On Zbigniew Brzezinski: Geopolitical Mastermind, Realist Practitioner

3 Jun

Personal Prelude


I never knew Zbigniew Brzezinski well, and was certainly not a friend, hardly an acquaintance, but we interacted on several occasions, directly and indirectly. We were both members of the Editorial Board of Foreign Policy magazine founded in 1970 during its early years, which featured lively meetings every few months at the home of the founding co-Chair, a liberal banker named Warren Damien Manshel (the other founding co-Chair was his Harvard friend from graduate school, Samuel Huntington). I was a kind of outlier at these meetings, which featured several editors who made no secret of their ambition to be soon chosen by political leaders to serve at the highest levels of government. Other than Zbig the editor who flaunted his ambition most unabashedly was Richard Holbrook; Joseph Nye should be included among the Washington aspirants, although he was far more discreet about displaying such goals.


In these years, Zbig was a Cold War hawk. I came to a lecture he gave at Princeton, and to my surprise while sitting quietly near the front of the lecture hall, Zbig started his talk by saying words to the effect, “I notice that Professor Falk is in the audience, and know that he regards me as a war criminal.” This was a gratuitous remark as I had never made such an accusation, although I also never hid my disagreements with Brzezinski’s anti-Soviet militancy that seemed unduly confrontational and dangerous. Indicative of this outlook, I recall a joke told by Zbig at the time: a general in Poland was asked by the political leader when the country came under attack from both Germany in the East and the Soviet Union in the West, which front he preferred to be assigned. He responded “Germany—duty before pleasure.”


In these years Zbig rose to prominence as the intellectual architect and Executive Director who together with David Rockefeller established The Trilateral Commission in 1973. The Trilateral Commission (North America, Western Europe, and Japan) was best understood as a global capitalist response to the Third World challenge being mounted in the early 1970s with the principal goal of establishing a new international economic order. Brzezinski promoted the idea that it was important to aggregate the capitalist democracies in Europe along with Japan in a trilateral arrangement that could develop a common front on questions of political economy. On the Commission was an obscure Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, who seemed handpicked by this elite constellation of forces to be the Democratic Party’s candidate for president in 1976. It was natural for Brzezinski to be a foreign policy advisor to Carter during his campaign and then to be chosen as National Security Advisor (1977-1981) by President Carter.


My most significant contact with Brzezinski related to Iran Revolution during its last phases. In January of 1979 I accompanied Ramsey Clark and Philip Luce on what can best be described as a fact-finding visit in the last phases of the revolutionary ferment in the country. Toward the end of our time in Iran we paid a visit to the American Embassy to meet with Ambassador William Sullivan who understood that revolution was on the cusp of success and the Shah’s government was on the verge of collapse. What he told us was that the White House rejected his efforts to convey this unfolding reality, blaming Brzezinski for being stubbornly committed to saving the Shah’s regime, suggesting that Brzezinski’s friendship with the influential Iranian ambassador in Washington, Ardeshir Zahedi, apparently blinded him to the realities unfolding in Iran. It should be noted that Sullivan was no shrinking violent. Sullivan had a deserved reputation as an unrepentant counterinsurgency diplomat, who General Westmoreland once characterized as more of a field marshal than a diplomat, given his belligerent use of the American embassy in Laos to carry out bombing attacks in the so-called ‘secret war.’


Less than a year later I was asked to accompany Andrew Young to Iran with the hope of securing the release of the Americans being held hostage in the embassy in Tehran. The mission was planned in response to Ayatollah Khomeini’s hint that he would favor negotiating the release of the hostages if the U.S. Government sent an African American to conduct the negotiations. Young, former ambassador to the UN, was the natural choice for such an assignment, but was only willing to go if the White House gave a green light, which was never given, and the mission cancelled. At the time, the head of the Iran desk in the State Department told me privately that “Brzezinski would rather see the hostages held forever than see Andy Young get credit for their release.” Of course, I have no way of knowing whether this was a fair statement or not, although this career bureaucrat spoke of his frustrating relationship with Brzezinski. Of course, there was never an assurance that if such a mission had been allowed to go forward, it would have been successful, but even in retrospect it seemed to warrant a try, and might have led to an entirely different U.S./Iran relationship than what has ensued over the past 38 years.


