Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that the 1973 oil crisis occurred in President Richard Nixon’s first term. It happened in his second term. The text has been corrected.
Daniel J. Sargent is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of “A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s.”
The postwar order was crumbling, and the president only hastened its implosion. Fixated on unfair trade, he slapped a tariff on foreign imports and then moved to devalue the dollar. The president achieved his goal, but he also imperiled the international monetary order.
In military affairs, the president had at first spoken cautiously, calling for allies to pay more for their own security. Yet he soon launched new misadventures and embroiled U.S. power in new quagmires. Not long into his second term, the United States was mired in a Middle Eastern war, and the price of oil had quadrupled. An economic boom turned into a bust, and the mood in Congress soured. Within a year, the president was gone, having cheated impeachment by resignation.
Reading Justin Vaïsse’s impressive new book, “Zbigniew Brzezinski: America’s Grand Strategist,” it is difficult to miss the echoes of our own times in the early 1970s. Then, as now, the United States grappled with the dilemma of relative decline and the rise of new international challenges. Then, as now, leaders tried — and failed — to roll the clock back toward a simpler heyday of postwar ascendancy. Then, as now, decision-makers and intellectuals alike struggled to divine coherence, direction and purpose from complex currents of global change.
If the publication of “Brzezinski” could hardly be timelier, the author could not be more apt. A historian by training, Vaïsse also directs the policy planning staff in France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has immersed himself in the career and archives of Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and died last May, at age 89.
Born in Warsaw in 1928, Brzezinski was a close peer to Henry Kissinger. Both men emigrated to the United States at a young age, both earned Harvard PhDs, and both engaged in the foreign policy arena during the 1960s before rising to new pinnacles of prominence in the 1970s.
Posterity has not treated Kissinger and Brzezinski evenly. Critics have subjected Kissinger to an opprobrium that Brzezinski has escaped, but Kissinger’s reputation has also eclipsed Brzezinski’s. Kissingerology has become an academic subfield, but Vaïsse’s “Brzezinski” is the first major biographical study to appear. The book’s achievement is in part corrective. “Brzezinski” rehabilitates a thinker and actor whom other writers have too often underestimated.
Brzezinski’s story, as Vaïsse tells it, proceeds in three major acts. The first locates in the Cold War university where Brzezinski acquired his formal training, built his academic reputation as a specialist on the Soviet Union and launched his first forays into the policy arena. Brzezinski was in the 1950s an ardent Cold Warrior who favored confronting the Soviet Union, but he mellowed in the 1960s, becoming an advocate for “peaceful engagement.”
An academic who dabbled in policy during the 1970s, Brzezinski exemplified a new breed of national security professional. His ascent, Vaïsse argues, was symptomatic of a sociological shift in which university-trained professionals displaced the lawyers and bankers who had navigated the ship of state through the creation of the American world order in the 1940s.
During his second act, beginning around 1968, Brzezinski contemplated the disintegration of the post-World War II order. Eager to preserve a global order aligned with U.S. interests and values, Brzezinski and the banker David Rockefeller collaborated to create the Trilateral Commission in 1973. The pair intended the initiative to socialize cooperation among U.S., European and Japanese elites. The Trilateral Commission did not exert particular sway over policy outcomes, despite much fervid speculation as to its influence, but it nonetheless constituted a creative initiative.
Fearing that President Richard Nixon’s unilateralism, especially in economic policy, was wrecking the postwar order, the Trilateralists advocated cooperation on common challenges, from energy and monetary relations, to food and population, to the renovation of international institutions. The commission thereby blazed a trail for what would, in time, become known as global governance. The implications for U.S. foreign policy were also ripe. What the Trilateralists advocated was, as Vaïsse puts it, a distinctive new approach oriented toward “themes and actors other than those of the Cold War.”
Brzezinski’s third act is the most familiar, but Vaïsse’s broad panorama achieves important perspective on the Carter years. Brzezinski went to the National Security Council in 1977 determined to advance the kind of forward-looking global agenda he had advocated at the Trilateral Commission. Cultivating trilateral relations, promoting North-South engagement and engaging the Eastern Bloc were the Carter administration’s initial purposes. Yet Carter and Brzezinski would, in practice, have to deal with the vigorous reassertion of Soviet power, especially in the Third World.
Defining a hard-line anti-Soviet posture was not Brzezinski’s initial agenda, Vaïsse shows, but he embraced the assignment. Brzezinski enlisted China as a tacit Cold War ally, and he devised a framework for asserting U.S. military power in the Persian Gulf after the Iranian revolution of 1979. He became under Carter the architect of a new containment policy that prefigured the escalated Cold War the Reagan administration waged in the 1980s.
Brzezinski’s effectiveness, Vaïsse suggests, derived from his adaptability. He was a fluent strategic thinker who assessed particular dilemmas in the context of the broad sweep of history, in which he was deeply versed. Brzezinski’s enthusiasm for expansive historical thinking and his orientation toward economic, social and technological dynamics also made him an adept prognosticator. He predicted the implosion of Soviet communism, Vaïsse notes, and warned that invading Iraq would unleash a cascade of adverse consequences.
Brzezinski mistrusted both stern ideology and the formal methods that came, over his lifetime, to dominate his academic discipline. Like Kissinger, another political scientist who thought like a historian, Brzezinski acted with strategic vision. Yet he did not strive to subject history to rigid dogma, as the neoconservatives attempted after 9/11, to his deep chagrin.
In the end, Vaïsse makes his case: Brzezinski’s career in international affairs presents a salutary example. Indeed, his approach to statecraft today appears all the more necessary, as the international order inches toward renewed crisis — and the American presidency again recourses to unilateralism.
Readers will encounter in “Brzezinski” an eloquent introduction to a major strategic thinker and a thoughtful meditation upon the useful work that ideas and intellectuals can perform in the policy arena. Yet, whether the making of U.S. foreign policy is today any more susceptible to strategic deliberation than it was in Brzezinski’s heyday is hardly self-evident.
By Justin Vaïsse
Translated from the French by Catherine Porter
Harvard. 505 pp. $35