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 / May 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 extent than the earlier imperial systems did. It likewise relies heavily on the indirect exercise of influence on dependent foreign elites, while drawing much benefit from the appeal of its democratic principles and institutions. The foregoing are reinforced by the massive but intangible impact of the American domination of global communications, popular entertainment and mass culture, and by the tangible clout of America’s technological edge and global military reach… America stands supreme in the four decisive domains of global power.”
Brzezinski is also clear-headed in his perception that this will not last forever. American cultural hedonism is probably “uncongenial to the sustained exercise abroad of genuinely imperial power”; American technological primacy will ultimately be overtaken; and anyway, “In the long run, global politics are bound to become increasingly uncongenial to the concentration of hegemonic power in the hands of a single state. Hence America is not only the first, as well as the only, truly global superpower, but it is also likely to be the very last… Thus the key question is: What will America bequeath to the world as the enduring legacy of its primacy?”
Brzezinski’s answer is that “the US policy goal must be unapologetically twofold: to perpetuate America’s own dominant position for at least a generation and preferably longer still; and to create a geopolitical framework which can absorb the inevitable shocks and strains of social-political change while evolving into the geopolitical core of shared responsibility for peaceful global management.”
This is in itself an honourable ambition. It is when Brzezinski comes down to the details that he goes badly astray. His strategy has two flaws. The first is his obsession with Russia. This has little to do with US interests or global stability, and everything to do with his own Polish national memories. When he was national security adviser, Brzezinski was once described as “the first Pole in 200 years who has had a chance to stick it to the Russians”-and he’s still at it. This background highlights one of the greatest threats from within to US dominance, one which Brzezinski never mentions-the tendency of its foreign policy to be hijacked by American ethnic lobby groups acting in the interests of other nations. This threatens the US with entanglement in local disputes in which the American people have no interest; it creates enemies of the US where none need exist; and in some cases (not the Polish, of course), it undermines the moral prestige of the US by implicating it in other nations’ crimes.
The second flaw-which he shares with the realist school-is his indifference to the internal political systems of countries, and to cultural, social, ideological and ecological change in general. His choice of title, The Grand Chessboard, is revealing. For him, it is not just that countries are chess pieces -pawns even-which can be moved around by the hands of the great powers; they are also solid monoliths-not living human societies but pieces of metal or stone.
As Owen Harries has written: “For these realists, Russia is Russia is Russia, regardless of whether it is under czarist, communist or nascent democratic rule.” Brzezinski seems ignorant of the new Russian economic and political elites and their personal and class interests. These interests do not encompass the restoration of an empire-which explains their indifference to military reform. Nor, we can assume, has Brzezinski ever sat in a Russian disco and talked to young Russians about military service or who their heroes are.
Because the only pieces on the realist chessboard are states, sub-state players-economic elites, interest groups, criminal families, political parties, ethnic minorities, religious movements, terrorist forces-get little attention. The focus is on the policy-making elites; and these are assumed to be acting in the best interests of their states (even if their opinions on what those interests are may differ), not out of sectional or personal interests. This is a misrepresentation of how the world works-whether in Washington, Moscow, Paris or Beijing. It also ignores the greatest threats to American primacy and international stability in the coming century, as well as to the safety of the people of the US and its allies.
The two flaws in Brzezinski’s world-view come together in his suggestion-almost criminal in its irresponsibility-that it would be good for the US and the world (he even dares to say for Russians themselves) if Russia were to be split up into a loose confederation of semi-independent states. All the evidence of the past five years-the defeat in Chechnya, the suicides in the Russian officer corps (including the strategic missile forces), the corruption and selfishness of the Russian elite, and organised crime-has not been enough to show Brzezinski that the real threat to the world from Russia will not be Russian aggression but Russian weakness; the danger that the crumbling Russian military will leak expertise, materials and weapons of mass destruction to anti-western forces is described in chilling detail in a recent book by Graham Allison and others, but which Brzezinski does not mention.
The recipients of such material do not have to be states: the poison gas attack in Tokyo by Aum Shinrikyo has shown the potential use of such weapons by terrorist groups. Limiting this threat will be difficult even with cooperation from the Russian central state; without such help it would be impossible-and Brzezinski wants to weaken control over the Russian nuclear industry and missile forces still further by dividing them between several unstable regional satrapies.
