In the spring leading up to the 2008 election, this conversation between two former National Security Advisors, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinksi moderated by veteran foreign policy journalist David Ignatius, touched on the state of the world and how America should interact. Both men believe in American exceptionalism, not merely because of our enormous luck in geography and resources, but because our diverse population has given us strength. The development of our democracy followed a path that is not replicable in the rest of the world, but it has given us the resilience we needed to develop a strong sense of the value of personal initiative. Both men conclude that what matters most, what guides our hand in foreign policy, are values. In 2008, both men agreed that Obama and Hillary Clinton embodied those values.
These two highly respected foreign policy analysts are known as “realists” on different sides of the political spectrum but they both recognize the need to balance realism and idealism in a national leader. We are again at the crossroads to choose a national leader, and the candidate who most effectively balances realism with idealism will win.
In eight years much has changed, but much has stayed the same. At that time the two men discussed the withdrawal from Iraq: Brzezinski was more precipitous in his recommendation for an immediate draw down, Scowcroft believed we “broke it, we own it,” though neither man thought it was wise to invade Iraq in the first place. But both men placed as the most important foreign policy issue needing addressing is resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Imagine. Still. “And you know, the moment Israel and Palestine are reconciled, they have a chance together of becoming the Singapore of the Middle East.” (Brzezinski). “Lebanon is one of the most fragile states in the world. But for a long time, Beirut was the entrepột and Paris of the region. Lebanon was a fragile, carefully balanced multipolar state….I think it is possible for people who don’t agree on all the same things to live together and prosper.” (Scowcroft)
Brzezinski often refers in his dialogue to disparities in wealth in America and in the context of nations and how dangerous this is becoming. He sees in that disparity larger issues rooted in the need for restraint and recognition of the dignity of all individuals, no matter their race, religion, or social group. Both men recognize that fostering a "culture of fear" in our rhetoric will sideline more critical issues that need to be addressed, like climate change. "…America can only respond to [critical issues] if it manages to shape a whole series of differentiated coalitions that are dedicated to a collective response." [May I point out here that young Americans are doing this despite the stodgy intransigence of their parents—to address opportunity and wealth inequality and climate change. Occupy was not a one-off fringe movement, we belatedly realize at our peril.]
Both men talk about the speed of communication and the spread of ideas as something that is accelerating access to information and change, making it more difficult for nations to defend widely unpopular polices.
"Americans tend to a kind of universal activism. Europeans are more preoccupied with what they are and would like to nurture and preserve it. Maybe by combining the two, we can achieve a close transatlantic communication that would be healthy for both of us…In the more developed parts of Europe there is a real absence of the kind of social iniquities and disparities that exist in the United States. These disparities are not healthy. I don’t think they are in keeping with our values…I think we have a lot to learn from Europeans, who in that respect have moved towards a more just and genuinely democratic society than ours." (Brzezinski)
"One of the fundamental differences between Europe and the United States is that Europe has developed in such a way that they’ve had to get along with each other. As a result of geographical limitations, they’ve increasingly lived in larger urban units and therefore had had to have rules for behavior, rules for managing people’s interaction with each other. People who couldn’t stand that kind of confining regulation tended to come over to the United States.
As communities on the U.S. east coast started to develop the same need to manage people’s interactions, those who chafed under regulation moved to our open and empty west. As a result, the U.S. has developed a much stronger tendency to resent government. Hence the motto that government is best that governs least." (Scowcroft)
Scowcroft raises something I have never explicitly thought about before in terms of global politics: that population and resource pressure in China is something that may eventually cause them to cast a hungry eye on Russia.
"When you look at the border between China and Russia, the demographics and the demands on natural resources are such that there’s something almost unnatural about the map in that part of the world. On one side of the border is a huge space, as large as the rest of Asia, inhabited by thirty-five million people. On the other side, the rest of Asia, inhabited by three and a half billion people, one and a half billion of whom are expanding dramatically, getting wealthier, richer, more powerful, more modern. Is that an enduring situation?"(Scowcroft)There is much, much more: they talk of Putin and the pressures within Russia, some of which have broken out into action in the years since this book was written. It was a bit sketchy on our relationship with China and Asia generally, partly because these men were in office before China was really a major force in our economy and politics. They talk of the need for talks with Iran, which also happened in the years since this book was written. All in all, it was ravishingly interesting, and not so distant that it feels like history.
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