Foreign Policy

The U.S. Could Use a Few More Brzezinskis

A U.S. national security adviser who looked ahead and didn't suffer fools gladly.

America will miss him Zbigly.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The death last weekend of Zbigniew Brzezinski marked the passing of one of America’s foremost strategic thinkers. With elbows as sharp as his mind and tongue, “Zbig” earned a measure of notoriety during the administration of President Jimmy Carter for both his hawkish anti-Soviet views and bureaucratic power plays. Afterward, through his books and astringent commentary, he continued to shape decades of U.S. policy and built a formidable legacy as a keen global analyst. I asked Justin Vaisse, a historian and the current director of Policy Planning in France’s Foreign Ministry, for his views on Brzezinski, which he has laid out in a recent French biography (“Zbigniew Brzezinski: Stratege de l’Empire” an English version will appear in early 2018). What follows is a lightly edited version of our e-mail exchange.

JG: During his years as President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski had to meet a wide range of foreign policy challenges. What stands out for you as a singular success or emblematic achievement?

JV: President Richard Nixon had famously traveled to communist China, but it took the Carter administration to reestablish diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing. Brzezinski not only advocated that course, but he also maneuvered to impose Beijing against competing priorities, like concluding the SALT II treaty negotiations with the Soviet Union, as Secretary of State Cyrus Vance wanted, or reestablishing ties with Vietnam, as Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke wanted. Brzezinski traveled to Beijing and managed to close the deal in late 1978. A Republican administration would not have been able to do so, because of the power of the pro-Taiwan lobby, and that deal helped Washington balance the USSR by cooperating with China as the Cold War was getting more intense. For example, Washington was able to open secret radar stations on Chinese soil to replace the ones it lost with the revolution in Iran.

More generally, and contrary to popular belief, the Carter administration scored a number of foreign policy successes. The Panama Canal treaty resolved a very contentious issue with Latin America. The Camp David agreement led to peace between Israel and Egypt. Human rights were elevated to a new importance in U.S. foreign policy. There were also failures, like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution that overthrew the America-friendly Shah, including the taking of hostages in the American embassy and the failed rescue raid that Brzezinski advocated. This administration also projected indecision and weakness, largely because it was divided between a more dovish wing around Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and a more hawkish one represented by Brzezinski.

JG: He was known, of course, for taking a hard line on the Soviet Union. Was his appraisal of Soviet behavior and the threat it posed correct? Does history vindicate his stance, or did it distort U.S. policy-making?

JV: With hindsight, he was probably slightly too paranoid about Soviet intentions, whether in East Africa or in Afghanistan, where archives have revealed that the invasion was largely a defensive move meant to insure that the country would not be lost for Moscow, rather than the beginning of a major southward expansion. Many observers blamed Brzezinski for creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: Because he took a hard line on the Soviets, Moscow had no choice but to reciprocate. However, it remains true that the Soviet Union felt emboldened by America’s difficulties after Vietnam and adoption of Détente in the early 1970s, and pushed its geopolitical advantage in various places, while reaching nuclear parity. If Brzezinski had not been firm, hawks from left and right – the neoconservatives and the nationalists – would have attacked the administration much harder than they did.  U.S. policymaking ultimately reflected shifting geopolitical times, with the more hawkish Brzezinski sidelining the more dovish Vance.

JG: He also attracted a fair amount of criticism for the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission. If that had succeeded, do you think Ronald Reagan would have beat Carter in the 1980 election?

JV: It’s quite possible, because that story compounded the impression of weakness created by other episodes like the hostage crisis – and the decision made by President Carter to remain in the White House to attend to this issue (the “Rose Garden strategy”) without getting results. However, many other factors went into play, including the second oil crisis and double-digit inflation.

JG: In many respects, Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger plowed parallel tracks: Heavily accented Harvard University-educated policy intellectuals steeped in realist thinking who used their respective backing by David and Nelson Rockefeller to leverage themselves into policy positions. Whether as thinkers or policymakers, what to your mind differentiated Brzezinski from Kissinger?

JV: In international relations, Kissinger sees a clash of great powers according to immutable patterns. He finds models in the past and emphasizes the role of great leaders like Stalin, Mao or himself. Brzezinski also paid attention to history, but he was always more attentive to other actors, to social change and deep forces like technology, ideology or public opinion. That enabled a more complex and textured vision of diplomacy and geopolitics, one more attuned to the transformations the international system went through since World War II. It also explains why he was more focused on the future than on the past.

JG: As national security advisers, both men also had famously difficult relationships with their respective secretaries of state. Did they share a conception of the role of the national security adviser that made such clashes inevitable?

JV: Absolutely: Both wanted a preeminent position through their direct link to the president, in order to provide him with a comprehensive view of world issues, and each president welcomed that, in spite of the negative implications for their secretaries of state. But beyond personal ambition loomed also the clash of styles and views between an older, traditional class of statesmen from the Establishment – New York lawyers William Rogers and Cyrus Vance – and a younger class of foreign affairs professionals embodied by Kissinger and Brzezinski that gradually seized control of American foreign policy.

JG: Brzezinski went on to write numerous books on the strategic challenges facing the U.S. in the post-Cold War world. Which is the one book that you’d recommend most highly to those seeking to understand his worldview, and why?

JV: His 1997 book “The Grand Chessboard” is probably the most famous because it presents a bold geopolitical vision centered on the need to avert the domination of the Eurasian landmass by one single power or the emergence of an anti-American alliance of two Eastern powers, as well as the imperative for the U.S. to remain present in Eurasia and bolster its Western end. However, more recent books like his latest, “Strategic Vision,” published in 2012, also offer deep insights. America enjoys many assets and will not decline as long as good leadership prevails; it should rally the West and include Russia and Turkey in it; the world of 2025 will no longer be American but it will not be Chinese either – it will be chaotic.

JG: More broadly, as a foreign policy thinker, for what do you think Brzezinski should be remembered? What abiding lessons does Brzezinski offer to future U.S. policymakers?

JV: Perhaps Brzezinski’s most important message is not about substance but about method. Brzezinski loved to argue, but he did not suffer fools gladly. He wanted his interlocutors, whether students or policymakers, to think strategically. That meant a couple of very simple but crucial things: to know what they were talking about (starting with history and geography), to consider all aspects of a problem and assess power relations correctly, to be rigorous in their arguments, to be realistic and coherent in their recommendations, and to always put these recommendations in a larger context that included predictions for the future. Because how can you devise a policy without explicit assumptions about its overall context? Given these lessons, you will easily understand why he was dismayed by the performance of the current White House. Let me just quote his last tweet, sent a few weeks before he died:  “Sophisticated US leadership is the sine qua non of a stable world order. However, we lack the former while the latter is getting worse.”

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