The Elder Statesmen Speak

Reviewed by Moisés Naím
Sunday, September 28, 2008


Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy

By Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft

Basic. 291 pp. $27.50

As octogenarian white guys with high-level U.S. foreign policy experience go, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft could not be more different. Brzezinski was born in Poland and Scowcroft in Utah. The former made his name as a professor at Harvard and Columbia, the latter as a general in the Air Force. Brzezinski became Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, and Scowcroft was Richard Nixon's military assistant before serving as national security adviser to Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush. Today, Scowcroft is one of the Republican Party's elder statesmen in the foreign policy arena, while Brzezinski plays a similar role for the Democrats.

Given the bitterness of partisan debates about foreign policy, now exacerbated by a tight race for the presidency, one might expect Brzezinski and Scowcroft to disagree vehemently about the challenges America faces abroad, the decisions that have shaped the nation's current travails and what the next president should do. Instead, they seem to see eye to eye on nearly every major foreign policy issue facing the United States. We know this because last spring Washington Post columnist David Ignatius sat down with both men for several days of wide-ranging discussion. America and the World is an edited transcript of their conversations. And, contrary to the operative assumption behind Sunday morning TV talk shows, it turns out that two wise interlocutors who concur can be as interesting and informative as experts with completely divergent views.

One of the issues on which Brzezinski and Scowcroft largely agree is Iraq. When the idea of striking Iraq was first floated in the aftermath of 9/11, both voiced doubts about its wisdom. For Scowcroft, criticizing the invasion must have been particularly difficult, given his close ties to the Bush family. Nonetheless, he published a prescient article in the Wall Street Journal titled, "Don't Attack Saddam." In that August 2002 piece, Scowcroft warned that invading Iraq would "seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken" and would be "very expensive -- with serious consequences for the U.S. and global economy." But in this book, Ignatius ably steers Scowcroft and Brzezinski beyond criticism of the decisions that led to war and toward consensus on what to do now: Exit slowly -- and only after a more stable regional context has been nurtured, especially by engaging Iran and reinvigorating the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

As Scowcroft and Brzezinski move on to discuss China, Russia and Europe, a central point they repeatedly make is that the United States must shed the bunker mentality that has infused its foreign policy since 9/11. According to Ignatius, both men want "to restore a confident, forward leaning America. . . . Their idea of a twenty-first century American superpower is a nation that reaches out to the world -- not to preach but to listen and cooperate and, where necessary, compel."

That position, in turn, is rooted in a recognition of what Brzezinski calls the global political awakening. "For the first time in history," he contends, "all of the world is politically activated . . . creating massive intolerance, impatience with inequality . . . jealousies, resentment, more rapid immigration." These demands for dignity and higher living standards (which governments often are unable to meet), coupled with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, lead Brzezinski to observe ominously that "today, it's much easier to kill a million people than to govern a million restless, stirred-up, impatient people."

To both Scowcroft and Brzezinski, the conviction that globalization is spreading not just trade and technology, but also resentment and impatience, is cause "for flexibility, for openness, for a willingness to talk with friends and enemies alike," as Ignatius summarizes their views. Their advice is reminiscent of George W. Bush's remark in a 2000 presidential debate: "If we are an arrogant nation they will resent us. If we are a humble nation, but strong, they will welcome us." The next president would do well to heed their counsel but should not underestimate the difficulty of sticking to it. ·

Moisés Naím is editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company