on February 16, 2002
I read this book with disbelief. Brzezinski was for a long time a strategist, a political planner of the highest rank so I have to take him seriously. But I couldn't help but constantly wonder if the book is for real.
It displays an unabashed and unapologetic view of the U.S. as a world 'hegemon' (author's word) and divides the rest of the world in 'vassals' (author's word), rivals, 'pivots' and strategically irrelevant countries. Western Europe and Japan are the prominent members of the first category, Russia and China of the second. The pivots are the countries that have strategic choices important to the U.S., such as the Ukraine. United Kingdom is an (amusing) example of strategically irrelevance.
The book proceeds by systematically and often tediously analyzing case-by-case scenarios and what-ifs concerning the strategic impact of the policy decisions of the players (vassals, rivals and pivots) in four main theatres: Europe, Russia, Central Asia and the Far East. The analysis seemed rather un-principled to me but by the end I could discern some key points. The most important of them is that the U.S., despite is global hegemony cannot afford wars but it has to maintain its dominance by smartly playing the rivals against each other so that a major global rival does not emerge.
I think the book's shocking disregard of democracy and national self-determination is quite consistent with the way the American administration tends to act in international affairs. Unfortunately, the current administration does not seem to take the book's main advice regarding the need for America to avoid outright wars and to dominate through smart diplomacy.
Brzezinski's study on the future of American geopolitical interests is a very helpful discussion on where the US might be going in the decades ahead as it tries to re-establish its post-Cold War international influence. You can always count on him to advance a thesis that is long term and forward thinking in its objectives. There is a lot of Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" embedded in Brzezinski's thinking. As the present world order breaks up under increasing failure of governments to keep their respective economies and societies stable, America is being forced to assume a large and more untenable role in maintaining international order. As former national security advisor to President Carter, Brzezinski likens the new unfolding world view as a chessboard where the American side is being challenged to reassert itself as a dominant power going into the 21st century. The ability to silence its foes with long-range military strike capacity has now vanished, as witnessed in its lack of success in Iraq and Afghanistan, so the US has to fall back on striking up new alliances in order to avoid being marginalized by new emerging powers like China and Russia. Much of his book is taken up with what these arrangements might look like. One that caught my attention was an American-European accord that would act as a bridge to the rest of the world. While I agree that cozying up to the European Union, which is what Obama is presently trying to do, holds some promise for the US but it is probably more advantageous for Europe as it becomes the new international lynch-pin through which all diplomatic efforts move. Instead of playing one game of geopolitical chess at a time, as it did in the past, the US is now playing multiple games in a room of contenders who sense their chances improving as their grandmaster opponent begins to weary and lose focus. Talk about the deck being stacked against the number one power in the world: a stagnant economy, a growing list of foreign enemies, an inefficient military system, a huge trade deficit, and declining social and educational values. If none of these are addressed effectively during the Obama administration, any efforts to shore up America's foreign presence through forging new alliances will be pointless. No country in its right mind will want to associate with a has-been imperialistic power that can't even keep its own house in order
on August 2, 2001
An in-depth analysis of the current Eurasian geo-pilotical situation and an interesting reading despite its strong American bias. The book is a multifacetous look at the modern balance of power in a region that Brzezinski considers vital for the world stability--Eurasia--and all this in view of the tremendously global American supremacy. With its marked pro-American orientation, it is clearly aimed at US rather than foreign audience, and is a good example of the use of ideology as a political tool and an instrument for mobilization of public support for the cause of "the first, only and last" global superpower. By emphasizing the significance of the US as the world's largest peacekeeper and stressing its mission as a guarantor of global stability a multitude of times, this book seeks to justify the monopolarity of the modern political world, in which all de jure and de facto political actors should coordinate their actions with America.
Brzezinski tries to explore the unique situation of each one of them and to offer some viable solutions for their problems; I do think, though, that most of the times he is looking for possible channels for American influence under the cover of global well-being. Some of the solutions he offers presume hard-to-envision developments, such as Russia willingly dropping its imperial aspirations towards former spheres of influence and becoming a benevolent strategic partner of the United States; others are viable and should be duly taken into consideration by geostrategists. Nevertheless, as the very end of the book he offers an insightful look into the future of the world, and admits some week points in the American position while exploring the possible outcomes of the US global leadership.
