- Zbig: The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzezinski ed. by Charles Gati
In the years since Zbigniew Brzezinski published his first book, The Permanent Purge, nearly six decades ago, he has been in turn a prominent scholar of the Cold War, one of the leading foreign policy public intellectuals in the United States, National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter, and, increasingly after the turn of the century, a critic of U.S. foreign policy. Still an active presence and a strong voice in international affairs, he published his latest book, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, in 2012 and continues to scrutinize U.S. engagement around the globe with a keen, skeptical eye. Brzezinski has never been afraid to speak his mind and remains for some a controversial figure.
Charles Gati has produced a valuable, informative book that examines the many facets of Brzezinski’s life and works and seeks to place the man, his era, and his writings within the broader context of the United States, along with its adversaries and partners, adapting to a changing world. The book is also a classic immigrant success story. Part personal reminiscences and part academic analysis, the volume features chapters by scholars, former officials, journalists, former students, and—at the end—a section in which Gati interviews Brzezinski about his life. This is not a conventional Festschrift, and it contains some chapters that are critical of Brzezinski’s writings and policies. But it succeeds in highlighting the unique contributions made by this scholar/practitioner.
Like his fellow Central European immigrant Henry Kissinger (with whom, the book argues, he has enjoyed a collegial, not an antagonistic, relationship over many decades), Brzezinski was able with perseverance and strong willpower to rise up in the traditional foreign policy establishment, constantly contending with suspicions that his Polish background made it impossible for him to view the Soviet Union objectively. Indeed, when Jimmy Carter appointed Brzezinski, former Defense Secretary Robert Lovett opined: “We shouldn’t have a National Security Adviser like that who’s not really an American. I can’t imagine anyone negotiating with the Russians with his loathing and suspicion” (p. 17).
Brzezinski’s record as an analyst of the Soviet system and its strengths and weaknesses has largely been vindicated by history, even though some of his ideas were contested at the time. His early writings focused on the theory of totalitarianism, which he modified to explain the post-Stalinist evolution. He understood the weaknesses of the command economy and the rigid party organization and its obsession [End Page 140] with control, eventually predicting in his book The Grand Failure that the system had inherent weaknesses that would facilitate its collapse. Mark Kramer reminds us that Brzezinski’s analysis of Soviet-style regimes remains a “rich, provocative, stimulating source” (p. 58).
Brzezinski’s works were roundly denounced—and avidly read—in the USSR, as was clear during a unique U.S.-Soviet conference on Eastern Europe, organized by Charles Gati and Oleg Bogomolov, that took place under the auspices of the International Research and Exchange Council in the turbulent fall of 1989. I was part of the delegation with Gati and Brzezinski, who was making his first visit ever to the Soviet Union. Also in the delegation was Marin Strmecki, who vividly recounts the scene in his chapter here. Lecturing to a hushed, standing-room-only crowd at the venerable Soviet Diplomatic Academy, Brzezinski told his audience that the USSR must recognize that its East European allies had the right to self-determination, and he praised Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalizing actions to date but said they had to go further. At the end of his speech, the auditorium erupted in thunderous applause. He went on from there to visit Katyń, the place that symbolized the massacres of Polish officers by Soviet troops at the beginning of World War II. The USSR had only just begun to admit the truth about Katyń, and he held a groundbreaking televised meeting with Soviet and Polish officials. The critic...