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Zbigniew Brzezinski
In Memoriam

The Polish Review – April 2016

Charles Gati, ed., Zbig: The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzezinski (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 280 pp. ISBN 9781421409764.

Zbigniew Brzezinski needs no introduction, but he needs an explanation. He is one of the foremost international strategists in the West, but few could give a comprehensive account of his ideas and policies that contributed so much to the successful resolution of the Cold War and the international position of the United States as the sole superpower. This book, consisting of sixteen chapters, an introduction, and an interview with Brzezinski, with a foreword by former president Jimmy Carter, is written by his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University. It attempts to accomplish that comprehensive account in a series of essays dealing with his academic research, his foreign policy advocacy, and his personal life as a teacher, colleague, and presidential adviser.

Zbigniew Brzezinski was born in Poland but left as a child in the late 1930s when his father, a Polish diplomat, was posted in Montreal. Thus, he was spared the personal experience of the horrors of Nazi and Soviet rule in Poland, but its aftermath made it impossible for his family to return. He graduated from McGill University and moved to the United States to obtain his PhD from Harvard. After teaching there for a few years in the early 1950s, he moved to Columbia University.

Both these universities were pioneering centers of research on the Soviet Union and communism, the foremost issue facing the United States in the post–World War II period. Brzezinski took up the challenge by becoming a Sovietologist.
A great strategist has to be able to accomplish three things: recognize correctly the complex reality of the international system, formulate a strategy to deal with this reality, and implement this strategy successfully to secure a victorious outcome. Zbigniew Brzezinski has a record of outstanding achievement in all three of these areas.

In his early academic work, he concentrated on understanding communism, where some argued that his Polish background and his father’s diplomatic experience in the Soviet Union in the 1930s made him uniquely qualified. He inaugurated the term totalitarianism as an organizing concept of study of the Soviet Union, a distinctly modern phenomenon based on mass society with total political, economic, and ideological control. This distinguishes totalitarian systems from the usual authoritarian ones. After the death of Stalin, this concept evolved, and some elements of it were used for close empirical examination of Soviet developments and thus remained relevant to the study of communism.

In the 1960s, other scholars studied the Soviet Union as a modern industrial society and saw the need for technical rationality for the advancement of such a society. But this rationality was made difficult by its incompatibility with Soviet totalitarianism. It was expected that this requirement for advancement would threaten the Communist Party rule and ease repressive aspects of the system. Two schools of thought were established in response to this analysis. Some scholars predicted that the Soviet system would adapt to the technical requirements of modern industrial society, even at the sacrifice of political control, leading to a US-Soviet convergence.

Brzezinski expected industrial modernization to bring changes to Soviet society, but he thought that it would not reshape Soviet politics and the need for control. Already in 1966, he predicted that this modernization would bring degeneration and not transformation of the communist system. Brzezinski saw the stifling role of Soviet bureaucracy and the resultant stagnation, which would lead to a political response, based on a coalition of the secret police, the military, and the heavy industrial complex, very much like the current situation. He noted a gap between a stagnant, inflexible system and a restless, dynamic Soviet society. He identified the key group challenging the system: non-Russian nationalities.

This academic work and these sharp insights into the politics of international communism were a perfect background for devising a successful US foreign policy. Vladimir Bukowski, a famous Soviet dissident, identified two main causes of failure of US policy toward the Soviet Union: a significant lack of understanding of the nature of the Soviet system among Western decision makers and the generally defensive, peaceful Western policy toward the Soviet Bloc, aimed at preserving the status quo. With Brzezinski, both problems were solved. As a result of his outstanding academic work, he had a deep, nuanced understanding of the Soviet system. He also had a keen sensitivity to the suffering of people under the communist yoke and shared their desire to regain freedom. This deep moral impulse told him to seek a solution to their predicament. He devised a strategy of peaceful engagement to prevail in the Cold War and to penetrate the Soviet system from within to support resistance to communist rule, promote pluralism and dialogue, and provide truthful information in defiance of Marxist ideology. He was a strong anticommunist internationalist aiming at the transformation and demise of communism. Starting with the Kennedy administration, he began his career as a foreign policy advisor in the State Department, blending it with his scholarly pursuits.

The height of his policy work was his appointment as the national security advisor under President Jimmy Carter in 1976. Despite his battles with enlightened amateurs of the Eastern Establishment over the conduct of foreign policy, he managed to achieve a strong record of implementation not only in countering the Soviet Union but also in normalization of relations with China, starting a defense buildup in response to Soviet aggression, negotiating Camp David Accords for the Middle East, and signing a Panama Canal Treaty. He was the first to introduce the concept of human rights as a foreign policy tool, which became an important element of US foreign policy. His calculated moves and strong stand intimidated the Soviets into abandoning plans to invade Poland in the face of the emergence of Solidarity in 1980 and 1981.

Despite the Democratic Party’s loss of the presidency, the Reagan administration was fully committed to Brzezinski’s strategy of countering the Soviets and sought his counsel in implementing it. Reagan’s strong and unambiguous anticommunist stand allowed Brzezinski to fully engage in countering the Soviet aggressiveness, so much so that William Casey, the head of the CIA and a close friend of President Reagan, sought to make him the national security advisor in the second term of the Republican administration. The essay by Patrick Vaughn, ironically titled “Brzezinski, the Pope, and the ‘Plot’ to Liberate Poland,” gives many details of his activities in the 1980s and his friendship with Pope John Paul II, who shared his concerns. Other chapters deal with his involvement in US policy toward China, the Middle East, and his opposition to the Iraq War.

