Skip to main content

Reviewed by David Criekemans

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower. New York: Basic Books, 2007, 234 pp., $ 26.95 (ISBN: 0-465-00252-8).

One of the most important American geopolitical thinkers alive is Zbigniew Brzezinski. Today, he is one of the foreign policy advisors of Democratic nominee Barack Obama. In the 1950s and ’60s, he was one of the leading thinkers on Soviet politics and communist ideology. Thanks to these credentials, he became national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter between 1977 and 1980. At that time, Brzezinski was considered to be a ‘hawk.’ When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, he convinced Carter to put aside his idealist policies and arrange things so as to provide the Soviets “a bloody nose,” a Vietnam of their own. (Interestingly, the presidential directive to authorize covert American support for Afghan resistance against communism predated Soviet direct military invasion; it was issued on July 3, 1979.) The Afghan rebels were secretly armed by the CIA.

Brzezinski’s interest in geopolitics stems from these years in office. At that time, he developed the “Arc of Crisis” concept. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Brzezinski claimed that a “zone of instability” had developed in South Asia and communists were trying to get control of this area.

Unlike his contemporary Henry Kissinger, Brzezinski defines geopolitics in a more traditional way, which respects the original definition of this field’s founder, the Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén, in 1899. Whereas Kissinger reduces geopolitics to a mere balance of power game, Brzezinski also researches the main territorially embedded variables which “steer” geopolitical trends and dynamics: demography, ecology, natural resources, military capabilities, economic growth, ethnicity, etc. One could call him a neo-classical global geopolitical thinker. In his book Game Plan (1986), he reiterated an old idea of the British geopolitical scholar Halford John Mackinder (1861-1947): “Democracy […] refuses to think strategically unless and until compelled to do so for purposes of defence.” This somewhat summarizes the essence of the mission Brzezinski has pursued during the past 20 years, both as a scholar and elder statesman: trying to identify the main geopolitical dynamics in world politics, and — above all — the challenges therein for America’s position in the world. His final goal is to try to formulate concrete ideas so as to ‘correct’ and enhance American foreign policy.

Analysis of the Post-1989 Era
Brzezinski’s newest book, Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower, fits perfectly into this tradition. The author uses his analytical skills and policy experience to analyze that unique period since 1989, the era when America became the world’s first and only global superpower. The main questions he poses in this book, are the following (p. 6): How did America’s first three global leader presidents — George H. W. Bush, William J. Clinton, and George W. Bush — interpret the essence of the new era? Were they guided by a historically relevant vision, and did they pursue a coherent strategy? Which foreign policy decisions were most consequential? Did they leave the world in better or worse shape, and was the American position in that world stronger or weaker? And what key lessons for the future should be drawn from America’s performance over the past 15 years as the first global superpower? Brzezinski openly admits that this book is a subjective statement, not a detailed history. Nevertheless, he writes with authority and clear analytical skill, but still gives the reader a chance to develop a judgment of his own.

The author starts his analysis in Chapter Two by introducing the reader into the clashing historical visions about world politics, which fought for support at the beginning of the 1990s. This useful section provides an insight into the intellectual undercurrents which tried to ‘seize’ the dynamics of international politics at that specific juncture in time. The first of these two world-organizing visions is globalization; the second is neo-conservatism. Globalization was catchy, trendy, and appealing world-wide (p. 31). It suggested American leadership, but did not aggressively postulate it. Implicitly, it nevertheless entailed a central source of inspiration and impulse, and America fitted all the requirements. Globalization suggested a new equilibrium, but was ‘cheerfully optimistic’, as Brzezinski puts it. It became the ideological basis upon which President Bill Clinton built his (foreign) policy, convenient because it suggested a watering down of the relationship between domestic and foreign, and attributed explanatory power to (socio)economic variables. Brzezinski quite harshly labels it “economic determinism.”

