Reseña de libros The National Interest, 23.08.2018 Simon Serfaty, profesor (Old Dominion University) a cargo de la cátedra Seguridad Global y Geoestrategia (CSIS)
“Few administrations,” writes Vaïsse, from Brzezinski’s perspective but in the context of the administration he served, “have known so many tangible successes … in only four years”
- Justin Vaïsse, Zbigniew Brzezinski: America’s Grand Strategist, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018)
- Stuart E. Eizenstat, President Carter: The White House Years, (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 2018)
Justin Vaïsse’s Zbigniew Brzezinski: America’s Grand Strategist is the first biography of its kind published in the United States. Why it took so long is surprising. The author, too, is a surprise—a talented French historian turned practitioner who has been the director of foreign policy planning at the French Quai d’Orsay for the past several years. By his account, it is while he was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution that he met Brzezinski in 2008 and developed “a relation of trust” with him. Vaïsse was given access to Brzezinski’s papers, though not his personal White House diaries, and thus the book was born. It is not an authorized biography, but Brzezinski must have been pleased by what he knew of the work (first published in French shortly before his death). The readers, too, will be pleased. This is a solid account of Brzezinski’s absorbing journey. But it is not a whole life story. In a sense it starts late, with not enough said of Brzezinski’s formative years when he became the person he was, and it ends early, with not enough said of his closing decades during which he grew into “America’s grand strategist.”
Vaïsse’s intention was to give “particular attention to the four years Brzezinski spent at the White House,” but Stuart Eizenstat’s authoritative Jimmy Carter: The White House Years offers a fuller account of them. Unlike Vaïsse, Eizenstat is a natural for such a book. A core member of Carter’s Georgia Mafia, he knew his subject and shared his history. His narrative relies not only on the president’s papers but also on thousands of pages of his own handwritten notes and hundreds of interviews held with the most significant participants from those years. The revisionist assessment of the Carter presidency he offers is overdue on issues of national policy, and it is pointedly timely on questions of presidential character. This is not just a good and informative book: it is a necessary read, even though the writing is occasionally tedious and some conclusions overstated. Indeed, next time you belittle Carter, think again and look around.
“We all have our stories,” wrote “Madam Secretary” Madeleine Albright, whose own “inconceivable” career—her word—got its delayed start under Brzezinski forty years ago. The very concept of a biography begins as a dialogue between the author and his subject, with the reader as a passive participant. The dialogue must somehow combine what the narrator chooses to ask with what the subject is prepared to share and what the reader wishes to know. “I am an American, Chicago born” says Saul Bellow’s Augie March, as if that introduction was sufficient as a reminder that history begins at birth. But there is no one to tell what sort of a tale the future will tell. Only over time does the past build up, a big leap or a small step at a time, until the historian reconstructs it, a word and a chapter at a time—and, borrowing again from Albright’s memoirs, “describe not just what happened but also why and how events were influenced by human relationships” which cannot all be related or even remembered. T. S. Elliot put it thusly: “The historical sense involves not only the perception of the pastness of the past, but its presence,” or at least its rendition.
The late Tony Judt distinguished between “the facts on the ground” and “the facts inside”—those that fill the readers with knowledge and those that speak to their soul. Vaïsse’s Brzezinski provides mainly the former, including bits of marginal or undigested research, like his salary history as a younger professor at Columbia University, and other odd references or characterizations, overlooked by the editor, like Brzezinski’s “solid” scholarship and his “light” foreign accent, both later corrected. More significant, though, are the missing “facts inside”—emotions, memories, a sense of place and an idea of self—all those things past that remain present long after much of everything else has been forgotten.
Thus, Brzezinski grew up rather extraordinarily, at a time which Brzezinski later called one of mega deaths and mega myths, and which left, he told Vaïsse, a “deep” and “enormous impression” on him as a young boy. But little is said about what those impressions were, why he “often” was “stressed” over “how different he felt from the wasp elite,” what he wrote in his “detailed diary of the war’s daily developments” and which he “discussed at length with his father.” More is said about his early years at Harvard, Brzezinski’s first stop in the United States, where he “began to feel like an American, and, even more strikingly, to be treated like an American.” But how did that come about? To become an American was “easier” than to be American, confided Hungarian-born historian John Lukacs—always “a complex fate,” added historian Henry Steele Commager, whether one “came from England and Scotland, from Holland and Baden and France,” let alone Warsaw, or Furth for Kissinger and Prague for Albright.
