But outside the United States, Brzezinski played an outsize role too. Born as a son of a pre-war Polish diplomat, Brzezinski spoke better literary Polish than most Poles today. During the decades when Poland was stuck against her will behind the Iron Curtain, he and the Polish pope were the two most important voices for a free Poland abroad. After liberation, he acted as an adviser and champion of the new democracies on their way to rejoining Western institutions.
We liked to think of him as “our” American statesman. Just as Henry Kissinger brought Western European perspective to American strategic thinking, so Brzezinski infused it with the sensitivity of Europe’s captive East. In his view, the Soviet Union was not only a totalitarian challenge but also the latest manifestation of the Russian empire, likely to break up along ethnic lines, which proved prophetic.
President Ronald Reagan is correctly credited with victory over the Soviets, but he was building on the achievements of his predecessors. The support for the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet invasion started under President Jimmy Carter, at Brzezinski’s urging. In the context of the Cold War, it was a successful policy which — together with Solidarity in Poland and low oil prices — helped to hasten the Soviet collapse. In the final months of the Carter presidency in 1980, when a Soviet invasion of Poland was contemplated, Brzezinski — working closely with the Pope John Paul II — successfully deterred Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
Brzezinski’s life spanned the greatest tragedies and greatest triumphs of 20th century Europe and America. As a witness and a participant in those titanic struggles, he brought to them not only a powerful intellect, but also gravitas. Europeans and Americans who remembered the World War II understood the true cost of foreign policy mistakes.
When I saw him a month ago, he was worried, and summed it up in his last tweet, on May 4th: “Sophisticated US leadership is the sine qua non of a stable world order. However, we lack the former while the latter is getting worse.”