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zbignew brzezinski | henry kissinger

[Justin Vaïsse, Zbigniew Brzezinski. America's Grand Strategist. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, 2018. 505 p.]


review / Emili J. Blasco

Zbigniew Brzezinski. America's Grand Strategist

Zbignew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter, is one of the great names in U.S. foreign policy in recent decades. In some respects comparable to Henry Kissinger, who also went directly from the University - where both were colleagues - to the Administration, the latter's greater renown has sometimes obscured Brzezinski's degree program . Justin Vaïsse's biography, written with access to Brzezinski's documentation staff and first published in French two years ago, comes to highlight the singular figure and his own thinking of one who had a continuous presence on the discussion on the action of the United States in the world until his death in 2017.

Born in Warsaw in 1928 and the son of a diplomat, Brzezinski arrived with his family in Canada during World War II. From there, he went to Harvard and quickly rose to prominence in the academic community in the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen and lived for the rest of his life. If in the 1940s and 1950s, the leading positions in the Administration were nurtured by an older generation that had led the country through the war and established the new world order, in the following decades a new group of statesmen emerged, in many cases from the leading American universities, which at that time had acquired an unprecedented preeminence in the gestation of political thought.

This was the case of Kissinger, born in Germany and also emigrated with the war, who was first National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State under Richard Nixon, and also under Gerald Ford. The next president, Jimmy Carter, brought Brzezinski, who had advised him on international issues during the election campaign, to the White House. The two professors maintained a respectful and often cordial relationship, although their positions, ascribed to different political camps, often diverged.

For biographical reasons, Brzezenski's original focus - or Zbig, as his collaborators called him to overcome the difficulty of pronunciation of his surname- was on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Relatively early on he came to the conclusion that the USSR would be unable to maintain the economic pulse with the West, so he advocated a "peaceful engagement" with the Eastern bloc as a way to accelerate its decomposition. This was the doctrine of the Johnson, Nixon and Ford Administrations.

However, from the mid-1970s, the USSR faced its evident decline with a headlong rush to try to resettle its international power, both in terms of strategic arms and its presence in the Third World. Brzezinski then shifted to a tougher stance toward Moscow, which brought him into frequent confrontation with other figures in the Carter Administration, especially Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Carter had arrived at the White House in January 1977 with a certain appeasement speech , although without ceasing to be belligerent in terms of Human Rights. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 reinforced Brzezinski's thesis .

Carter's short presidency gave little room for the National Security committee to score special triumphs. The biggest, albeit the joint work of the presidential team, was the signature of the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt. But the fiasco of the attempted rescue of the hostages at the Tehran Embassy, which was not Brzezinski's direct responsibility, weighed down an Administration that could not have a second term.

Situated on the right of the Democratic Party, Brzezinski is described by Vaïsse as a "fellow traveler" of the neoconservatives (the Democrats who went over to the Republican side claiming a more robust defense of U.S. interests in the world), but without being a neoconservative himself (in fact, he did not break with the Democratic Party). In any case, he always remarked his independence and was difficult to pigeonhole. "He was neither a warmonger nor a pacifist. He was hawkish and dovish at different times," says Vaïsse. For example, he opposed the first Gulf War, preferring extreme sanctions, but was in favor of intervening in the Balkan War.

After leaving the Administration, Brzezinski joined the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington and maintained an active production of essays.

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