Strategic Vision: America And The Crisis Of Global Power

Strategic Vision: America And The Crisis Of Global Power

Book review 
Zbigniew Brzezinski

In his latest book, the patriarch of American geopolitics draws out several scenarios for global development in the near future. More than ever, this Democrats’ foreign policy heavyweight has been reserved and skeptical, his forecasts ranging from bleak optimism to gloomy post-liberal picture of the 21st-century world order.

First of all, it is necessary to point out that, unlike in his previous works, Brzezinski no longer insists that the U.S. still remain, and will continue to do so for at least some time, more or less unchallenged as a global hegemon. Instead, he opts for a more complicated worldview: the U.S. will have more and more problems in sustaining its position, however, no other existing power will be able, in the foreseeable timeframe (and, he once argues, maybe ever in future) to achieve the level of dominance Washington enjoyed at its zenith. Brzezinski does not hesitate to describe at length all the deficiencies of the would-be leaders of the Brave New World: China is undemocratic and vulnerable to growing appetites of the awakening civil society; Europe is politically infirm, may turn out short of economic sustainability and lacks in global vision; Russia’s global status is sustained exclusively by its military capabilities and the remnants of Soviet education and science; India is mired in the potentially deadly conflict with Pakistan and still has a long way to go to eliminate extreme poverty and various internal cleavages.  Thus, by the notion of “crisis of global power” he denotes the elimination of the global political and, especially moral authority- which used to be the source of the unique kind of domination exerted by the States and which, he argues, will not be repeated in any foreseeable future. This crisis is doomed to entail a much more unstable and chaotic world than the one established in Yalta and Potsdam.

Indeed, the 88-year-old thinker is not a pioneer of this idea: the concept of “multipolar world” promoted by some of the global challenges, most notably Russia’s President Putin, or even “zero-polar world” delineating the simultaneous decline in any actor’s capability to shape global affairs, have been looming large in the last decade; it also echoes the idea first put forward by Italian intellectual Umberto Eco that the world is moving towards “the new Middle Ages”, defined by capillarization of power, the rise of non-state actors and increasing salience of ethnoreligious politics. However, the fact that the famed strategist adheres to this concept may help us to better understand the foreign policies of President Obama, with his emphasis on careful rationing of U.S. power projection abroad and a visible desire to play a stabilizing role in the world, trying to mitigate controversies between rising powers (Brzezinski preaches that strong America is necessary to preserve all the benefits of the open global society which might be undermined by power politics). 

The author of the book endorses a kind of “balance of powers” approach to global politics. A staunch opponent of Russian imperialism, he now acknowledges the Russian right to certain interests in the region and insists that favorable conditions should be secured to bolster pro-Western forces in Russia without destabilizing its political regime (though the Ukrainian conflict was still to unfold at the time this book was written, and the stance towards Moscow could have been hardened since). Mr. Brzezinski also warns of the need in a careful strategy towards China neither alienating it through building too bold an alliance with its traditional rivals nor leaving its military rise unchecked. 

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the discussion of the potentially fragile regions and states. The author is most worried about the conflict potential of East Asia where he observes the similarity to Europe of the late 19th-early 20th century, as several rising powers challenge the global order and each other at the same time, while their political interests are dangerously susceptible to giving way to territorial conflicts. More precisely, Brzezinski expects the defrosting of the Taiwan problem, growing tension on the Korean peninsula, a constant threat of a full-fledged India-Pakistan war and China’s possible interference into it etc. The risks related to the Middle East and post-Soviet space that used to be on the forefront of American attention in the 1990s are somewhat less prioritized in the book. However, the author has grown more pessimistic as regards the prospects for Israel’s sustainable existence in the hostile surrounding. He emphasizes increased difficulties Washington faces due to its uncompromised support of the Jewish state and implies that sustaining this support would become more and more costly for the U.S. in terms of its political prestige in the Muslim world, especially since the Arab Spring triggered political revival and growing popular pressures.  Always known for his willingness to seek good relations with Iran, Mr. Brzezinski again demonstrates his pragmatic view of the American interests, contrasting with the fervent pro-Israelism of the neoconservatives. In the post-Soviet space, he includes Belarus and Georgia in the list of the most geopolitically fragile states, while mentioning Azerbaijan, too, as he believes that the effective Russian takeover of Georgia would automatically entail the disruption of the links connecting the Caspian Sea with the West and enable Russia to bring Baku into obedience. 

In this book, Mr. Brzezinski tries more than ever to include socioeconomic data in his analysis. He provides extensive comparisons between big states and regions on a wide range of criteria, from GDP growth to higher education level to mortality rates, trying to show how sustainable these countries’ development can be. He also tries to look for the reasons for the U.S. decline in socioeconomic ills, such as growing public debt, irresponsible capitalism and ensuing macroeconomic instability; infrastructural backwardness, compared to Europe, Japan and even China; and, finally, a poor state of public secondary education, that, according to the estimates he provides, can be paced, in terms of quality, on the bottom of the developed countries list. The author purports to show that it is mostly internal problems that drive the U.S. towards its dusk. Accordingly, he sketches two scenarios for the world in 2015-2025, a positive one under which America manages to get over these ailments and secure its soft grip over global processes, and a grim one earmarked by its gradual degeneration into a second-rate power no longer able to drive civilization forward. 

However, here lies the major weakness of the book. While providing a lot of intriguing insights, the author in fact leaves most of them just mentioned and not explored. It is an approach radically different from “The Chessboard” which, being a little bit simplistic, is very clear in depicting Mr. Brzezinski’s strategic vision of world politics and the crucial factors that would shape it. In his latest book he, probably influenced by a rapidly growing role of non-Western powers, sobering effects of economic crisis and expanding instability tries to be more complex but unfortunately, puts little to show which variants are the most likely and why. Definitely, making this kind of prediction would be a very ambitious task, but Dr. Brzezinski, by choosing the topic that requires the deepest level of analysis possible, and also taking into account his status as the guru of geopolitical thinking, could have chosen a more ambitious approach. Nevertheless, his signature talent as a writer, delineating critical trends in such a clear and pronounced way that leaves little place for doubting and serves a perfect basis for more elaborate analysis, is present here and hence “Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power” is a must-read for anyone interested in global politics and governance.