European Affairs

EXPAND THE WEST; BALANCE THE EAST: “STRATEGIC VISION: AMERICA AND THE CRISIS OF GLOBAL POWER” BY ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI     Print Email

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Zbigniew Brzezinski’s recently-published Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power is a tour d’horizon of the big ideas that presumably inspire the more “visionary” aspects of the Obama team’s foreign policy. Zbig, as he is widely known, himself has some ties to the White House: once an Obama adviser, he has distanced himself from the President on occasion in the last three years, particularly on Middle East issues. But he still maintains channels to the administration. His book has stirred up debate in Washington (it can hardly have been intended to bring about consensus), and his arguments are worth being laid out as a guide to themes that may animate some American initiatives if the presidential incumbent wins re-election. Second, and therefore final, terms sometimes offer opportunities for bold leadership from the White House.

In his book, Zbig offers a knowledgeable and meticulously-argued overview not only of the emerging new relations among nations, but also insights into ways of channeling public moods and perspectives into foreign-policy decisions.  It is indispensable for a leader to have a long-term vision, he stressed recently in a book event: without this vision, “you will become mired in the problems as they occur.”
Two key beacons,  then, for policy-makers in the U.S. and Europe -- first, “enlarge the West” to include Russia and Turkey as integral parts of Europe and, second, in the process of pivoting to the East, as President Obama says the U.S. will do, learn to practice careful “balancing” -- without major military intervention.
In outlining his own concept of a strategic vision, he says that the U.S. can start with some confidence about the nation’s potential. “A renewal of American domestic dynamism is possible, while America, by working purposefully with Europe, can shape a larger and more vital West. The point of departure for such a long-term vision is recognition of the historical reality that the Europe of today is still unfinished business. And it will remain so until the West, in a strategically sober and prudent fashion, embraces Turkey on more equal terms and engages Russia politically as well as economically. Such an expanded West can help anchor the stability of an evolving Eurasia, as well as being inevitable,” he writes.
These are some of the most surprising – and provocative – sections of  his book when Brzezinski  offers his strategic vision on these issues. He contends in detail that both Russia and Turkey are inheritors – though in different ways – of culturally distinctive imperial pasts. But Turkey, according to his argument, has done better in terms of transforming itself than Russia has, never having engaged in the bloodbath that characterized Stalin’s Russia. Moreover Russia’s suitability for the EU is more problematic than that of Turkey because Moscow has never fully repudiated its Stalinist past, unlike the way in which modern Germany has repudiated its Nazi past. (Of course, there remains a question mark about Turkey’s problems in finding any reconciliation with the Armenian community that survived the massacres in the birth convulsions of modern Turkey.) But in Brzezinski’s view, over the past two decades Turkey has moved steadily forward in the direction of a genuinely functioning constitutional democracy, driven in part by its desire to join the EU.
Having taken those steps, Turkey, according to Brzezinski, could too easily adopt an anti- Western animus if it is not able to join the EU. The over-riding long-term strategic reality, in his view, is that Europe will not be fully developed (and thus not the fullest hedge against instability) until both Turkey and Russia are part of the EU.
This point might come as a surprise, given the fact that during most of his career Brzezinski has been seen as a hawk vis-à-vis Russia. However, the book accounts for his personal evolution with painstaking analysis on this point.
More generally, Brzezenski’s book cuts to the bones of painful domestic issues these days, including America’s economic imbalances, rotting infrastructure, and – perhaps most worrisome – a general public ignorance about the rest of the world that provides very fertile soil in which to sow populist, jingoistic attitudes to win elections. (This campaign season has afforded abundant examples.) See, for example, Eurobaloney on the Campaign Trail.
Brzezinski moves beyond analyses of the American infirmities to provide reasons to think they can be overcome (some more plausible than others, in this reviewer’s view). To provide a global context, he offers a framework of questions: Why is America’s global appeal diminishing? What does it mean that there’s a changing distribution of global powers from the West to the East? What would happen if America continues on the road to decline? How should a resurgent America define its long-term geopolitical goals? And what should policy be toward Turkey and Russia?
While Brzezinski takes these topics up more or less seriatum, his suggested solutions are knit together by this overarching principle: The U.S. must not retreat into an arrogant garrison state mentality or wallow in self-righteous cultural chauvinism. He points out that the notion of a globally dominant power is a recent historical development; before modern travel and communications, little was known about other countries beyond borders. But those days are over, which means that if the United States does not step up to the role of global leadership someone else (read: China) will.
Brzezinski is quite clear that how the American system performs at home, and how America conducts itself abroad, are not only fully congruent, but their interplay will ultimately determine the place and role of the West in the new objective and subjective global context.
So where are we today? According to Brzezinski, “the financial crisis and the recession of 2006-2007... didn’t erase the deeply ingrained image abroad of America’s ability to blend political idealism and economic materialism.”
Whether America can retain that position depends on addressing and solving a number of difficult challenges. For one thing, as Brzezinski points out, America is today the most unequal major developed country in the world, with the share of national wealth flowing toward the very rich increasing to flood levels. And what makes that inequality even more onerous is the fact that the possibility of upward mobility in the U.S. is not only less today than at any point in our history, but also less than in almost any other developed country. This reality has spurred the recent ‘Occupy’ demonstrations of recent months across the U.S.
Unless America overcomes its shortcomings, the negative results will be felt everywhere, especially in weaker states located next door to major regional powers.  “The “geopolitical equivalent of nature’s most endangered species,” such countries depend on the international strength of America’s global pre-eminence – notably: Georgia, Taiwan, South Korea, Belarus, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Israel is cautiously included in this section when Brzezinski turns to the Middle East, where “perceived American weakness would at some point tempt the more powerful states in the region, notably Iran or Israel, to pre-empt anticipated dangers… [resulting in conflicts that] could rise to truly horrific levels through strikes and counterstrikes between Iran and Israel.”)
Part of this risk of tectonic shifts in the region is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Zbig says that “the Palestinians are too weak to risk negotiations and the Israelis are too strong to feel the need for talks. So there is scant hope for a workable solution without a very vigorous push on both the Israelis and the Palestinians by the U.S. And if there is no progress in that direction there will be significant downward drift.“
In the Middle East as elsewhere, Zbig says, the U.S. is needed to square the circle and contain the escalation of local powers Consider the absence of this balancing nation: “America’s decline would inevitably contribute to a rise in the frequency, scope and intensity of regional conflicts.” But this role should not be confused with an impossible and unattainable goal of U.S. global supremacy in today’s world of strategic complexities. Instead, he argues, the U.S. and its allies should seek “cooperative management of the global commons.”
How does this 2012 view relate to the earlier era in Washington when Zbig was the architect of U.S. policy? In the interim, Zbig’s vision seems to have moved from cooperative management, from a tight U.S.-led group (think “G-8” compared to the current G-20), to a subtler view of how U.S. power can be wielded in a multi-polar world.  Even this view contains an unresolved tension. On the one hand, Brzezinski continues to insist that America is the crucial country able to keep regional warfare, nuclear proliferation and escalatory conflicts under some tenuous control – agreeing in that sense with his Democratic successor in the Clinton administration, former Secretary of State Madeline  Albright, in calling America the “indispensable nation.” But on the other hand, that formulation is only a short putt away from American exceptionalism, which has often led the U.S. to foreign misadventures in the last decade. Treading that balance would require a White House capable of understanding the distinction and also willing and able to undertake the task of making it plausible and palatable to the American public.

Robert Steck is a speechwriter, consultant and sometime philosophy professor and a frequent contributor to “European Affairs.”