Zbigniew Brzezinski

Zbigniew Brzezinski (born 1928) was assistant to the president of the United States for national security affairs during the Carter administration (1977-1980). Later he was associated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. He authored several books through which he expounded his philosophies as well as his political beliefs and ideals.

Zbigniew Brzezinski was born in Warsaw, Poland, on March 28, 1928. After obtaining his B.A. and M.A. degrees from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, he came to the United States in 1953. He was awarded the Ph.D. at Harvard the same year and remained there, first as a research fellow at the Russian Research Center and then as assistant professor of government, until 1960. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1958.

In 1960 Brzezinski moved to Columbia where he continued his rapid climb up the academic ladder. He was promoted to full professor in 1962 and directed the Research Institute in Communist Affairs (later the Research Institute on International Change) from 1962 to 1977. From 1966 to 1968 he had gained valuable experience as a member of the Department of State's Policy Planning Council during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. Identified as a Democrat and a rival of Henry Kissinger, Brzezinski saw little action during Richard Nixon's presidency. In 1973 he became director of the Trilateral Commission and had the foresight to recruit a young and generally unknown governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. For Brzezinski, the early contact with Carter brought handsome rewards.

Carter declared his candidacy for president in 1974, and Brzezinski quickly approached him with an offer of advice. Of the potential candidates, Henry Jackson of Washington had views on foreign policy that appealed to Brzezinski more than those of Carter, but Jackson did not look like a winner. To most other Democratic presidential aspirants, Brzezinski's reputation as a "hard-liner" was unacceptable. By 1975 Brzezinski emerged as Carter's principal adviser on foreign policy issues.

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National Security Adviser

Brzezinski was openly eager to be appointed assistant to the president for national security affairs and delighted when President-elect Carter offered him the position in December 1976. He had not wanted to be secretary of state, confident that he would be more effective in the White House, at the president's side. From the outset he was uneasy about the president's idealism and the absence of other appointees likely to give Carter the "realistic and hard-nosed" advice needed in world affairs.

Carter had campaigned against the Ford administration's "Lone Ranger" diplomacy, the unchecked activities of Henry Kissinger. He intended to have a more balanced organization reporting to the president, who would decide policy questions. A triumvirate composed of the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, and the national security adviser, such as had existed in the Kennedy years, seemed ideal. Cyrus Vance, Harold Brown, and Brzezinski would do the job.

Brzezinski agreed with Carter's ideas on organizational structure, but never doubted that his presence in the White House and his daily briefing of the president gave him the upper hand. He moved quickly to assert himself, and neither Vance nor Brown was equal to the challenge. What balance existed—and it was considerable—was provided, as it had to be, by Carter.

Brzezinski's differences with Vance were often substantive as well, especially on policy toward what was then the Soviet Union. Although Vance had few illusions about the Soviet leadership, he believed that improvement of Soviet-American relations was both necessary and possible. Further arms limitation agreements and cooperation in crisis areas such as the Middle East were essential to avoid nuclear war. He was not willing to jeopardize progress toward a sounder Soviet-American detente by disregarding Soviet interests in the Middle East or fears of Chinese-American rapprochement. Brzezinski shared Vance's conception of the Soviet Union and the United States as permanent competitors, but perceived little hope for significant improvement in the relationship. The United States had to be firm, seek every advantage it could garner at Soviet expense, and play on Soviet fears by "playing the China card." Although Carter initially leaned toward Vance's view, by the end of 1978 Brzezinski appeared to have prevailed. The handling of the decision to normalize relations with China marked the ascendency of Brzezinski and the increasing alienation of the secretary of state from the policies of the administration.

Another arena in which Brzezinski succeeded in establishing his primacy was in the public presentation of Carter administration policy. Initially, all concerned had agreed that other than the president, the secretary of state would be the sole spokesman on foreign policy. Brzezinski quickly concluded, however, that Vance was not adequate to the task and took it upon himself. The result, given the policy differences that emerged between Vance and Brzezinski, was increased public confusion about America's course and a decline in confidence in the president's ability to keep his team running in tandem.