Although it can hardly offer much new information to readers more advanced in the studies of international relations, it still provides an opportunity to look at different aspects of policy making in regions of great importance spotlighted in Brzezinski's discussion, and will definitely be useful to beginning IR students, as well as to everybody interested in a more detailed look at the regional and global politics. Although I am not questioning Brzezisnki's name and his significance as a geopolitical scientist, for non-American readers I would recommend getting other view-points as well.
on June 27, 2001
Anyone concerned with America's national security should be reading this book. The fact that it is four years old (older if one considers the intellectual gestation period), simply adds historical proof that its author is, as the Chinese have noted publicly, America's greatest strategist.
This book is written in plain English. That alone sets it apart from the next level down. This is a carefully presented essay that makes eminent sense. It deals with the most important region in the world: the troubled Eurasian land mass. Rich in resources, rife with ethnic conflict and water scarcity issues, it is surrounded by major powers with global ambitions: France and Germany to the West, Russia to the North, China to East, and Iran and Turkey to the South. A number of clearly presented maps add considerable value to the book.
With a level of calm and reason that is rare in books of this sort, Brzezinski provides an understandable yet sophisticated articulation of a real-world "grand strategy" essential to the future of America in this new century. His strategic vision honors both France and Germany as co-equal and vital elements of a new European community; shows how the larger Europe (ultimately co-equal to America) is essential to the salvation of Russia; makes the case for an American-Chinese strategic accommodation as the anchor for America's involvement in Eurasia; carefully integrates America's direct and special relations with Japan, Korea, and India as the bowl beneath China and Eurasia, and then concludes with decisive evaluations of the future importance of drawing Turkey into the European community while encouraging Iranian-Turkish collaboration and Iranian commercial and commodities channels from Eurasia out to the world. In passing, the author validates Australia's new strategy of working closely with Indonesia to resolve the latter's many ethnic issues while establishing a southern line against excessive Chinese influence in the region.
There are numerous subtle and deep insights throughout the book, from the observation that war may now be a luxury only the poorest of nations can afford, to why China should consider America its natural ally and why Russia is at risk of becoming genetically Asian instead of European within a generation or two. The author proposes a new Trans-Eurasian Security System (TESS) that engages Russia, China, Japan and America-one would assume that at some point Turkey, Iran, and the new Europe would be included. The author gores a number a sacred oxen, including those associated with the demonization of Iran (this should end) and the exaggeration of China as a global threat (it will at best be a regional super-power at the high end of Third World per capita earnings). While other poor Nations have defeated America decisively (Viet-Nam, for example), the author deliberately itemizes China's 3 million men under arms, it's 9,400 tanks and 5,224 fighters, as well as its 57 surface ships and 53 submarines, and offers his final judgment that China and America have too many common interests to permit a demonization of China to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it might if China were confronted across the board and denied its reasonable historical claim to having influence over the region that hosts the "Middle Kingdom."
A special note is in order about the importance of this book as an antidote to two viral infections now afflicting many otherwise excellent thinkers. This book is a marvelous, deeply grounded treatment of the historical constancy of strategy qua "enduring interests" and grand players-as much as one may wish to speculate about the globalization and localization of international politics, Brzezinski puts it all in a grand strategic context that is compelling in its logic as well as its understanding of the deep cultural threads that we must weave together if we are to survive one another's less enlightened machinations. Another strength of the book is its avoidance of the technophilia that has corrupted strategic thinking at the highest levels. The Revolution in Military Affairs and the "systems of systems", while well-intentioned, are both devoid of serious strategic reasoning-as Colin Gray among others have pointed out, technology is not strategy, nor does it follow that strong technology will defeat an enemy with weak technology but a stronger strategic culture and the ability to wage war by means other than force on force.
This book, together with Colin Gray's "Modern Strategy", Robert Young Pelton's "World's Most Dangerous Places", the two books by Robert Kaplan on his travels in the Eurasian region, and both Michael Klare's book on "Resource Wars" as well as Marc de Villier's book on "Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource", will make any intelligent person as conversant as they need to be with the most pressing geopolitical issues of our time. If one adds Joe Thorton's book on Pandora's Poison, David Helvarg's book on "Blue Frontier: Saving America's Living Seas", Larrie Garrett's book "Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health", and William Shawcross on "Deliver Us From Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords, and a World of Endless Conflict", the lesser but still vital long-term issues of the environment, public health, and ethnic conflict will be fully appreciated.
