Brzeziński: Strategist and Statesman

15. 3. 2017

Zbig. The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzezinski, edited by Charles Gati, Washington, D.C. 2013.

Until recently, the security of Central and Eastern Europe was the main focus in the debate on the future of NATO and the subsequent summit of the Alliance in Warsaw. The need to strengthen the so-called “Eastern flank” had been an often raised argument, but it used to meet only with modest reception among the countries of Western Europe. However the Russian aggression against Ukraine, which resulted in a far-reaching change of perception of European security problems and dramatic worsening of the relations between the United States, the European Union, and Russia, has made this argument extremely powerful.

But in politics nothing should be taken for granted. This conclusion was powerfully brought to us by this year’s presidential elections in the United States, where one of the two main candidates openly admired President Vladimir Putin, called NATO an outdated alliance, and promised to execute equitable sharing of defense costs. Of course, the demand that Europe should take more responsibility for solving security problems is not new. It was put forward already in 2011 by the outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who spoke about “increasing difficulty in the US to retain the support for NATO, if American taxpayers keep paying most of the costs.”1 According to Gates, the leaders of the United States who did not grow up during the Cold War, “may not see the return from the American investment in NATO as compensating the costs.”2 Therefore the answer to the question of what can happen over the long term after the Warsaw NATO summit will really be of crucial importance. To what extent will American attention shift towards Asia, where China becomes a competitor vis-a-vis the US and is increasingly assertive? To what extent can we maintain the unity of the West, especially in the face of disintegration trends in the European Union?

It is worth recalling in this context how forward-looking was the letter addressed to President Obama by more than twenty eminent personalities from Central and Eastern Europe, which was written in 2009. It warned that the issue of the region’s security was not definitively resolved and hence the US involvement was still necessary.3 The claim that Russia has returned to confrontational policies against the West is no longer treated as a figment of Russophobic imagination of Poland or the Baltic countries. It would be a mistake to think of Russia as a declining regional economic power and not to threat its global aspiration as a potential challenge. Russia remains a nuclear power, and openly uses this argument in its threats. It is capable of warning such countries as Finland about military consequences if it is more willing to join NATO. Russia is capable of aggression directed against her neighbors, as has been proved twice recently, and even of annexing foreign territory, that is an operation which we thought to be a longgone relic of the first half of the 20th century. Russia also mastered the techniques of hybrid war, for example information war, and started to influence and endanger the political processes in Western democracies. No matter whether strong or weak, Russia will pose a huge challenge to the security of the transatlantic community.

All this means that the book edited by Charles Gati and called Zbig: The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzeziński, appears in a critical moment from the point of view of the emerging new international order.

It seems that the figure of Zbigniew Brzeziński does not need to be introduced even to people who have only vague knowledge of international politics. Brzeziński belongs to a highly elite group of people who not only contributed to shaping the foreign policy of the major world superpower, but also influenced general thinking about Sovietology, the changes in the post-Cold War global order and American policy. He represents the perfect combination of theory and practice on the highest possible level. Each of these issues deserves a separate book.

Charles Gati undertakes a difficult task in bringing together the eponymous strategist and statesman. He does it through a collection of articles authored by Zbigniew Brzeziński’s colleagues in various periods of his life or by people closely watching his career. Thus the book is a kind of blueprint for in-depth studies, and even as a blueprint it is extremely interesting.

First, it asks the question about Brzeziński’s influence on real political events, both as a political decision-maker (where the category of influence is central) and a thinker (whose ideas shape our way of seeing the world).

Second, the book raises the question of durability of Brzeziński’s influence, that is to what extent his ideas have stood the test of time and what have been the long-term consequences of his political choices.

And third, the book makes us look at the world in which we live and to draw practical conclusions for contemporary policy.

In the first context we must say that the book debunks Brzeziński’s role – a step that is needed. The public image of Professor Brzeziński, especially in Poland, is based on a number of clichés: his “hawkish” convictions about the Soviet Union, his promotion of the idea of human rights, and his close acquaintance with Pope John Paul II. The symbol of Brzeziński’s role in the Middle Eastern peace process is pictured by his famous chess game with the Prime Minister of Israel Begin, while the symbol of US strategic opening to China is linked to the Brzeziński’s photo where he hosts a dinner with Deng Xiaoping.

We can learn from the book that the reality is more nuanced. Brzeziński was not necessarily very effective politician. He did have an easy access to the president’s ear, but Carter liked to collect various viewpoints. And he liked Zbig himself for the clarity of his opinions, great intelligence and invention, but it translated into the policy of the US Administration to very different degrees. Zbig did not play a principal role in the Middle Eastern peace process, he probably did not understand this region with its nuances, and therefore he was often wrong in his assessments. His decisions during the Iran crisis contributed to Jimmy Carter’s losing the re-election. And in Carter’s Chinese policy there was more continuity with Nixon’s administration than is commonly known, although the motives of these policies were formulated differently.

