Zbigniew Brzezinski has died aged 89. In this interview from 2008, Jonathan Power speaks to the former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter about Iran, the Cold War, and Putin's Russiaby Jonathan Power / February 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Zbigniew Brzezinski remains, at 79, the feisty, acerbic figure he was when he served as President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser between 1977 and 1981. Back then he was seen as the man who gradually dissuaded Carter of his more pacific convictions. Brzezinski was responsible for the administration’s confrontational tone on the Soviet Union’s human rights failings. He argued within the White House for arming the Afghan mujahedin to fight the Soviets, even before the Red army invaded. Today he has an important advisory role in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and has emerged as President George W Bush’s most searing foreign policy critic. Late last year I met him in Washington—a visit I describe in detail in an article on the Prospect website—to discuss the cold war, Putin’s Russia, Iran and US foreign policy.
JONATHAN POWER Was the end of the cold war a missed opportunity?
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI In the Yeltsin era we could have done more to engage and perhaps entangle Russia in a relationship with the west, which might have reduced the nostalgia for imperial status that the Kremlin displays today. But it is an open question whether Russia was ready for it. This was a period of great confusion, of uncertainty and humiliation, so it might not have been easy to fashion something that would have lasted.
JP Was Nato expansion a good idea?
ZB I think it was a necessary idea. One can easily imagine the tensions that would dominate central Europe today in the absence of Nato membership. Look at the friction between Russia and Estonia, and at the threats, embargoes, even military gestures that Russia has been employing against Georgia and Ukraine. Clearly membership of both Nato and the EU has created a more stable and potentially co-operative relationship between central Europe and Russia.
JP Didn’t James Baker [President Bush senior’s secretary of state] make a commitment to Gorbachev not to expand Nato?
ZB I believe there was a commitment not to deploy Nato forces in eastern Europe—but not any explicit commitment that Nato would not be expanded.
JP Is there a danger that Russia might become a military adversary once again?
ZB I doubt it. For one thing, to be a military adversary of the US on a global scale, Russia would have to have some sort of mission, an ideological cause. That strikes me as unlikely. Beyond that, Russia’s capabilities are far lower that they used to be. Russian society expects more for itself in socioeconomic development, and it is more difficult to deny it in the context of the relatively easy access Russians now have to the outside world. This recent posturing by Putin is a kind of childish machismo. It delays Russia’s eventual association with the west. But I don’t think Putin has done anything that gives cause for serious worry.
JP Was it a mistake after the end of the cold war not to bind Russia into a closer relationship with the EU?
ZB More could have been done to create a greater sense of identification between Russia and the west, particularly in the Yeltsin era. But it is an open question whether Russia as a society was ready for it. This was a period of great confusion in Russia, of considerable humiliation; it might not have been easy to fashion something that would have lasted in the long run. However, more should have been tried in the early 1990s.
JP Do you think that Russia is an integral part of western civilisation?
ZB Yes, as is Ukraine.
JP You can’t compare Ukrainian writers, poets, composers or painters with the greats of Russia.
ZB That’s not the issue. The question is: which society is more European? The Ukrainians have shown great ability to deal with diversity without recourse to arms. The Russians have a much greater propensity to solve problems by force. But both societies partake of the Christian heritage—which in turn is very much connected to the European heritage.
JP Would you like to like to see both those countries inside the EU within the next generation?
ZB I have often said if Ukraine moves to the west and becomes a member of the EU and Nato, Russia is far more likely to follow suit.
JP So it should be an ambition of the EU to aim for Russian entry, on certain conditions, within say the next 20 years?
ZB That is perhaps too soon, but the pace of history has certainly accelerated. I have given speeches about a Europe that extends from Portugal on the Atlantic to Vladivostock on the Pacific. When that will happen I do not know. However, if Ukraine is prevented from moving to the west, or is excluded, Russia’s involvement with the west will be much more delayed, and there will be a higher probability of a nostalgic attempt at imperial restoration.
JP What do you think will be the consequences of Dmitri Medvedev becoming president of Russia and Putin his prime minister? Apart from anything else, is Medvedev too young and inexperienced?
