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The Quiet Panic of Zbigniew Brezinski

Zbigniew Brezinski’s new book Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power seeks to address these four questions:

1. What are the implications of the changing distribution of global power from the West to the East, and how is it being affected by the new reality of a politically awakened humanity?

2. Why is America’s global appeal waning, what are the symptoms of America’s domestic and international decline, and how did America waste the unique global opportunity offered by the peaceful end of the Cold War? Conversely, what are America’s recuperative strengths and what geopolitical reorientation is necessary to revitalize America’s world role?

3. What would be the likely geopolitical consequence if America declined from its globally pre-eminent position, who would be the almost immediate political victims of such a decline, what effects would it have on the global-scale problems of the twenty-first century, and could China assume America’s central role in world affairs by 2025?

4. Looking beyond 2025, how should a resurgent America define its long-term geopolitical goals, and how could America, with its traditional European allies, seek to engage Turkey and Russia in order to construct an even larger and more vigorous West? Simultaneously, how could America achieve balance in the East between the need for close cooperation with China and the fact that a constructive American role in Asia should be neither exclusively China-centric nor involve dangerous entanglements in Asian conflicts?

You might detect an optimistic note in the way that Brezinski has asked the questions, but reading between the lines what is apparent is that Zbigniew Brezinski is granting that the US imperial adventure launched in the idea of the American Century is over. The US empire with its veneer of the US being first among equals is giving way to a transitional period that is highly risky. And Brezinski is not sure that the US has the domestic politics, economy, or national leadership that can avoid catastrophe. When Brezinski was in the Carter White House, the administration that negotiated the Camp David agreements and brought Deng Xiaoping to Atlanta to finesse the “one China, two systems” cover for China becoming a permanent UN Security Council member–when all this progress happened, it was not supposed to end this way with US power dramatically weakened within a decade.

There are four audiences for Brezinski’s book outlining a strategic vision: general audiences like you and me, intellectual policy elites, US powers-that-be, and foreign ministries. To the first Brezinski offers a short comprehensive strategic view of how he sees the world (likely shared with other members of the intellectual policy elite). To the second he brings an academic argument to which they will respond with alternative strategic visions rooted in their own particular framework of ideas; out of such debates came the Project for a New American Century, to cite a relatively recent example. To the third he brings a wake-up call that the domestic political stalemate and loss of power through two needless wars potential dangers down the road if they continue business as usual. To the fourth, there is a message to be patient with the US while cooler and more realistic heads work through the issues brought about by American overreach.

What scares Brezinski is not the possibility of the rise of the power of China, but the potential conflicts that that might cause with nations on China’s periphery–India, Russia, South Korea, Vietnam, Phillipines, Taiwan, Japan. He is also scared about Russian reassertion of its imperial claims, which could affect Georgia, Belarus, and Ukraine. He is scared of the collapse of Afghanistan and instability in Pakistan as the US withdraws from Afghanistan. He is scared of the consequences of a decline of US power in the Middle creating general conflict around Israel.

And then there is Mexico, already beleagered by a US drug war, deportation of immigrants, an increased internal violence from drug gangs–the American “good neighbor” policy replaced by bigoted hectoring. (No, Brezinski does not state it this bluntly). What happens with declining American power and populist resentment in Mexico and areas of the US? The implications taken to reasonable conclusions point to the dangers of significant border conflict.

Finally, there are the implications of the withdrawal of US power, influence, and concern for what Brezinski calls the “global common” — the strategic common (sea and air) and the environment. Both require globalized management to, for example, suppress piracy on the seas. The BRICS countries are playig a greater role in this managment responsibility but the need for consensus among a larger number of countries delays effective responses. Three areas of special concern to Brezinski are the Internet (cyberspace), space, and the Arctic. All three are dominated by American power now but are devolving toward more international management.

Brezinski argues the following in transition:

The argument that America’s decline would generate global insecurity, endanger some valuable states, produce a more complicated North American neighborhood, and maake cooperative management of the global commons more difficult is not an argument for US global supremacy. In fact, the strategic complexities of the world in the twenty-first century–resulting from the rise of a politically self-assertive global population and from hte dispersal of global power–make such supremacy unattainable. But in this increasingly complicated geopolitical environment, an America in pursuit of a new, timely strategic vision is crucial to helping the world avoid a dangerous slide into international turmoil.

By “international turmoil”, Brezinski means turmoil on the order of World War I and World War II. Situations that could suck in alliance of large military forces with seeming inevitability–that would cause even an isolationist America to be drawn into significant war. Like I said, Brezinski is in a quiet panic about US politics and policy although he cannot say this except obliquely.

What he proposes as a strategic vision will be received as bold, even impossible or dangerous. It is none of these; it is a clear attempt at salvaging and restoring American global influence over events. The first part of the vision is to unify Russia and Turkey into the Atlantic alliance to create what he calls a revitalized West. Geographically, it really is the circumpolar North. The second part of the vision is to cooperate with China and Asian nations to ease the tensions that exist between China and each of them on certain issues, the US role being the military shield that allows more regional countries not to have to get into an arms race with China. Importantly, the vision depends on continued good relations with China and general Chinese economic and political stability. In other words, a pretty conventional NATO-like strategic vision that even builds on NATO as an institution. But to do it, the US must get its economic and political house back in order. And that’s where the issue is for Brezinski and no doubt a purpose for the book.

All well and good. Big whoop. Except that Brezinski as a part of the elite is in a quiet panic about what comes after America.

So he plays out one scenario. What are some other scenarios?

When I got back to North Carolina, I relaxed by reading the last volume of John Birmingham’s alternative history of the noughts. The first volume is Without Warning, the second After America, and the third Avenging Angels. This is military science fiction with a high degree of military hardware detail, black ops, and graphic violence. The title of the second volume attracted my attention a couple of years ago, and I read the first two volumes in sequence. The characters were so well drawn, the settings detailed, and the plot involving that I eagerly waited for the third volume.

The plot is this. A force field of unknown origin destroys all of the people in the United States except for a part of Washington and Oregon, Alaska, and Hawaii. The population of this new country comprises overseas military, ex-pats, overseas black operations personnel, and the folks in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Hawaii who were lucky enough to miss the force field. When it was started, it was probably the only plot device that Birmingham could use to raise the question of American power. So what happens when on one day American power essentially disappears, leaving Europe, Japan, Australia without their dominant ally and the rest of the world without the dominating presence of US power?

There is another scenario for you. Exactly how does the American government get re-established and how does the American President govern? Who becomes the main geopolitical players and how to they get established?

It’s fictional and unconventional. And extreme.

But both Brezinski and Birmingham raise the critical question: What are the consequences that the American people will be dealing with as a result of the squandering of American power and reputation?

How do you think this unraveling of American empire will play out? How do we dismantle the national security state wind down empire without dangerous power vacuums occurring? How do we distinguish between meddling and dealing with a dangerous power vaccum? This exercise is left for the comments.

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