Seven Questions: A Conversation with Zbigniew Brzezinski

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Zbigniew Brzezinski 

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is growing more authoritarian at home and increasingly aggressive abroad. China’s global clout seems to expand by the day. And in the Middle East, a possible conflict with Iran looms on the horizon. For insights on this dangerous new world, FP turned to Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. national security advisor, author, and all-around foreign-policy guru.

FOREIGN POLICY: Russian President Vladimir Putin has angled himself into a position of power for years to come, going so far as to compare himself with former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Should the West fear Putin, and how should the United States deal with him going forward?

Zbigniew Brzezinski: No, I don’t think the West should fear Putin, even though he might not be the most attractive personality. He’s basically a Russian autocrat at a time of considerable transition in Russia’s position geopolitically and in Russia’s national self-identity. The West should be clear regarding its own interests and promote them firmly. It should oppose any attempts at Russian imperial restoration, and whenever possible, it should cooperate with the Russians regarding issues of joint interest.

FP: Will Russia’s influence on the European Union continue to grow? There have been many dire warnings about EU member states’ reliance on Russian energy. Do you believe this is a threat, and can Europe wean itself off Russian energy?

ZB: It’s a potential long-range threat. It is not yet a threat. If Europe and the United States jointly do not do what is needed to obtain great diversification of access to energy, Europe could become politically vulnerable. This is why it’s important to the West to see access to the Caspian Sea energy resources and beyond the Caspian to Central Asia. This is why the West should promote such projects at the Nabucco pipeline through southeastern Europe to central Europe.

FP: The situation in Iraq looks direr each day. If the United States manages to get out of Iraq soon, should it take a hands-off approach to dealing with the Middle East, as some have advocated?

ZB: The United States is bound to have one kind of a relationship with Egypt and another kind of a relationship with Syria. It is bound to have one kind of a relationship with Saudi Arabia and another kind with Iraq. I think one has to look at the Middle East in terms of a very diversified geopolitical terrain and fashion a policy accordingly.

FP: What are your thoughts on the upcoming Middle East peace conference, especially in light of Israel’s recent attack on Syria? Do you think any progress can be made?

ZB: Progress will be made at the forthcoming conference only if the United States forthcomingly leads and starts out by defining explicitly the minimum requirements of an eventual settlement. That is: no right of return, the genuine sharing of Jerusalem, lines with reciprocal accommodations, and a demilitarized Palestinian state.

FP: You’ve defended your decision under the Carter administration to back the mujahedin in Afghanistan on the grounds that backing the jihad was crucial to defeating the Soviet Union. But wouldn’t the Soviet Union have collapsed on its own, for economic reasons? Was it worth it to support a movement that led to the rise of the Taliban and al Qaeda?

ZB: I think that question is so crazy that it really makes you wonder. Afghanistan was destroyed by the Soviets, and that is what has bred the Taliban years after. The support for Afghan resistance has created support of America for a whole generation of Afghans who are still on our side. We would be in a terrible mess if we hadn’t supported the Afghans.

FP: You and many other critics of the Bush administration’s policy toward Iran argue that the United States needs to engage Iran. But it seems that at every turn, the hardliners outmaneuver so-called pragmatists within the Iranian regime. Madeleine Albright, for instance, bent over backward as secretary of state under the Clinton administration to reach out to former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, and got nowhere. “Engagement” isn’t so simple, is it?

ZB: It has been demonstrated—during the Bush administration, and even during the Clinton administration, both of which rebuffed efforts by the more moderate Iranians to establish some sort of a dialogue with us—that simply calling them names or threatening to change the regime certainly is not going to be very productive. And a war with Iran, initiated by the United States, would be a historical disaster for the United States, making Iraq look like a very moderate afternoon football game. It certainly is a possibility. I’m not prepared to say if it is a probability.

FP: China’s economy is growing rapidly, and its diplomatic clout around the world is expanding accordingly. Would it be such a bad thing if China became the regional hegemon in Asia? Or do the United States and its allies need to find ways to counter the Chinese?

ZB: I don’t think all Asians want to be subject to Chinese hegemony, but the United States has an obvious interest in accommodating China and not seeking to exclude it from a prominent place in the global hierarchy. It is not in the interest of the United States to repeat the mistake that was made in 1914, which led to the collision that produced World War I.

China has to be integrated into the system. That means it also has the right to enjoy a proper place in it.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, is professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a counselor and trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


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