An Oxymoronic Strategy

By Benjamin Schwarz



Brooks_190In The Grand Chessboard (Basic Books) Zbigniew Brzezinski gives the public the fullest and frankest exposition of America’s global strategy since the Pentagon’s infamous draft Defense Planning Guidance was leaked in 1992. While President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have repeatedly asserted that the United States is the “indispensable nation,” Brzezinski explains–no doubt rather too baldly for the comfort of current officials–that what this role actually demands is American global dominance.

Appreciating Brzezinski’s argument requires looking at America’s Cold-War strategy through a new lens. By providing for Germany’s and Japan’s security and by enmeshing their military and foreign policies into alliances that it dominated, the United States contained its erstwhile enemies, preventing its “partners” from embarking upon independent foreign and military policies. This stabilized relations among the states of Western Europe and of East Asia, for by controlling Germany and Japan, the United States–to use a current term in policy-making circles–“reassured” their neighbors that these most powerful allies would remain pacific. The leash of America’s security leadership thereby reined in the dogs of war. By in effect banishing power politics, NATO and America’s East Asian alliances protected the states of Western Europe and East Asia from themselves.

Thus the real story of American foreign policy since the start of the Cold War is not the thwarting of and triumph over the Soviet threat, but the successful effort to impose an ambitious vision on a recalcitrant world. Freed from the fears and competitions that had for centuries kept them nervously looking over their shoulders, the West Europeans and East Asians were able to cooperate politically and economically, creating the unprecedentedly prosperous and stable international order that the advanced industrialized states enjoy today.

So even though the Cold War is over, American domination of the international system, Brzezinski argues, is still necessary to prevent the emergence of a dangerous multipolar world of independent great powers jockeying for advantage. Brzezinski is most revealing when he describes the mechanisms and purposes of America’s strategy of preponderance, whose “three grand imperatives,” he explains, are “to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to prevent the barbarians from coming together.” This, of course, was also the thinking behind the Pentagon’s 1992 planning document, which argued that the United States must continue to dominate the international system by “discouraging the advanced industrialized nations from challenging our leadership or even aspiring to a larger global or regional role.” (One of its authors characterized this strategy as one of “adult supervision.”) This “leadership” role, as Brzezinski advocates it, means not only that the United States must dominate wealthy and technologically sophisticated states in Europe and East Asia–America’s “allies”–but also that it must deal with such nuisances as Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Kim Jong Il so that potential great powers (Germany, or a united Europe, and Japan) need not acquire the means to deal with those problems themselves.

Pursuing such a strategy, as Brzezinski inadvertently makes clear, also entails a peculiar and esoteric calculation of the world situation. For instance, although most of us would believe that a reunified, democratic Korea would indisputably be in America’s interests, Brzezinski, reflecting the views of the foreign policy elite, repeatedly explains how this development would endanger America’s adult supervision strategy: It would obviate the ostensible need for U.S. troops on the peninsula; which could lead to a U.S. pullback from East Asia; which could, in turn, lead to Japan “becoming militarily more self-sufficient”; which would lead to political, military, and economic rivalry among the region’s states. From this point of view, the best situation is the status quo in Korea, which allows for U.S. forces to be stationed there indefinitely.

Of course, this global adult-super vision strategy means that America must spend nearly as much on national security as the rest of the world combined. Brzezinski admits that global dominance is “difficult, absorbing, and costly,” and he does offer a way out, but his solution contradicts the entire strategy that he has defended. Although in the short- and midterm Brzezinski asserts that continued U.S. worldwide preponderance is an absolute necessity, he argues–perhaps disingenuously since the subtitle of this book is American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperative–that in the long-term the United States can “share leadership.” This is an oxymoronic formula. Multilateral enterprises, from juries to U.N. police actions, require a leader. The entire logic of Brzezinski’s argument rests on the assertion that the indispensable foundation of cooperation and integration among the advanced industrialized countries was–and remains–American hegemony. Therefore, to hold that America can ever safely relinquish its hegemony because the political, economic, and military cooperation among the great powers ensures stability and peace is to put the cart before the horse. To Brzezinski, stability in Western Europe and East Asia, guaranteed by American preponderance, was the precondition for cooperation, not vice versa. There is no reason to believe that, without this guarantor, stability will take on a life of its own.

Thus it’s no surprise that even though Brzezinski sketches the possibility of an eventual trilateral division of “leadership” among the United States, Europe, and Japan, he makes clear that, in fact, Europe and Japan would remain junior partners to a still-dominant America. This means that what Brzezinski is really proposing is that at some point in the future America try to stick its “partners” with more expenses while really granting them no greater authority or independence. Our “partners” have never cottoned to this formula, and have consistently and reasonably held that if the United States is going to lead, it’s going to have to pay the costs and incur the risks that accompany leadership.

Brzezinski’s book reveals the logic that has governed American national security strategy since the Cold War, but it also makes clear that this logic inevitably involves an imperial project that is perforce open-ended and permanent. Arguing for the maintenance of Washington’s “Cold War” alliances, a high-ranking Pentagon official asked in 1992, “If we pull out, who knows what nervousness will result?” The problem, of course, is that we can never know. So, according to this logic, we must always stay.

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