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The Need to Lead

Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power
By Zbigniew Brzezinski
(Basic Books, 208 pp., $26) 

When it comes to offering a vision to guide American foreign policy, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s latest book, unlike so much other literature of this type, refuses to lament or exaggerate the alleged decline in American power and influence. Instead Strategic Vision offers a kind of blueprint—a path that Washington must take, in Brzezinski’s view, to ensure a secure international order, in which free markets and democratic principles can thrive. Brzezinski calls for the creation of a “Greater West,” uniting Turkey and Russia with America and Europe in a grand political alliance based on Western values. It would stretch from the Pacific Coast of the United States and Canada across North America and the Atlantic Ocean to encompass the countries of the European Union and Ukraine, and across Russia to its historic Pacific port of Vladivostok. Now that’s “the vision thing.” Unfortunately, important parts of the book’s analysis seem overtaken by events, and Brzezinski’s overarching idea—he has a weakness for overarching ideas—is divorced from the realities that Washington policymakers will confront in the coming years.

The book is certainly a welcome antidote to the dreary school of “declinism” now dominating much of the foreign-policy conversation. Yes, China’s economy continues to grow at an unprecedented rate, and India’s entrepreneurial spirit is producing fabulous new industries, and the Gulf states have weathered their previous misallocation of oil profits and boast massive sovereign wealth funds, and Brazil demonstrates that Latin America is no longer a battleground for class warfare, but rather a beneficiary of China’s global appetite for natural resources. And even Africa boasts several high-growth success stories. But this “rise of the rest” (the pundit Fareed Zakaria insists that he coined that repercussive phrase, and I hereby note his claim) actually reflects the realization of long-term American foreign policy aims, which is hardly a reason for despair. An interdependent world of market-based economies and mainly democratic countries, in which state to state aggression is mostly a thing of the past and Washington no longer must dominate, is precisely what American policymakers have been promoting for decades.

Brzezinski, for his part, does not seem worried that an international order along these lines will make American leadership obsolete. His fear is that Washington will not recognize the enduring need for its leadership in such a world, and will therefore adopt a complacent attitude towards military expenditures, economic competitiveness, and international involvement. In the absence of the bipolar structure of the Cold War and with no single country big enough and strong enough to police the planet, Brzezinski forecasts that a combination of weapons proliferation, terrorism, ethnic grievances, and great power rivalry will mean a world of conflict and chaos.


BRZEZINKSI is a committed internationalist. He does not stand among those who cheered President Obama’s call for “nation-building at home,” who advocate a general retreat from international engagement in Iraq, Afghanistan and the greater Middle East, who articulate new grand strategies of American “restoration” (an isolationist phrase first coined by Warren Harding). Instead Brzezinski spells out the profound danger of a world without Washington’s preeminence and power. In its absence, he foresees even more intensified conflict as China, Russia, and India assert dominance in their respective regions while the global commons at sea and in space become a battleground for great power competition.

He can paint a chilling picture. Just as he has visions, he has nightmares. In the Asian future, Brzezinski can imagine China challenging the American strategic commitment to support Taiwan and bringing Taipei under Beijing’s direct control. To Europe’s east, he foresees trouble for Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus as a resurgent, unrepentant Russia no longer fears Western opprobrium and reestablishes effective control over those countries. Emboldened by Western weakness, he predicts that Russia could well grab the oil and gas resources in and around the Caspian Sea, imperiling European energy supplies. And in South Asia he forecasts a new proxy war in Afghanistan, with Pakistan squaring off against India and Iran. He even spells out the risk of a collapsing Pakistan becoming the battleground for China’s rivalry with India for hegemony in the region, not to mention the rise of new Islamic fundamentalist movements and rampant terrorism in that war-ravaged land.

