Zbigniew Brzezinski belongs to that realist school of geopoliticians whose advice is best ignored. His hard-headed approach to American hegemony masks an irrational hatred and fear of Russiaby Anatol Lieven / May 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
The greater the influence of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former US national security adviser, the more unhappy we all should be. On a whole range of issues, his thinking is not just wrong but almost perversely wrong-headed. With grim, bulldog determination he snarls and worries at enemies already moribund, and pursues false priorities up imaginary trees. His approach also illustrates some of the key failings of his “realist” school of international relations.
It is not that the intention of his new book, The Grand Chessboard, is itself illegitimate. On the contrary, there is a real need for clear thinking in the US, and among its allies such as Britain, about how US primacy in the world is to be managed and what the greatest threats to it are. Nor is there anything wrong in principle with taking a hard, “realist” approach to these issues. It is refreshing to find a leading American commentator speaking openly of the US “global system” as a form of imperial hegemony.
Given that US hegemonic influence in the world is “on the whole-and it is upon the whole that such things must be judged-a beneficial and a kindly influence” (as Winston Churchill once said about the British empire), it will on occasions be necessary and legitimate to employ a degree of ruthlessness in its defence. This is something of which the American public needs to be reminded, given its tendency to a moralising approach to international relations, coupled with a degree of discomfort about the costs of US leadership-and on occasions an isolationist scepticism about the need for America to lead at all.
But such a realist approach begs two questions. First, whether the unpleasant but necessary means may not become mixed up with the noble ends. Second, whether Brzezinski’s analysis is as hard-headed and clear-sighted as claimed, or whether it is not in fact warped by personal emotions and loyalties.
Brzezinski begins with the proposition that the US is now the only superpower, with global primacy in the cultural as well as the military, economic and political spheres. He briefly surveys the record of previous hegemonic powers and points out, rightly, that because of US democracy, and the unwillingness of the American public to countenance the costs (moral as well as economic and physical) of direct US domination of other countries, “The American global system emphasises the techniques of co-optation… to a much greater…