The global political awakening: Zbigniew Brzesinski on the International Situation and the New President

This piece was brought to my attention by John Cochrane.

I have expressed here before, at least twice in the past two or three years, my considerable respect for Brzezinski’s analytic and strategic judgment. This piece does not contain any blinding insights, but it is a good compilation of sensible views.

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The global political awakening

By Zbigniew Brzezinski
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A new president is assuming office in the midst of a widespread crisis of confidence in America’s capacity to exercise effective leadership in world affairs. That may be a stark thought, but it is a fact.

Though U.S. leadership has been essential to global stability and development, the cumulative effects of national self indulgence, financial irresponsibility, an unnecessary war and ethical transgressions have discredited that leadership. Making matters worse is the global economic crisis.

The resulting challenge is compounded by issues such as climate, health and social inequality – issues that are becoming more contentious because they have surfaced in the context of what I call “the global political awakening.”

For the first time in history almost all of humanity is politically activated, politically conscious and politically interactive. Global activism is generating a surge in the quest for cultural respect and economic opportunity in a world scarred by memories of colonial or imperial domination.

This pertains to yet another fundamental change: The 500-year global domination by the Atlantic powers is coming to an end, with the new pre-eminence of China and Japan. Waiting in the wings are India and perhaps a recovered Russia, though the latter is very insecure about its place in the world.

In this dynamically changing world, the crisis of American leadership could become the crisis of global stability. Yet in the foreseeable future no state or combination of states can replace the linchpin role America plays in the international system. Without a U.S. recovery, there will be no global recovery. The only alternative to a constructive American role is global chaos.

It follows that the monumental task facing the new president is to regain U.S. global legitimacy by spearheading a collective effort for a more inclusive system of global management. Four strategically pregnant words define the essence of the needed response: unify, enlarge, engage and pacify.

To unify pertains to the effort to re-establish a shared sense of purpose between America and Europe. To that end, informal but frequent top-level consultations are badly needed, even though we are all aware that there that there is no such thing yet as a politically unified Europe. The only practical solution is to cultivate a more deliberate dialogue among the United States and the three European countries that have a global orientation: Britain, France and Germany.

For many years, Europeans have complained they are excluded from decision-making, yet they are perfectly willing to let the United States assume the burdens of implementation. Differences over Afghanistan are but the latest example of that dilemma. It is to be hoped that the new U.S. president will make a deliberate effort to revitalize the U.S.-European dialogue.

To enlarge entails a deliberate effort to nurture a wider coalition committed to the principle of interdependence and prepared to play a significant role in promoting more effective global management. It is evident, for example, that the G-8 has outlived its function. Accordingly, some formula for regular consultations ranging in composition from G-14 to G-16 should be devised to bring together countries with geopolitical significance as well as economic weight.

To engage means the cultivation of top officials through informal talks among key powers, specifically the U.S., the European Triad, China, Japan, Russia and possibly India. A regular personal dialogue, for example, between the U.S. president and the Chinese leader would be especially beneficial to the development of a shared sense of responsibility between the only superpower and the most likely next global power. Without China, many of the problems we face collectively cannot be laid to rest.

Admittedly, China is economically nationalist, but it is also a fundamentally cautious power. It was Deng Xiaoping who best articulated how China defines its international approach: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”

This underlines a significant distinction with Russia. Like Beijing, Moscow wishes to revise international patterns, but it tends to be impatient, frustrated and sometimes even threatening. Nonetheless, it is in the interest of the United States and of Europe to engage Russia. In so doing, America should seek agreements that enhance global stability, promote nuclear weapons reduction and deal with such regional problems as Iran.

America and Europe will have to find a way of reaffirming their commitment to the integrity of Ukraine and Georgia while conveying to Russia that their interest in these two states relates to the gradual construction of a larger democratic Europe and is not designed to threaten Russia itself.

To pacify requires a deliberate U.S. effort to avoid becoming bogged down in the vast area ranging from Suez to India. Urgent decisions need to be made, with Europe’s help, on several potentially interactive issues.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process needs to be a priority. The new president should state on the record that a peaceful accommodation between the two parties must: first, involve a demilitarized Palestinian state, perhaps with a NATO presence to enhance Israel’s sense of security; second, the territorial settlement has to be based on the 1967 lines with equitable exchanges permitting Israel to incorporate the more heavily urbanized settlements on the fringes of the ’67 lines; third, both parties have to accept the fact that Palestinian refugees cannot return to what is now Israel, though they should be provided with some compensation and assistance for settling preferably in the independent Palestinian state; and last, the Israelis will have to accept the fact that a durable peace will require the genuine sharing of Jerusalem as the capital of two states.

The United States will also have to undertake seriously reciprocal negotiations with Iran. That means abandoning the current U.S. posture that Tehran make a one-sided concession as a precondition to talks.

Finally, America’s strategy regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan needs a basic reassessment. The emphasis should be shifted from military engagement to a more subtle effort to seek a decentralized political accommodation with those portions of the Taliban who are prepared to negotiate. A mutual accommodation should involve Taliban willingness to eliminate any Al Qaeda presence in return for Western military disengagement from the pertinent territory. The process should be accompanied by intensified reconstruction.

Let me conclude on a parochial note: Unfortunately, the American public is woefully undereducated about the wider world. Barack Obama will have to strive to make Americans understand the novel dimensions of global realities. Without sounding overly partisan, I believe that he has unique intellectual and rhetorical gifts for doing just that.

So let me end my remarks by asserting simply, “Yes, we can.”

Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, is trustee and counsellor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). This article is based on his 2008 John Whitehead lecture at Chatham House, London. The complete text will be published in the January issue of International Affairs (London).

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One Response to “The global political awakening: Zbigniew Brzesinski on the International Situation and the New President”

  1. Katrin Says:

    Nice article, and very clear, and also trustworthy, I think.

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