While attending a conference on human rights at the Carter Center a decade later, I had the good fortune to sit next to President Carter at dinner, and seized the opportunity to ask him about his Iran policy, and specifically why he accepted the resignation of Cyrus Vance who sought a more moderate response to Iran than was favored by Brzezinski. Carter responded by explaining that “Zbig was loyal, while Vance was not,” which evaded the question as to which approach might have proved more effective and in the end beneficial. It should be remembered, as was very much known in Tehran, that Brzezinski was instrumental in persuading Carter to call the Shah to congratulate him on his show of toughness when Iranian forces shot and killed unarmed demonstrators in Jaleh Square in an atrocity labeled ‘bloody Friday,” and seen by many in Iran as epitomizing the Shah’s approach to security and the Iranian citizenry.


Brzezinski versus Kissinger


It is against this background that I take note of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s death at the age of 89 by finding myself much more favorable to his role as foreign policy and world order commentator in recent years than to my earlier experiences during the Cold War and Iranian Revolution. It is natural to compare Brzezinski with Henry Kissinger, the other foreign-born academic who rose to the top of the foreign policy pyramid in the United States by way of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American establishment. Kissinger was less eager than Brzezinski to defeat the Soviet Union than to create a stable balance, and even went so far as to anger the precursors of the alt-right by supporting détente and arms control during the Nixon years. Somehow, Kissinger managed to transcend all the ideological confusion in the United States to be still in 2017 to be courted and lionized by Democrats, including Hilary Clinton, and Republicans, including Trump. Despite being frequently wrong on key foreign policy issues Kissinger is treated as an iconic figure who was astonishingly able to impart nonpartisan wisdom on the American role in the world despite the highly polarized national scene. Brzezinski never attained this status, and maybe never tried. Despite this unique position of eminence, Kissinger’s extensive writings on global trends in recent years never managed to grasp the emerging complexity and originality of world order after the collapse of the Soviet Union. His line of vision was confined to what could be observed by looking through a neo-Westphalian prism. From this perspective Kissinger has been obsessed with China’s rise and how to reach a geopolitical accommodation with this new superpower so that a new statist balance of power with a global scope takes hold.


Post-Cold War Geopolitics: A Eurasian Scenario 

In my view, late Brzezinski developed a more sophisticated and illuminating understanding of the post-Cold War world than did Kissinger. While being sensitive to the importance of incorporating China in ways that were mutually beneficial, Brzezinski was also centrally focused on the non-geopolitical features of world affairs in the 21st century, as well as on the non-statist dimensions of geopolitics. In this regard, Brzezinski was convinced that the future world order would be determined by the outcome of competition among states for the control Eurasia, and that it was crucial for American political efforts to be calibrated to sustain its leadership role in this central arena of great power rivalry.


Brzezinski also appreciated that economic globalization was giving market forces a heightened significance that could not be adequately represented by continuing to rely on a state-centric frame of reference in crafting foreign policy. Brzezinski also recognized that a new political consciousness had arisen in the world that he associated with a global awakening that followed the collapse of European colonialism, and made the projection of hard power by the West much more problematic than in the past. This meant that the West must accept the need for consensual relations with the non-West, greater attentiveness to the interests of humanity, and an abandonment of hegemonic patterns of interaction, especially associated with military intervention. He also recognized the importance of emerging challenges of global scope, including climate change and global poverty, which could only be addressed by cooperative arrangements and collective action.


