The Interview: Zbigniew Brzezinski

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The Interview: Zbigniew Brzezinski

As the world changes so too must U.S. foreign policy. The Diplomat asks Zbigniew Brzezinski about America’s role in the ‘Asian Century.’

The Diplomat’s Assistant Editor Zachary Keck sat down with former U.S. National Security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to discuss America’s role in world affairs, the shifting geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific, the feasibility of eliminating nuclear weapons, and rising powers growing involvement in America’s backdoor.

In Strategic Vision you argue that in today’s world no one power will ever be capable of dominating Eurasia in the way Harold Mackinder famously envisioned. Taking that argument at its face, this represents a tectonic shift for U.S. foreign policy given that, long before Washington was able to meaningfully affect the balance of power in Eurasia, its leaders saw preventing a hegemon from dominating it as a key strategic necessity. If the U.S. no longer has to concern itself with safeguarding Mackinder’s “world-island” from a potential hegemon(s), what should be the main objective of U.S. engagement in Europe and Asia going forward?

The main objective of U.S. engagement in Europe and in Asia should be to support an equilibrium that discourages any one power from acting in an excessively assertive fashion towards its neighbors.  In the foreseeable future, it is, in any case, unlikely that any single power will have the military superiority that would enable it to assert itself in a hegemonic fashion on as a diverse, complex, and complicated mega-continent such as Eurasia.  Having a close relationship with Europe, though maintaining a complex partnership with China and an alliance with Japan, will provide the United States with sufficient foci for a strategic engagement designed to maintain a relatively stable even if delicate equilibrium on the so-called “world island.”

In the book you state that the U.S. should act as a neutral arbitrator between Asia’s major powers, with the possible exception of Japan. The Obama administration has usually heeded this advice but recently diverged from it by issuing a harsh statement about the South China Sea that singled out China. What do you see as the reasoning behind doing this and do you think it was a mistake?

I think the United States’ position on freedom of navigation is generally correct, but it has been pursued lately in a clumsy fashion.  It is to be regretted that it was announced in the context of a so-called “strategic pivot,” implying in the process that it involves an augmentation of American military power in Asia as a necessary response to the newly emerging geopolitical realities in the Far East.  In brief, it is not surprising that the Chinese understood it to mean that the United States is beginning to fashion a coalition against China, something which at this stage at least is premature and runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In Strategic Vision you come out strongly against an Indo-U.S. formal alliance, criticize the 2006 nuclear deal, and note many of the internal challenges that New Delhi faces. You have been remarkably consistent on these points over time, yet seem to be at odds with much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment that sees a stronger relation with India as undeniably in the national interest. Why are they wrong?

I disagree with much of the foreign policy establishment in regard to the need for a strong relationship with India which, prima facie, would be directed at China.  I think American interests, as well as stability in the Far East would be better served by America staying free of any binding ties with competing powers on the Asian mainland.  Last, but not least, the future stability, not to mention power potential, of India is problematic and in my view too many people have been mesmerized simply by the fact that India is as massively populated as China.

In August Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took a 10-day trip to Africa (with many arguing) to counter China’s growing influence there. In Strategic Vision you discuss in relation to Mexico, but which could reasonably be extended elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, how growing ties with China and other emerging powers could combine with other issues to create an increasingly tense U.S.-Mexican relationship. Given that U.S. hegemony over the Western Hemisphere has been the overarching goal of U.S. foreign policy since at least as far back as 1823, and a reality since 1898, is the U.S. doing enough to counter China and other rising powers’ penetration of its traditional sphere of influence? If not, what should it be doing?

I do not think the U.S. needs to do “enough to counter China and other rising powers’ penetration of its sphere of influence” in South America because the countries of South America are obviously intent at this stage on becoming more autonomous in their relations with the United States.  A policy predicated on the premise which I have just quoted would force the Latin American countries to line up either with or against the United States, and that would hardly be in the U.S. interest, especially given the prevailing and changing public mood in a number of Latin American countries.

You have long advocated negotiating seriously with Iran, something the Obama administration at least came into office intent on doing. Before talks got underway, however, street protests broke out in Tehran following the 2009 Presidential election. While the administration claimed this came as a complete shock to them, I imagine it was less so for you given that in 2007 you stated that Iran “is a country that may be confronting serious internal problems once Iranians don’t feel that the outside world, and particularly the United States, is subjecting them to a siege.” You also have personal experience with handling street demonstrations in Tehran. How did the Obama administration do in responding to the 2009 Iran protests in your opinion? What about the uprising that latter swept through much of the Arab world?

I do not feel that the United States had much freedom of action insofar as a response to the upheavals in Iran and more generally in the Middle East is concerned.  These processes are inherently connected with social change within the region, and especially so in regards to the phenomenon of massive political awakening of their younger populations.  The rhetoric that is used in that connection by many of the spokesmen involved in the upheavals tends to be democratic, but democracy is not necessarily the real object of mass political aspirations.  The aspirations are rooted in historical resentments, social discrimination, financial envy, and sheer frustration.  The result tends to be assertive populism which is not to be confused with imminent institutionalization of democratic processes.

Many of the U.S.’s most celebrated diplomats, including many of your contemporaries, have strongly endorsed abolishing nuclear weapons. In Strategic Vision you discuss at length the potential dangers of horizontal proliferation-particularly from quasi-nuclear weapon states like Japan, South Korea, and Germany- as well as the vertical proliferation threat from countries like Russia, China, and India. At the same time it seems to me that you were somewhat less enthusiast about the global zero movement, although more recently you have on occasion cautiously endorsed it. I am therefore wondering if you could elaborate a bit on your thinking on this issue. For instance, do you see other more viable alternatives for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons?

I have no problem with the global nuclear zero movement but I think that it is an objective that will be achieved only slowly, with a gradual settling down of the current era of turmoil, and perhaps in a context in which the major powers of the world will find it more feasible and productive to engage in a genuinely serious cooperation. The prospects for that in the short run are relatively tenuous and not very hopeful, and as a result I do not see much point in becoming very actively involved in what I view otherwise as a positive aspiration.

With Hillary Clinton repeatedly saying she would not stay on as Secretary of State in a second Obama administration, the U.S. is likely to get a new top diplomat regardless of the outcome of the election in November. Who are some of the people you’d recommend the President-elect interview for this position? If you are unwilling to name names, perhaps you could at least say what characteristics you think are most important for the candidates.

I do not want to engage in advocacy of particular names because I suspect that such advocacy by me could even be counterproductive. There are a number of people on the scene, including some from the Senate, as well as in public life, who would make very competent Secretaries of State.  However, a great deal depends also on what role the next President envisages for his Secretary of State: is the nominee to be in fact the prime shaper of American foreign policy, or is the nominee expected more to be the foreign minister for external relations, with the word “relations” all important.  I have recently seen some detailed but silly analyses of how many miles respective Secretaries of State have traveled in recent years, and that to me indicates precisely the need to differentiate between foreign policy shaping and engaging in active foreign policy relationships.