The rival doctrine, neo-conservatism, was much more pessimistic in outlook, with political origins dating back to Reagan’s Committee on the Present Danger. It also made a caricature of history, and formed the basis for George W. Bush’s ‘politics of fear’ after 9/11. As Brzezinski puts it: “To be successful, American foreign policy had to be derived from moral certitudes and pursued through a clear-cut, good-versus-evil deciphering of the inevitably ambiguous historical imponderables.” (p. 36). The intellectual basis for this approach was, amongst others, created out of the ideas of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man (1992) and Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). Both authors generated an unintended political impact and were somewhat fused together; after 9/11, international politics was seen through the ‘looking glass’ of Bush junior’s administration as a clash between civilizations (cf. Huntington) in which only democracies were able to provide what it took to create a better world (cf. Fukuyama’s democratic ‘end of history’ concept). The stage was set for a grand neocon collision with fundamentalist Islam.

Bush I
So, what is Brzezinski’s judgment of the three American “Global Leaders” since 1989? From Chapter Three onwards, the former National Security Advisor offers his stern view. Global Leader I, George H. W. Bush, presided over a unique moment in history: the gradual disintegration of the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe, and finally the demise of the USSR itself. The picture of these geopolitical upheavals offered by Brzezinski is refreshing; instead of claiming that it was only the United States of America which had a hand in this, he acknowledges that the Central European peoples (starting with the Poles), liberated themselves. The reader should however not forget that Brzezinski himself is originally of Polish origin. President Bush the elder is portrayed by Brzezinski as “a superb crisis manager but not a strategic visionary” (p. 47). Bush I was experienced in high politics (as a former CIA director and UN ambassador), but lacked geopolitical imagination – he pursued a rather traditional policy in a non-traditional environment. The pace of changes between 1989 and 1991 was extraordinary. Bush senior, together with his national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, seduced Gorbachev with visions of a global partnership while encouraging his acquiescence to the collapse of the Soviet empire in Europe.

But Bush senior was conservative; when the Soviet Union started to disintegrate, his status quo orientation led him to try to keep the USSR together, for instance initially denying the Ukrainian people their independence. Brzezinski thinks that the sheer pace of events left the Bush administration intellectually exhausted and creatively drained.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Bush senior quickly decided that the United States had to act: “This aggression will not stand.” An impressive international coalition was forged to free Kuwait, but Saddam was finally left in office. Bush I always claimed that the international coalition (made up also of Arabic countries) would have shattered if he would have pressed on to Baghdad. Brzezinski, however, feels that the desert victory in Iraq was not exploited strategically by Bush senior. This “unconsummated success” became the “original sin of his legacy,” which would haunt his successors. The American moral victory at the end of the Cold War was not used as an instrument to give Bush’s “new world order” substance, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was left to an inconclusive stalemate. Bush also did little to nip in the bud the increasing efforts by North Korea, India, and Pakistan to acquire nuclear weapons. All in all, the unique historical momentum of 1989-91 withered away without the United States really redefining the geopolitics of that era as it had done in the immediate aftermath of 1945.

In Chapter Four, Brzezinski judges his fellow Democratic Party member, President William Jefferson Clinton. The title is revealing: “The Impotence of Good Intentions.” To a certain extent, Clinton’s hands became tied; Congress passed a series of legislative acts initiated by (Israeli-American, Cuban-American) lobbies, via which they tried to steer American foreign policy. Clinton had an appealing vision for the future, based upon globalization. But by the end of his presidency, much of his hopeful agenda was in doubt. Brzezinski writes that only Clinton’s expansion and consolidation of the Atlantic community (NATO) stands out as a lasting strategic assessment. Some Europeans would, no doubt, have a different vision.

By 1999, the United States became sceptical about far-reaching global cooperation; the WTO meeting in Seattle was already a foretaste of changing moods. Clinton withdrew U.S. troops from Somalia and did not interfere in the genocide in Rwanda; and only after hesitations did he intervene in Yugoslavia.

Clinton’s foreign policy decision making on strategic issues was chaotic at best. In a revealing quote, Brzezinski writes the following (p.115): “Clinton’s critics charged, legitimately, that “globaloney” is no substitute for geostrategy. And geostrategy calls for a design that prioritizes geopolitical challenges in order to facilitate prompt and decisive responses. That kind of measured American leadership was just not there.”