I mention all these books deliberately, to make the point that it is Brzezinski's book that is both the foundation and the capstone for integrating the analysis from these other diverse renditions into a grand strategy. No one else has done it. He is America's foremost strategist and likely to remain so for some time to come.
on August 16, 2003
Brzezinski is familiarly precinct, efficient and far reaching. In this book he puts on display his characteristically deep analytic skills on a topic he has spent many years as a professional strategist and lecturer. Though at the time of its publishing, when the world was in a much more optimistic mood and globalism was on the march, his approach seemed to hark back to a bygone era, nowadays in this time of hawkish politics, he does not seem to be that far off the mark. His rationalism should not be confused with the views of the current ideologues on the right though.
Certainly, his take on US [power], and its logic of inevitability, may not be that acceptable to some, but still, it only reflects reality, not necessarily a moral judgment. Regardless, rather than simply focusing on and explaining the present based on recent past, like many professional talking heads do, he has actually made some bold projections into far future.
He points at Asia as the center of this grand chess game and concludes it is there where the final moves will be played out. With his excellent knowledge of Eastern Europe, Russia and Far East, he makes an excellent argument.
His few attempts at placing Middle East and Islam in the picture fall far short though; he fails to go beyond worn-out clichés. When was the last time an Islamic revolution got exported anywhere, really?
This is a valuable and interesting book reveals much about super-power strategic thinking process, written very clearly, and I added the last star for his efforts to draw a map of the future geo-politics. Highly recommended for anyone interested in these topics.
on June 5, 2004
When the power elite write, you better pay special attention to the wording because for better or worse, most are damn brilliant and some possibly dangerous. All through the book I found myself being lulled into the author's vision of "utopia" where American dominance rules on a global scale, tenfold over what it is now, mainly through a system of homogenized regional powers which would extend its hold into the resource rich area of Eurasia and the Middle East. However, Brzezinski's grasp on the mindsets of nations is so staggering that one cannot help but be respectful of his writing per se, even if the book has all the trademarks as the blueprint for the New World Order.
The author is not shy about making his objective known but his wording is such that the reader's apprehensions are assuaged with new mottos skillfully interwoven into his keen insight. Convinced that without American global dominance, the world would decay into international anarchy, the former national security advisor and Trilateral member envisions an assimilation that combines the age old imperial doctrine of "divide, conquer, and rule" veiled with what he terms consolidation of "geopolitical pluralism" and tempered to produce what he envisions as "hegemony of a new type".
Brzezinski's rational, however charming as it may be presented, is flawed as he fails to take into consideration one vitally important and likely scenario. Namely, that future generations of government will always use that power wisely and for the global good. If one ignores the old adage "absolute power corrupts absolutely" then one miscalculates on a global scale
In the end however, no matter whether you agree or disagree with his ideas, the final result is a double-edged sword capable of producing polar results by however the wielding power sees fit. Nothing demonstrates this more dramatically than America's achievements with it's foothold in Japan and Europe after WWII, versus the completely counter productive blowback in Afghanistan where it was Brzezinski himself who convinced the Carter administration to secretly fund the Mujihadeen via the CIA.
That intervention who as now everyone knows produced both Osama and the mutated Taliban, betrayed the strategy behind the book's most quoted paragraph when he wrote:
"To put it in a terminology that harkens back to the more brutal age of ancient empires, the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together."
on April 3, 2003
Good background from MittelEuropa kind of guy.
Brzezinski's premise: that what happens with the distribution of power on the Eurasian landmass will be of decisive importance to America's global primacy and historical legacy. Couldn't agree more, only ... can Brzezinski possibly hope to offer a blueprint for success in this, the axial supercontinent, where the fog of contingency is at its most opaque? No harm in trying...
Zbig's prior claims to prescience? In 'The Soviet Past and Future' Brzezinski outlined five scenarios for the future of the Soviet Union (petrification, evolution, adaptation, fundamentalism, disintegration). His prediction? "The more probable pattern for (the future)is that of a marginal shift toward the combination of the second (pluralist evolution) and third (technological adaptation)". The owl of Minerva, indeed.
In this book, Brzezinski plays the great game of empires past, redux. Couched in the language and tradition of statist tactics, Brzezinski outlines actors and scenarios. A strategy of engagement is central to his formulation of coalition-based mechanisms for a "trans-eurasian security system". He calls for the development of a pluralistic core of mutual political responsibility, to negotiate a course of accomodation in the area. This prescriptive carries Paul Wolfowitz's imprimatur on the back of my copy (!)
