American Diplomacy Associate Publisher Cotter demonstrates to the reader of the following account one of the necessary skills cultivated by diplomats in the U. S. Foreign Service, as well as in the career diplomatic services of other countries: He reports accurately from his memory and from necessarily skimpy personal notes the extended, often complex oral remarks of Dr. Zibigniew Brzezinski. Additionally, he presents an overview of a panel discussion and a Q & A session following the speaker’s presentation. The topic? No less than global security trends and terrorism, plus the Iraq war. The reader will, we believe, find the account fascinating, whether or not he or she agrees totally with Professor Brzezinski’s findings and opinion. It repays a careful reading. — Contrib. Edit.
Report on a Speech by Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski
University of North Carolina, March 5, 2008
By Ambassador (ret.) Michael W. Cotter
Dr. Brzezinski began his remarks by quoting a statement by President Bush who, referring to “the war on terror,” stated: “We are in the defining ideological struggle of the twenty-first century.” This is 2008. What, Dr. Brzezinski asked, would have been the reaction if someone had made such a statement in 1908 or 1808? Would that person have accurately predicted what turned out to be the defining struggle of those centuries?
Unfortunately, the president’s statement may turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It may also lead to limitations on Americans’ civil rights and lead to a “gated global community.” The United States could be penetrated by a culture of fear.
Indeed, Dr. Brzezinski feared that such a culture already existed. He contrasted the current climate of fear over terrorism to the lack of such a culture during the Cold War, recounting his role as National Security Advisor to President Carter. Had there been a nuclear alarm, he would have been informed within two minutes; our early warning system would have had two more minutes to gauge the size of the launch, and by seven minutes the president would have had to decide on our response. The result could have been 100 million deaths in the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet in this Cold War reality of the possibility of nuclear war no administration propagated a culture of fear. Instead we made our deterrence capability credible and rational.
He expressed concern over the climate of anxiety in the United States nurtured by repeated descriptions of the threats we face. He noted the full page ad in the first section of the March 5 New York Times with scary headlines about cyber attacks, a rogue leader making threats, or the latest terrorist threat and asked whether anyone had noted who placed the ad: It was the Department of the Air Force!
Democracy is as strong as the confidence of its people. He noted that some scholars have compared the United States to other civilizations which fell into decay when the people lost confidence it their ability to defend themselves. The United States is not in decay, he maintained, but added that the current level of fear and anxiety could lead to it.
Three Global Trends
We live in a complex, interactive world that can’t be reduced to a simple slogan. Dr. Brzezinski sees the future shaped by the interaction of three trends. How it works out will depend on U.S. reaction to those trends.
The first trend is the global political awakening currently underway. Until recently most of mankind was inarticulate and isolated politically. Increased literacy, radio and television, and the emergence of the internet have created interconnectivity leading to the awakening of humanity. The masses, especially the youth, are activated, and there are more than 150,000 youth in universities now.
This awakening has created a craving for dignity and social justice. People are aware that injustice exists and know who is responsible. This has led to resentment and repression, and it is generally anti-imperialist, anti-Western (associated in many places with imperialism), and emotionally anti-American.
The second trend is the rapid rise of critical global issues beyond solution by any one country. Issues such as: global inequality in a global world, global warming and the future of the biosphere, the environment, demand for energy, and proliferation of nuclear weapons. Very often the ability to improve human conditions is in direct conflict with the energy/ecology issues. Aren’t Chinese and Indians deserving of the same “good life” enjoyed by Western nations? There are no easy, global answers to these issues, but they all are more important than terrorism as the key issue of the twenty-first century.
The third trend is the massive shift in global distribution of power from the Atlantic region to Asia. Europe and the United States have dominated the world for the last 500-600 years, but that period of dominance is now coming to an end. Asia is rising, and the twenty-first century may be the Asian century. Power is dispersing across many more countries, and military power is no longer enough to ensure security.
“New Global Balkans”
Between the West and Asia there is a critical zone Dr. Brzezinski calls the “new global Balkans.” It extends from Sinai to Xinjiang and from Central Russia to the Indian Ocean, and 500 million people inhabit it. The United States is in danger of getting bogged down in conflicts in these “Balkans.” The Iraq War could set off a spark between the United States. and Iran. We are engaged in Afghanistan and losing support there. We are also engaged in Pakistan and at the same time have found ourselves unable to resolve the Israel-Palestine issue.
How the United States responds to these global issues will be the decisive question of the twenty-first century. Dr. Brzezinski sees the United States facing two choices: One, can it avoid becoming bogged down in the global Balkans? And can it work with others to solve the challenges facing the world? What does the United States need to do?
End the War
First, it needs to end the war in Iraq. The expenditure of human and financial resources there is out of all proportion to the possible benefits. He noted a recent study by the economist Paul Stiglitz and others which was the subject of congressional hearings a week ago. The human cost to the United States (4,000 killed and thousands seriously injured) and to the Iraqis is enormous. Currently we are spending $12 billion a month on the war. Where, he asked, is that money coming from? Not the United States, but rather by borrowing from China, Japan, and the Gulf States. The war is leading to U.S. isolation and to the “de-legitimization” of the U.S. role in the world.
