Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Second Chance (2007) and Strategic Vision (2012) by Zbigniew Brzezinski

Hardcover, 240 pages Published March 6th 2007 by Basic Books (first published 2007);
Hardcover, 224 pages Published January 24th 2012 by Basic Books (first published January 2012)

First published in 2007, the title ‘Second Chance’ refers to the possibility that the United States would be able to recognize and seize its historical moment as the world’s only superpower to do the moral and necessary thing: to lead the world towards greater amity, less divisional politics and severe wealth disparities, and to prepare for the changes climate change will unleash.

Brzezinski was National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter 1977-81 and went to academia (Harvard, Columbia, Johns Hopkins) since. This book looks at three U.S. presidencies after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Brzezinski was a Sovietologist by education and is never so articulate and convincing as when he is discussing the intentions and pressures of Russian society.

Brzezinski begins with the intellectual disarray that accompanied the end of the Cold War, something America had been waging for some forty years. He notes the rise of the “mixture of opinions, beliefs, slogans, and pet formulas…that expressed a pre-disposition…for relatively flexible formulations based on a broadly shared, loosely defined set of convictions”: the globalization of Clinton I and the neoconservatism of Bush II. Brzezinski discusses and debunks the neocon attempts to articulate foreign policy: “without 9/11, the [neocon] doctrine probably would have remained a fringe phenomenon, but that catastrophic event gave it the appearance of relevance.”

Bush I enlisted the help of Arab states to oppose Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Kuwait, and began to set in motion a process to address the Israeli-Palestinian issue which, along with American troops on religious ground in Muslim lands, fed resentments in the Middle East .
“A second term might have given Bush I the time to become a truly innovative president, the shaper of a new historical era. Certainly, his record in handling the agony of the Soviet empire deserves the highest plaudits, and it is doubtful that his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, would have performed as skillfully. But on the Middle East, a stunning military victory was diminished into a mere tactical success whose strategic legacy gradually became negative…In brief, George H.W. Bush’s greatest shortcoming was not in what he did but in what he did not do.”
Clinton I is characterized by Brzezinski as a cheerful, idealistic president embracing globalization but primarily concerned with domestic concerns, unwilling to involve the country in adventures outside the borders. Clinton I had a casual style of leadership on the kaffesklatsch model featuring prolonged meetings with spontaneous participation by a wide variety of White House officials whose personal influence was “fluid.”. Only when forced to acknowledge widespread large scale violence in Yugoslavia did he belatedly put together a NATO coalition to oppose it. Clinton I had the smarts, the smooze, and the talent to put the United States into its role as “leader of the free world,” but he did not have the temperament nor discipline for it.

The presidency of Bush II had a “catastrophic” effect on America’s standing in the world. The simplicity with which Bush I elucidated his Manichean worldview, “If you are not with us, you are against us,” shows his complete unawareness of the complexity of world alliances and nations’ decision-making realities. He squandered his opportunity to lead the world by risking the goodwill of every nation by operating on gut instinct rather than through reasoned consideration, turning his adventurism in Iraq into a global disaster that plagues us still.
“…the war on terrorism took on the menacing overtones of a collision with the world of Islam as a whole…the blend of neocon Manichaeanism and President bush’s newfound propensity for catastrophic decisiveness caused the post-9/11 global solidarity to plunge from its historical zenith to its nadir.”
Thus, we turn to strategists like Brzezinksi when things go very badly wrong and we need to know how to extricate ourselves from the holes which we have dug for ourselves. We can see his point, that world leadership is desirable and needed to smooth the differences in opinions among diverse countries. It might as well be the United States, since we are [still] the world’s only superpower. Our internal divisions, however, preclude our ability to solve even the smallest issues we face domestically, negating any privilege wealth and might may accord us.