Brzezinski observes that there are inherent constraints to the exercise of sustained, focused policy initiatives. Stating that "Democratization is inimical to imperial mobilization", he echoes Toqueville's observation that "a democracy is ill-suited for conducting foreign policy." Some comfort to those who quail at the demands of realpolitik statecraft.
If you need a primer on one mainstream view, this book fits the bill, even seven years after publication (though cracks are appearing ...) Mostly, it's a catechism for the Trilateral Commission library.
on April 21, 2003
Written in 1998, "The Grand Chessboard" is political science professor and former Secretary of State, Zbigniew Brzezinski's interpretation of both the challenges facing the United States following the demise of the Soviet Union, and the most viable response to those challenges. Although written with an exceptionally dull version of the already dry language and style that typically constitutes political theory, this book is worth reading for several reasons. I became interested in this book, at first because of the critical role it played in Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed's analysis of the Bush regime's role the attacks of September 11th, 2001 in his book "The War on Freedom" and then because of how closely Brzezinski's thinking seemed to mirror that of the Neo Conservative theorists at the Project for a New American Century Institute, many of whom currently serve in high levels of the executive branch of government and the military bureaucracy. Finally, like many of my fellow reviewers, I have always been fascinated by global geo-politics. If you are approaching "The Grand Chessboard" from any of these perspectives, it will be a fascinating experience despite itself.
Brzezinski's argument is a simple one. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States found itself in the unique historical position of being the world's only remaining super power. In this sense, traditional balance of power considerations were no longer relevant. Instead, Brzezinski argues, the United States was the power and consequently had an obligation to either guide the world to a new security framework-by force if necessary-or to watch it descend into anarchy. Much to his credit, Brzezinski argues that the United States must undertake this role with benign intentions and acknowledges that without international cooperation, primarily with the European Union, but no less importantly with Russian and China, its efforts are doomed to failure. At odds with this assertion, however, is his frightening statement that the American public would be unwilling to support the military requirements of America's new global role unless it felt under attack as the result of an event of similar or greater magnitude to Pearl Harbor. Here Brzezinski contradicts himself. On the one hand he imbues the United States with a critical historic responsibility. On the other hand he feels that America can only undertake this responsibility if the public is shocked-or perhaps even fooled-into accepting it. The contradiction between these two assertions is troubling and indicates that the foundation of Brzezinski's argument may rest more on his ideological principles than on a rational examination of global security.
Timing is another contraction in Brzezinski's thinking. On the one hand, Brzezinski states that as the only super power the United States must fill the vacuum that has replaced traditional balance of power politics. On the other hand, he urges the United States to do this quickly before the emergence of a new rival such as a more militarily and economically robust China. Why? What does the United States have to accomplish so urgently before this vacuum is replaced by a new balance of power dynamic involving the United States and any of its future rivals? The implication, of course, is that before the emergence of a new rival takes place the United States must advance from a position of mere lone super power status to one of global domination. It is the indication of this nasty little policy shift that captures the attention of analysts such as Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed. The United States is in a position to take over the world but the American public hardly supports the type of military aggression associated with the great empires of history and the totalitarian states of the recent past. September 11th, according to Mosaddeq, may well have been the type of Pearl Harbor that the United States requires, according to Brzezinski, if it is going to undertake its new geo-strategic responsibility.
While I found Ahmed's conspiracy study extremely compelling, after reading "The Grand Chessboard" it seemed to me that he vastly overstated the contribution Brzezinski's thinking may have contributed to such a plan. Throughout the book, and in at least one recent article he wrote for the Washington Post, Brzezinski repeatedly affirmed his view that America cannot pursue its geo-strategic responsibilities without strengthening and building on international partnerships with traditional European allies and with rival/partners such as China and Russia. If the Neo Conservatives have seized upon Brzezinski's ideas to justify their long stated quest for global military domination, they have only done so with a minute portion of them, and have largely ignored the rest.
