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The ‘Good Society’ Realism of Zbigniew Brzezinski

The recently released festschrift Zbig: The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzezinski [1] 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 [2] (with Brent Scowcroft) and last year’s Strategic Vision [3], 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 [4] and Josef Joffe [5] 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.

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "The ‘Good Society’ Realism of Zbigniew Brzezinski"

#1 Comment By Rainer Kraut On December 13, 2013 @ 5:10 am

Robert Lovett might be right stating “we really shouldn’t have a National Security Adviser like that who isn’t really an American”

As an European,I really don’t understand why many U.S.-Americans seem to believe that every immigrant (especially from Europe) at once wants to identify him-or herself with America and not with his or her home country anymore.

Let’s take the example of Zbigniew Brzezinski.You might believe that he is an US-American und thus an “Americafirster”
Yes,you might know what Brzezinski is saying in the U.S.,but I suppose you don’t know what he is saying here in Poland.

Despite already being an citizen of the United States for many decades Brzezinski still regards himself as a Pole.You are surprised?
Read Polish wikipedia about “Polacy(narod)”-in English “Poles(people)”- and you come to know that in he U.S. there live 9,5 mln.Poles (see “regiony zamieszkania”) By the way,according to Polish wikipedia in the U.S. there also live 30 or 40 mln. Germans ,
millions of Italians,Swedes etc…

Oh,you naive Americans.Many of you seem to be blind to ethnic lobbies in your country.Especially to lobbies from Europe.Maybe you don’t comprehend how deeply rooted national identity traditionally is in Europeans.Not so much anymore in,let’s say,Swedes or,of course,Germans,but in most other European nations (especially in Southern and Eastern Europe)
Brzezinski was “liberal” in the case of Irak?
Logical,because Irak is far away from Poland and posed no threat to this country.
As I already wrote,in the case of Ucraine Brzezinski was and is far less “liberal” and has stated “an independent Ucraine is more important for the security of Poland than its NATO membership”
Another example:Remember how “liberal” many American Jews were in the case of Vietnam (Daniel Ellesberg etc.)Why? Maybe because Vietnam is far away from Israel? In the case of Iraq many of these Jews were far less “liberal”,as you know.As they are now in the case of Iran.

In short: Such ethnic lobbies are seemingly “liberal” if something doesn’t affect their home country,but aren’t “liberal” at all if it does.They want to attract your attention to their home countries and detract it from others.

#2 Comment By Puller58 On December 13, 2013 @ 8:18 am

Despite the article the other day that chided Zbig for his Ukraine/EU views, he’s quite right about things here in the US. A helpful example of what’s wrong with our foreign policy/domestic policy is the late William Safire’s focus on “hands off at home, hands on abroad.” We’re getting a great deal of nonsense from the Koch brothers and fellow faux libertarians who want to return to the days of the 19th century robber barons, and of course liberal interventionists and neoconservatives who want to “save the world” and ignore things at home. Congress needs a reality check, and Dr. Brezinski’s viewpoint would be a handy start.

#3 Comment By Aaron Gross On December 13, 2013 @ 12:26 pm

Shouldn’t it be emphasized that this “good-society realism” for “the effective exercise of global leadership” is not about what Americans consider to be a good society, but about what those other countries perceive as a good society? Other countries will or won’t accept US leadership based on their own judgments of America, not on American judgments of itself.

For instance, if we want to exercise leadership in Europe, and if European countries believe that a good society is a secular society with no religious influence on politics, then good-society realism would advise America to become less religious.

It seems that Brzezinski and Carden are careful to choose those criteria of a “good society” that they, personally, approve of, as if there were no dispute.

#4 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 13, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

“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.”

The failed policies abroad reflect the bad ones at home. Favorable world opinion of leadership shouldn’t be the reason to do what’s right by your own citizens, democratic accountability ought to be.

#5 Comment By SteveM On December 13, 2013 @ 1:30 pm

American “leadership” was already 80% in the tank with the Neocon Right exerting arrogant World Cop belligerence. The illusory Obama as Messiah “rescue” was akin to a relief pitcher who can’t throw strikes. That stupid toad armed with clueless narcissism and an unbounded NSA delegitimized American leadership from the Left to finish the job.

The American Leadership horse is out of the barn and long gone. There is no getting it back.

P.S. When I step back and consider the scope and scale of the economic carnage and global debacles they have created, it is pretty amazing how repulsive the failed American Power Elite class actually is…

#6 Comment By James Canning On December 13, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

Kennan indeed predicted the disaster that befell the US in Vietnam, due to “jumping around like an elephant frightened by a mouse”.

We might recall here that Kissinger talked Nixon into not getting out of Vietnam quickly, as Nixon has promissed to do if he got into the White House.

#7 Comment By daddysteve On December 13, 2013 @ 2:35 pm

I see him as just another architect of the rickety structure we now inhabit.