Late Brzezinski Foreign Policy Positions


What impressed me the most about the late Brzezinski was his clarity about three central issues of American foreign policy. I will mention them only briefly as a serious discussion would extend this essay well beyond a normal reader’s patience. (1) Perhaps, most importantly, Brzezinski’s refusal to embrace the war paradigm adopted by George W. Bush after 9/11 terrorism, regarding ‘the war on terror’ as a dysfunctional over-reaction; in this regard he weighted more highly the geopolitical dimensions of grand strategy, and refused to regard ‘terrorism’ as a strategic threat to American security. He summed up his dissenting view in a conversation on March 17, 2017 with Rachel Maddow as follows, “Yes, ISIS is a threat. It’s more than a nuisance. It’s also in many respects criminal violence. But it isn’t in my view, a central strategic issue facing humanity.” Elsewhere, he make clear that the American over-reaction to 9/11 handed Osama Bin Laden a major tactical victory, and diverted U.S. attention from other more pressing security and political challenges and opportunities.


(2) Brzezinski was perceptively opposed to the Iraq attack of 2003, defying the Beltway consensus at the time. He along with Brent Scowcroft, and a few others, were deemed ‘courageous’ for their stand at the time, although to many of us of outside of Washington it seemed common sense not to repeat the counterinsurgency and state building failures oaf Vietnam in Iraq. I have long felt that this kind of assertion gives a strange and unfortunate meaning to the idea of courage, making it seem as if one is taking a dangerous risk in the Washington policy community if espousing a view that goes against the consensus of the moment. The implication is that it takes courage to stand up for beliefs and values, a sorry conclusion for a democracy, and indicative of the pressure on those with government ambitions to suppress dissident views.


(3) Unlike so many foreign policy wonks, Brzezinski pressed for a balanced solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, acknowledging, what so many advocates of the special relationship deny, that the continuation of the conflict is harmful to American wider interests in the region and is a major, perhaps a decisive, source of instability in the Middle East. In his words, “This conflict poisons the atmosphere of the Middle East, contributes to Muslim extremism, and is directly damaging to American interests.” [Strategic Vision, 124] As Jeremy Hammond and Rashid Khalidi, among others, have demonstrated is that the U.S. Government has actually facilitated the Israeli reluctance to achieve a sustainable peace, and at the same time denied linkage between the persistence of the conflict and American national interests.[See analysis of Nathan Thrall (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/16/the-real-reason-the-israel-palestine-peace-process-always-fails)].



I had not been very familiar with Brzezinski later views as expounded in several books: The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Geopolitical Imperatives (1997, reprinted with epilogue, 2012); (with Brent Scowcroft, America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy (2009); Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power (2012).


When it comes to Brzezinski’s legacy, I believe it to be mixed. He was a brilliant practitioner, always able to present his views lucidly, forcefully, and with a catchy quality of coherence. In my view, his Cold War outlook was driven toward unacceptable extremes by his anti-Soviet preoccupations. I believe he served President Carter poorly when it came to Iran, especially in fashioning a response to the anti-Shah revolutionary movement. After the Cold War he seemed more prudent and sensible, especially in the last twenty years, when his perceptions of world order were far more illuminating than those of Kissinger, his geopolitical other.


17 Responses to “On Zbigniew Brzezinski: Geopolitical Mastermind, Realist Practitioner”

  1. gazanakba1948 June 3, 2017 at 11:42 am #

    Thank you very mush for putting all that information so plainly for us. Quite enlightening for me to read. Does wisdom aid in our old age to see things more soberly such as Brzezinsky after the cold war? I myself seem to be a “Little” more wise now in my older age. Again, Thank you Richard, my Friend.