ZB The whole arrangement is a constitutional farce. In any case, you could say that Putin was too young and inexperienced when he became president.
JP Both superpowers still maintain a formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons. How can the momentum towards nuclear disarmament be restored?
ZB By stopping proliferation. That’s essential.
JP I thought big power disarmament was essential to create leverage on the would-be proliferators.
ZB Up to a point. But most proliferators are doing it not because they plan to engage in war with either the US or Russia but because of designs against a neighbour or fears of neighbours. I don’t think we can contemplate a halt to the existence of nuclear arsenals without getting proliferation under control.
JP Surely there will be no credibility in dealing with the likes of Iran until there is a greater degree of nuclear disarmament by the big powers. Why do the big powers need these massive stockpiles?
ZB That is a fair debating point, although in reality we know that there is not going to be massive American and Russian disarmament. But despite the recent intelligence estimate that Iran ceased its nuclear programme in 2003, there is a concrete problem with Iran. With luck, in the next few years, progress will be made with Russia and America. But if we decide that we must wait for great-power disarmament for a resolution to the Iran problem, we are more likely to end up with a nuclear-armed Iran.
JP In your latest book, Second Chance, you are very critical of Bushes junior and senior, and of Clinton.
ZB Bush senior had a unique opportunity to resolve one major regional problem and to set in motion a bilateral solution to another. The regional problem was the middle east. Bush didn’t exploit to the full the opportunities he had after the expulsion of Saddam from Kuwait, particularly in regard to the Palestinian–Israeli problem. Second, while he was effective diplomatically in dealing peacefully with the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, he didn’t define any larger vision that might have captivated the Russian mind and given Yeltsin and his team greater confidence that they could be part of the west. To be fair, he may have been thinking of doing these things in a second term. Clinton was too mechanistic and self-indulgent in terms of the national mood at a time of great opportunity. But we should remember that the US electorate voted for a Republican congress which proceeded to reduce taxes on the rich and made American commitment to the global commonweal more rhetorical than real. My chapter on Bush junior is entitled “Catastrophic leadership.” His was a truly appalling distortion of reality, which was demagogically propagated in order to mobilise US support for an unnecessary war. And in my mind there is a risk that the scope of that war may be enlarged even before Bush’s departure.
JP In what sense?
ZB In the sense that the continuing conflict in Iraq could easily lead to collisions, flashes, provocations, a clash with Iran, perhaps some terrorist act in the US that can credibly be blamed on the Iranians.
JP If Bush’s successor were a Democrat, how would you advise him or her to halt this?
ZB I would urge the president to take steps to bring the Iraq war to a political conclusion without delay. One, start talking to all Iraqi leaders, not just those in the green zone, about setting a date for American disengagement. That will focus Iraqi attention on dealing with their internal conflicts more responsibly. Two, approach all Iraq’s neighbours for regional talks about assisting Iraqi security problems upon our departure. Every one of their neighbours, including Syria and Iran, has a stake in Iraq not exploding. And beyond that, try to engage other Muslim countries—Morocco, Egypt, Algeria—in assisting post-occupied Iraq. Three, ensure there’s some major international effort, probably involving the UN, to undertake a rehabilitation of Iraqi society. And I would parallel the foregoing with a more serious effort to negotiate with the Iranians and with a more determined attempt to push Israel and the Palestinians to real peace, not an unsustainable armistice.
JP In an August 2007 article in Foreign Affairs, Barack Obama said the US must “lead the world once more.” Surely, with the Bush era near its close, we’ve learnt that it doesn’t work for America to lead the world alone. It has to be a group effort.
ZB Well, yes and no. The way I’d put it is that the US is, and potentially still will be, preponderant in foreign affairs. But one should not confuse preponderance with omnipotence. What “leading” really means is that the US is the critical catalyst for effective international co-operation. No one else can do it. There’s a choice between leadership and domination.
JP The neoconservatives used 9/11 to put forward the notion that the US must use its power in a highly assertive way. Although the Iraq war has sobered the government, American foreign policy discourse is still well to the right of what it used to be.
