Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review: Charles Gati (ed.), "Zbig: The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzezinski"

Ray Taras, Fulbright Distinguished Chair in European Studies at the University of Warsaw, reviews Charles Gati (ed.), Zbig: The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzezinski (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013):
It’s almost become an iron law. For every book about international politics authored by Zbigniew Brzezinski, there is a corresponding book about Henry Kissinger. Depending on how we count, since his debut in 1956 as Carl Friedrich’s co-author on Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, Brzezinski has published 17-18 books. Including autobiographies, there are at least as many book-length studies about Kissinger. What is truly rare is, then, a biography of President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor. Senior East European scholar Charles Gati’s new edited book justifiably sees itself as “the first comprehensive account of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s complementary roles as author, academic, policy maker, and critic.”

It is facile and redundant to go much further in a Brzezinski-Kissinger comparison. That is the subject of the first chapter by Justin Vaïsse, recently-appointed director of the policy planning staff of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs who will hopefully have time to complete the next Brzezinski biography, based on his personal papers. He insists that the two statesmen have maintained good relations for the past three decades. But the supposedly sole derogatory Kissinger comment Vaïsse could find is a 1976 bombshell: “Brzezinski is a total whore. He’s been on every side of every argument” (p.21). Two years earlier Zbig, in his own inimitable way, had been as devastating in his terse summary of Kissinger’s approach as Richard Nixon’s security advisor: “fascination with enemies and ennui with friends” (p.19). That is, supposedly Chinese and Russian enemies and Western European friends.

Gati’s book has a simple but effective structure. Vaïsse’s chapter fits in Part I, “From the Ivy League.” Two other chapters here deal with Brzezinski’s usually overlooked softening tone on totalitarianism as a concept, and with his underappreciated pragmatism on member states of the Soviet bloc. “Our strategic and historical goal should not be the absorption of what was once called Eastern Europe into what is still called Western Europe;” rather, the objective should be “the progressive emergence of a truly independent, culturally authentic, perhaps de facto neutral Central Europe,” he wrote in a 1988 article (p.55). This was the prevailing sentiment at the breakthrough talks of the Polish Round Table held within a year.

This cautious tactic was overtaken by the fast-paced events that broke the back of the Soviet bloc by the end of 1989. In October of that year Zbig himself had developed a more sober assessment of Eastern Europe’s future. Speaking at a conference in the Soviet Foreign Ministry, he rhetorically asked “whether the Soviet Union will retain a presence in Europe” (p. 153). Some two years later there was not just no Soviet presence but no Soviet Union.

The second Part of the book, titled “To the National Security Council,” is made up of contributions by cohorts and policy analysts providing original insights on and thick descriptions of Zbig’s years at the NSC. Anecdotes abound such as about “his exuberant Russophobia as illustrated by his anti-Soviet antics on the Great Wall” in 1978 (p.93). The Chinese subsequently nicknamed him The Polar Bear Tamer. In turn his scholarly colleagues in communist studies “judged him brilliant and erratic – brilliant all the time, right about half the time” (p.96).

“The Policy Advocate,” the third Part, begins with a chapter by Patrick Vaughn, author of a Brzezinski biography which appeared in Polish in 2010. He recounts an alleged report by KGB agents indicating that Brzezinski had orchestrated fellow Pole Karol Woytyła’s selection as Pope in 1978 as part of “a backdoor plot in the Vatican with the aim of destabilizing Poland and the Warsaw Pact alliance” (p.127). The Polish term mitoman, or pseudologia fantastica as it can be rendered into “English,” may capture the exaggerated character of this conspiracy theory.

Brzezinski’s circumscribed criticism of the 1991 US military intervention in Iraq, then his scorching attack on the 2003 invasion, gives rise to the charming subtitle of James Mann’s chapter, “The Makings of a Dove.” Perhaps it represented hyperbole directed at two Republican administrations, but it was becoming apparent that Brzezinski no longer needed to be a cold war warrior, much less a shooting war one. In an interview with Deutsche Welle in August 2013, he cautioned against Western intervention in Syria following reports of the use of chemical weapons against civilians: “Given the contemporary reality of what I have called in my writings ‘Global Political Awakening,’ a policy of force based primarily on Western and in some cases former colonial powers does not seem to me a very promising avenue to an eventual solution to the regional problem.” Zbig had indeed become a dove for the long haul.

Part IV is called “Portraits” and includes “A Self-Assessment” based on Gati’s interview with Zbig. An especially germane comment from him comes at the very end. We know that he has a manifestly Polish identity. To someone like me who went to the same high school in Montreal as he did, his formative years spent in Canada also give definition to his identity. Zbig recalls how, in his first years in the US – he enrolled as a doctoral student at Harvard in 1950 – “I said to myself, why change my name?” He had concluded that “America is the only country where someone called ‘Zbigniew Brzezinski’ can make a name for himself without changing his name” (p.234).

This biography tells us a lot not just about Zbig but about America’s own checkered history in Brzezinski’s lifetime.--Ray Taras
Visit Ray Taras's website. His 2012 books are Xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe (Edinburgh University Press); (editor) Challenging multiculturalism: European models of diversity Edinburgh University Press); and (editor) Russia's identity in international relations: images, perceptions, misperceptions (Routledge).

--Marshal Zeringue