Leaving aside such lunacies, the question of US priorities is a real one. The US may be able to spend as much on defence as the next six military powers of the world combined, but that does not mean that its resources are unlimited. Anti-Russian feeling in the US Congress, coupled with a desire to save money, has led to the Nunn-Lugar programme for financing the disposal of Russian nuclear missiles being starved of funds and hedged about with conditions; the whole issue has been sidelined amid the effort-and the hype-involved in the expansion of Nato, a process which will have no effect on this danger except to limit still further Russian willingness to cooperate.
The idea of splitting up Russia reflects a feature that Brzezinski shares with Henry Kissinger: his benign view of China, compared to his inveterate fear and hatred of Russia-despite the contrast between Chinese economic growth and Russian decline in recent years, and between Chinese state strength and Russian state weakness. Thus the US is enjoined by Brzezinski not to countenance any moves by Taiwan towards higher international status, for fear of provoking a clash with Beijing. Meanwhile, Brzezinski says that Nato should expand to Ukraine-implying the expulsion of the Russian navy from Sevastopol-and that Nato expansion to the Baltic states should be used to pressure Russia to demilitarise Kaliningrad-a part of Russian territory.
Brzezinski’s lack of concern about China is not necessarily mistaken; he presents cogent arguments both for the weakness of the Chinese economy and the threats to the continuation of communist rule. He also points out that with the exception of Taiwan and possibly Korea, there are no areas where Chinese and US interests are likely to clash on the ground. None the less, handing eastern Siberia to a Chinese sphere of influence would be placing too much faith in the Chinese-and this would be the inevitable consequence of breaking up Russia. As Yevgeny Nazdratenko, governor of the Russian Maritime Region (around Vladivostok), told me when I asked him whether he hoped for independence: “We’re not crazy-the Chinese would swallow us in three weeks.”
To be fair to Brzezinski, his suggestion of breaking up Russia is not the core of his argument. This hope is also not shared by most US policy-makers. What is widely shared is Brzezinski’s hope that Russia will abandon its old imperial dreams and develop a new national identity within its own borders. The model that Brzezinski suggests is that of Kemal Atat?rk’s Turkey after the loss of the Ottoman empire. This is almost as foolish as his suggestion of breaking up Russia but, unfortunately, it is much more plausible. A Russia deprived of external influence, driven within its borders and hedged around by hostile states (but ones containing large Russian minorities), might well develop the kind of ethnic nationalism that Brzezinski is advocating.
The “Kemalist” model suggests that stability would best be served if Russia were to deny its minorities the most basic cultural rights and crush them if they protested-whereas, at present, Tatars and others enjoy real political, economic and cultural autonomy in their own republics (as long as they do not follow the Chechens in seeking full independence). Has Brzezinski met any Kurds recently?
Beyond Russia’s borders, a Kemalist development would mean the replacement of the old Russian national feeling, based more on loyalty to states and ideologies than on ethnicity, with a strong sense of ethnic Russian nationalism in Russia itself and in the Russian diaspora. This would also involve a right of Russian intervention if these came under attack. Up to now, the lack of a strong ethnically-based Russian nationalism has allowed the integration of the Russian minorities in Ukraine, the Baltic states and elsewhere. How can Brzezinski think that Turkish history over the past 75 years would be an improvement on Russia today, from the point of view of Russia’s neighbours?
Brzezinski’s fear of Russia and support for Turkey are also responsible for the central argument in his book: the need for the US to achieve a dominant influence over the “Eurasian heartland,” by which he means the former Soviet republics of the Transcaucasus and central Asia. This implies strong US support for the authoritarian regimes in this region-especially that of Uzbekistan, which he believes is the best equipped to resist a reassertion of Russian control.
Brzezinski bases his argument on that of Halford Mackinder at the turn of the century: eastern Europe, central Asia and Siberia constitute a pivotal area for the domination of the “world island,” the great continent of Europe-Asia. Brzezinski quotes Mackinder’s dictum:
Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland.
Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island.
Who rules the World-Island commands the world.
This is odd. If there is one geopolitical nostrum which has been exploded in the 20th century, it is the belief that Eurasia constitutes a geopolitical unity that could be dominated from a single source, let alone that central Asia forms a pivot on which the fate of the continent hangs. Lord Salisbury blasted this kind of thinking more than 100 years ago as the result of “using maps with too small a scale.” Today, as then, central Asia, south Asia, east Asia and Europe are different geopolitical spheres with different priorities.
