“Strategic Vision : America and the Crisis of Global Power” By Zbigniew Brzezinski
Basic Books, 2012, 218 pp.
I recently discovered a secondhand bookstore in Tokyo with quite
an impressive politics and international relations section. Brzezinski’s Strategic Vision caught my eye, due to its modest size (218 pages, incl. notes and index) and grand scope.
Polish-American Zbigniew Brzezinski (b. 1928) was the National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter and is now a professor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at John Hopkins University. He is usually associated with the theoretical school of realism and geopolitical thinking.
In his book, Brzezinski touches on quite a lot of different topics and paints a fairly accurate picture of the international world of today and the role of the US in it. However, Strategic Vision does not make any groundbreaking points nor does it introduce much new information to readers who are well-versed in the field of international relations. It’s good for a light read on the world of 2013, but a number of the points made do lack some empirical support.
Can the US sustain an orderly world?
Brzezinski’s main claim is that “without basic geopolitical stability, any effort to achieve the necessary global cooperation will falter” (p.1). The rest of the book is then spent arguing why the US’ capacity to defend this stability will decline if the country does not undergo rather significant domestic reforms. The author does well in toning down the fatalist and declinist voices spelling the unavoidable collapse of US global power, but he does argue that for the US to maintain its position would require quite significant domestic transformations. More on this later.
Brzezinski’s main concern is that as more powers (e.g. China, India) grow stronger relative to the US the world hierarchy will become less clear which in turn will result in increased instability (following the basic argument found in Power Transition Theory). His main answer to this challenge is that the US must pull itself together in order to maintain its leading position and per extension world stability.
The author then goes on to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the US today. Of the more interesting elements highlighted is the issue of public ignorance. He writes: “According to the OECD, America spends one of the highest amounts per pupil on its primary and secondary education, yet has some of the lowest test scores in the industrialized world” (p. 49). He then goes on to explain how this makes the “American political environment more hospitable to extremist simplifications – abetted by interested lobbies – than to nuanced views of the inherently more complex global realities of the post-Cold War era” (p. 53). Although the shortcomings of America’s education system are not exactly news, including them as a factor in US foreign policy provides an interesting angle. It also sends ominous sings when held together with the current Donald Trump-hype leading up to the presidential election of 2016.
China – between a peaceful rise and growing nationalism
The book’s vision of 2025 is not one in which China is the new global superpower, but rather one of a more chaotic global order. One of the qualities of Brzezinski’s analysis is that it does not jump to the conclusion that a major great power conflict is inevitable – even in the face of US decline and a rise of China. Instead he underscores that China “recognizes that its own success depends on the system not collapsing dramatically but instead evolving toward a gradual redistribution of power” (p. 79).
A factor that is too often forgotten in discussions of China’s rise is that it has so far primarily been an economic rise (although with significant military implications), and that China is therefore intimately dependent on a stable and functioning world order. Yes, China wants to transform a number of elements of the current international order – but it prefers to do so by peaceful means, supporting its own economic development.
However, while this may be the case, Brzezinski also points to the tendency of growing nationalism among the Chinese elite (p. 83) which may push for a more assertive foreign policy. It is this nationalist faction that persistently interprets any US action in the Indo-Pacific region as part of a larger containment strategy towards China.
China finds itself in this conflict between economic interests and growing nationalism and the future of the region may very well depend on its outcome.
Brzezinski argues that the US is the current main guarantor of a number of global commons such as freedom of navigation, the non-proliferation regime against weapons of mass destruction and environmental efforts. By extension, a decline of US power will endanger all these common goods and make the world less stable.
A US with a less global reach could indeed increase the chance of maritime disputes threatening global trade and it could encourage more states to obtain nuclear deterrents of their own. However, it does seem overly pessimistic to state that some of these principles could not be sustained through multilateral means. An argument could be made that a relatively weakened US would encourage stronger multilateral collaboration which could indeed pave the way for stronger protection of the global commons. The environment comes to mind as a global common which the US has not been particularly active in defending to the necessary extent. Lacking a “leader”, other countries might start taking greater initiatives themselves.
Russia, Ukraine and looming dangers for smaller states
An interesting point made in Strategic Vision is that it will be the smaller states that are most exposed in a future less stable order. Especially his comments on Ukraine (written before the current crisis) are interesting and rather prophetic. The underlying argument is that in a world of diminishing US importance, there will be no one to ensure the security of the weaker states who cannot defend themselves from their larger neighbors.
This is exactly what has been the case in Ukraine, where no outside power has been willing or able to provide the necessary hard power backing to deter or defeat the Russian annexation of Crimea and continuing hybrid warfare.
Brzezinski’s larger point is that we could be seeing a lot more of these situations in the coming years, as great powers become more assertive and faced with less resistance from the US. This could in fact already be what we are seeing in the South China Sea although at a much smaller scale than in Ukraine.
Strategic Vision is more or less summarized on page 184:
Thus, America’s central challenge and its geopolitically imperative mission over the next several decades is to revitalize itself and to promote a larger and more vital West while simultaneously buttressing a complex balance in the East, so as to accommodate constructively China’s rising global status and avert global chaos.
From the a US-centered perspective the conclusion is sound, especially the advocacy of an offshore balancing approach to the Asian continent. Following such a strategy, the US would only intervene militarily in Asia to protect its allies and its access to global commons such as the South East Asian sea lines of communication.
However, Brzezinski’s analysis does rely on the fundamental assumption that without the US the world will be in big time trouble. I for one do not dismiss the possibility that global commons could be defended by a multilateral effort. Furthermore, I remain unconvinced that an Asian-led world order would be the catastrophe proponents of US hegemony predict. Giving China and India a stronger voice in the world order would actually make that order represent a much larger share of the worlds population and thereby make it more democratic.
That is not to say that there are no challenges associated with the rise of China or Asia more broadly. Yet, a possible US-led multilateral approach could, in Brzezinski’s words, “accommodate constructively China’s rising global status”. However, the world’s current superpower must realize, that this will involve some painful compromises for American interests. Accommodation comes at a price, but if the result is a more peaceful and indeed just world order is it not a price worth paying even for the US?
A final note. The ongoing Ukraine Crisis since 2014 has made large parts of Brzezinski’s analysis somewhat outdated. But this is also what makes Strategic Vision historically interesting. It demonstrates how much the western perception of Russia has changed over the last two years. Shortsighted as many of us tend to be, reading Strategic Vision provides an interesting insight into the view of Russia and Putin before they became inescapably connected to the Ukraine Crisis. In the far gone past of 2013, Brzezinski argued that the US and EU should be engaging Russia politically and economically in order to secure the future stability of the Europe. Today, such an inviting and cooperative stance seems out of the picture.
Reviewed by Nikolaj K. Andersen