  2. jamesbradfordpate June 3, 2017 at 1:34 pm #

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

  3. Brewer June 3, 2017 at 1:52 pm #

    Zbig has always been difficult to pigeon hole. The ultimate pragmatist perhaps?
    Paul Craig Roberts (another intriguing fellow) gives his take:
    He says “Brzezinski did not seek to impose American world hegemony. This is a neoconservative goal, not a Cold Warrior’s goal. As President Reagan emphasized, the point of “winning” the Cold War was to end it, not to achieve hegemony over the other party. Brzezinski’s strategy as National Security Advisor toward luring the Soviets into Afghanistan was to weaken the Soviet Union and, thereby, hasten an end to the Cold War.”
    I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, “not a neo-con” is a fine label but the cynical destruction of Afghanistan in pursuit of Western aims remains reprehensible to me, indicative of an arrogant, amoral mindset. From a purely practical standpoint, it has been a disaster when one acknowledges that the rise of the neo-cons was a direct consequence.

  4. Lukasz Slusarski June 3, 2017 at 2:39 pm #

    Professor Falk, up to date your blog post has been one of the most thoughtful and sober attempts that considered the foreign policy record of Brzezinski as a practitioner and influential thinker. One minor thing (for many Brzezinski’s critics actually a major thing), however, that seems to be curiously absent from your considerations is his role in support of Afghan Islamist resistance to Soviet occupation. But otherwise, it has been a worthwhile read. Thank you.

  5. truthaholics June 3, 2017 at 6:32 pm #

    Reblogged this on | truthaholics.

  6. Jack Ucciferri June 3, 2017 at 8:21 pm #

    Once again I come away from reading one of your posts notably more informed. Thank you for the commentary/history lesson.

  7. Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka June 4, 2017 at 12:34 am #

    Dear Richard, congratulations on the best darn piece on Zbig I’ve read, and that includes the ones in the NYT etc.

    I cannot but agree with you on the ‘late Zbig’– pun unintended. But he perhaps underestimated the ‘jihadist’ phenomenon, though it might have been a subconscious corollary of his culpability in unleashing it.

    Interestingly both Zbig and Huntington proved less orthodox than Kissinger with regard to non-Westphalian/non-state phenomena and processes, but I agree with you that the former’s anti-Sovietism was his blind spot. 

    The later Zbig seemed to veer between Russophobia and a neo-Kissingerian wish to accommodate the Russian and Chinese factors, while Kissinger was more consistent. But then again, Kissinger too veered between accommodating Russia and China in managing the changing world order and playing China off against Russia.  

    The point-counterpoint of the Carter interlude is illuminated by your piece. That experience may be seen as a forerunner of the dilemmas and dialectics of the Obama administration, I guess. 

    The essay is enriched by your presence in several ‘scenes’ as it were, representing more ethical, if abortive approaches. The reference to Andy Young reminded me of a more sincere and ethical ‘human rights’ agenda than it became later.

  8. daveyone1 June 4, 2017 at 3:16 am #

    Reblogged this on World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum..

  9. ray032 June 4, 2017 at 8:21 am #

    Dr. Brzezinskie’s chessboard was a game between State players, primarily the Soviet Union and the US.

    The world has changed with the advent of instantaneous Global communication and Imagery, and with the Intenet. More Individuals and small groups watching what the world powers do, not just what they say, are increasingly taking individual action.

    On the subject of the Cold Warrior, watching CNN & MSNBC from CanaDa, I see the seeds for a more virulent strain of McCarthyism being planted, even if those networks don’t know that’s what they’re doing with their 24/7 Trump-Russia coverage to the exclusion of everything else going on in the big world the US thinks it should be able to control and conform to American interests.

    If CNN gave saturation coverage to the 80 Afghanistanis killed and 500 wounded last week in Kabul, where Brzezinskie meddled so long ago, like they are doing with the London attack, that could possibly bring about a new direction and solution to the terrorism problem.

    The US and the West fostered War in the Middle East since the US, when he was a useful tool for American/Israeli interests, financed Saddam to start and wage the brutal 8 year war with Iran to nip the fervor of the 1979 Iranian revolution in the bud. With 1,000,000 human casualties, that was not big news for Western media.

    I find it interesting to note, with all the US efforts to contain Iran, it was the illegal US invasion of Iraq undermining the Global Order, ushering the Law of the Jungle into the Middle East, the Iranians now have more influence in Iraq than before the 1980-1988 war and the US invasion.