What do we get from the war? Not much, but he noted the argument that the situation will be much worse if we leave. He’s not convinced, and thinks those who make the claim need to prove the situation will be worse. More complicated maybe, but not demonstrably worse. The United States can also anticipate some difficulties if it withdraws. We need to talk to Iraq about a firm date for our departure. Already southern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan are essentially self-governing. We also need to engage Iraq’s neighbors. None of them wants to deal with negative consequences of our departure. In sum, we can leave Iraq rationally.
We need to be willing to address other issues as well, for instance, the Iranians. There is an opening for dialogue with them to try seriously to provide reasons for them not to develop nuclear weapons. And if they do? We lived with the Soviets and Mao having the bomb, we live with Pakistan, India, and Israel having it, can’t we then live with Iran having the bomb?
The United States needs to think hard about what we are doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Are we doing too much of a good thing there? He noted that Afghanistan is extremely xenophobic, citing a recent New York Times Magazine article on a U.S. unit in rural Afghanistan where the local people were choosing to fight against it without Al Qaeda or Taliban pressure simply because they resent the presence of foreigners.
Essentially then, the next U.S. president needs to think about how we deal with the interface of the West and Asia while avoiding getting bogged down in the global Balkans. This isn’t an academic question. The upcoming presidential elections will be decisive in determining how the United States faces this new world. What will be our relationship with the rest of the world?
At the conclusion of Dr. Brzezinski’s remarks, a panel consisting of Dr. Richard Kohn, Professor of History and of Peace, War, and Defense at UNC Chapel Hill; and Dr. Peter Feaver, Alexander F. Hehmeyer Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University and Director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (TISS).
Dr. Kohn led off by asking what Dr. Brzezinski thought about the prospects for change in the political forces in the United States. We are under-funding the State Department and international organizations while spending $500 billion on defense. How do we change this?
Dr. Brzezinski responded that there needs to be a pervasive sense of urgency and willingness to go beyond traditional political issues. We need to redefine what we are and aspire to be, and reorder our relationships with the world. We need to avoid being besieged with fear. 9/11 imprinted itself on the American people. The presidential contest will polarize two visions of the world. If there is no change in perspective, the United States will be stalemated, leading to the self-fulfillment of the prophecy of fear.
Dr. Feaver commented that he agrees with the key issues Dr. Brzezinski had identified, although he thinks they are older than Brzezinski had indicated. He noted the existence of “rapid deployment” forces several decades ago. He questioned whether President Bush could really be accused of “fear mongering.” Then he asked if Dr. Brzezinski could cite three major foreign policy positions of the Bush Administration that he hoped a Democratic successor would continue.
Dr. Brzezinski noted that the “rapid deployment” forces developed in the 1960s by the U.S. military were intended to move in and then back out quickly; they were not intended as an occupation force. He commented that other senior administration figures besides the president certainly have engaged in fear mongering. As for foreign policy successes, he noted that the administration has managed the relationships with Japan and Australia successfully. He finds the agreement on nuclear issues with India, which will leave a number of reactors outside IAEA control, to be inconsistent with long-standing non-proliferation policy, leaving, as it will, India capable of producing 50 nuclear weapons a year. He asked who is concerned by that? Not Pakistan, which has enough weapons to defend itself. It could be China, which during the Cold War had many fewer nuclear weapons aimed at the United States than the United States had aimed at China. He is concerned that there not be nuclear competition between China and India. Beyond that, he allowed as how there had been some administration success with its trade policy, although the Doha round of trade negotiations had failed.
U.S. Leadership Role
Dr. Kohn noted that the last three presidents have been self-proclaimed global leaders. Doesn’t that mantle, he asked, lay on the United States a large responsibility for solving world problems and ignore the role of international agencies and other powers in contributing to such solutions?
Dr. Brzezinski responded that the problem is stewardship of the global leadership role. He gave President George H.W. Bush a B- for his stewardship, President Clinton a C, and President George Bush an F. We’ve been deflected from our global responsibility. To carry it out successfully we need to work with others. With the Europeans we’ve always talked about “partnership” and “sharing of the burden.” The Europeans, on the other hand, want to share decisions but not the burden. We and they haven’t been able to share both equitably. For instance, regarding decision-making, the Europeans want us to stop making threats against Iran.
He noted that world institutions are anachronistic, created right after WWII. Who makes the decisions in the UN? The five permanent members. This no longer reflects the reality of power distribution in the world. Where is India, or South Africa, or Brazil? The UN needs to be reformed, but is paralyzed as those wielding veto power would certainly exercise it to maintain their control.