Brzezinki’s point in writing this book in 2006-7 was that America could still manage to lead if it could manage some restraint and regulation in domestic affairs, and put our values to good use. The book he wrote in 2011-12, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power , is far more strident and apocalyptic, with far less optimism that the world would look anything like it had for the past several hundred years. It is a new century, and America is in decline.
Is American leadership necessary? This was the question I set out to answer when I began looking the analyses of foreign policy experts. One of these experts is Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981). Brzezinski was instrumental in the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords signed by Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin.

Brzezinski has written many books suggesting initiatives and directions for American foreign policy since he left office, most notably his book Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower in which he describes the successes and failures of three administrations (Bush I, Clinton I, and Bush II) to pull Russia into the European community after the failure of the Soviet state, to address the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to begin to address widening disparities in wealth & influence among the world’s partners. He has long felt that the world’s remaining superpower could help steer increasingly contentious countries to solutions we will need on problems which will soon arise for all of us in a world changed by climate. Without leadership, the world might not be able to orient our direction to solutions that lessen the burdens of inequality.

In Strategic Vision, written before the reelection of President Obama for a second term in 2012, Brzezinski sounds far more apocalyptic than he ever has, suggesting that unless we take control of our internal political mayhem, the corruption of our financial and political systems, and the widening gap between the wealthy and the rest, we may find the world has moved on, without leadership, to a bunch of special interest nationalities, all seeking to preserve their own interests in an interdependent world.

Naturally, I didn’t like this book as well because it posits there are no roads back once we have missed our opportunities. New opportunities come when old ones are exhausted, but the central question is whether or not we are ready to create opportunities to steady and lessen the rancor developing throughout the world to pressures all of us will be subject to very shortly (debilitating changes wrought by climate change). The American populace seems more awake now than at any other time in recent memory, with outside candidates for president railing at the corruption in the system. We have enormous pressures for change within our own society as a result of political gridlock for precious years. Perhaps the political will is finally solidifying to make the changes necessary. Now we just need to choose a president who can be effective with so many internal and external challenges to their leadership.

Brzezinski is a Sovietologist by education and is extraordinarily fluent, fascinating, and lucid on the subject of changes Russia has undergone and that are ongoing in Russia. It is worth reading the book for that portion alone. He makes a special attempt to incorporate Obama’s pivot to Asia in this book, examining how the strengths and weakness of the Asian and south Asian economies and political systems affect the global balance of power, pointing to India and China as the most populous and potentially influential power centers. He makes a point about China that is worth reiterating: as a country with a homogeneous population and long history of central control, it has been extraordinarily effective in creating an extremely strong national identity. That nationalism is something quite new in the experience of other national entities, riven as they are by populations with different religions and races. China’s sense of itself in the world is just developing: its leaders are patient, but its people are ambitious. They face enormous resource and population pressures and difficulties in modifying their one-party system. We don’t know how this will play out in years to come, but currently China has a stake in the U.S. managing to get the corruption of our financial system under control. It doesn’t want to see us fail in this, not right now. We shouldn’t want it to fail, either.

Brzezinski talks about Obama as president, praising Obama’s speeches as candidate and as president, but noting that Obama never spoke to the American people directly about the challenges we face. Part of the job of a leader is to educate its populace, and to ask it to sacrifice for the common good. Obama failed dismally in not raising for public discussion the corruption of special interest money in election financing, the pressures of climate change on our aging infrastructure, the need for restraint in corporate governance. I feel painfully that missed opportunity, but there is some indication in the early presidential election results that some people have gotten the message anyway, no thanks to a hot-air media which is never so happy than when repeating its own predictions and inaccuracies.

Brzezinski writes of the central position of Turkey and its ambitions, and supports the notion that it would eventually be welcomed into the EU. He still holds out hope that Russia would rein in its divisive tendencies, leading to a conception of the West that looks like the entire North of the globe, including all of North America, through the Mediterranean, and encompassing Russia. This is a large leap, especially in light of events of recent years, but I like seeing how Brzezinski got there.

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