The Legacy and Lessons of Zbigniew Brzezinski

by Robert E. Hunter

Zbigniew Brzezinski’s funeral last week at Washington’s St. Mathew’s Cathedral was characterized by The New York Times as remembrance of “a Lost Era…a bygone political moment most [of the mourners] seemed to prefer.”

That was true in more ways than one. It is not just that, in the Age of Trump, qualities of relative civility and bipartisanship no long apply in the nation’s capital, even in foreign policy, but the role played by Brzezinski at the highest level of government has also disappeared. Of course, he was not alone and the era has not entirely closed: the other outstanding appointed official in US foreign policy over the last half century, Henry Kissinger, is still active at age 94, as is the closest analogue to them both, Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, at age 92. But for the last three decades, the US government has not seen the like of these three men, nor the quality of their impact on U.S. foreign policy, more for good than for ill. (Scowcroft, the last of the breed, retired a quarter century ago.)

All three had an added quality that served them well, along with the presidents of the time and the country. They sought out outstanding people to work for them, some from within government and many from without, but all with depth of knowledge and experience. Each of the presidents they served gave their national security advisors virtual carte blanche in choosing people for the National Security Council staff in the White House and did not impose on them, as is a prevailing custom, today, aspirants for jobs whose primary credential has been service in the presidential campaign or whose political contacts have been more evident than their foreign policy skills. Each of these three men also had small NSC staffs, thus keeping the focus on strategic-level activities, rather than the huge staffs that have become the rule under recent presidents, where relatively junior and less well-qualified staff members micromanage the bureaucracy and thereby blunt everyone’s effectiveness.

Where are the new Kissingers, Brzezinskis, and Scowcrofts?

A Missing Generation

Arguably, no one at the top levels of government in foreign policy has for many years come even close to matching any one of them. It can’t just be for lack of talent within and without the US foreign policy establishment. After all, serious training in the arts of strategy and statecraft became a staple at least since the early years of the Cold War. But for some reason, these people have not made their way to the top of the government tree.

Part of the reason is timing. During the Cold War, there was consensus that US foreign policy had to be taken seriously. The risks were too great to entrust the levers of foreign policy and national security power to amateurs or “wannabees”—although there were major exceptions, including several senior officials who were instrumental in driving the United States deep into the Southeast Asia quagmire. But when it came to dealing with the Soviet Union and, latterly, China, only the best would do. Presidents of the time understood this fact and chose their top advisors accordingly.

When the Cold War ended, with “victory” for the West and more particularly for the United States, there emerged a popular belief that this was America’s moment. The “end of history” meant that there were no enemies able and willing to attack the US homeland. Thus there was less need for high quality in the conduct of foreign policy. There was one early exception. During the period of transition, George H.W. Bush, arguably the last truly knowledgeable and effective foreign policy president, performed ably as the twin Soviet empires, within the USSR and in Central Europe, fell apart. Most significantly, he enunciated one of the truly great grand strategies for modern times, the goal of forging a “Europe whole and free and at peace.”

But after that, succeeding presidents either tended to surf on American success. Or they were led into ventures that could not have even been contemplated when there was the Soviet adversary, notably the folly of invading Iraq in 2003, the results of which still haunt the United States, the region, and the world. President George W. Bush was, in effect, suckered by a team led by Vice President Dick Cheney that believed, wrongly, that the United States could safely run wild across a critical region of the world. Along with the other most recent presidents, George W. Bush in fact came out of a background and experience different from most of his post-World War II predecessors. All four presidents who came to office after the Cold War was well and truly over—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump—were essentially innocents about the world when they became commander-in-chief and have had to learn the foreign policy craft on the fly.

Ironically, this fact should have led them to search for and employ people of the quality of Kissinger, Brzezinski, and Scowcroft, but they did not. This error was compounded after the end of the Cold War by the inability of the United States to count to the same degree on loyalty from allies and partners abroad based on their need to shelter under the American wing as protection from Soviet power. Indeed, it should have been clear that the United States needed people in government as adept at strategic thinking, if not even more so, than had been true during the Cold War. But it did not happen.

This lesson was driven home dramatically by 9/11. Despite the outcome of the Cold War and the supremacy of U.S. power in all relevant dimensions, the nation could not just shelter behind the security of the two broad oceans, as had been true before Pearl Harbor. Rather, it had no choice but to continue being deeply engaged abroad. Interdependence, economic and otherwise, dictated this engagement. But the United States also had to preserve its national security against a terrorist threat that had a major impact on the American psyche far beyond the objective size and nature of the challenge.

But it did not happen.

