Zbigniew Brzezinski, 1928-2017

Having studied the career of former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski for some years now, it is hard not to characterise him as one of the wise men of American foreign policy. He was a fascinating, engaging, methodical individual but also a combative and controversial figure. With his passing on Friday at the age of 89 the world has lost a great scholar of international politics at a time when it is so desperately in need of it.

Here are some of my observations on his career as well as his legacy.


Born in Warsaw, Poland, Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzezinski watched from afar as his homeland fell first to the Nazi invasion and then to Soviet occupying forces. Like his predecessor Henry Kissinger and his protégé, future Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Brzezinski was a refugee who settled in North America during World War Two. His father, Tadeusz, was a Polish diplomat based in Montréal, Canada at the outbreak of hostilities. As the allies signed away his homeland to the Soviets at Yalta, Brzezinski’s interest in foreign affairs was ignited. He ventured into academia, specialising in Soviet studies, firstly at McGill before later earning his PhD at Harvard, after which, he became a prolific writer on U.S.-Soviet affairs and ardent critic of the USSR. He accurately predicted that that the Soviet Union would be unable to cope with nationalist tensions between Russians and non-Russians which contributed to its breakup in 1991.

Brzezinski made the transition from academia to government in the 1960s, initially as an advisor to John F. Kennedy during his successful run for the presidency before becoming an advisor to Lyndon Johnson. In 1966, he was appointed to the State Department Policy Planning Committee but by his own admission it was a frustrating experience and he departed soon after. He was a foreign policy advisor to the Democratic campaigns of Hubert Humphrey and others but following Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972, he retreated from politics to re-evaluate his worldview.

This lead him, along with David Rockefeller, who died in March, to create the foreign policy think tank The Trilateral Commission in 1973. One member who was invited to join was a little known Southern politician, Governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. The future president later called himself an ‘eager student’ of Brzezinski’s and when he sought the Democratic nomination for president, he approached him for his advice and expertise. Brzezinski agreed to offer his services despite Carter only being recognised by 2% of the nation. They developed a close personal and professional relationship, leading the President to remark in his memoir Keeping Faith ‘next to members of my own family, Zbig would be my favourite seamate on a long-distance trip; we might argue but I would never be bored.’

When Carter upset the odds to win the nomination and then the presidency in 1976, he appointed Brzezinski as National Security Advisor. In the White House, he oversaw some of the administration’s successes. Although not an integral part of negotiations at Camp David, he had been part of a group of academics that called for a wide-ranging peace deal, which included a resolution of the status of Palestine in the 1970s, that eventually became the blueprint for the Egypt-Israel accords. He spearheaded normalised relations with the People’s Republic of China as part of a hardened policy towards the Soviet Union of U.S. policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, that brought him into direct conflict with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.


My research centres on the Vance-Brzezinski relationship, a philosophical and bureaucratic rivalry, which engulfed the administration. Brzezinski’s style, as well as his ideas, immediately contrasted with the WASP lawyer leading one former administration official to remark ‘while Mr. Vance played by Marquis of Queensbury rules, it might be said Mr. Brzezinski was more of a streetfighter.’

While Brzezinski emphasised an assertive foreign policy in the wake of Soviet intervention in Africa, the Middle East and South America, Vance urged moderation and quiet diplomacy. The Secretary of State stressed the importance of negotiating an arms limitation deal with the Soviets (SALT II) while the National Security Advisor favoured a tilt towards China. Brzezinski assailed Vance in persuading the president to normalise relations with China while SALT was delayed further.

Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua in 1979 deepened the divisions within the administration as they faced the prospect of losing two cold war allies. Brzezinski pressed the Shah of Iran to enforce a crackdown on protestors, known as the ‘iron fist.’ Vance on the other hand urged reform but the mixed messages resulted in an inconsistent strategy. As the Shah departed, Iran fell into the hands of the anti-American regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. In Nicaragua, with Anastasio Somoza set to fall, Brzezinski attempted to prevent a Sandinista takeover by launching a military takeover over the protests of Vance and the State Department. As with Iran, inconsistency plagued the administration. Neither a takeover or accommodation came to pass. Somoza left Nicaragua and Managua fell to the Sandinistas while the U.S. had lost two Cold War allies in just six months.

The ‘discovery’ of a brigade of Russian troops in Cuba and then the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979, lead Carter to embrace Brzezinski’s advocacy of a tougher more assertive strategy towards the Soviet Union. The Carter doctrine, as it became known, was described as a ‘gratifying moment’ by the national security advisor but it also hastened the departure of Cyrus Vance. The secretary of state resigned in protest at a planned rescue operation, which Brzezinski favoured, to free American diplomatic staff held hostage in Iran. The failure of the mission and the ongoing hostage crisis ultimately contributed to Carter’s electoral defeat in 1980.


Although I never met Dr. Brzezinski during my research, I was fortunate to interview several people who worked with him during the Carter years who portrayed him as a hardworking, fair and good humoured boss. Within the State Department, critics have denounced him but some have a grudging respect. One former official remarked to me that even though he undercut Vance and the department frequently, ‘I liked his mind. In a way, I was glad that he was there.’ The fault lay in Carter’s inability to manage the respective principals and fashion their views into a clear and coherent strategy.

Some of Brzezinski’s policies and approaches were controversial. On the eve of normalising relations with China, he turned a blind eye to human rights abuses in Cambodia in fear of prejudicing talks with the PRC. He called for increased funding of the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, both before and after the Soviet invasion. With the treat of revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua, he urged a crackdown and a military coup. During the hostage crisis in Iran, he advocated military retaliation over diplomatic negotiation. But his successes, included the Camp David accords, the Panama Canal Treaties and establishing diplomatic relations with China. All of which were historically significant.

Out of government, he was recognised as a distinguished member of the foreign policy establishment. In later life, he called for a rapprochement in relations with Iran, supported attempts to negotiate a comprehensive peace deal in the Middle East, promoted human rights and warned of the limitations on the ‘war on terror’ but he never ceased in his steadfast belief that the United States had an obligation in maintaining global stability and should not shirk from that responsibility.

He became an elder statesmen of U.S. foreign policy providing advice and support for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and lastly Barack Obama. The latter said he was ‘an accomplished public servant, a powerful intellect and a passionate advocate for American leadership…His influence spanned several decades, and I was one of several presidents who benefited from his wisdom and counsel.’

He was a ferocious critic of the war in Iraq as well as the presidency of George W. Bush. On the current incumbent of the White House, he tweeted in February ‘does America have a foreign policy right now?’

In an era of anti-intellectualism espoused by the current administration, Brzezinski’s last tweet earlier this month proved to be particularly prescient.


As James Fallows noted, ‘A man who had been considered a hawk early in his career became a notable exponent of soft power, of strategic patience, of thinking ten moves ahead. We would be better off if more people had heeded him in recent years, or would study his example now.’

RIP Zbig.


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