ZB I’m not sure I agree. Yes, the neocons exploited 9/11. But I think that the reaction against the war means that the pendulum will swing back towards the middle. But it is hard to predict at what pace.
JP The nearest we ever came to a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians was under Clinton at Camp David, yet Ehud Barak’s own foreign minister said that if he were Arafat, he would have rejected the proposals on offer as being too vague. How do you evaluate Camp David?
ZB I don’t agree with you that they were the closest to success. I think Camp David 1 under Carter came much closer because something substantial followed—the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state, Egypt. It made possible the later peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, which means there’s no possibility of a united Arab war against Israel. The Clinton-Barak-Arafat negotiations never came close to a breakthrough—the proposals were qualified to such an extent that it would have been very difficult for Arafat to embrace them wholeheartedly. I think he was clumsy in creating the impression that he was rejecting them, whereas in fact he was stalling. The American public didn’t even understand that the negotiations continued after Camp David was over.
JP Let’s return to Iran—the enmity goes back to your time, Carter’s time. You made the mistake of letting your worries on the taking of hostages get blown up by the media out of all proportion. This was the root of the bad feeling between the US and Iran. Second, after the 1997 election in Iran, Clinton, fearing Israeli and Iranian lobbies at home, chose not to reach out to a more moderate Iranian president. The US has not played its Iranian cards cleverly.
ZB I think you are more correct in your diagnosis of the Clinton failure than in your emphasis on the hostage crisis. The crisis created a legitimate grievance for the US. The problem was the fall of the shah, and was related to something that at the time was not well understood—the legacy of the overthrow of Mosaddeq in the 1950s, which led over time to a US collision with Iranian nationalism. We were probably manipulated more than we realise by the British in the decision to remove Mosaddeq—his real quarrel was with the British. But after his overthrow, we stepped in on a large scale. We became the beneficiaries of the oil bounty, because the British did not regain their prominent position. Then we became the target of Iranian nationalism.
When the challenge to the shah arose, we procrastinated. We should have fished or cut bait much more quickly—either supporting the shah in an effort to repress the opposition, to prevent Khomeini coming back, and then later embarking on reforms; or dumping the shah very quickly. Instead we tried to steer a middle course, which created ambiguity.
JP But you were the architect of that.
ZB I was one of the co-architects. I favoured the former course. Others favoured the latter. The combination of the two was not productive. We face the same dilemma now in Pakistan. We don’t like a military dictatorship, but are we sure that populism, perhaps tinged with Islamic fanaticism, will be better?
JP Mitt Romney wrote recently that radical Islam’s threat is “just as real” as that posed before by the Nazis and the Soviet Union. Isn’t this attitude leading us down a dangerous path? It is a well-voiced opinion, not just in Republican circles but further afield among other influential Americans.
ZB. It is a false narrative which capitalises on the historical ignorance of Americans. A candidate who says that either thinks, probably correctly, that the American people are ill informed—in which case he’s being a demagogue—or he’s stupid enough to believe it himself, in which case it offers a compelling argument as to why he should not be president.
JP How do you read China? There has been much talk lately about its increased defence expenditures and global ambitions.
ZB If we blow it, then China will probably become the most influential of those world powers that are not dominant. The Chinese—and I’ve dealt with them a lot—are patient, prudent and surprisingly well informed. They have an imperial tradition that allows them to take advantage of opportunities without overreaching. But they are not going to push the envelope in the foreseeable future. They have monumental domestic problems which we tend to underestimate. The reality is massively retarded infrastructure and a great deal of poverty.
JP You’ve said that America risks becoming a huge gated community, self-isolated from the world. What leads you to this conclusion?
ZB Surely you know what does. The question is: will it continue or get worse? That depends a great deal on what we’ve talked about. It also depends on whether there are further terrorist strikes in the US, and if so how the country, particularly the leadership, reacts. One of my indictments of Bush is that he has fostered a culture of fear rather than diminished it. I view the responsibility of leadership to be the fostering of confidence.