    That is a long introduction to this article concerned about the non-State actors chessboard.

    Why the London terror attack occurred now
    4 June 2017

    One has to ask why terrorists like those who struck last night in London, and earlier in Manchester, launched their attacks now. It is difficult not to infer that their violence was timed to influence the UK election on Thursday. Those behind the attack – whether those carrying it out or those dispatching the terrorists – want to have an effect. Terrorism is the use of indiscriminate violence for political ends. It has a logic, even if it is one we mostly do not care to understand.

    So what do these terrorists hope to achieve?

    Based on prior experience, they will assume that by striking now they can increase fear and anger among the British population – intensifying anti-Muslim rhetoric, justifying harsher “security” responses from the British state and shifting political support towards the right. That is good for their cause because it radicalises other disillusioned Muslim youth. In short, it brings recruits.

    Islam is not exceptional in this regard. This is not a problem specifically of religion. As experts have repeatedly pointed out, disillusioned, frustrated, angry (and mainly male) youth adopt existing ideologies relevant to them and then search for the parts that can be twisted to justify their violence. The violent impulse exists and they seek an ideology to rationalise it.

    Once Christianity – the religion of turning the other cheek – was used to justify pogroms and inquisitions. In the US, white supremacists – in the Ku Klux Klan, for example – used the Bible to justify spreading terror among the black population of the Deep South. White supremacists continue sporadically to use terror in the US, most notably Timothy McVeigh, who was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

    Terrorists can exploit secular ideologies too, on either the far-right or far-left. Just think of the Baader Meinhof Gang and the Symbionese Liberation Army, back in the 1970s. The latter famously made a convert of Patty Hearst, granddaughter of publishing empire magnate William Randolph Hearst (aka Citizen Kane). After she was taken hostage, she quickly adopted the group’s thinking and its violence as her own.

    The Islamic terrorists of our time believe in a violent, zero-sum clash of civilisations. That should not be surprising, as their ideology mirrors the dominant ideology – neo-conservatism – of western foreign policy establishments. Both sides are locked in a terrifying dance of death. Both believe that two “civilisations” exist and are incompatible, that they are in a fight to the death, and that any measures are justified to achieve victory because the struggle is existential. We use drones and “humanitarian intervention” to destabilise their societies; they use cars, guns, knives and bombs to destabilise ours.

    The dance chiefly takes place because both sides continue it. And it will not be easy to break free of it. Our meddling in the Middle East dates back more than a century – and especially since the region became a giant oil spigot for us. The tentacles of western interference did not emerge in 2003, whatever we may choose to believe. Conversely, a globalised world inevitably entails one where a century-long colonial battlefield can easily come back to haunt us on our doorsteps.

    The solution, complex as it will need to be, certainly cannot include the use by us of similarly indiscriminate violence, more “intervention” in the Middle East, or more scapegoating of Muslims. It will require taking a step back and considering how and why we too are addicted to this dance of death.


  10. ray032 June 4, 2017 at 9:04 am #

    I’ve read it often THE NEW YORK TIMES is not balanced in it’s Israeli-Palestinian reporting.

    Today’s article, ‘The Past 50 Years of Israeli Occupation. And the Next.’ is objectively balanced and accurate in my understanding of the facts on the ground. Here are a few paragraphs.

    Golda Meir asked Prime Minister Levi Eshkol what he planned to do with the more than one million Arabs now living under Israeli rule months after the 1967 war?

    “I get it,” Mr. Eshkol jokingly replied. “You want the dowry, but you don’t like the bride!” Mrs. Meir responded, “My soul yearns for the dowry, and to let someone else take the bride.”