Also Brzeziński’s ideas as a strategist were successful to varying degrees. He was right in his belief about numerous weaknesses and impermanence of the Soviet Union, although we could dispute his claims about the factors which ultimately played the most important role in the collapse of the Soviet system. This discussion is not easy, for Brzeziński’s works, especially the later ones, cannot be assessed in the strictly academic sense. This probably was not his aspiration. For Zbig, academic theories had to have a practical dimension. He wanted to define directions of thinking, even if his assumptions were sometimes dubious. A few years ago Brzeziński was convinced about inevitability of internal changes in Russia, about the impact of globalization on this country, and the increasing role of the middle class. Travels abroad, access to information, contacts with the democratic world, and the need to participate in global processes were the factors which—he thought—would be shaping the new generation of Russians. The alliance of Russia with Europe seemed inevitable to him, especially in the face of the growing pressure from China. But he did not explain the reasons for the previous failure in recruiting Russia as a Western ally, he did not say why this should change, or why a bottom-up modernization had never happened in the entire Russian history.

Brzeziński notes that, for the first time in its history, Russia tries to define itself as a nationstate, and its future depends on whether it will finally become a “serious nation-state which is part of Europe.”4 According to Brzeziński, such Russia is necessary to resolve the most difficult problems in the Middle East together with China and the US. However, it is really difficult to challenge such a claim.

A few years ago Brzeziński put forward a catchy but deceptive vision of the G-2, that is a world with the dominant role played by the US and China, either as partners or as rivals. Again it is difficult to argue with this claim, for it does not answer the question if and why the G-2 is possible at all. Also his prediction about “Finlandization” of Ukraine during the crisis with Russia was not very well thought out. This time Brzeziński’s political instincts rather failed him.

Still, Brzeziński’s weakness can also be considered as his greatest advantage. You cannot simply be indifferent to professor’s claims. They are powerful and provocative. Brzeziński makes us think, whether we like it or not. He is capable of capturing the trends and dynamics of the changing world in an extremely colorful way. He is much better in that than his arch-rival Henry Kissinger, who constantly invokes the balance-of-power model (we could add here that Zbig suggests much better relations between Kissinger and Brzeziński than is commonly believed).

Such phrases coined by Brzeziński as “global Balkans”or the recent“global awakening”entered the canon of political science. About the latter he spoke much earlier than the leading analysts of international affairs, as he did about the disastrous consequences of the American involvement in Iraq.

Both Kissinger and Brzeziński, and later also Madeleine Albright, were immigrants who shaped the foreign policy of the greatest global power. Therefore it is characteristic for Brzeziński that he defines the world in terms of the leadership and interests of the United States as well as of the security and role of Central Europe, including Poland of course. Brzeziński notices the problems of American democracy, as they have a huge impact on the US foreign policy, but he believes that American leadership in the world is irreplaceable, even if its power will be weaker than before. On the other hand, Brzeziński had never felt in love with the European Union. The reason for his dislike probably is that he was always very demanding of the EU, but also extremely realistic. In his view only strong Europe could be a partner of the United States in an increasingly complicated world.

The Union after “Brexit,” with a tangle of unresolved problems described by many as existential, will never be such as Zbigniew Brzeziński wishes it to be. It must be a painful experience for Zbig when he sees that Central Europe driven by populism stops her support of a strong European Union. While NATO and the US recently increased their involvement in this part of Europe, this was only due to the momentum gathered after Russian annexation of the Crimea and its aggression against Ukraine. Sustaining this involvement is by no means certain. The United States face too many challenges in other parts of the world in order to struggle with problems of Central Europe’s state of democracy. America is not a member of the so-called Normandy format which struggles to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. In fact, no Central European country belongs to that group either. It would be a huge blow for transatlantic relations if the trade and economic agreements TTIP (US-EU) and CETA (Canada-EU) were not ratified. They were supposed to strengthen the ties between the partners on both sides of the Atlantic, but politicians seem to capitulate against public opinion, which is opposing these treaties.

The US-Russia relations probably cannot be worse than they are today – there is not even much to reset again. In the same time the European Union will continue being preoccupied with itself for many years. Poland has very rapidly managed to strongly undermine its relations with Germany and France while its aspirations to leadership in the Visegrad Group are treated with suspicion by other V4 members. It seems very likely that Poland will be playing increasingly peripheral role in the European integration processes.

In his book Strategic Vision that was published in 2011, Zbigniew Brzeziński promoted a vision of expansion of the West which would become the most stable and the most democratic zone in the world with America as its guarantor. He also thought about significant role for the Weimar Triangle and he spoke hopefully about the prospects for Russia and Turkey.

The world in which we live now is very remote from this vision, to say the least. But as Kissinger emphasized, “If you don’t know where you are going, every road leads to nowhere.” Zbigniew Brzeziński is one of only few people who dare to mark new roads and draw far-reaching visions. This is the feature of a true statesmanship.


1) R. Gates, Reflections on the status and future of the transatlantic alliance, Speech at the Security and Defence Agenda seminar,
Brussels, 10 June, 2011.

2) Ibid.

3) An Open Letter to the Obama Administration from Central and Eastern Europe, 17.07.2009.

4) Z. Brzezinski, Toward Global Realignment, „American Interest” vol. XI, no. 6, July/August 2016..

Bartłomiej E. Nowak

is a political scientist, he holds a PhD in economics (Warsaw School of Economics). Former Chair of International Relations at the Vistula University (2014-17) and Executive Director at the Center for International Relations in Warsaw (2010-13). He was a fellow at the European University Institute in Florence (2018), Transatlantic Academy in Washington D.C. (2013-14) and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs (2014-17, non-resident).

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