His prognosis for the greater Middle East is particularly grim. With a weaker United States unable to wield effective power, he sketches a scenario of chaos, proxy wars, and possibly even a full-scale regional war between Israel and Iran, with Arab countries reluctantly lining up with their Persian neighbor. At a minimum, Brzezinski believes that with a Shiite-led Iraq no longer serving as a bulwark against Iran, the Gulf states will turn increasingly for protection to a waxing China rather than a waning America. (Earlier this year, the UAE’s government hosted China’s prime minister in Abu Dhabi for this very reason.) And inasmuch as Washington’s relations with the four main Middle East powers— Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey—have deteriorated, the region will revert to age-old rivalries and chaos, inevitably jeopardizing the stability of global energy supplies.


BUT JUST AS the darkness closes in, Brzezinski offers a strategy for staving off these dangers. On the home front, he explains how important it is for the United States to restore its competitive edge. Although not an economist, he pays close attention to the importance of improving our education system and our infrastructure, and urges action to reduce America’s $15 trillion debt. This is the most banal part of his analysis. Does any serious American disagree with such prescriptions? Also, like many other commentators, Brzezinski bemoans the political gridlock that has weakened Washington’s ability to achieve course corrections quickly. Curiously, although he generally avoids assigning any blame to the Obama administration for the loss of American power and prestige, he proposes that the president use his oratorical skills to educate Americans about the international dangers that he, Brzezinski, foresees, as if Obama has been lacking in speeches. An address from the Oval Office that presented Brzezinski’s analysis is what the nation needs, to alarm it and enlighten it and somehow mobilize it for domestic policies aimed at restoring America’s economic and political power.

But the bulk of Brzezinski’s argument is devoted to his strong suits: geopolitics and American foreign policy. Here his proposal is for Washington to demonstrate new and unexpected leadership on the world stage. The United States, in his view, should act decisively to build a new grand Western alliance, while acting to ensure a stable equilibrium in Asia through conciliation and mediation as a rising China emerges.

When it comes to the Middle East, Brzezinski’s book feels dated. Most of it must have been written before the “Arab Spring.” As a result he appears worried about crises arising out of the geopolitical chess rivalries of great powers in places such as the South China Sea and the Caspian, or Washington’s weakening ties with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. But American policymakers are wrestling with different questions: the bloodbath in Syria, the direction of Egypt’s democratic evolution, the aftermath of the fall of Qaddafi in Libya, and the stirrings of democratic values and the Muslim Brotherhood at the same time. Brzezinski was wise enough to write in general terms about the rise of democratic movements around the world in the book, but like most everyone else, he was unable to sense signs of sweeping change in the Middle East. Indeed, Brzezinski’s emphasis on great power diplomacy at the highest levels may blind him more than most to the social forces that drive history from below. If nothing else, the Arab Spring has been a reminder for many of us of the perils of analyzing regimes, not peoples.

Strategic Vision is crystal clear on one thing: how to respond to Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities. Brzezinski argues that it would be a disaster for the United States to support an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and he does not believe that the United States should launch such an attack itself. Instead, he argues that Israel and the Gulf states can live comfortably under an extended American nuclear umbrella if Iran were to become a full-fledged nuclear weapons state. This containment policy, of course, is precisely what the Obama administration has lately insisted it will never adopt.

Brzezinski’s approach to the ArabIsraeli dispute similarly feels overtaken. He wants another Camp David-type peace, where a modern-day Jimmy Carter pressures the parties into a final peace settlement. Considering that there is no Palestinian leader capable of negotiating such an agreement, that Benjamin Netanyahu has shown considerable skill in avoiding Washington’s entreaties to ease up on the Palestinians, and that most of the Arab world is far more focused on dealing with the uprisings of the Arab Spring and the threat from Iran rather than urging action on the peace process, Brzezinski’s proposal seems beside the point. These days, when the Israeli prime minister meets the American president, the subject of peace talks is barely mentioned.


WHILE HIS BOOK is silent on the events of the Arab Spring, Brzezinski has since spoken on two key debates. On American military action in support of the rebellion against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria, he has been cautious, if not outright opposed to an American leadership role. He may call for American leadership in his book, but during the decision time of March 2011, on the question of U.S. military action in Libya, he was content to see the Obama administration adopt a strategy of simply supporting British and French leadership, or “leading from behind.”

