[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 American 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 the degree program by Brzezinski. Justin Vaïsse's biography, written with access to documentation staff by Brzezinski and first published in French two years ago, highlights the singular figure and thought of someone who had a continuous presence in the discussion about U.S. action in the world until his death in 2017.

Born in Warsaw in 1928 and the son of a diplomat, Brzezinski moved with his family to Canada during World War II. From there he went to Harvard and immediately rose to prominence in the academic community of the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen and lived 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 into war and established the new world order, in the following decades a new world order emerged. group of statesmen, in many cases coming out of the main American universities, who at that time had acquired an unprecedented preeminence in the gestation of political thought.

This was the case of Kissinger, who was born in Germany and also emigrated during 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 at times 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 pronouncing his surname– was in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. From relatively early on he came to the conclusion that the USSR would be incapable of maintaining the economic pulse with the West, so he advocated "peaceful engagement" with the Eastern bloc as a way to accelerate its decomposition. That was the doctrine of the Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations.

However, since the mid-1970s, the USSR faced its evident decline with a flight forward to try to re-establish its international power, both in terms of strategic weapons and in its presence in the Third World. Brzezinski then moved to a tougher stance on Moscow, earning him frequent clashes with other figures in the Carter administration, especially Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Carter had arrived at the White House in January 1977 with some speech appeasement, while remaining belligerent in terms of human rights. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 reinforced the thesis by Brzezinski.

Carter's short presidency left little room for the committee Homeland Security will score special wins. The greatest, although 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 cannot 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 demanding 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 stressed his independence and was difficult to pigeonhole. "He was neither a warmonger nor a pacifist. It was hawk and dove 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.

More blog entries