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Zbigniew Brzezinski: a man, a politician, an intellectual

It has long been noted that lifetime portraits of a person look completely different after his death. This idea involuntarily comes to mind at the news of the death of the American politician and thinker Z. Brzezinski, who has exerted enormous influence on world politics and on world political science. The death of such a person is not a reason for disparaging assessments, political malevolence or score-settling [1]; this is a cause for taking a fresh look at this person and his intellectual heritage, and also for thinking about ourselves and the modern world. 


Z.Brzezinski: a portrait in the interior of the historical era

Biography of Z.Brzezinski is a living cast from the historical era with all its drawbacks and virtues, tragedies and dramas. Z. Brzezinski was born on March 28, 1928 in Poland, but at the age of ten he left his homeland together with his father-diplomat, who was appointed consul general in Canada. In the country of “maple leaves” Z.Brzezinski received a university education, and then moved to the United States, where he received American citizenship and presented a doctoral thesis at Harvard University on the problems of “Soviet totalitarianism”.

By the twist of fate Z.Brzezinski was not only a direct participant, but also to some extent the architect of the “cold war”. He advocated the containment of the USSR in the international arena and promoted liberal values. It bears reminding that for many years he headed the Institute on Communist Affairs at Columbia University.

In 1966-1968 Z.Brzezinski was a member of the Policy Planning Council of the US Department of State. In 1973-1976 Z.Brzezinski was the executive director of the Trilateral Commission, founded by David Rockefeller. It was upon an initiative of Z.Brzezinski that the future US President Jimmy Carter was appointed to the Trilateral Commission. In turn, Jimmy Carter appointed Z.Brzezinski as his principal foreign policy advisor, and after being elected president – as national security adviser [2].  During his term in office Z. Brzezinski made a serious contribution to the preparation of the Camp David Accords (1978) and the normalization of relations with China [3]. In 1987-1989 Z. Brzezinski was a member of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

Was Z.Brzezinski an opponent of the USSR? Undoubtedly. This is evidenced by his active efforts to weaken the Soviet Union, especially during the years of the Afghan war (1979-1989). In particular, according to Russian experts, Z.Brzezinski was directly involved in supporting Afghan mujahedeen [4]. At the same time, it seems inconclusive to attempt to present Z.Brzezinski as a Russophobe who spent all his life taking revenge on Russia for establishing a socialist regime in post-war Poland [5]. Rather, it can be argued that he was a patriot of America and tried to bring maximum benefits to his new homeland, including on the international arena.

After the collapse of the USSR, Z.Brzezinski played an important role in shaping the foreign policy strategy of the Bill Clinton administration and played a role in the NATO expansion process. He sharply criticized George W. Bush for invading Iraq and for setting up a Muslim world against the United States. Simultaneously, Z. Brzezinski most actively contributed to the coming to power of President Barack Obama. Z. Brzezinski met with skepticism the victory of D. Trump in the presidential election in 2016, fearing the incautious steps of the 45th president in the international arena.


Brzezinski as an outstanding representative of the American intellectual elite

Certainly, along with Henry Kissinger, Z. Brzezinski is one of the brightest representatives of the American intellectual elite, the author of a number of brilliant works that could produce a variety of responses – from enthusiastic attitude to open rejection. It should be recognized that in the United States there is no one who could replace Z. Brzezinski as a political thinker and geostrategist, since he set too high intellectual standards. It is difficult not to agree with those who believe that with the death of Z. Brzezinski “the whole epoch has passed away” [6].

In 1997, Z. Brzezinski published the book “Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives”, which became the quintessence of his views on international relations in new geopolitical conditions. It must be acknowledged that this controversial, sometimes dubitable and even uneven work has become a reference book for political scientists around the world. Many of the things outlined in this book have given rise to a powerful barrage of criticism, especially those concerning the US imperial mission as the world’s first and only superpower [7]. Thus, this is quite understandable, since it follows from the context of the book that the US is the only player on the chessboard, the rest of the states are given the role of chess figures.

As a general rule, great thinkers are distinguished by the ability to evolve and generate new ideas. Unfortunately, many of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s opponents did not pay much attention to his subsequent works, and did not notice that every year the foreign policy views of the American thinker were adjusted; the views acquired new shades and were filled with new meaning. Openly ideological approaches receded into the background, and political pragmatism, human wisdom and common sense began to come to the forefront.

Thus, the publication of Z.Brzezinski “The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership” (2003) marked the transition from an open American empire-building apologetics to reflections on the fundamental differences between hegemony and leadership, as well as the relationship between American hegemony and global security. The idea of the US historical responsibility for the state of affairs in the world replaced the thesis about America’s right to global domination. In this regard Z. Brzezinski explicitly writes that America “is fated to be the catalyst for either a new global community or for global chaos” [8].

Another work by Z. Brzezinski turned out to be clearly underestimated: “Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower” (2007), which compares the political style of the three American presidents. In his opinion, the first global leader was George H.W. Bush, who was the most experienced and skillful in diplomacy, but did not have a clear plan of action. The second global leader, Bill Clinton, was the most vivid and futuristic thinker, but he lacked strategic consistency to use the power of America. The third global leader, George W. Bush, had a natural flair, but he did not know the complexity of global problems and was inclined to dogmatic formulations [9]. As a result, the American superpower faced a difficult crisis.

