I just finished reading America and the World, a book based on simultaneous interviews of Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. The book and interviews were supposed to provide top flight analysis of the current US state and role in the world and provide insight and direction for the new president; in this it largely succeeds. Scowcroft and Brzezinski, each former US National Security Advisers for President Herbert Walker Bush and Carter respectively, are considered the wise men of US foreign policy and their arguments and analysis of numerous issues in this book largely confirms this status. (Here’s a video discussion by the three)
Ignatius skillfully leads them down many policy avenues; from the US presence in Iraq (the one main issue where the two men disagreed), how to stop Iran from getting the bomb, US-EU relationship, a rising China, resurgent Russia, and the changing nature of international politics, in other words their views on globalization. The most provocative and informative parts of the book were Scowcroft and Brzezinski’s analysis of the Cold War and its ending. Though these two scholars and practitioners had many good ideas for America’s next president, what I found myself taking away was their recollections of being in office during such trying and dramatic times. Each of these men faced the real possibility that they face and in be in charge of a nuclear war. Just listening to their cautionary stories makes one laugh when they hear that Obama is facing ‘the most dangerous and challenging foreign policy environment in US history.’
Scowcroft and Brzezinski have both been called the creme de la creme of foreign policy realists and this book does much to back this label up, but like all labels, ‘realist’ is too narrow a term for each man. Here is Brzezinski’s thoughtful analysis of a world he sees changing before his and America’s very eyes, with major implications for the whole globe:
The traditional problems of the power and geopolitics are still with us. But superimposed upon these traditional problems and also transforming their character are two novel, fundamental realities. One is the transformation in the subjective condition of humanity, what I call the global political awakening. For the first time in history all of the world is politically activated…The second reality is the surfacing of the first truly global problems of survival. The biggest problems of survival, heretofore, were national problems…now we have problems of survival of a global character.
So Brzezinski still believes in power politics, but feels that the world has changed around them, bringing new realities that the US and globe must face. This analysis is steeped in a common thread that flows across the entire book, the Cold War is over and we need to adjust to a changing environment.
And here is Scowcroft’s excellent attempt at describing the differences between foreign policy ‘realism’ and ‘idealism’:
To me, realism is a recognition of the limits of what can be achieved. It’s not what your goals are, but what can you realistically do. The idealist starts from the other end-What do we want to be? What do we want to achieve?-and may neglect how feasible it is to try to get there and whether, in trying to get there, you do things which destroy your ability to get there and sacrifice the very ideals you were pursuing. the difference is which end of the issue you start with and…how you balance ends and means. Do you try and leap for the stars? Or are you so mired in day-to-day difficulties that you don’t even elevate your sights to believe that progress can be made. We need to strike some balance between the extremes of realism and idealism. The United States ought to be on the side of trying to achieve maybe a little more than it can.
Scowcroft is definitely in the realist camp, but sees not only the virtue of idealist and liberal values, but also believes that the US should support them, as is last line suggests. Scowcroft, a born skeptic, who voiced his opposition to the War in Iraq before it started, still believes the US can and should exercise ‘enlightened leadership’ in the world and concluded that ‘we’re the only ones who can be the guiding light.’
In the future, I may still pick off bits and pieces of interesting analysis and arguments about various issues from this worthwhile book.