I have only two complaints about this otherwise excellent book. In first place, no matter how important the context, I quickly became bored with the detailed descriptions of countless "geo-strategic pivots" from Poland to Uzbekistan. Yes, they are relevant and important, but they just aren't as fun to read about as the role of "geo-strategic players" such as France, German, Russia, and China, not to mention "retired" geo-strategic players such as Britain. My second complaint is of the maps, which were relevant and useful but which also seemed to lack authority when scribbled over with childishly rendered circles. A small pet peeve. I highly recommend this book, but only if the subject matter falls within your domain of interest. If you're not into global strategies, it will bore you to death, but otherwise-let the games begin!
on April 23, 2003
I'm surprised by the popularity of this semi-sanitized rehash of 19th century Imperialism. Manchester's 'The Last Lion, Winston Churchill' trys to make 19th century imperialism palatable by claiming it was over (Churchill was the last) and it's death-throes saved us happy non-imperialist types from Hitler. Brzezinski uses the same "it's ok because it about over" trick. The concluding paragraph provides an excellent taste of the book's delights: "In the course of the next several decades, a functioning structure of global cooperation, based on geopolitical realities, could thus emerge and gradually assume the mantle of the world's current "regent," which has for the time being assumed the burden of responsibility for world stability and peace. Geostrategic success in that cause would represent a fitting legacy of America's role as the first, only, and last truly global superpower."
Here is what this means: At some unknown time, the United Nations will gradually take over the United States world regency. World regent America is 'ok' because the US will only do it for a few years and no one else will try it, again.
I guess Churchill wasn't the 'last lion,' after all.
After carefully hunting through the book, I don't think the 'temporary' side of imperialism is a serious concern for Brzezinski. His primary concern is insuring American power remains pre-eminent and American business monopolize it's 'regional sphere'. His method of operation involves catering to ethnic mythology at every turn, insuring a maximum of ethnic friction. The blandishments about an emerging 'structure of global cooperation' is just a fig leaf.
There must be a lot the left and right could complain about this vision, but I find it primarily empty headed. Brzezinski's model is the status quo, his style is crisis management. I felt like I was reading a paean to good old days of the 'Grand Game' and aristocratic diplomacy.
I won't go into the content. If you have played the board game Risk, you pretty much know what to expect. Brzezinski merely brings the 1960s game into the new millennium.
I think it useful to consider the book from two alternative views. 1) Has it offered predictive value? 2) Does it help us identify the forces that will influence the future.
On the first point, Brzezinski has no predictive powers. He doesn't peer into the future, he drives while staring at the rear view mirror. Written in the late 90s, he entirely misses the 'blowback' of his own Middle Eastern policy. In the late 70s, when Carter-era national security adviser, Brzezinski walked the Russians it "the Afghan trap." Did he ever imagine that his creation, the mujahideen, would blow up the World Trade Center?Brzezinski's blind spot for Muslim creativity extends to just about everything south of the Alps, Anatolian plateau and Himalayas. Weapons of mass destruction get mentioned as an after thought near the end of the conclusion. Christian and Muslim fundamentalism are ignored. Drug cartels and non-government paramilitaries escape his radar screen.
On the second point, Brzezinski offers no systemic insights for global developments. What is it about the United Nations that makes it a fit 'future' for global government? What are the advantages of legitimizing the United Nations as the court of highest authority? How will Brzezinsk's world of vassals, protectorates and competitors find agreement on global authority? We never find out.
on May 20, 2000
Brzezinski mastery on strategic subjects, his personal experience and clear definition provide a well documented insight on American goals and their historical precedence. The book easily stands next to 'Rise and Fall of Great Power' of Paul Kennedy and 'Clash of Civilisation' of Samuel Huntington. No surprise his reasoning deeply influenced US policies during the last decades.
Reality is unfortunately less friendly with the US. 20th century gave a hard lesson. In 1900, people firmly believed that only 3 powers would survive: British Empire, United States and Russia. Some added Germany without much conviction, nobody talked of France, Japan. China was ready to be carved up and India was a British colony. In 2000, United States are at the top but with deficits in line with the British Empire a century ago. Japan nobody talked about is world second largest economy and despite loss of WW II is presently achieving its sphere of Coprosperity in South-East Asia, this time with the tacit approval of most partners. Germany is world third largest economy and achieved all its geostrategical targets (including integrating all of Europe), even while loosing two world wars and being divided for 45 years. France was number four and still is number four. The British Empire no longer exists, Hong Kong returned to China, Britain is becoming more federal and is at position 5. China did not only chase all foreigners but is a serious world player. India is the other Asian giant whose shadow starts looming. And Russia collapsed.
Lessons learned: have a strong culture, good demographics, well educated people, keep up with technology, no trade or finance deficit and be stubborn. And the importance of military forces: China used guerilla, India non-violence, Japan and Germany are more succesful with their industrial strategy, France survived with a mix of everything. Britain lost no battle and Russia was a superpower. Draw your own conclusions.
Nevertheless, an excellent book and a must read.