Brzezinski does give Clinton credit for establishing a pipeline between Baku in Azerbaijan, Tbilisi in Georgia, and Çeyhan in Turkey, via which Central Asian oil in the Caspian area is turned into Anglo-American ‘freedom’ oil. But Brzezinski also makes his own role in this geostrategic BTC pipeline project very clear… still a Cold Warrior in disguise? Also, in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, Clinton wasted several opportunities. In short, according to Brzezinski, Clinton’s strategic timidity had dangerous implications for America’s long term interests.

Bush II
In Chapter Five, Brzezinski analyzes the foreign policy of Global Leader III, George W. Bush. “Catastrophic leadership” is his final judgment. Since 2002, the National Security Council ceased to perform its traditional role of carefully screening and assessing the flow of intelligence to the president. Bush II lied openly about WMD in Iraq. The loss of America’s soft power as a result of the Iraq debacle also reduces its hard power. Brzezinski calls the war in Iraq a “geopolitical disaster,” a self-inflicted defeat for America and a net gain for Iran. In the Israeli-Palestine conflict, the current U.S. administration is so close to the Israeli position that it has effectively lost its position as an honest broker. The idea to install democracy in the Middle East has led to more and not less violence. Instead of enhanced prospects for stability, there is now an ever-increasing social tension among and within the Middle Eastern societies. It is hardly far-fetched, the former national security advisor writes, to imagine China becoming the dominant influence in the region if post 9/11 U.S. policies toward the region are not reassessed.

In an enlightening quote, Brzezinksi writes (p. 176-177): “Bush misunderstood the historical moment, and in just five years dangerously undermined America’s geopolitical position.” The challenge ahead for the next U.S. president, ‘Global Leader IV,’ is thus monumental.

Beyond 2008
In the last Chapter, titled “Beyond 2008,” Brzezinski develops a very stimulating analysis which constitutes both conceptually and empirically an interesting contribution to international studies and geopolitics. Here, all the elements come together: Brzezinski’s experience as a foreign policy official, his lucid geopolitical analysis, and his ability to formulate clear foreign policy proposals. Central to this is his view that “the strength of a great power is diminished if it ceases to serve an idea.” He develops two concrete proposals:
o The establishment of a regular executive-legislative consultative planning mechanism in U.S. foreign policy, focused on long term planning.
o Some changes so as to limit the growing role of foreign policy lobbies.

But what is important is that Brzezinski acknowledges that a new world is taking shape, with the “Geopolitics of Global Political Awakening,” which is anti-imperial. The indications are seen everywhere on the globe: political activism in Latin America, increased economic power of the Asian states, Chinese-Indian-Russian anti-hegemonic cooperation, America’s rising national debts and trade deficits, etc. Brzezinski almost plays the role of Halford John Mackinder during the inter-war years; he too foretold the demise of the empire at a time when no one in Britain wanted to look the undeniable variables straight in the eyes. This constitutes Brzezinski’s bravery as an author and independent thinker.

However, one can debate the final geopolitical advice he gives his fellow countrymen (p. 212). He claims it is essential for America to preserve and fortify its special transatlantic ties. He bluntly suggests that if Europe does not cooperate, “it could lapse into self-centered and divisive nationalism, devoid of a larger global mission.” Seen from this part of the Atlantic Ocean, that remark is almost a scare-mongering statement, without much empirical basis. Also he writes that if Turkey and the Ukraine feel their road to Europe is closed, the former may slide into the “restless and religiously stirring Middle East.” What a pity that Brzezinski ends his otherwise quite balanced book with such a platitude. One should bear in mind that he wrote elsewhere that a further enlargement of the European Union is just the tool the United States needs to “water down” the European project, so as to avoid its becoming a real political player on the international scene.

Apart from this lapse, this book can nevertheless be recommended; undoubtedly it will become a reference document for future U.S. foreign policy under the next administration, irrespective of the political party in office.


Dr. David Criekemans is an Associate Guest Professor in Belgian and Comparative Foreign Policy at the University of Antwerp, a Senior Researcher in European and Global Relations at the Flemish Centre for International Policy (FCIP) in Antwerp, and a Lecturer in Geopolitics both at the Royal Military Academy in Brussels and at the International Centre for Geopolitical Studies (ICGS) in Geneva.

Comments are closed.