, which sharply criticized Israeli settlement expansion as unlawful and as creating a major obstacles to establishing peace with the Palestinians. The Obama presidency was sharply criticized by Trump and others, including many Democrats, for allowing passage of this resolution at the UN by failing to do what it had consistently done for the prior eight years, shield Israel from often fully deserved, and long overdue, UN censure by casting a veto. It seems that Trump, a bipartisan consensus in Congress, and the new US Representative at the UN, Nikki Haley evaluate the usefulness of the UN through an ‘Israel first’ optic, that is, the significance of UN is actually reduced to its attitude toward Israel, which is viewed through Israeli eyes, and is unmindful toward the wide spectrum of UN activities and contributions to human wellbeing.

 

It must be acknowledged that the Obama presidency did only slightly better when it comes to both the UN and Israel. True, Barack Obama in his annual addresses to the General Assembly affirmed the importance and contributions of the UN by concrete reference to achievements, and used these occasions to set forth his vision of a better world that included a major role for the UN. Also, Obama recognized the importance of the UN in dealing with the challenge of climate change, and joined with China to ensure a multilateralist triumph under UN auspices by having the 194 assembled government successfully conclude the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. However, when it came to war/peace issues such as drone warfare, threats of war directed at Iran, modernization of nuclear weapons, and the defense of Israel, the Obama Administration flexed its geopolitical muscles with disdain for the constraining limits imposed by international law and international morality. In this core respect, Trump’s approach, while blunter and oblivious to the etiquette of global diplomacy, appears to maintain fundamental continuity with the Obama approach.

 

With respect to defending Israel even when it faces responsible criticism, I can report from my own experience while serving as UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine, that the defense of Israel’s unlawful behavior within the UN during the Obama years was unconditional, and deeply irresponsible toward respect for international legal obligations, especially in relation to upholding international humanitarian law and norms governing recourse to non-defensive force. American chief representatives at the UN, Susan Rice and Samantha Power, both called for my dismissal from my unpaid post in vitriolic language without ever confronting the substance of my criticisms of Israel’s murderous periodic attacks on Gaza, its excessive use of force in sustaining the occupation, its expansion of unlawful settlements, and its discriminatory administration of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. I mention this personal experience to underscore the willingness of the Obama presidency to go all in with Israel despite the awkward fact that Obama was being harshly attacked in Israel, including by government leasers, and hence also in the US. Obama was being wrongly accused of being unfriendly to Israel as compared to earlier American presidents. Israel has high expectations that Trump will sway with the wind from Tel Aviv.

 

More to the point, Trump’s view of foreign policy at this stage appears to be a primitive mixture of state-centrism, militarism, nationalism, overall what had qualified until World War I as realpolitik. There was back then no UN, few international institutions, no international law prohibition on aggressive war, no Nuremberg Principles imposing criminal accountability on political and military leaders, no tradition of protection for international human rights, and no affirmation of the inalienable right of all peoples to self-determination. It was a Eurocentric state system that combined the interaction of sovereign states in the West with colonial rule extended directly and indirectly to most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Of course, now the colonial system has formally collapsed, China, Russia, and India have risen, Europe has declined, nuclear weapons continue to shadow human existence, and the specter of global warming dangles a sword of Damocles over the human condition. Trump seeks to restore a simpler world with his raucous rally cries of ‘America First.’ This is to be accomplished by carrying out a series of promises: to renegotiate trade arrangements, build walls, crush terrorism, terrorize undocumented immigrants, liberate police from accountability, bar Muslim immigration, and develop the world’s most feared nuclear arsenal. It is not a pretty picture, but also it involves a reckless disregard of the fragility of our interconnected and networked world order that mandates a globalizing framework for common problem-solving rather that a retreat to a glorious past that never was.

 

Of course, it would be misleading to leave the impression that the Trump worldview is bereft of any constructive thoughts about how to engage with the world. Trump’s controversial connections with Putin and Russia impart a contradictory impression: what is favorable is an evident interest in exploring prospects for a cooperative relationship, which goes against the grain of the American national security establishment, including several Republican heavyweights, which seemed likely in an expected Clinton presidency to be readying the country for a dangerous plunge into a second cold war. It would be ignited with reckless bravado by confronting Russia along its borders; in contrast, what is dubious about the Trump overtures to the Kremlin are the backdoor dealings with Russian officials during the presidential campaign and subsequently, reinforced by the ‘golden shower’ innuendo and unresolved concerns that Trump’s withheld tax returns might reveal awkward information about indebtedness or business dealings or both.

