Monday, February 6, 2012

A few words with Zbigniew Brzezinski

 Zbigniew Brzezinski, Via Charlie Rose
The political scientist, statesman and geo-strategist on the decline of American exceptionalism, the Arab Spring and America's role in the rise of the Taliban.

Mitt Romney is a true believer in American exceptionalism.

Speaking last October before a crowd of cadets at South Carolina's elite military academy the Citadel, the GOP presidential frontrunner laid out his vision for what he likes to call the “American Century.”
“America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world,” Romney told the audience, and went on to invoke our nation's divinely inspired mandate to shine our beacon of Democracy into the darkest recesses of our troubled planet: “God did not create this country to be a nation of followers,” he said. “America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will.”
That's just not so according to former National Security Advisor and geo-strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski, who says the vision of America advanced by Romney is one that is no longer tenable, while the idea that a challenger can rise up and take our place amounts to a fairy tale.

“The fact of the matter is...the world today is much more diversified, the population of the world is much more politically awakened, and hence hegemony by a single superpower is no longer feasible,” Brzezinski says.

In his new book, “Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power,” Brzezinski argues that the likely outcome of America's decline would be a protracted period of global chaos, with some countries – like Georgia, South Korea, Taiwan and Israel – likely faring worse than others.

To make sure that doesn't happen, Brzezinski asserts that the United States needs an “intelligent foreign policy” that acknowledges America's important role as a nucleus for Western cohesion while recognizing that its days as a unilateral global force are over. 

To use a football analogy, America must accept it is no longer the star quarterback that single-handedly wins the game and embrace its new role as coach, whose duty it is to bring out the best of the team and each of its members.

Brzezinski's vision of an empowered West includes not only our traditional European allies, but Russia and Turkey as well. With the rise of China as a global power, he says, the notion of the West as a dominant bloc can no longer be taken for granted, and instead needs to be sustained through determination and common purpose. 
“The West as such is not finished, but its global supremacy is over. That in turn underlines the central dependence of the West's future role on America...,” Brzezinski writes. “How the American system performs at home and how America conducts itself abroad will determine the place and role of the West in the new objective and subjective global context.”
As for American exceptionalism, Brzezinski would argue that we have spent the past three decades slowly forfeiting that distinction through failed domestic policy and our “culture of self-gratification and deregulation.”

In “Strategic Vision” he details six domestic liabilities that are chipping away at America's status as an international power: our skyrocketing debt, our flawed financial system, widening income inequality, our decaying national infrastructure, our increasingly partisan and divided political establishment, and a population that is woefully ignorant of even basic geography, let alone foreign policy.

In order to secure our place on the global stage, Brzezinski says, the U.S. needs to get its house in order: “Only by demonstrating the capacity for a superior performance of its societal system can America restore its historical momentum...,” he writes.

It's a tall order for sure, but one that is within our power to grasp,  Brzezinski says. And the place to start is with our primary and secondary education systems, which, the author notes, consistently fail to generate adults with the ability to understand the world around them and America's place in it.

For the past four decades Brzezinski, who is now 83, has held a pivotal position in global geo-politics as what some pundits have called the Democrat's answer to Henry Kissinger.  He served as National Security Advisor to President Carter and was a central figure in normalizing relations with China, helping broker the Camp David Accords, and promoting the plan to arm Afghan rebels against invading Soviets. That last distinction has drawn some criticism, since analysts largely agree the failure to adequately support Afghanistan following the Soviet withdraw led to the country's eventual rise as a haven for terrorists.

Today Brzezinski teaches American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and serves as a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Last week I went to hear Brzezinski speak in Philadelphia as he began his book tour for the newly published “Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power.”

I followed up the next day via e-mail to ask him to elaborate on a few points:

In explaining why you decided to write this book you noted that you had high hopes for America’s future as a global leader in the wake of the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc in the early 1990s, but that in the end we “blew it.” When and how did we first go off the rails as a nation in terms of realizing this goal that you talked about? 