    On this 50th anniversary of the war, it is clear that over the half-century that followed, Israel managed to fulfill Mrs. Meir’s wish, keeping control of the land indefinitely without wedding itself to the inhabitants…..

    the territory Israel controls for several years now, and with no repercussions: A majority of the world’s nations still speak of undemocratic rule by a Jewish minority as a hypothetical future, not an unacceptable present………

    For American politicians, electoral and campaign finance incentives still dictate a baseline of unconditional support for Israel. The United States has given more than $120 billion to the country since the occupation began, spent tens of billions of dollars backing pro-Israel regimes ruling over anti-Israel populations in Egypt and Jordan, and provided billions more to the Palestinian Authority on condition that it continue preventing attacks and protests against Israeli settlements…………….

    A counterpart to this myth, propounded by Israeli officials and regurgitated by American policy makers, is that Israel will not make concessions if pressured but will do so if it is warmly embraced. The historical record demonstrates the opposite……….

    Instead, the United States and its allies pay lip service to the need to end the occupation, but do nothing to steer Israel from its preferred option of perpetuating it: enjoying the dowry, denying the bride.

    • ray032 June 4, 2017 at 1:23 pm #

      Most of the comments on the NYT article appear to be hasbara inspired, decrying the article even appearing in the NYT.

      • lidia June 5, 2017 at 8:06 am #

        Zionist colonizers of Palestine could still keep on their crimes because of the USA imperialism backing. And it is NOT only about Palestine colonized in 1967, ALL Palestine is still colonized by Zionists.

      • Gene Schulman June 5, 2017 at 8:10 am #

        As long as you’re changing the subject, Ray:


        Just in case anyone still believes the hasbara that pours daily out of Tel Aviv about who started the ’67 war. (Especially now, on the 50th anniversary).

        As for the USS Liberty, I, and others, have it on the good authority of our friend (RIP), Andy Sundberg, who had friends and classmates from the Naval Academy who were on that ship. He had recounted the story many times before it became publicly known, most authoritatively in Tom Segev’s book, “1967”, about that ‘incident’.

  11. lidia June 5, 2017 at 8:03 am #

    Nice to learn that the person who is to blame for crimes of USA imperialism from Afghanistan to Ukraine was such great chap.
    Next time, the author about a Geopolitical Mastermind, Realist Practitioner aka Churchill – the mass-murdering and torturing and starving Indians colonizers.
    I had no great admiration for the author, but I thought that his more or less decent position on Palestine (as far as UN official could be) meant he is not a 100% backer of USA imperialism. Looks like I had been mistaken.

    • Richard Falk June 5, 2017 at 8:44 am #

      You misread this piece. It is written from a highly critical perspective, not an apologetic one.

      • lidia June 6, 2017 at 4:28 am #

        There is crtics and critics.
        He was a faithful servant of USA imperialism, but not even very smart one – he tried to prop USA imperialist hegemony by any(!) means but still he failed. 9/11 was thank to him, and his crimes are still keep bringing death not only to his intended victims but to USA (UK, France etc). Also I have heard that even in Poland he is not very popular – many despice him because they are leftists, and even more people for making Poland a pawn of USA.
        And to call such legacy “mixing” is a great compliment to this war criminal who had not even managed to reach his ulitimate goals.

  12. Laurie Knightly June 5, 2017 at 5:01 pm #

    It would be interesting to know what Tadeuse Brzezinski, Polish consul- general in Germany, thought about the creation of Israel. Why did he not go to Israel himself to accept an award in 1976? Did he ever visit there? Having helped Jews escape Germany in the 1930’s, would he approve of the persecuted becoming the persecutors?

    When Zbig, choking back tears, accepted the Israeli award on behalf of his father, he noted regarding the occupation across armistice lines [67 war] – “I understand the logic: there are facts on the ground which would be difficult to undo.” And Palestinian facts on the ground?
    It appears that he became more objective as the situation wore on endlessly and stated “…conflict poisons atmosphere of the Middle East.” Should have noticed that sooner.

    Yes, his background leaves one perplexed. He’s appears to be denigrated unfairly as an ‘Iran-Firster’ but one must consider his position on Iran during Carter years or currently.

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