The Zbigniew Brzezinski I Knew: A Personal Tribute

Zbigniew Brzezinski’s life serves as an example of the contribution citizens can make to political life – and as an example of how to exit gracefully after a devastating electoral loss, writes Valdai Club expert Toby T. Gati. 

Editor's note: Toby T. Gati knew Dr. Brzezinski for over 40 years, beginning when she was a graduate student at Columbia University, and worked for several years as his research assistant. She also participated in a series of foreign policy seminars organized by Dr. Brzezinski at the Foreign Policy Institute of the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. 

One of the most prominent strategic thinkers of the Cold War period, Zbigniew Brzezinski was the one that the Soviet leadership most hated. Unfortunately, there are still many Russians who feel that way. Not only do they misinterpret the views Brzezinski held during the Cold War, but they seem unaware of what he has been writing and saying since the end of the Cold War, particularly about Russia’s role in the international system.

Appearing before a group of young Russians in the US for a seminar several years ago, Dr. Brzezinski introduced himself with a wry smile as the “former most famous enemy of the Soviet Union” – and then proceeded to give a talk on why stability in the Eurasian landmass is impossible unless the three major powers worked together. He often wrote that, even if China and the US had the economic and security weight to lead, Russian’s role would be enormously important, “logical and necessary for all.” On many occasions he said that he was a short-term pessimist, but a long-term optimist about Russia. In his last major public speech at Columbia University in early Spring 2017, he returned to the theme of a future when it would be possible to cooperate constructively with Moscow.

Dr. Brzezinski saw the convulsive changes affecting the Middle East and other regions – the “global political awakening” as he called it – as deeply disruptive to established regimes and entrenched elites, but also as essentially long overdue. He was concerned about the growth of violent extremism and radicalism, seeing it as a problem not just for the Middle East, but also in the future as affecting other areas, such as Central Asia. However, the American response – to declare a “war on terrorism” – made little or no sense to him. He thought that fighting terrorism was a tactic, not a strategy. It did not tell you who the targets should be politically and it was likely to lead to perpetual war, to alignments not in America’s best interest, as well as to the alienation of vast numbers of Moslems who should be united in common cause with us, not against us.

In the Middle East (and elsewhere, including in Russia), a leader could use nationalist or populist slogans to mobilize a population in support of foreign adventures, but even the most powerful leader could only slow down, not reverse the trend towards greater political participation, especially on the part of an educated and growing middle class. He criticized such policies as dead ends, and, speaking specifically about Russia, he wrote almost a decade ago, that “longer term trends simply do not favor the more nostalgic dreams of the Kremlin ruler.” Yet he also cautioned against US policies that introduced “careless irritants” into the US-Russian relationship, aware that Russia would often view American policies with suspicion.

But his main concern in his later years was, and remained until he died, addressing how the United States should judiciously and wisely use its power to respond to new global challenges and to a world in which global hegemony was no longer possible. America, he warned, “is preponderant, but not omnipotent.” He believed that the United States could, and sometimes did, make colossal mistakes – he was a very early opponent of the 2003 Iraq War and of what he called the “degradation of America’s moral standing in the world.” He refused to sanction torture and political repression as a way to advance American interests. (He called the Iraq War a “regrettable war” and put it in the same category at Russia’s war in Chechnya.) Later, he supported the nuclear deal President Obama negotiated with Iran, despite much opposition in his own Democratic Party, because of the opportunities it presented to bring Iran back into the international community. His last articles were quite critical of the direction of American foreign policy under this President and, had he lived, he most certainly would have continued to oppose the fixation with military responses to crises.

To read any of Brzezinski’s books and articles is to immerse oneself in the complex world of strategic dilemmas and difficult tradeoffs. He knew the horrors of war (for him the dislocations and deaths from World War II were not abstractions but part of his childhood). He knew how close the United States had come to conflict with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. (When he was President Carter’s National Security Adviser, he recalled being awakened in the middle of the night and given 2 minutes to decide the veracity of a report that Soviet missiles had been launched against the US and then told that he had a 4 additional minutes to wake up the President, go over the options, and initiate a response.)

To think of Zbigniew Brzezinski as a protector of the old global structures or as a sworn “enemy of Russia” is to misunderstand how he saw the world evolving and what America should do to help shape that world. In the same lecture he gave to the young visiting Russians, he was asked if there was a conspiracy against Russia. His response: “It is impossible to contain secrets in the modern world. If we were conspiring against Russia, all the papers would be writing about it.” Later on, he became quite concerned about the growing danger of cyber war, writing that the US “must make certain that its vulnerabilities are not easily exploited by adversaries that are difficult to identify. It is perplexing that the US….seems so vulnerable and so uninformed regarding foreign hacking into its assets.” From the perspective of today’s events, he was right on the mark about both the vulnerabilities of cyber systems and the critical role of a free press in uncovering important stories!

It is somewhat puzzling that there are so few books and articles written about Zbigniew Brzezinski, while there are so many about Henry Kissinger – all the more so because the two are either compared or seen as rivals. It is fashionable in some circles to praise Kissinger’s Realpolitik and denigrate a policy that insists on including all those annoying foreign policy “extras” like human rights, the development of civil society and the rule of law, and the persecution of minorities or women.

Brzezinski rejected this dichotomy – it is useful to recall that one of his most well-known books (his memoirs as National Security Advisor) is entitled “Power and Principle.” Brzezinski knew about and highly appreciated that his father, as Polish consul general in Leipzig from 1931 to 1935, had provided Polish passports to both Polish and German Jews so that they could leave Nazi Germany. He was very proud that his father had been honored later by the Israeli government for these actions. And, in his lifetime, he had seen what happened when grand compromises left small states defenseless against stronger neighbors or minorities vulnerable to persecution by their own governments. He knew that, over time, the consequences of such tradeoffs would be unacceptable to the American people. In his last public comments, he also strongly rejected an American foreign policy based on resentment and bullying, on exaggerated perceptions of greatness, or on admiration for strong autocratic rulers rather than cooperation with longstanding democratic allies.

I knew Zbigniew Brzezinski as his student, as his research assistant, as his colleague and, with my husband Charles, as a friend. Working for him in graduate school was the best preparation for entering political life. He taught me to think clearly and to believe in what I had to say, never to curry favor by second guessing what I thought he would want to hear, and to make my main points in less than the 10 minutes allotted for any meeting with him. A compliment from him was very meaningful, although very rare.

His life serves as an example of the contribution citizens can make to political life – and as an example of how to exit gracefully after a devastating electoral loss. There were no political scandals in his life, and no personal scandals either. Brzezinski believed in bipartisanship and he believed in America.

He was not easily swayed by slogans, false calls of patriotism, or blind faith in the wisdom of national leaders. For him, the greatest sin was self-delusion. It is something that today’s leaders would do well to heed.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.