Supply and Demand

The lack of a “demand pull” by presidents for the highest quality people able to think strategically was matched by limitations in “supply push.” For many years and certainly since the latter part of the Cold War, a large fraction of the US foreign policy research community, think tanks, and universities stopped prizing fundamental analysis of the most critical problems facing the United States and the overall evolution of the global system. There continued to be outstanding training in the tactics of foreign policy and national security—where the US likely has no peer—but the craft of strategy, and certainly that of grand strategy, fell into disrepair. There has been virtually no one, evident in public debate, of the quality of the intellectual leaders whose analysis and ideas were so critical to America’s successful navigation of the Cold War. (At the same time, the US mainstream media have lost their taste for serious foreign policy presentations as opposed to soundbites and showcasing political opposites.)

The once reasonably bright line no longer clearly separates those people who worked on the “how and what and why” of foreign policy, especially at the highest level of strategy, from those who have sought opportunities themselves to be operators within government. It was natural, therefore, that the production, analysis, and testing of ideas have tended to take a backseat to competition for government jobs. This has led to a significant degree of risk aversion in strategic thinking and a hewing to prevailing consensus. These twin tendencies had some merit during the Cold War, when the basic structure of global power and challenge to the United States and the West was set. The primary need was for safe hands to implement agreed formulae for managing the superpower conflict and the host of ancillary conflicts and other challenges that also characterized that period.

But now the United States has to think its way more in the world rather than just relying on preponderant military and economic power. Ironically, the qualities exhibited by Kissinger and Brzezinski in particular—with strong academic training, capacity for rigorous analysis, and keen understanding of the uses of power to turn ideas into reality—are precisely what are needed now. But these are essentially absent at the top levels of the US government and have been for almost all the post-Cold War period.

In fact, the lack of genuine strategic thinking in the US government, above the level of tactical implementation of policies already set, has led to a loss of U.S. influence in the world at a clip faster than that ordained by the rise of other centers of power, especially in geopolitical terms: notably China, the slow and always inevitable return of Russia, and, in the future, India and others.

It is almost certainly too much to expect that the virtual collapse of strategic thinking in guiding US foreign policy and national security will be reversed during the Trump administration. Above all else, this would require President Trump to understand the need and mandate the critical steps to elevate America’s game. That would require that the three main centers of bureaucratic activity and national power—the Departments of Defense and State, plus the National Security Council staff—bring in key people with the relevant skills outlined above; minimize appointments made for political purposes rather than demonstrated skills; and create in each place a serious capacity for policy analysis and planning. So far, there is no evidence that any of this is being done. At the same time, both the thinktank community and the mainstream media need to do some rigorous analysis and soul-searching regarding their own roles and the need to open up to the best people and the best ideas, rigorously tested. Here, too, there is little basis for optimism.

The lack of sufficient “demand pull” and a “supply push” in bringing to bear high-quality strategic thinking, analysis, and planning will further diminish US influence in the world. The process can best begin with “demand pull.” That will require that the NSC advisor, plus the secretaries of State and Defense, understand the problem, bring in people who can do the job, and organize their institutions to do what the nation needs. It hasn’t happened yet; but it still can be done.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. What on Earth would someone of Brzezinski’s intellectual calibre do in today’s American government, except interfere with the running of the empire by the surveillance state and the private sector owners of Congress and the White House?

  2. How do you explain the abject failure of Carter’s policy vis a vis Iran (letting the Shah fall and the hostage situation) and the Soviets versus the almost instant release of the hostages when Reagan took office and the fall of the Soviet union under the Reagan administration?

  3. It is funny how no one remembers that Brzezinski admitted in 1998 that the US deliberately encouraged the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan,

    “It wasn’t quite like that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would..Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.” .”

    (Brzezinski Interview with Le Nouvel Observateur 1998)

  4. I would argue that there is still a foreign policy consensus in this country, but unlike the sensible, moderate realism of a Kennan or a Scowcroft, it is one that is dominated by the dangerous interventionis outlook of neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Rather than policy based on vital national interests and intimate historical understanding of various regions, the new consensus is based on uncritical bubbles and clichés like economic globalization, unrestricted free trade and the expansion of free markets through multilateral trade agreements, and US military hegemony as the bull dog of globalization (and thus a never-ending state of “semi war” and “humanitarian interventions”). There are still some moderate realists out there, but they are nowhere near the halls of power. I suspect that those who buck the new Washington Consensus do not get jobs or promotions–one must be a neolib/con careerist/credentialist to get anywhere. Is there a think tank or clearing house for realism these days?

  5. The hostages were released when Reagan took office for the simple fact that the Iranians didn’t want Carter to get the credit, not because anything Reagan did (in fact the October Surprise says Reagan struck a deal with the hostage-takers) and there was nothing Carter could do to stop the Shah from falling

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