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Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy

Reviewed by J. R. Bullington

imageZbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy, Basic Books, 2008, pp 291, $27.50

Bitter, partisan rancor has characterized most discussion of foreign policy in America in recent years. This is a long tradition that has waxed and waned in intensity, depending on the perceived success or lack thereof of the country’s involvement in international affairs, since the founding of the Republic. When this rancor runs high, it encourages our enemies, confuses our friends, and makes difficult the formulation and execution of any coherent U.S. foreign policy.

But there is another tradition as well, involving agreement on broad principles – the Monroe Doctrine, the containment policy of the Cold War – as well as restraint in name-calling and judging motivations – dissent is not termed un-American and intelligence mistakes are not called lies – combined with a vigorous bipartisanship that actively seeks consensus. When this tradition is ascendant, as it was, for example, in the 1940s, American foreign policy tends to be more successful than when it is not, for example, in the Vietnam era and since 2003.

This book, as defined in its introduction, is “an experiment to see if a prominent Democrat and a prominent Republican – speaking only for themselves and not for or against either party – could find common ground for a new start in foreign policy.” The experiment succeeded, and it produced what its dust jacket blurb correctly calls “a deeply informed and provocative book that defines the center of responsible opinion on American foreign policy.”

The book consists of a series of discussions during the spring of 2008 between Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter, and Brent Scowcroft, who held the same position under Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush, moderated by David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist and former Executive Editor of the International Herald Tribune.

Brzezinski and Scowcroft might be considered foreign policy realists, in that they tend to begin with consideration of the national interest. But they both resist categorization as realists or idealists, agreeing that U.S. policy must strike a balance between the extremes of either school, combining power with principle, acknowledging limitations, and recognizing that everything can’t be done at once.

They agree that the next president should stress bipartisanship in his foreign policy.

Here are some other important points of agreement:

  • A Cold War mindset that obscures new global realities, including the reduced role of the nation state, persists among U.S. policymakers.
  • The United States has become “too frightened in this age of terrorism, too hunkered down behind physical and intellectual walls.”
  • While the “global center of gravity” is shifting toward Asia, a strong Atlantic community is vital for the United States as well as Europe, and the West will remain pre-eminent for some time.
  • Chances are good that China can be peacefully assimilated into the international system, and there is no need for the United States to choose between China and Japan as its principal “anchor point” in Asia.
  • A vigorous U.S. effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem should be a high priority for the next president.
  • In spite of its limitations and current problems, the United States remains the country most able to “exercise enlightened leadership” for the global community.

There are also some significant points of disagreement:

  • While both publicly opposed the invasion of Iraq before it was launched, Scowcroft believes it has “created new conditions” requiring that we stabilize the situation before leaving. As he put it, “I think simply withdrawing is an impediment to a solution. And Zbig thinks it helps.”
  • Both believe that Russia is trying to re-assert pre-eminence in the territory of the former USSR, especially Georgia and Ukraine; both are skeptical of the utility of putting missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic; but Brzezinski favors the option of NATO membership for Ukraine while Scowcroft opposes it.
  • Scowcroft is more concerned than Brzezinski about a nuclear Iran, fearing that “we stand on the cusp of a great flowering of proliferation if Iran is not contained in its attempt to develop a capability for nuclear weapons;” but neither seems to have a good prescription for thwarting this development other that continuing the thus-far-futile effort to mobilize greater international pressure.

These wise men agree that U.S. policy has not adapted well to a world that is changing in fundamental ways. They want to “restore a confident, forward-looking America,” and they are optimistic about the country’s future – but only if it “can rise to the challenge of dealing with the world as it now is, not as we wish it to be.”End.

J. R. Bullington
J. R. Bullington

J. R. Bullington, editor of American Diplomacy, was Peace Corps Director in Niger, 2000-2006. Previously, he was a career Foreign Service Officer, with postings in several Asian and African posts, including as Ambassador to Burundi. He currently lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.

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