In 2012, Zbigniew Brzezinski publishes the work “Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power” in which he warned that the changing redistribution of global power and the new phenomenon of massive political awakening contribute to the volatility of international relations. Z.Brzezinski stated that as China’s influence grows, there is a growing likelihood of miscalculation and conflicts, since Russia, India and Brazil compete with each other for resources, security and economic advantage. In this situation, the US should strive to build a broader geopolitical foundation for constructive cooperation on the world stage, while considering the rising aspirations of an increasingly restless global population [10].

The article by Z. Brzezinski “The crisis of global power and the trilateral connection between the United States, China and Russia” published in Russian in January, 2017 deserves special attention. This article still echoes the traditional theses on the weakening of Russia’s influence in Eurasia, possible Russian-Chinese conflicts, as well as the alarming situation in the Middle East.

In this article Z.Brzezinski for the first time clearly articulates the idea that the stability of the modern system of international relations can be ensured only in the case of close cooperation between Washington, Beijing and Moscow. In his view, the ideal geopolitical response to global challenges would be a “trilateral connection between the United States, China and then Russia, with Russia” [11].

These words by Z.Brzezinski are perceived as a political testament today: “Regional cooperation will thus require shared wisdom and political will to work together despite historic conflicts and the continued presence of nuclear weaponry, always potentially devastating but even after 70 years still unlikely to result in a one-sided political victory” [12].

In general, as a politician and intellectual, Z.Brzezinski successfully continued the containment policy of George F. Kennan (the author of the famous “Long Telegram”) first against the USSR, and then Russia. Nevertheless, he was a supporter of “peaceful involvement” and an opponent of an openly militaristic interpretation of deterrence [13].

His political works are full of factual inaccuracies and contradictions, but at the same time they are filled with a lot of productive and creative ideas. His predictions did not always come true (especially about Eurasia), but, perhaps, precisely it is because political leaders attentively listened to them and took preventive measures.

Brzezinski did not always find the right geostrategic solutions, but he knew how to put questions correctly. After leaving the halls of power, he gave his government many valuable advice and warnings. Is this not enough to, despite some mistakes and misses, worthily enter into American and world history?


[1] См.: Акопов П. Враг России не принес успеха Америке //https://www.vz.ru/politics/2017/5/27/872055.html; Асламова Д. Збигнев Бжезинский был дьяволом средней руки //https://www.kp.ru/daily/26684.5/3707200; Враг России, антисоветчик и идеолог внешней политики США. Чем запомнился Збигнев Бжезинский //http://vesti-ukr.com/mir/240275-vrah-rossii-antisovetchik-i-ideoloh-vneshnej-politiki-ssha-chem-zapomnilsja-zbihnev-bzhezinskij; Тихомиров В. «Главный враг России». Как шляхтич Белый дом завоёвывал //https://life.ru/t/%D0%B3%D0%BB%D0%B0%D0%B2%D0%BD%D0%BE%D0%B5/1011892/ghlavnyi_vragh_rossii_kak_shliakhtich_bielyi_dom_zavoiovyval и др.

[2] Хлусова К. Вашингтонский ястреб: как Збигнев Бжезинский изменил своё отношение к России //https://russian.rt.com/world/article/394092-zbignev-bzhezinskii-ssha.

[3] «В течение трех десятилетий к словам Бжезинского с уважением прислушивались» Зарубежные СМИ – о смерти автора «Великой шахматной доски» //https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3310820.

[4] Климентьев М. Глава РСМД: Бжезинский был неоднозначной, но выдающейся личностью //https://ria.ru/world/20170527/1495227021.html.

[5] Бордачев Т. Человек в истории Война и мир Збигнева Бжезинского //https://lenta.ru/articles/2017/05/27/bordachev_on_brzezinski.

[6] Владимиров В. «Со смертью Бжезинского уходит целая эпоха» //https://www.golos-ameriki.ru/a/vv-zbigniew-brzezinski/3874430.html.

[7] Бжезинский З. Великая шахматная доска: господство Америки и его геостратегические императивы: [перевод с английского] /Збигнев Бжезинский. – М.: Астрель, 2013. – с.37.

[8] Бжезинский З. Выбор. Мировое господство или глобальное лидерство //Бжезинский З. Великая шахматная доска: господство Америки и его геостратегические императивы: [перевод с английского] /Збигнев Бжезинский. – М.: Астрель, 2013. – с.262.

[9] Бжезинский З. Ещё один шанс. Три президента и кризис американской сверхдержавы //Бжезинский З. Великая шахматная доска: господство Америки и его геостратегические императивы: [перевод с английского] /Збигнев Бжезинский. – М.: Астрель, 2013. – с.528.

[10] Brzezinski, Zbigniew K. Strategic vision: America and the crisis of global power. New York: Basic, 2013. p-1.

[11] How To Address Strategic Insecurity In A Turbulent Age //http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/us-china-russia-relations_us_586955dbe4b0de3a08f8e3e0.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Бжезинский З. «Идея сдерживания когда-то превратилась в догму» //http://www.globalaffairs.ru/global-processes/Ideya-sderzhivaniya-kogda-to-prevratilas-v-dogmu-18735.

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