#8 Comment By Vitaly Purto On December 13, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

It took 2500 years of thinking and 200 years of building of American Dream “classless” society, 50 years of creating of so called “middle class”, the closest approximation of balance, harmony and trust between people and their representatives. It took only 3 decades to put everything into ruin. Once gone, the trust cannot be restored unless our society undertake total overhaul. Alas, it is not only American problem. It is global problem. Albeit American monied class and American ragged individualism a la Ayn Randism contributed mightily to obvious demise of what we call “Western” civilization. Our horse is definitely long ago is out of the barn, may be as long as August 6, 1945. But madam Clio might have some new tricks down in Her sleeves.

In 1806 on the battlefield of Iena, Prussian King, who fled without pants (literally), was surrounded by his generals, who presented to King the list of reforms, which King should introduce in order not to loose his head next time. First line item on the list was school reform, which had made German education the envy of the world and propelled Germany to her position of preeminence. It took only 12 years of Nazi regime to bring her to current semi-colonial status.

#9 Comment By David Isenbergh On December 13, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

Brzezinski deserves credit for bringing to the fore the considerable dangers of Russian/Soviet totalitarianism and aggression in the immediate aftermath of WWII, when there was a lack of clarity in the West on these issues. Unfortunately, it was this very same insight, which became an obsession, that drove Brzezinski, and with him, US foreign policy, to some of the worst foreign policy blunders in recent history: the Vietnam War, our dedication to the cause of the Mujahedin during the Russo-Afghan conflict, and the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe post-1991 (thereby insuring and exacerbating a permanent conflict with post-Soviet Russia.)

#10 Comment By Charlieford On December 13, 2013 @ 8:53 pm

Good article!

#11 Comment By NKI On December 13, 2013 @ 11:44 pm

“our dedication to the cause of the Mujahedin”

Why is this a blunder? And don’t say it’s cuz they turned into the Taliban – they didn’t.

#12 Comment By Ken Hoop On December 14, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

It might be me banned here but I don’t believe American occupation of Europe was any better, is any better than Soviet occupation thereof.

#13 Comment By channelclemente On December 14, 2013 @ 3:11 pm

Thought provoking and excellent article.

#14 Comment By Jamie Estevez On December 14, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

I can’t hear the name of Zbigniew Brzezinski without cringing. If there is a future war with Russia, Zbigniew Brzezinski and like minded individuals in Washington DC will be to blame. It could be argued that Al Qaeda is as much Brzezinski’s baby (due to our governments support of Sunni Islamist rebels during the Soviet Afghan war) as it is the child of Saudi Wahhabism and the Pakistani ISI.

#15 Comment By Bud Wood On December 14, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

Thought provoking essay. I tend to agree that the conclusions of both Brzezinski and Kennan were mostly correct. I also am a proponent of free enterprise as contrasted with capitalism, so Kennan’s questioning of capitalism (often government supported) sounds correct.

#16 Comment By Eagle On December 14, 2013 @ 8:58 pm

I find it a remarkable and unbelievable a comparison, Kennan and Brzezinski.

Kennan was a level-headed Midwesterner who advocated sober and careful deliberation on foreign policy. Brzezinski was a hysterical Russophobe who brought to office his considerable nationalistic baggage from his country of origin.

That both Kennan and Brzezinski may have found defects in contemporary society is hardly grounds for equating the two in any way. Kennan was a great man who stood for enduring principles, Brzezinski is a chauvinist and ideologue.

#17 Comment By William Dalton On December 15, 2013 @ 1:33 am

“It might be me banned here but I don’t believe American occupation of Europe was any better, is any better than Soviet occupation thereof.”

The American occupation of Germany and Japan were welcomed precisely because the alternative was occupation by the Soviet Union. This I know because my mother and grandmother were among those refugees who fled west from the advance of the Red Army to find security among the American forces in American occupied territory. The fear of Soviet forces was not of because they brought communism, but because they brought a well deserved and well documented reputation of being rapacious and murderous animals.

This is what Americans have failed to understand in every instance since World War II in which we have entered other countries by force, expecting to be welcomed as liberators, from Vietnam, to Lebanon, to Somalia, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Libya, with Syria, Pakistan and Iran beckoning. We were not and will not be seen as liberators by people who are in no danger of a greater external threat. The fact they may live under a despotic ruler of their own is not sufficient to welcome foreign occupation. The two instances in which our intervention was, in fact, welcomed, were Korea and Kuwait, in which we repelled actual foreign invaders.

As long as the United States was a nation which, aside from habitually deploying an idealistic and naive military into foreign countries, displayed the virtues of a government which respected the law and generosity in providing material aid, there was no need for us to “sell” democracy or freedom at the point of a gun. People around the world could see how we lived, materially and morally, and our way of life sold itself. We could restore our influence in the world if we brought our troops home from abroad and redirected the resources we have devoted to them into cultivating and restoring those old virtues.

#18 Comment By Heavy B On December 15, 2013 @ 2:38 am

Enough of the Kennan-Brezinski stroking.

Their views are only interesting because the fall of Soviet Communism allowed a “normal” world politics to re-emerge.

They never understood the cultural and political power the old Soviets embodied, with all their patent societal failures, as the focus around which all “anti-bourgeois, anti-modern” forces especially in the developing, particularly Latin world received symbolic sustenance.