The World Bank and IMF are similar. Who has the majority of voting rights? The United States. But is the United States really the global economic power? Where do U.S. banks turn for bailouts? To Japan and the Gulf States. The G-8 was initially a good idea, an informal organization of the major economic democracies. Then it admitted that great democracy, Russia. China isn’t represented, nor the other regional economic powers.
Is the United States, he asked, prepared to reform those organizations, and to pressure others to do the same?
He noted an unnamed candidate’s comment about being in a 100 year war, adding that he didn’t agree, but that this is a critical period in world history.
Living with an Iranian Nuclear Weapon?
Dr. Feaver asked whether we can really learn to live with an Iranian nuclear weapon. If we let the Europeans off the hook and drop the sanction policy, how would that contribute to delaying Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons?
Dr. Brzezinski responded that we need to have carrots as well as sanctions. So far we have insisted that Iran stop enrichment as a basic concession before any talks can begin. But as a member of IAEA, they have a right to enrich nuclear fuel. We should agree to talk without conditions, but then agree to lift sanctions if Iran suspends enrichment. He finds incongruous our unwillingness to take the military option off the table since we regularly say we’re not considering it. It isn’t credible and unifies Iranians against us. We could carry out an air attack, but it would involve tens of thousands of civilian casualties, and the Iranians are capable of causing us enormous problems in the Straits and Iraq.
If forced to make a decision, he said he would accept a nuclear Iran rather than attack it. He thinks that we can certainly deter any Iranian nuclear attack. What could it do with 1 or 2 bombs, he asked?
Dr. Feaver asked whether that wouldn’t lead to follow-on proliferation.
Dr. Brzezinski asked whether the Saudis or Egyptians are really in a position to develop nuclear weapons. He believes that the North Koreans, Pakistanis, and Iranians wouldn’t sell the bomb or technology to either country.
Dr. Kohn asked whether Israel could live with the Iranian Bomb.
Dr. Brzezinski responded that Israel would have to cross U.S.-controlled Iraqi airspace to carry out such an attack, and inevitably the United States would be held responsible. Israel can’t strike Iran without the collusion of the United States, and in any event couldn’t carry out the multi-day operation and multiple missions necessary to succeed in destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The panel then opened the discussion to questions from the audience.
Cuba and Iran Transitions
The first questioner asked Dr. Brzezinski’s view of how the new U.S. president would deal with regime transitions in Cuba and Iran.
Dr. Brzezinski responded that the Cuban transition can have either a hard or soft landing. He noted that engagement was important in hastening the fall of the USSR. We face the same choice with Cuba. Engagement would speed disintegration of the Cuban regime. If we don’t engage, it will fall all the same, but the process will take longer and be messier.
Regarding Iran, he said Ayotollah Khomeini was a real leader. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, displays self-destructive behavior that is embarrassing to Iranians. Leadership in Iran is degenerating.
Culture of Fear
The second questioner asked what created the culture of fear and the policy of emphasizing it.
Dr. Brzezinski responded that 9/11 opened the door to the neo-conservative ideas and to a sense of insecurity. The question is how to react to events like 9/11. He harkened back to the Cold War when the threat was much greater, but Americans didn’t live in a climate of fear. Terrorism is a threat, but not the same as nuclear annihilation. We need the cooperation of other cultures, governments, and religions to defeat terrorism
9/11 created a propensity for fear that has been used by elements for their own ends, referring once again to the New York Times advertisement. Are other countries, which actually have suffered more from terrorism than has the United States, so overwhelmed by fear? No. The United States was always a confident country with a positive self-image. Not now. He fears we will become a garrison state.
He said there will certainly be other terrorist incidents in the United States, but they are unlikely to be on the scale of 9/11, which required a high degree of planning and organization. He asked rhetorically who has come out on top between Bin Laden and George Bush? Bin Laden is still here, as is Al Qaeda, while the United States is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and has lost much international credibility.
The next questioner asked Dr. Brzezinski’s view of the future of the China/Taiwan relationship.
Dr. Brzezinski responded that it depends on how China progresses. If its economic success and controlled move toward democracy continue, then China and Taiwan will grow progressively closer. He recalled Chinese and U.S. policy in the past of “one country, two systems,” which was originally intended to apply to Hong Kong. In fact, he predicted it will be one country, several systems, with China, Hong, Kong, Taiwan, Macao, and even Singapore coexisting with different political and economic systems.
The next questioner asked about U.S. policies toward Latin America in the future.
Dr. Brzezinski said that Latin America is part of the global political awakening taking place, especially among the indigenous populations on the continent. That awakening is populist, but also democratic. Recalling his earlier comment, he said it is also anti-imperial and anti-West, and therefore largely anti-American. He predicted greater anti-Americanism as the process continued.
Michael W. Cotter is Associate Publisher of American Diplomacy. He is a retired Foreign Service officer who worked for the Department of State from 1966 to 1998. He began his duties in South Vietnam; his final posting was as U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan. He now lives in Pittsboro, NC.