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America the Failed Superpower

Original Publication Date
Author of Book
Zbigniew Brzezinski
Author of Review
Carol White

Second Chance, Three Presidents and the Crisis of the American Superpower by Zbigniew Brzezinski. (Cambridge, MA, Basic Books a member of the Perseus Books Group. 2007.)

Zbigniew Brzezinsky has written a provocative, critical analysis of the policies of the last three U.S. presidents. While he faults George H.W Bush and Bill Clinton for foreign policy blunders and omissions, his sharpest criticism is saved for George W. Bush's present administration. For them, his criticism is unsparing. There are many examples in the book of trenchant , scathing evaluations of the failed policies of this Bush Administration, such as this one:

Third, the attack on Iraq has increased the terrorist threat to the United States ... 

The war on terror, with no clearly defined enemy but strong anti-Islamic connotations, unified Islamic opinions into growing hostility toward America, thereby creating fertile soil for new recruits to terrorism against either America or Israel. It strengthened the appeal of extremism, ... [pg. 149]

The peculiar definition of both the war on terror in general and the war in Iraq specifically was rejected from the start by the overwhelming majority of world public opinion. By the end of the war's second year, the majority of the American public had come to share that negative opinion. [pg. 150]

His analysis of the present situation is widely accepted by critics of the present Administration, myself included. But I find the implications of his proposed solution -- the so-called "second chance" hinted at in the title -- problematic.

Brzezinski accepts the bi-partisan foreign policy goals shared, in the main, by George H.W. Bush and Clinton, and only rejects their sometimes bungling implementation of them. He attacks the present Bush Administration not because of its fundamental goals, but because of the ideological blinders the have prevented the President and his advisors from recognizing and correcting their mistakes and failures -- such as the original invasion of Iraq and the subsequent record of devastating failures -- that have disastrously undermined U.S. power and created the potential for uncontrollable, world-wide chaos.

Brzezinski does not reject the hegemonist assumptions about the proper role of the United States, shared by both Bushes and by Clinton. He holds an imperial view of the United States' destiny, seeing it as the only global superpower for the foreseeable future, playing a dominating role economically and politically while the rest of the world is given the opportunity to advise and consent. For Brzezinksi, the model is an American Empire that is a modern, more benevolent version of the British Empire, but an empire nonetheless.

The final chapter of his book is called Beyond 2008. Here he writes:

America has a monopoly on global military reach, an economy second to none, and peerless technological innovation, all of which give it unique worldwide political clout. Moreover, there is a widespread, if unspoken, practical recognition that the international system needs an effective stabilizer, and that the most likely short-term alternative to a constructive American world role is chaos. An intelligent Global Leader IV [i.e. the next president] should still be able to exploit that feeling to tap what's left of the reservoir of good will toward America. [pg. 192]

He admits that this runs counter the sentiment in much of the rest of the world.

Global political awakening is historically anti-imperial, politically anti-Western, and emotionally increasingly anti-American. That in turn is altering the global distribution of power, with major implications for America's role in the world.

The foremost geopolitical effect of global political awakening is the demise of the imperial age. Empires have existed throughout history, and in recent times American paramountcy has often been described as a new global empire. This is somewhat of a misnomer, implying basic continuity with previous imperial systems, but some similarity is undeniable, and that makes America the focus of anti-imperial sentiment.

Imperial stability has historically depended on skilled domination, superior military organization, and -- ultimately most important -- political passivity on the part of dominated peoples against their less numerous but more assertive dominators. [pg. 205]

Brzezinski proposes the creation of a new government mechanism to involve Congress and the Executive in joint long-term planning on global policy. [195, 196]. Presumably, it would seek guidance from former presidents and older statesmen such as himself and Henry Kissinger, whom he quotes in the book on the problems of undue influence by domestic pressure groups.[pg. 198]

He gives an example of the kind of policy implementation that he believes is required in his discussion of what he considers foreign policy successes of the Carter administration -- an administration in which he played a leading role as National Security Advisor, and for which he obviously takes credit.

He discusses these in the beginning of the book, including his policy initiative of attempting to destabilize Afghanistan and the Gulf States by funding dissidents that also guided future U.S. administrations. He fails, however, to draw the obvious conclusion that the rise of Osama bin Laden, and the events of 9/11 and beyond, can be attributed to this policy.

After the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Carter became the first president in the entire Cold War to provide arms to an anti-Soviet resistance while also creating an infrastructure for a U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf. [pg. 19]

No doubt he would say, that under his deft management these consequences could have been averted or successfully controlled.

I recommend this book. Brzezinski still plays an important role in foreign policy deliberations as a senior advisor and it is not necessary to agree with the author for a book to be well worth reading. Nor would I disagree with much that Brzezinski has to say, for example when he writes:

America's most difficult task, but historically the most critical, will be to embody to the world at large an idea whose time has come. Twice in its history the nation has done so, with universally positive effect. In 1776 America defined the meaning of freedom for a world just beginning to seek it. In the twentieth century, America became the principal defender of democracy against totalitarianism. In today's restless world, America needs to identify itself with the quest for universal human dignity, a dignity that embodies both freedom and democracy, but also implies respect for cultural diversity and recognizes that persisting injustices in the human condition must be remedied. [pg. 201,202]

Yes indeed! But if future U.S. governments follow Brzezinski's proposals, such a future will not happen. The 1776 Declaration of Independence was a clarion call to defeat imperialist rule; its message still reverberates today.

Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger are masters of the kind of clever, carrot-and-stick diplomacy that imperialist powers have used to establish and maintain control over their subjects. I believe the time is long overdue for a rejection of this style of power politics in favor of the values exemplified by the leaders of the American Revolution in 1776.

About the Author: Carol White is Reviews Editor for ePluribus Media. She has edited a small science journal and is presently a free-lance writer, who covers the arts and related matters for her local newspaper.
ePluribus Contributors: cedwyn, cho and roxy