Zbigniew Brzezinski: The United States started going off the rails in terms of its own domestic financial practices as well as its highly materialistic and acquisitive social culture quite some years ago.  At least two or three decades. In that sense the domestic binge as well as financial irresponsibility are not the consequence of any one particular administration or one of the two dominant political parties.  Insofar as America’s inability to sustain its global preeminence is concerned, enormous damage to America’s standing was the result of the unjustified, unwarranted, and falsely justified decision by the second Bush Administration to launch a unilateral attack on Iraq.  That produced a prolonged war, the costs of which continue to be felt, and it very badly undermined America’s standing and influence in the world.

In his state of the union address, President Obama talked of our “iron-clad” commitment to Israel. Some people would argue that alliance has done more harm than good in recent years, while others would say our commitment is one of shared ideology and should not be viewed strictly through a strategic lens. What are your thoughts on that?

ZB: There is no problem in my mind with the “iron-clad” U.S. commitment to Israel because it is derived from a sense of moral obligation to the Jewish peoples’ right to have their own state, especially given the tragic consequences of the Nazi-inflicted holocaust.  Accordingly, I do not have any particular problem with it provided that the above commitment is not interpreted to mean that the U.S. has to do whatever the Israeli government desires, and that the U.S. has to refrain from any criticism of Israel’s policies.  The fact of the matter is that Israel is fundamentally a client state of the United States, highly dependent upon American military power, enormously generous financial support, and broadly gauged political protection from hostile countries.

I wonder if you would comment briefly on the Arab spring. Do you see this as a precursor to democracy in the region?

ZB: I think it is very important to recognize that not every social upheaval automatically is a contribution to the emergence of stable constitutionally-based democratic government.  The events in much of the Arab world of the last twelve months involve primarily a form of populism, reflecting a widely felt rage against authoritarian and self-serving governmental elites who promoted systems characterized by massive corruption and social inequality. Populism, however, does not mean that democracy necessarily follows. A populist upheaval to become democratic has to be guided by broadly gauged public understanding of the intricacies of constitutional government, of the need to rely on and respect the rule of law, and that in turn also calls for a political elite who is sensitive to the deeper meaning of the notion of human rights and constitutional rule.  Populism can lead to democracy, but by itself it is not necessarily democratic.

I’d like to take a step back to the Cold War for a minute and talk about the U.S. proxy war with Russia in Afghanistan, in particular our actions following the withdrawal of Soviet troops. It's been suggested that our failure to provide adequate financial support to the country after the Soviets left helped create a  power vacuum that eventually turned Afghanistan into a terrorist haven. In hindsight what could have been done differently?

ZB: There is no doubt that American support for the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion created much good will among Afghans towards the United States, which was reflected in the ease with which the United States was able to overthrow the Taliban regime after 9-11.  Without that sympathy for America, the United States would have been plunged immediately into a prolonged conflict with many more Afghans supporting the Taliban.  It is also important to remember that al Qaeda appeared on the scene only in the latter phases of the Soviet-Afghan war, approximately in the last two years of the Reagan Administration.  Following the defeat of the Soviet-sponsored regime in Kabul, the United States failed to step in with immediate economic support for the new Afghan regime.  That contributed to its weakness and eventual overthrow by the Taliban. In any case, in retrospect, it is very clear that the failure to follow through with large scale economic-financial support to Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviet invasion created the problems which continue to beset not only Afghanistan itself but countries like the United States, which certainly do not wish the Taliban to come back to power.  This is an issue that will have to be addressed on an international basis, because the neighbors of Afghanistan have to recognize the fact that they have a stake in a stable and nonfundamentalist Afghanistan.  That consideration also applies to such countries as India, Russia, and China which are not Afghanistan’s neighbors but would be affected in the long run by a renewed failure within Afghanistan.