Brzezinski’s position is revealing, because it is hard to imagine a more clear-cut case for American military action than Libya. Although the United States may have had some marginal influence over the Egyptian military during the Tahrir Square revolution, and we may have been able to support rhetorically the successful upheaval in Tunisia, it was only in Libya that American action could be—and was—decisive. If, instead of supporting the British and French in their determination to use air power in support of the Libyan rebellion, the United States had decided to assume leadership, it is unlikely that there would be as much talk now about the decline in American power and influence.

Remember the circumstances. A heinous dictator had turned an oil-rich country into a personal fiefdom, had been responsible for brutal internal oppression and international terrorism, and was threatening the people of Benghazi with mass slaughter; the UN Security Council had authorized the use of force; the Arab League—yes, the Arab League—was calling for American and NATO military intervention; only air power was being requested as the rebels were prepared to fight the ground war themselves; and to top it off, the desert terrain made it possible for air strikes to provide a decisive contribution. And yet Brzezinski was hesitant about even a backseat role for the United States, saying, “I cannot think of another instance in recent times, in which I myself was so uncertain in thinking about the problem, how we should act, because there are so many downsides and so many uncertainties. In the end, I concluded that if we didn’t act, it would be worse.” All this agony only about American support for a British- and French-led operation.

An America that wished to restore its power and influence would not take a backseat role to the British and the French, something that has never happened before in the history of the NATO alliance. Washington could and should have led the international effort, reversing the equation, with support from Paris and London, and in so doing making clear that it supported Arab peoples seeking freedom from dictatorial rule. In that case, Washington would have more leverage in the post-war phase to minimize the chaos we now see in Libya and would have won the endless friendship of an important Arab state that happens to have a large supply of the best grade of crude oil in the region. Instead, there was worry from Brzezinski about even the limited role we played.


THE CASE OF SYRIA is similarly instructive. Again Brzezinski sees others taking the lead in support of those fighting for their freedom in Homs, Damascus, Aleppo, and throughout Syria. In this case, he imagines that Turkey or Saudi Arabia should be the active players, telling CNN in February that on the military question “I would be very much guided by the Turks and the Saudis.” But the sad truth is that the Syrian opposition does not expect real military engagement to come from either Turkey or Saudi Arabia. At best, some smaller Gulf states may offer limited arms shipments. And this crisis is not going away. With the veil of fear now lifted, the Syrian opposition and its supporters on the streets will continue their struggle indefinitely, with or without international support, and the Assad regime will not relent in its cruelty. Either the outside world decides to intervene to bring the slaughter to an end or it will continue for a long time.

While the Syrian case is certainly far more difficult than Libya, as almost any question of military action is likely to be, Brzezinski is consistent in not wanting Washington to play a leadership role. This reluctance does not square with the tone and the content of his book’s recommendations about the rest of the world, where he urges American leadership. And while diplomatic action in creating a larger Western alliance would be wise, and it certainly would behoove the United States to continue to play a balancing role in Asia, those steps seem far removed from the tangible dilemmas that Washington policymakers face. Just as important, the power of the United States in the world is demonstrably affected by our actions or lack thereof in the cases of Libya and Syria. Indeed, the zenith for perceptions of American power was probably reached in 2001, when the United States followed up its success in the Kosovo air war with military action to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was Iraq that weakened the deterrent power of the United States, when it took five long devastating years to bring stability to that country, a condition that may be lost in the coming months with the departure of American combat forces. Military success breeds power and influence like no other step, and it is surprising that Brzezinski of all people does not acknowledge the damage done to perceptions of American power when the world sees the United States anxious to end the war in Afghanistan as quickly as possible, leaving Iraq without the residual force in place that most expected—and when the Obama administration was so hesitant to play a military role in a case as straightforward and doable as Libya. By contrast, the defeat of Assad in Syria would not only be a stunning blow to Iran, it would also give Washington new and enhanced leverage and respect in the region.