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Hostage Crisis in Iran

Although disagreement over the handling of the hostage crisis in Iran finally drove Vance from the administration, Brzezinski had been unhappy with the original course Vance had plotted and Carter had approved during the last days of the Shah's rule. Brzezinski was a sincere advocate of a foreign policy that stressed concern for human rights, but when he perceived a need to choose between enhancing human rights or projecting American power, power came first. As the Shah's regime disintegrated in late 1978, Brzezinski wanted the United States to urge the Shah to act aggressively, to use force against his opponents, to carry out a military coup. Carter refused, sharing the distaste within the administration, generally for the repressive means the Shah had already undertaken. After the Shah's abdication, the return of Khomeini, and the seizure of the American hostages, a desperate president accepted a rescue plan that Brzezinski supported and Vance opposed. Vance resigned. The plan failed.

Brzezinski saw Iran as Carter's "only" fatal error. Probably more than any other single issue, the prolongation of the hostage crisis cost Carter the election of 1980 (to Ronald Reagan) and resulted in Brzezinski's return to private life in 1981. Of the accomplishments of the Carter administration, Brzezinski was proudest of its success in the Middle East (the Camp David accords), the normalization of relations with the People's Republic of China, the Panama Canal treaties, SALT II, the commitment to majority rule in Africa, the identification of American policy with the human rights issue, and the plan to strengthen the military and strategic position of the United States by building the MX missile.

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Adviser, Author, and Observer

Brzezinski remained a prominent personage during the Reagan administration. During this time he conceived and advocated a form of detente which he called "Mutual Strategic Security." This proposal involved both space-based Strategically Deployed Interballistic missiles (SDI) and ground-based systems to be maintained by the United States. The United States, in turn, would limit its nuclear arsenal to a level well below "first-strike" capability. His conservative politics were notoriously in sync with right-wing Republican views, with regard to virtually every aspect of foreign affairs. His highly academic approach to foreign policy led some to see him as immature and insecure. In his various writings he occasionally criticized other politicians for petty idiosyncrasies.

After leaving government service, Brzezinski, still a young man, wrote a memoir, joined the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University, served as a consultant to Dean, Witter, Reynolds, Inc., and waited for another opportunity to exercise power.

Brzezinski was widely interviewed in 1989 with respect to the Solidarity movement which arose in Poland, as well as the imminent dissolution of the Soviet Union. He expressed guarded optimism for the success of the Solidarity movement in his native Poland, and he avowed emphatic support for the demise of Communism. He further advocated some degree of laissez-faire policy by the United States in dealing with Eastern Europe at such a fragile moment in history. He published his thoughts on these matters in a book, The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century. Brzezinski then took a peek into the 21st century, based on a retrospective of the past 100 years, in his provocative publication, Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the Twenty-first Century.

Throughout his career Brzezinski has utilized his aggressive perseverance to foster his policies, keeping him in the forefront as a respected political advisor and critic. He has established himself as a deep thinker, as well as a philosopher through his many writings. His published opinions range from cold war politics to human rights to genetic engineering. His ideas are at once pessimistic and moralistic, especially with respect to the culture of the United States. In a 1993 interview he stated that the "self-indulgent, hedonistic, consumption-oriented society cannot project a moral imperative onto the world … Our moral consciousness has been corrupted by … the equal indifference we assign to all values as if they were competing products on the supermarket shelf."

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Further Reading on Zbigniew Brzezinski

The most useful source of biographical material is his memoir, Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981 (1983). See also Cyrus Vance, Hard Choices: Critical Years in America's Foreign Policy (1983) and Jimmy Carter, Keeping Faith-Memoirs of a President (1982).

Additional Biography Sources

Washington Monthly, October 1987.

Maclean's, August 18, 1989.

People Weekly, November 27, 1989.

Time, December 18, 1989.

New Perspectives Quarterly, Summer 1993.

USA Today Magazine, November 1993.

Insight on the News, August 21, 1995.

The Economist, March 11, 1989; March 12, 1994.

Brzezinski, Zbigniew, The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century, Scribner, 1989.

Brzezinski, Zbigniew, Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the Twenty-first Century, Scribner, 1993.