 

Whether Trump is going to abandon this effort to smooth things with Moscow under this pressure from the US intelligence and security bureaucracy will be a defining feature of whether his foreign policy gets early stuck in the Washington swamp, or risks the governmentally unsettling effects of discontinuity with the past. There are some cynical interpretations of Trump’s opening to Russia as primarily intended to set the stage for intensified confrontations with China. If this view is even partially correct it could easily generate a cold war of its own, although with new alignments. It might quickly lead to hot battlefield incidents that could further escalate, giving rise to renewed fears of nuclear war.

 

Trump occasionally expresses an appreciation of international cooperation for mutual benefit with other states, as well as recognizing the benefits of keeping traditional alliances (NATO, Japan, South Korea) alive and threatening those countries that menace the global or regional status quo (North Korea). What is totally absent is any acknowledgement of global challenges that cannot be met by states acting on their own or cooperatively through bilateral arrangements. It is here where the erasure of the UN from political consciousness is so troublesome substantively as well as symbolically. To some degree this erasure preceded Trump and is widespread. It has not been challenged as yet by even the Sanders’ end of the political spectrum in the US. I found it telling that Obama made no reference to the UN in his Chicago farewell speech, which can be most accurately understood as a more positive and polite version of Trump’s ‘America First’ engagement with the world.

 

Even better, on an abstract level, Trump expressed some sentiments that if concretized could overcome some of the forebodings being voiced here. In his speech to Congress on February 28th Trump said “[w]e want harmony and stability, not war and conflict. We want peace wherever peace can be found.” He went on to point out that “America is friends today with former enemies. Some of our closest allies, decades ago, fought on the opposite sides of these World Wars. This history should give us all faith in the possibilities for a better world.” If this outlook ever comes to inform the actual policies of the Trump presidency it would give grounds for hope, but as of now, any such hopes are mere indulgences of wishful thinking, and as such, diversions from the one true progressive imperative of this historic moment–political resistance to Trumpism in all its manifestations.

 

Dark lines of policy have also been set forth by Trump. The angry defiance of his Inaugural Address, the belligerence toward China, threats toward North Korea, exterminist language in references to ‘radical Islamic’ extremism and ISIS. Trump’s belligerence toward the world is reinforced by lauding military virtues and militarism, by appointing generals and civilian advisors to top positions, and by boosting the military budget at a time when the United States already spends almost as much on its military machine as is the total of military expenditures by all other countries, and has only a string of political defeats to show for it.

 

These contrasting Trump imaginaries create an atmosphere of foreboding and uncertainty. Such a future can unfold in contradictory ways. At present, the forebodings clearly outweigh the hopes. Although Trump speaks of fixing the decaying infrastructure of the United States and not wasting trillions on futile wars, especially in the Middle East, his inclinations so far suggest continuity in such brutal war theaters as Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

 

We have reached a stage of human development where future prospects are tied to finding institutional mechanisms that can serve human and global interests in addition to national interests, whether pursued singly or in aggregate. In this central respect, Trump’s ardent embrace of American nationalism is an anachronistic dead end.

 

What I find particularly discouraging about the present bipartisan political mood is its near total erasure of the United Nations and international law. These earlier efforts to modify and ameliorate international anarchy have virtually disappeared from the political horizons of American leaders. This reflects a loss of the kind of idealism that earlier energized the political imagination of those who spoke for the United States ever since the American Revolution. There was admittedly always much hypocrisy and self-deception attached to this rhetoric, which conveniently overlooked American geopolitical ambitions, slavery, and devastation visited on native Americans. It also overlooked imperial maneuvers in the Western Hemisphere and the ideologically driven foreign policy of the Cold War era that brought death, destruction, and despair to many distant lands, while keeping a dying European colonialism alive for many years by deferring to the warped logic of the Cold War.

 

Finally, I believe that the agenda of resistance to Trumpism includes a defense of the United Nations, and what its Charter proposes for the peoples of the world. We need a greatly empowered UN, not an erased UN.