Weighing Zbigniew Brzezinski’s legacy

Guest post by Charles Gati

Zbig is the first comprehensive portrait of Zbigniew Brzezinski. It deals with his long and distinguished career as a professor, an academic, a National Security Adviser to President Carter, a widely-known observer, and a critic of U.S. foreign policy. In the 1950s, Brzezinski was already an outstanding academic at Harvard. In the 1960s and 1970s, he advised five presidents and presidential hopefuls. He served as National Security Adviser from 1977 to 1981. Since leaving that post in the White House, he has been a respected and often controversial commentator on American strategy and on global affairs in general.

For the older generation that remembers the cold war, Brzezinski was best known for the promotion of a competitive relationship with the Soviet Union. He advocated the notion of “peaceful engagement” that signified Western competition for influence in the Soviet sphere. He rejected what was jokingly called at the time the Soviet view of peaceful coexistence: “what’s mine is mine but what’s yours is negotiable.”

For the younger generation that knows him by his latest books, articles, or television appearances, Brzezinski is a candid and indeed penetrating opponent of the overextension of American military power in the Middle East. In a deeply polarized country, he has done what others have not done: he took on a Republican president, but he has not shied away from criticizing a Democratic president either. In the process, Brzezinski made new enemies and acquired new friends and supporters as well.

This book is not a Festschrift. As editor, I asked each contributor to be “respectful but not uncritical.” Depending on the topic at hand, I also asked some to touch on broader themes. Chapter 1, for example, deals with the role of Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger in shaping the emergence of a new U.S. foreign policy elite in the 1960s and 1970s. They were pioneers, replacing an old elite that had been quite different until their entry into the once all-white, all-male, almost all-Protestant club of lawyers and businessmen in Washington, New York, and Cambridge. Truth be told, most members of the old elite could not even imagine that a Polish Catholic could objectively guide U.S. foreign policy. Yet that Polish Catholic immigrant, together with an assimilated German Jew who even kept his accent, made it to the top. Not only did Brzezinski contribute significantly to the making of U.S. foreign policy but he also opened the door for women and blacks to take up some of the highest foreign-policy posts in the government, in the universities, and in the think tanks, too.

Several chapters in Part II make it clear that Brzezinski’s tenure as National Security Advisor was controversial. One of his opponents at the Department of State called him a “street fighter.” Undoubtedly, Brzezinski was feisty and competitive. As it turns out, and as President Carter confirms in his Foreword, neither he nor Brzezinski trusted State officials; they preferred the most difficult issues to be handled by the National Security Council staff in the White House. Less well known is that Brzezinski and his staff somehow found time to deal not only with the immediate challenges demanding their attention, they also found time and energy to deal with long-term, strategic concerns. There is more than a hint in Zbig that the U.S. government should be better at planning policy–finding ways to look beyond the pressing issues of the day.

At Harvard, Columbia, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Professor Brzezinski was a demanding teacher. My wife (who was his student at Columbia and received a much-appreciated “A” in a graduate seminar) still recalls how hard she had to work for that grade. But once a student got an “A,” he or she also got a handwritten note of praise. Over the years, Brzezinski has also graded presidents for various aspects of their performance. I suspect that some of the readers of Zbig will wonder what grade he would assign to this book. The editor would surely like to know.

Charles Gati is a Senior Fellow at The Foreign Policy Institute and a professorial lecturer in Russian and Eurasian studies at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His latest book,  Zbig: The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzezinski, was just published and will be a featured title in our exhibit at the 2013 meeting of the American Political Science Association.