RETURNING TO THE world of great power rivalry and grand strategy, Brzezinski’s proposal for an enlarged Western alliance from the United States across Europe and Eurasia to the Pacific rim of Russia has much to be said for it. Certainly, such a plan would forestall the chaos and conflict that could emerge in the Caucasus and South Asia if Russia broke with the West and no longer felt constrained by pressure from Europe and the United States. Binding Turkey to Europe would no doubt bring additional benefits, including protecting Europe from instability in the Middle East, enshrining a moderate Muslim state within the West, and committing both Turkey and Russia to Western values of tolerance, free markets, and the rule of law. Brzezinski is certainly right that only American diplomacy could achieve such an historic outcome.

But again, the problem is that developments in the Russia of Vladimir Putin and the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over the last year make this proposal seem questionable, if not ill-advised. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, critics have imagined that some different approach towards Moscow would have been decisive in promoting a grand turn to the West that would prompt an embrace of the rule of law and a rules-based international system. But whether it was the effect of too much, or too little, aid in the early 1990s, or too much attention to Yeltsin, or too much pressure to enlarge NATO, the result has been the same: Russia has retained its stubborn compulsion to restore its status as a superpower as its domestic policies have become more and more authoritarian. Putin’s recent victory in elections for a third term as president and Moscow’s chilling defense of Bashar al-Assad should remove whatever is left of the argument that somehow Russia is only a short step away from joining the West. Curiously, considering Brzezinski’s history of antipathy towards Russia and the Soviet Union, he seems to have given too much credence to his private correspondence with former President Dmitry Medvedev. His openness to Medvedev’s supposed power struggle with Putin may explain his comfort with the idea of bringing Russia in from the cold. But in light of Putin’s subsequent public humiliation of Medvedev, Brzezinski’s analysis looks uncharacteristically naïve.

Turkey has seen a similarly troubling evolution. Erdoğan’s Turkey has been enjoying sustained economic growth and increasing respect in the region. Intoxicated by his new standing, Erdoğan’s behavior has become increasingly erratic on the diplomatic front. One day he publicly snubs Israel’s President Shimon Peres at an international meeting and the next day he demands, in a private meeting with the UN Secretary General, that Turkey’s new status as a major power be recognized by the UN in some formal way. Meanwhile Ankara has threatened a shooting war with Israel over its desire to develop oil and gas deposits near Cyprus and permanently ruptured the Turkish-Israeli military alliance. Turkish foreign policy has been focused almost exclusively on building ties to the Arab world, in the hopes of becoming the big winner of the Arab Spring. Its dreams for a modern-day Ottomanism may be far-fetched, but so is any notion of a Turkish turn back towards Europe, as envisioned by Brzezinski. Instead, under Erdoğan, Turkey is likely to remain a fair-weather friend for Washington, rather than the stalwart ally of the Cold War or the first Gulf War. Despite substantial courting by the Obama administration, Turkey’s relations with the rest of Europe seem far too strained for the kind of alliance that Brzezinski imagines. 

The great power politics of Asia provide Brzezinski an opportunity to hark back to the days of the great practitioner of realpolitik, Otto von Bismarck. He compares the rise of China to the rise of Germany. Whether or not this is a suitable analogy, his specific strategy for Asia seems sensible enough: Washington should continue to play its balancing role in East Asia, and it should seek to reconcile China, India, and Japan while remaining true to its alliance partners in South Korea and Taiwan. Such was the approach, more or less, of the Bush administration, and it has been pursued strongly by Obama.

Yet Brzezinski still manages to include some troubling observations that raise serious questions about where his preferences lie. He appears quite taken with how China’s leaders have studied the fall of the Roman and British empires in a series of day-long seminars, implying that they are grand strategists while the West obsesses about less important matters. Brzezinski suggests that the flawed diplomacy and bungled execution of the Iraq war under the Bush administration has combined with the economic crisis of 2008–09 to discredit and damage the United States—but then he goes on to claim that the Chinese model has now come to be the world’s preferred model, attracting power and influence for Beijing along the way.