The book also contains personal reminiscences of him as a teacher and colleague as well as an account of a conference in Moscow in November 1989 that consisted of exchanges between Brzezinski and high-level Soviet officials who traded insights with him about the nature of the Soviet crisis and ideas for reforms. His prescient book Grand Failure, published in January 1989, analyzed the nature of the crisis of international communism and his strategies for influencing its transformation.

Numerous authors refer to Brzezinski’s Polish background and its effect on his views and strategic vision. Robert Pastor recollects the left-wing caricature of Brzezinski as a “classic, hardline cold warrior, who was shaped by a Polish heritage that fused his hatred of Russia with disregard for communism.” This image was especially promoted by those who opposed the late 1970s change of Carter’s policy from accommodation of the Soviet Union to efforts to counter aggressive Soviet moves in Afghanistan, Africa, and Cuba as well as Europe. Pastor’s view is that this caricature does not contribute anything to understanding the man and his policies. He most values Brzezinski for devising the concept of human rights as an instrument of US foreign policy, to be used as a weapon against both communism and all dictatorships. Other authors regard his Polishness as an anchor and not bias in his thinking about how to deal with the Soviet Union. Adam Garfinkle regards it as a contributing factor to his greatness as a strategic thinker in that it allowed him to understand multiple political and cultural viewpoints and provided him with a capacity to imagine tragedy that makes him deeply aware of responsibility and of serious consequences of his actions in the international arena. Several authors, most notably Francis Fukuyama, emphasize Brzezinski’s moral opposition to the Soviet Union and its domination of Eastern Europe and his recognition of the threat that it posed to the democratic values and institutions of the West. This moral stance was derived from his Polish background with its love of freedom and sensitivity to oppression.

The essays constituting this book are of high quality and contribute much to the understanding of Brzezinski’s ideas and advice on US foreign policy. Nevertheless, they contain some mistakes. One mistake appears where Patrick Vaughn calls General Jaruzelski “a Polish general in Soviet uniform” when he obviously wants to use the words of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who called him a “Soviet general in Polish uniform.”

A more serious mistake appears in the essay “Anticipating the Grand Failure,” where Mark Kramer claims that a January 1988 Hugh Seton Watson Lecture, given by Brzezinski in London, which talked about an emerging de facto neutrality of Eastern Europe, was similar to a January 1989 Henry Kissinger proposal made to Soviet leaders to conclude a superpower accord regarding the future status of Eastern Europe. This is similar to what coauthor Justin Vaisse describes in his essay “Zbig, Henry, and the New US Foreign Policy Elite,” which recalls an event where Henry Kissinger attacked Brzezinski for criticizing détente by claiming that it was similar to Brzezinski’s recommended policy of “peaceful engagement in Europe’s future.” The author correctly recognizes that there was a vast difference between the two: peaceful engagement was aimed at subverting Moscow’s hold on Eastern Europe, whereas détente was aimed at stabilizing the overall US-Soviet relationship.

Unfortunately, Mark Kramer does not recognize a similar context here. Newspaper accounts described the Kissinger plan as “seeking Soviet acquiescence in national self-rule by those countries without the threat of renewed Soviet military intervention,” which implied autonomy in internal policies for the local communist elites in exchange for a Western promise not to destabilize the existing balance of power. Observers dubbed it the second Yalta.

In his Hugh Seton-Watson Lecture, Brzezinski described the situation in Eastern Europe as a revival of the authentic national cultures, growing regional unrest, and continued decay of communism and its gradual transformation into a pluralist system. He predicted that 1988 would be the year of a new Spring of Nations in Europe, parallel to the popular revolutions of 1848. Brzezinski saw communism in a systemic crisis, where conditions were emerging for dismantling the Soviet empire and for the neutralization of Germany and Eastern Europe. In this context, he called for enlightened policies of the West to support this process: encouraging and facilitating gradual change, sustaining political resistance and dialogue. In Brzezinski’s view, this growing emancipation and insistence on respect for human rights would eventually lead to genuine independence. This is a far cry from Kissinger’s superpower agreement, which proposed to limit changes in Eastern Europe and not to support and expand them. It would have permanently legitimized Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in its own sphere of influence, even with a doubtful commitment not to invade, and at a time when Soviet presence there was crumbling for its own internal reasons.

This is a rich and much-deserved presentation of Brzezinski’s accomplishments. The Cold War was won by understanding the nature of communism and devising an appropriate strategy of dealing with it. It was helped by grand historical trends of technology, economics, and globalization, but without a strategy, these factors all might have come for naught. Putting Brzezinski’s achievements in a historical perspective solidifies his reputation as one of the world’s leaders who helped win the Cold War. Although some of the points made in the book are debatable, this is hopefully just the beginning of analyses of his contributions to the history of the Cold War that are going forward with many new materials available and a new time perspective. Brzezinski’s legacy of the grand strategic vision for the United States will become more prominent without old political conflicts, just on his own outstanding merits.

Dr. Lucja Swiatkowski Cannon
Independent Scholar