If that power waned before the actual Fall — as, sat, among the French, it was due to the heroic authorship of figures like Solzhenitsen, Raymond Aron, and other in the Parisian “intellectual capital” of Communism. Still, only the actual collapse unwound all its pernicious influence — and allowed, say, Mandelas to become Mandelas, while the Ortega Bros in Nicaragua just had to reinvent themselves….

Even as conservatism re-invents itself in this mag, it shouldn’t buy into revisionism wholesale. There really was an existenstial threat in Soviet Communism — and Brezinski-ism was nit equipped to deal with it — just as there is NOT a threat from “Islamo-fascism” or rising Chinese or Russian nationalism of the same danger.

Context is everything.

#19 Comment By NKI On December 15, 2013 @ 4:47 am

“It could be argued that Al Qaeda is as much Brzezinski’s baby (due to our governments support of Sunni Islamist rebels during the Soviet Afghan war)”

This is completely false though. The people we supported formed the government BEFORE the Taliban overthrew it.

I don’t WTF is wrong with beating down Soviet occupation of a state anyway, damn man.

#20 Comment By Jack On December 15, 2013 @ 9:03 am

“to say nothing of measures of student performance in math and science.”

Most of the list of Ameica’s failings are unexceptionable, but not this one. If America is so bad at teaching math and science, it is strange that it collects lots of Nobel prizes, dominates the tech industry, and has most of the best universities in the world. I suggest that America does a wonderful, world-beating job of educating its intellectual elite, while doing a mediocre job of educating ordinary students.

#21 Comment By David Smith On December 15, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

“… 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.”

One could say the same thing — accurately — about Iran today.

#22 Comment By sumac spring On December 15, 2013 @ 9:45 pm

“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.”

And Lovett is absolutely right. Such positions should be off limits to non-natives. The number of foreigners and quasi-foreigners who crept into our foreign policy apparatus is appalling. God knows we certainly aren’t getting better diplomats or diplomacy as a result.

#23 Comment By Banger On December 16, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

Good article. I don’t understand the vitriol against SB he is certainly on par with Kennan if for no other reason that both men were honest men in an area dominated by scoundrels then and now. The national security state has its own logic and agenda which is largely to feed itself. No one really believed Iraq was a threat to the world but the entire FP stood up on its hind legs and howled for an invasion of Iraq as it did for an attack on Syria this year. This bunch ignores the advice of professionals whether at State or CIA and has done so since the 50s and their courtesans in the mainstream media echo their lies and fabrications. The problem with U.S. FP I less a matter of ideology and more a matter of corruption.

#24 Comment By david gilmour On December 17, 2013 @ 8:02 pm

A little feedback from New Zealand. People here view the USA as an ethical and social basket case of a nation and find the American exceptionalism worldview utterly risible.
An American friend here told me that she used to subscribe to that view but, only in having left the US could she see things afresh. She was initially horrified and offended at the contempt expressed about the USA. It echoed my experience of the UK being viewed from afar and how uncomfortable that was.
The abiding tragedy of the USA is that so many of its citizens actually believe its propaganda about itself and cannot comprehend that others ridicule it.

#25 Comment By karol On December 20, 2013 @ 3:38 am

You can easlily see from the above posts that fear of Russians is very much alive in the USA. One must be blind not to notice that Russian society is decaying and it poses a danger to the rest of the world. So if anything happens Poland and other east European countries will come in useful as they did during WWII. When it comes to Brzezinski and Poland he happens to openly and brutally support our corrupt ‘liberals’.

#26 Comment By John kay On December 24, 2013 @ 4:25 am

Thousand years ago the roman empire expanded human values,at the same time a mongolian tribes were seen as nomadic horse keepers..years later,when the roman empire collapsed the “horse keepers” rised an empire and killed 40million people(hand made,no authomatic weapons) and fortunatly couldnt expand his chamanistic view of life and society(stalin is a kid compared to this)
Who will be the next “mongolians” after the american collapse?? God save us

#27 Comment By Richard Mazur On December 26, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment expressed by some readers that foreign-born individuals should not be policy advisors. As an immigrant from Poland, I would go further: Foreign-born naturalized citizens like Brzezinski should never be allowed by law to be elected, nominated or hired by the U.S. government in any capacity and at any level, post office included. By default, their loyalties should always be suspect as there is no test to reveal what they are. The fact that there are American traitors does not invalidate the above.
Even if naturalized as I was, foreigners should not be allowed to vote in the federal elections. The idea of having Kissinger – a German Jew who never learned to speak proper American English in spite of the fact that he moved to the U.S. in 1938 when he was fifteen – as a Secretary of State didn’t sit well with Nixon, who wisely ordered his aides to exclude all Jewish-Americans – including Kissinger – from policy-making on Israel. Later, in November 2002, Kissinger was appointed to chair a commission to investigate the 9/11 attacks. On December 13, 2002, rather than reveal his business client list, when queried about potential conflicts of interest, Kissinger resigned. I wonder which client of Kissinger Associates would create for him that dilemma. Osama?