In support of his argument, Brzezinski claims that, in the second world war, “Europe and Asia had become a single battlefield.” This is the opposite of reality. Indeed, the Germans and Japanese fought separate wars against different enemies: the German effort was directed against the Soviet Union, which the Japanese were careful never to attack. The main link-both in terms of fighting and supplying the Soviet armies-was provided by the US, a non-Eurasian state which has never had any role in the “heartland.”
As for central Asia, it has been a geopolitical backwater since Tamerlane. Today, the states of this region remain far from the centres of the world economy and irrelevant to the dangers to world stability. In fact, they would be of no interest to the US and the west except for their oil and gas; it is this interest which has led to renewed interest in Harold Mackinder, and created sympathy in Washington for rolling back Russian influence in the region.
Before the US follows Brzezinski’s advice, it should keep two things in mind. The first is the question of whether the interests of the US and the world are served by opening up more sources of cheap oil and gas. Brzezinski ignores the possibility that climate change and ecological deterioration could cause serious threats to global stability and peace. The US’s lack of leadership in controlling greenhouse gas emissions is one of the great policy failures of the 1990s. Of course, the eco-pessimists may be wrong; but if they are even partially right, future generations will think that the interests of the US and its global primacy would have been better served by limiting consumption at home than by pursuing oil in central Asia.
The other problem is the instability of what Brzezinski calls the “Eurasian Balkans.” As one former senior Pentagon official put it: the US is constructing oil pipelines “on top of a heap of political junk,” of corrupt, unstable post-Soviet regimes.
In a “realist” argument, the ethics of US support for oppressive governments can be shrugged off (although finding moral justification for such support has become more difficult since the end of the global communist threat). But where Brzezinski goes wrong is in his lack of suggestions for ways in which an increased US presence in the region will help to stabilise the situation, except in the limited sense of reducing Russian influence.
A key issue in this context is the Armenian-Azeri war over Karabakh, frozen by a ceasefire after the Armenian victories of 1991-94 but still completely unresolved. A nightmare which ought to be haunting US policy-makers is the possibility that some years from now, when Azerbaijan has re-armed with the help of its huge oil profits, it will launch a new attack in order to regain its lost territory. This would place any US administration in a difficult position, caught between the oil interests and its Turkish allies on the one hand and the Armenian lobby in the US on the other.
The Karabakh conflict illustrates the same lesson as the failure of the US-led peace process in the middle east: the grandest geopolitical schemes can be brought to the ground by apparently tiny yet intractable local issues and emotions: a few tens of thousands of Jewish settlers on the West Bank; Armenian control of a handful of mountain villages whose names Brzezinski has probably never heard of.
In Israel, Shimon Peres, the US-backed supporter of the peace process, was defeated by Benyamin Netanyahu. In Armenia President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who under US pressure espoused attempts at a deal with Azerbaijan, has been ousted in favour of a nationalist hardliner from Karabakh. Neither Israeli nor Armenian voters are going to abandon what they see as their core national interests because Washington tells them to. In the case of Karabakh, the US might be able to bring about peace if it were to commit its own peacekeeping troops-but the US congress would not countenance such a mission.
Moreover, a mixture of oil money and US support does not guarantee a regime’s stability: this depends on how that money is distributed, and on the regime’s internal legitimacy. Brzezinski’s book clearly implies US support for turning Uzbekistan into a regional policeman on America’s behalf, akin to the role of the Shah’s Iran in the 1960s and 1970s.
Apart from the fact that Uzbekistan’s neighbours fear Uzbek as much as Russian hegemony, this ignores the question of whether regimes such as those of Islam Karimov or Heidar Aliev of Azerbaijan really have the ability to carry out successful reforms and spread their benefits to society as a whole.
In ten years’ time, the billions of dollars earned by Azerbaijan will not have contributed to political stability if they have ended up as mink coats from Harrods or in Swiss bank accounts-and if Azeri refugees from Karabakh are still living in tents and shanty towns.
It is not that Brzezinski would deny any of this-just that it does not seem to interest him. This kind of thing goes on below the table on which he is playing his great game. But the fate of the Shah’s Iran should have been a lesson to all geopoliticians in the need to look under the table from time to time.
The grand chessboard
BasicBooks 1998, $15