The recently released festschrift Zbig: The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzezinski opens with a perhaps inevitable comparison between Brzezinski and his friend and fellow émigré Henry Kissinger.
There are, as Brookings Institution scholar Justin Vaïsse demonstrates in his essay “Zbig, Henry, and the New Foreign Policy Elite,” striking similarities between the two men. Born just 5 years apart in interwar Europe, both arrived in North America in 1938—Kissinger as a refugee from Nazi Germany, Brzezinski as the son of a Polish diplomat. Harvard doctorates in hand, both went on to make lasting contributions to their respective fields of study while simultaneously becoming well known and highly sought after public intellectuals, before assuming the role of Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs—Kissinger for Nixon in 1969 and Brzezinski for Carter in 1977.
Viewed as upstarts by the old-line WASP establishment, both men endured a fair amount of petty sniping with regard to their religious and ethnic backgrounds. Truman’s Defense Secretary Robert Lovett once observed of Brzezinski, “we really shouldn’t have a National Security Adviser like that who isn’t really an American.”
Yet for all that, the figure Brzezinski most resembles in his thinking about U.S. foreign policy is someone with whom, superficially anyway, he bears almost nothing in common: the diplomat and historian George F. Kennan. As is well known, Kennan became famous upon the publication of his “X” article in 1947 and is widely credited as the “father of containment.” His career as a purely public figure began at almost precisely the same time his career in the Foreign Service ended—in 1953, at a speech he gave at the University of Notre Dame.
In it several of the themes that preoccupied Kennan for the remainder of his long life emerge, all having to do with America and its relationship not so much with the wider world but with itself. The Notre Dame speech, given at the height of Joseph McCarthy’s degradations, is first and foremost a warning against the corrosive and distorting effects of fear on American society that “sow timidity where there should be boldness; fear where there should be serenity; suspicion where there should be confidence and generosity.”
The hyper-emotional currents of that era’s anti-communism would only lead to an erosion of the “great qualities by which this nation has thus far been distinguished: its tolerance, its good nature, its decency, its health of spirit.” Kennan’s detestation of McCarthyism was based largely on his conviction that a country led by fearful leaders and inhabited by a citizenry hypnotized by a crass materialism will undermine itself and its global standing.
These concerns were never far from Kennan’s subsequent writing and advocacy. Take, for example, his testimony before J. William Fulbright’s hearings on the Vietnam War in 1966. According to his biographer John Lewis Gaddis, Kennan explained to the committee that Ho Chi Minh was not in fact Hitler and defeating him would involve the U.S. in acts “for which I would not like to see this country responsible.” It was unbecoming for the U.S. to “jump around like an elephant frightened by a mouse.” His message was unmistakable: fear of exaggerated threats ought to be a non-starter as a driver of policy for a mature world power.
Perhaps the most succinct expression of Kennan’s philosophy can be found in his 1985 Foreign Affairs essay “Morality and Foreign Policy,” in which he makes explicit the link between the state of affairs at home and its behavior abroad: “It must be understood that in world affairs, as in personal life, example exerts a greater power than precept.”
Many of the same concerns that preoccupied George Kennan in the second half of his life seem to similarly animate the writings and public statements of Zbigniew Brzezinski. His warning not to overreact to the supposed threat posed by Saddam Hussein echoed quite closely Kennan’s testimony on the Vietnam War some three decades earlier. As the journalist James Mann points out in his contribution to Zbig, as early as 1998 Brzezinski observed that “we have lost our sense of balance and proportion in Iraq… we talk of Iraq as if it was Nazi Germany. It’s a poor, 22-million people country. … It’s a problem and a nuisance; it’s not a major world threat.”
In his recent books, particularly in America and the World (with Brent Scowcroft) and last year’s Strategic Vision, Brzezinski continues to sound the alarm over the danger to America’s standing in the world posed by an ignorant populace whose leaders are largely in thrall to a rapacious version of late capitalism. In this respect, while Kennan never made any secret of his distaste for the by now normal accoutrements of modern American society—he seemed to have had especial distain for automobiles and advertising—Brzezinski’s critique is more relevant. In America and the World he notes that it’s time we start “asking ourselves whether the unlimited acquisition of wealth is ultimate objective of life.” If it’s unusual to hear a former national security adviser speak in these terms, consider his reflections, in the closing section of Zbig, on his fellow Pole Pope John Paul II:
He subscribed to a notion of social justice. He wasn’t against the free market system, but he wasn’t devoted to capitalism. He emphasized social responsibility and some sort of balance in the distribution of wealth. I happen to share that point of view.
What distinguishes what I would call the “good society” realism of Brzezinski and Kennan is a recognition that the fundamental prerequisite for the effective exercise of global leadership is a America’s willingness to sustain just, fair, and above all decent conditions at home.
I think it’s fair to say that such recognition—if the recent offerings of Robert Kagan and Josef Joffe are anything to go by—is lacking within the foreign policy establishment today. And that’s unfortunate if you consider the following. Among IMF “advanced economy” countries the U.S. ranks at or near the bottom in the following areas: income inequality (America’s Gini coefficient is on par with Cameroon’s and Bulgaria’s), food insecurity, life expectancy, infant mortality, environmental performance, percentage of people in prison, and percentage of people below the poverty line, to say nothing of measures of student performance in math and science. Youth unemployment is over 17 percent, and the New York Times recently reported that in Scranton and Syracuse over 40 percent of those over 18 have simply dropped out of the work force altogether. There are now around 50 million people living in poverty in the United States.
And so the arrival of Zbig is timely given the continued propensity of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists to remain cheerfully oblivious to the deteriorating economic and social conditions here in the United States. A foreign policy which understands that—in Brzezinski’s words— “America needs to be intelligent and appealing in order to be effective” is much more suited to the challenges America faces in the 21st century than the Washington establishment’s attitude of blithe self-satisfaction.
James Carden served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.