The last hawk: Zbigniew Brzezinski (1928-2017)

Today, Brzezinski's views and approach may seem outdated. But in an era of short-term thinking, the late US foreign policy hardliner’s capacity for seeing the big picture will be missed.

Ivan Kurilla
1 June 2017

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who helped topple economic barriers between the Soviet Union, China and the west under Carter, died on 26 May, 2017. (c) Keystone Press Agency/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.There are a few Americans — though to be fair not so many outside Hollywood and pop culture — whose names are familiar to every Russian. Every Soviet citizen knew the name Zbigniew Brzezinski from childhood, from the 1970s when Soviet TV gave us daily updates on this enemy of Détente, the “rabid Russophobe” and anti-Soviet politician responsible for America ceasing to understand the Soviet Union once again.

For Russians, Brzezinski remained the embodiment of the America that didn’t, and doesn’t want to understand Russia and which still sees its role in the world in terms of containing and undermining Russian influence. Frequent references were made to Brzezinski’s Polish origins, which in the context of Poland’s centuries-old grievances towards Russia offered some explanation, if not justification, for his position.

The fact that over the last few days the Russian media are full of articles and obituaries for Brzezinski proves for the last time that he had become the incarnation of Russian perceptions of America’s policies towards our country: a man who, although he hadn’t held high office in decades, nonetheless remained in the eyes of the Russian public the chief spokesperson for the US and a symbol of its “permanent hostility” towards Russia. As often happens, there was more to this man than the role he came to play in Russian culture.

Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzezinski was born in Warsaw into a diplomatic family on 28 March 1928. In 1938, his father Tadeusz was posted to the Polish embassy in Canada, where the family remained during the Second World War. After the war, the Brzezinskis decided against returning to Poland, which had been liberated and occupied by the Red Army.

Brzezinski became the incarnation of Russian perceptions of America’s policies towards our country

Zbigniew graduated from McGill University in Montreal and went on to Harvard to study for a PhD in political science. The subject of his Master’s dissertation was inter-ethnic relations in the Soviet Union. His Doctoral thesis was on the transition from the Bolshevik Revolution and Soviet Russia under Lenin to Stalin’s USSR. After gaining his doctorate in 1953, Brzezinski spent some time teaching at Harvard and in 1958 became an American citizen, but in 1959 he failed to be appointed to a permanent post at the university (he lost out to Henry Kissinger). He then moved to New York to teach at Columbia University, where one of his students was Madeleine Albright, whom he later helped during her early years in Washington. He later remarked that working in New York gave him enormous opportunities for political activism to complement his academic research.  

Brzezinski’s first political works focused on the concept of totalitarianism, taking the Soviet Union as his chief example. Later, he insisted on the idea of the permanence of the Soviet bloc. Life, however, compelled him to move away from totalitarianism as a concept and encourage a split between the USSR and China, in practice proving that permanence to be mistaken. This change of focus was the first evidence of Brzezinski’s ability to rethink his perceptions and reject them should the situation demand it.


September 1978: Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin engages US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in a game of chess at Camp David. Source: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. After working in the electoral campaigns of presidents Kennedy and Johnson, in 1966 Brzezinski was appointed to the Policy Planning Council of the US Department of State. He initially supported the principle of détente, but soon became its most prominent critic — a hard line opponent of rapprochement with the USSR and any US compromise with it, for fear of aiding and abetting Soviet domination of the planet. Brzezinski therefore opposed the foreign policies of Richard Nixon and his influential advisor, his old rival Henry Kissinger.

In 1973 billionaire David Rockefeller created the Trilateral Commission, a group of prominent political and business leaders and academics primarily from the United States, western Europe and Japan. Brzezinski became its first director, and a year later invited the Governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, to become involved in its work. In 1976, Carter became president and appointed Brzezinski his National Security Advisor (a role he took over from Henry Kissinger).

The four years of the Carter administration were the peak of Brzezinski’s political career. It was a time of rapid cooling in international relations: the end of détente between the US and the USSR; the Iranian revolution with the American Embassy hostage crisis in Teheran; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the start of US aid to the Islamist Mujahedeen.

Brzezinski was active in halting the détente process and abandoning the policy of holding the balance of power between the USSR and China

Brzezinski left his mark on the unfolding of these events. He was active in halting the détente process and abandoning the policy of holding the balance of power between the USSR and China. He pushed instead for using China as a tool against the Soviet Union (according to the Soviet ambassador in Washington Anatoly Dobrynin, he compared this policy with the USSR’s similar use of Cuba). And after Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, Brzezinski became a key supporter of the provision of military aid to the Mujahedeen. It’s said he told President Carter that the USSR needed to experience its own Vietnam.

By that time, Brzezinski was seen as not only anti-Soviet, but a “Russophobe” as well. Dobrynin would recall how on the eve of the 1980 US presidential election (in which Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan), Brzezinski tried to convince him that Russians were prejudiced against him because he was Polish. “History provides us with abundant evidence of hostile relations between Russians and Poles,” he told Dobrynin, “and we still haven’t freed ourselves from this tragic past.” Perhaps, according to the ambassador, this past dogged his unconscious. But consciously, he believed that the future of Poland was still inextricably linked with that of Russia.


June 1979: President Jimmy Carter and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) treaty in Vienna. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain. After retiring from politics, Brzezinski returned to teaching and writing. His most popular work, in Russia at least, was The Grand Chessboard, an exercise in geopolitics. It was swiftly translated into Russian (as were all his later works), and became for many Russians the quintessential expression of the American world view, at a point when completely different policies and perceptions were calling the tune in Washington itself.

Brzezinski was very critical of the three presidents after Reagan, the two Bushes and Bill Clinton, believing that they had missed the opportunity history had offered America after the collapse of the Soviet Union (his obituary in the New York Times, which is close to the Clinton camp, was appropriately acerbic).

Brzezinski was very critical of the two Bushes and Bill Clinton, believing that they had missed the opportunity history had offered America after the collapse of the Soviet Union

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the developments in international relations that followed clearly lessened Brzezinski’s fear of Russian domination. On the contrary, in his writings and speeches he increasingly expressed a belief in a democratic future for our country. In December 2012, I was present at a speech where Brzezinski formulated his ideas on this subject. I had gone to the event expecting to hear harsh criticism of today’s Russia. The idea of Russia being unable ever to throw off its yoke of authoritarianism, and Putin’s rule being just another twist in the same old story, was becoming popular again in Washington at the time and I imagined that the old hawk would be a strong proponent of this idea.

But I was completely wrong in this assumption. “My long distance forecast for the future is an optimistic one,” he told us, “because I am sure that Russia is changing. And perhaps not even despite Putin, but because of him. And after Putin leaves the stage, the process of change will accelerate considerably. Democratisation is one of the key conditions for Russia’s future prosperity, and I think it will happen once Putin is gone. You can call this historical optimism, but I believe that rapprochement between Russia and the west is inevitable, and that this rapprochement will bring Russia enormous benefit”.

In Russia, Brzezinski was, of course, demonised. He really was anti-Soviet and possibly (although he denied it) even a Russophobe. However, he only enjoyed a short period of real influence over American politics and his views changed over time.

Brzezinski’s departure from the scene feels as though the era of politicians with a strategic vision of US-Russian relations is past. His colleagues today write and speak on tactical matters, but their vision of bilateral relations is very short term. Perhaps, paradoxically, we will all miss him as a result.        

This article originally appeared in Russian on Gefter, an online journal dedicated to history and society. 

Translated by Liz Barnes. 

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