Tag Archives: Brzezinski

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.

 

Advertisements

Honoring Henry Kissinger at Oslo

8 Dec

On December 10-11, the Nobel Peace Prize Forum Oslo will be launched, featuring Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski addressing the theme, “The U.S. and World Peace after the Presidential Election.” The Forum is intended to become an annual event closely linked to the celebrations surrounding the Nobel Peace Prize.

 

As many will remember, Kissinger, along with Le Duc Tho, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, perhaps the most controversial award in the long history of this most coveted prize. The prize in 1973 was given to the two men who negotiated the peace agreement that finally brought the war in Vietnam to a close. While the negotiations were in their most pivotal phase, the U.S. Government introduced the notorious ‘Christmas Bombing’ terrorist tactic to increase its diplomatic leverage over Hanoi, which also served to reassure its corrupt allies in Saigon that they were not being abandoned by Washington. Le Duc Tho, to his credit, citing this infamous background, refused the prize, while Kissinger accepted although he did not attend the ceremony.

 

What is difficult to grasp, is the thinking of the organizers of Nobel Peace Prize Forum, which led them to such infamous war-oriented political and intellectual figures as Kissinger and Brzezinski. Of course, the guardians of the Nobel are not alone. Among the many depressing features of the recent American presidential campaign was the distressing news that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump paid homage to Kissinger by publicizing foreign policy briefing visits with this most shaky pillar of the Washington establishment, but neither Clinton nor Trump aspire to the ideals of world peace that are supposed to animate the Nobel Peace Prize.

 

Kissinger’s involvement, direct and indirect, with the criminality of foreign governments that cruelly repress their own populations has been abundantly documented, set forth in a non-technical format by Christopher Hitchens in The Trial of Henry Kissinger (Verso, 2001), and in a more legal format in declassified government documents. This record establishes a strong case for investigation and likely prosecution for a long list of international crimes, including especially crimes against humanity. An NGO founded and led by the world renowned peace intellectual Fredrik Heffermehl, The Nobel Peace Prize Watch, has urged the Director of Public Prosecutions in Norway to take appropriate action with the view toward holding Kissinger criminally accountable.

 

Whether Norwegian law allows its courts to proceed in such a case depends on whether universal jurisdiction is considered available to address the alleged crimes (committed outside of Norway) of Kissinger. Because of the constraints surrounding the activity of the International Criminal Court, especially in dealing with the criminality of Western states, it is particularly important that national courts act as enforcement agents of the world community and end the impunity enjoyed by those who have so frequently and fragrantly violated international criminal law. In light of the adoption by the General Assembly of the Nuremberg Principles there seems to be an adequate foundation in international customary law for national courts to accept this responsibility to raise the level of accountability in international society. The physical presence of Kissinger in Norway offers an opportunity that were we living in a world where the global rule of law prevailed would not be missed. Sadly, we are aware that in the global setting providing the backdrop for his crimes geopolitics rather than the rule of law sets the tone, and it is highly unlikely that Kissinger will be formally apprehended when he visits Norway, although popular demonstrations are certain to occur. This tension between governmental refusal to adhere to the global rule of law and societal initiatives to impose accountability explain the international pervasiveness of double standards with regard to the implementation of international criminal law: accountability for the weak, impunity for the strong.

 

What is equally distressing is the Orwellian insensitivity of the Nobel authorities to the inappropriateness of treating Kissinger as though he is a highly trusted source of guidance and wisdom with respect to world peace. Kissinger has applauded the worst excesses of dictators, especially in Latin America, and backed the most immoral geopolitical policies throughout his long career. He has never even pretended to be interested in promoting a more peaceful world, and has viewed the United Nations with cynical indifference unless it can be deployed to promote U.S. geopolitical goals. Indeed, Kissinger has often argued in his writings that those who pursue peace as a value or goal are those most likely to induce war. While Secretary of State, Kissinger also admits being annoyed by aides urging greater attentiveness to the relevance of international law and morality.

 

Even pragmatically, Kissinger is hardly a helpful guide. As a warmonger, he has generally supported the long list of failed American interventions, including Vietnam. What is uncanny about the Kissinger brand is that his repeated errors of judgment have not tarnished his reputation, nor have his distasteful moral postures lowered the level of mainstream respect. In an article recently appearing in The New Yorker (Aug. 20, 2016) Jon Lee Anderson uses declassified materials to show how Kissinger lauded the Argentinian rulers for ridding their country of terrorism in the course of the despicable ‘dirty war,’ overlooking reliance on the vile tactics of torture and ‘disappearances’ systematically used against nonviolent activists and progressives.

 

It is the saddest of commentaries on the mainstream approach to peace, justice, and security that Kissinger should be singled out for honors or as a source of guidance at an event in Norway, a country with one of the strongest reputations for morally oriented internationalism. Such an impression is reinforced by Nobel sponsorship. It stretches the moral imagination to its breaking point once it is realized that those in Norway who have been entrusted with carrying out the wishes of Alfred Nobel should now be adding their weighty imprimatur to such a willfully distorted conception of world peace.