What on earth is he talking about? Not only does such an analysis miss the fact that the entire Arab Spring is a tribute to Western democratic values, but surely there is also an American stamp all over the communication technologies and social media that helped organize demonstrations and sustain the democratic revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. The Arab Spring was hardly a tribute to China’s model of harmony and calm. That is why China, an innovator in suppressing social media, views it as a threat. The exhilarating events in nearby Myanmar also serve as a powerful repudiation of the Chinese model and its alleged popularity. In the “Burmese Spring” the dissident Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from house arrest to the house of parliament and the military junta has cancelled crucial contracts with China while reaching out to the United States and the West.


BUT PERHAPS MOST surprising of all, and most disappointing, is that Brzezinski fails to assign great significance to the existence and the character of America’s alliances. Surely, it is the extent of America’s alliances in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and around the world that makes the United States so different and so much more powerful than the great powers that preceded us. In South Korea, Japan, Western and Eastern Europe, and Israel, Washington has powerful, enduring partnerships based on shared values (something China does not have), not to mention the dozens of countries that engage in direct military relationships to sustain the American navy’s unchallenged dominance of the world’s key waterways and oceans. The critical character of these relationships in dealing with China was evident in 2001 and 2002, when China over-reached in its attempt to bully Japan and intimidate others in East Asia over its claim to the South China Sea. The result was a pushback from the United States and its allies—including our de facto ally Vietnam—that prompted Beijing to change course and return to its quieter and less arrogant stance toward its Asian neighbors. Finally, as Robert Kagan has pointed out in these pages, the United States still has roughly the same share of the world economy as it did twenty years ago: China’s increasing proportion has come primarily at the expense of Europe. All of which is to say that China’s ascent is important but it is still a long way from challenging America’s global role.

It is India, weirdly, that troubles Brzezinski. He is clearly uncomfortable with India’s growing wealth and power and oddly anxious about the strengthening ties between Washington and New Delhi. He seems uneasy with the world’s largest and most boisterous democracy. So great is his worry that he suggests that India is more internally unstable than China because of its mix of ethnicities. More incredibly, he asserts that its rural unrest is far worse than China’s. Is it because of some leftover grievance from the Cold War that Brzezinski says the United States should have no more than “cordial” relations with India? Despite the historic improvements in U.S.-Indian relations begun under Bill Clinton, which were further cemented by George W. Bush, and then by President Obama’s warm relationship with India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Brzezinski urges a different path. He fears that close American cooperation with India would prejudge the outcome of China’s rise as well as risk alienating Pakistan and inspiring greater anti-American attitudes among Muslim extremists. This is perverse. Washington’s strategic shift toward India has been one of the few examples of long-range policy evolution that can and should continue to withstand the capital’s partisan brawling. 

THE GOOD NEWS IS that one of America’s leading strategists has not succumbed to the prevailing pessimism about the United States, or accepted the idea that America’s international role is destined for decline. Perhaps the pendulum of conventional wisdom in the nation’s capital has already begun to swing away from “declinism.” Ironically, given the statements of President Obama’s top political and national security aides in the administration’s first two years, stressing the need to end the nation’s overseas wars and entanglements, the phrase popularized by Madeleine Albright—“the indispensable nation”—has even made a small comeback, appearing in the president’s interviews and even in the State of the Union address.

Saying that America is the indispensable nation is, of course, only the beginning. To give meaning to that phrase would require across-the-board leadership by Washington on international economics, on the Arab Spring, on climate change, and other matters. It would also mean the United States taking decisive steps to catalyze international action in support of those fighting for freedom in Syria, including the protection of civilians, the possible arming of the rebels, and even the use of air power as proposed by Senator McCain. It would also mean restoring America’s lost role as peacemaker. It was only a decade or so ago when not only the Israelis and the Arabs, but also the Serbs, the Croats, and the Bosnians, the Irish and the British, the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis, and many others in Latin America and Africa saw the White House lawn as an integral part of American foreign policy. It was perhaps not surprising that the role of America as peacemaker eroded during the eight years of George W. Bush and his “war presidency,” but there has not been much success in this regard in a Democratic administration either. For someone who ardently emphasizes diplomacy over force, President Obama’s record of diplomatic accomplishment has been surprisingly modest.


James P. Rubin was Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration. He is now Counselor to Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. The views expressed are his own. This article appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the magazine.