By Leonard Liggio
Foreign Policy magazine (January-February 2012) lists Zbigniew Brzezinski among the five most important living influences on US foreign policy. In the weekend Financial Times (January 14-15, 2012), Edward Luce (FT’s chief US commentator) describes his recent luncheon interview with the former National Security Advisor under President Jimmy Carter and current trustee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. After 1981, he continued in Washington as a professor at Georgetown University. Over his Dubonnet, he begins with his disappointment with President Barak Obama: “I’m all in favor of grand important speeches but the president then has to link his sermons to a strategy.” Although he has voted for Republican presidential candidates (such as George H. W. Bush in 1988) he is highly doubtful of the current Republican candidates. Compared to how well informed about the world he considers Chinese leaders: “And then you watch one of our Republican presidential debates …. The GOP field is just embarrassing.”
Brzezinski is 83 years old and was born in Warsaw. His father was a diplomat and Brzezinski spent his first three years in Paris and the next three in Berlin. His father was assigned to the embassy in Canada, so the family remained there when World War II began. He attributes his skills to attending Loyola High School in Montreal. (My graduate professor at Fordham University, Oskar Halecki (who had been secretary of the Polish delegation at the Versailles conference and then dean of Warsaw University) was a visiting professor at Grenoble University when the war began and was fortunate to move to Laval University in Quebec before the invasion of France.)
I first became aware of Brzezinski when I was working for the William Volker Fund assigned to read journal articles or books that might relate to its scholarly program. I extensively reviewed a book of Brzezinski written (c. 1961) (when he was at Harvard University) on the economic system of the Soviet Bloc. I recommended the book as knowledgeable and insightful.
He was appointed a professor of international relations at Columbia University. He became an advisor to Hubert Humphrey’s vice-presidential campaign and defended Lyndon B. Johnson’s war in Vietnam on the basis of the ‘Falling Dominos’ theory (if South Vietnam came under the Viet Cong, then Thailand, Malaya, Indonesia would become Communist.) (That theory arose in the 1950s: that Japan would want to trade with Red China if communists blocked Japan’s markets in Southeast Asia. Japan was trading with China through third countries, so the theory was questionable.)
Brzezinski opposed Republican senators critical of Johnson’s war. Senators Sterling Morton of Kentucky and Mark Hatfield of Oregon led the revival of the Republican party with over forty new Republican congressmen in 1966.
To him, today’s America appears to lack education in world politics. He sees a US failure in history and geography (French education always twined geography and history). “Americans don’t learn about the world, they don’t study world history, other than American history in a very one-sided fashion, and they don’t study geography. In that context of widespread ignorance, the ongoing and deliberately fanned fear about the outside world, which is connected with this grandiose war on jihadi terrorism, makes the American public extremely susceptible to extremist appeals.”
Fifty years ago when I began as a college instructor, there was a textbook which combined European and American history. However, as I was teaching fifteen hours a week the course in World Civilizations there was a dilemma. The chairman of the history and government department was a Viennese who had studied Japanese in the US army. He selected a textbook which went beyond European civilization to include: Hindu, Chinese, Japanese , etc. I had no background in those areas and told my five classes to ignore those chapters. American students have a hard enough time with European names, trying to have them or myself master exotic names was not education but chaos. I am reminded of one of my colleagues, a Chinese refugee from Red China, who upset his students of Chinese history when he later explained that the first seven dynasties they had struggled to learn were mythical.
Brzezinski considers America’s greatest national security threat to be the weak US economic situation, especially the political failure to address the government’s economic problems. His strategic advice: “the US should prod Europe to bring both Russia and Turkey into an enlarged west. America should hedge against China’s rise, without explicitly attempting to contain it. Most importantly, the US should revitalize its domestic economy if it wants to stave off further decline. On all counts, Brzezinski seems pessimistic about the likelihood that Washington’s elites will start to act strategically again.”