To be sure, Brzezinski barely lived in Poland: only three years, as opposed to about ten in Canada, while Kissinger spent the first fifteen years of his life in Germany, including five with Hitler at the helm. Eighteen months after he had arrived in the United States, young Kissinger was telling his grandfather, who had been left behind, how difficult it was to adapt to his new country. His biographer, Niall Ferguson, tells us a bit more about this early struggle, which Kissinger himself had preferred to ignore. But what about Brzezinski—was there only little or even no ambivalence? Unlike Henry, born Heinz, Zbigniew did not change his name, although he kind of shortened it, and he seemingly remained comfortable with a heavy foreign accent which he never tried to lose. Could it be that, unlike Kissinger, the goal for Brzezinski was not to become somebody else but to be something more? From the start, therefore, the person, the academic, and the strategist were not “different men,” as Vaïsse suggests; rather, each completed the others—not only the child as the birth of the man, but also the man as the inspiration for the academic, the academic as the guide to the strategist, and the strategist back to the child, the man and the academic.
Reading Vaïsse does not help one gain a feeling for the person Brzezinski became—what the ghosts might have asked him about the all-American face he wore with such apparent ease, even as he tried it out for good measure as he moved on and up. And when the ghosts did ask, as they surely must, were there answers, Zbig, and in what language? Lacking them are your biographers and followers—historical raconteurs and even voyeurs—turning your history into “the relentless unforeseen,” as Philip Roth called it, chronicled with tones of inevitability that turn the past into an epic at the cost of the smaller things that gave it meaning along the way?
As is the case with the Brzezinski book, the surprise with Eizenstat’s work is that it would be coming so late. While a number of scholars have singled out a few achievements, especially in the realm of foreign policy, Carter has consistently remained the least appreciated of all nine Cold War–presidents, often derogated as a spineless ninny whose presidency served as the mere anteroom for Reagan’s. At last, though, Eizenstat has broken the mold and historians will prove more reluctant to limit Carter to an extended and painful Ford-like parenthesis between Nixon and Reagan. But, however hard they now try to do Carter historical justice, none will be more persuasive and better informed, and none will show the intensity of feelings and the richness of Eizenstat’s book—“which was,” the author writes, a “labor of love over a quarter of a century.”
Carter was, insists Eizenstat, not only “a good and productive” president but “one of the most consequential in modern history.” That is overstated, of course. More convincingly, Carter was a necessary president, meaning, an indispensable transition between Nixon, who had debased the idea of America, and Reagan, who restored America’s faith in itself. After Nixon, America needed moral cleansing and Carter helped provide it, at home and abroad. But after four years of Carter, a different style of presidential leadership was needed, and Reagan provided it. No Nixon no Carter, and who is to tell that we would have been better off with more Ford (and more Kissinger); but no Carter no Reagan, and who is to tell that more Carter (and more Brzezinski) would have produced the outcome we know now.
In retrospect, this proved to be a well-choreographed presidential pas de trois: Nixon who kept America in the world but devalued America’s good name, Carter who restored America’s good name but devalued America’s leadership, and Reagan who took America up and brought the Soviet Union down. In so doing, notice, each president became what he did not want to be: Nixon as a dealmaker who originated détente when containment seemed to be running its course, Carter as a reborn hardliner who redirected the power curve of history when Moscow was surging, and Reagan as a peacemaker after the Soviets found themselves hopelessly trapped in Afghanistan. Together they ended the Cold War, with a decisive—nay, indispensable—assist from George H. W. Bush.
Vaïsse’s account of an “indecisive” president overly “immersed in the technical details of all the issues” and “often unable or unwilling to prioritize among the various foreign policy objectives” is not unusual but it does not fit Eizenstat’s first-hand account. That the president liked and was overly reliant on Brzezinski is beyond doubt. Meeting several times a day, the two men formed an odd but comfortable couple, and each respected the other for who he was and had become—more like Truman and Acheson than Nixon and Kissinger. “Next to members of my family,” Carter later wrote, “Zbig would be my favorite seatmate on a long-distance trip; we might argue, but I would never be bored.” After his election, the president-elect resisted those who attempted to talk him out of appointing Brzezinski who, Robert Lovett had said, was “not really an American.” But by then, Vaïsse explains, the country was already moving beyond its narrow idea of an American America: and it was Brzezinski, the scholar from Poland who, past Kissinger, had become the establishment point man, and Carter, the peanut farmer from Georgia who, post-Nixon, was the out-of-Washington alien.
While the Harvard-trained Brzezinski was a brilliant geostrategic thinker, he was not as good as a practitioner—but Carter was not the reason. Brzezinski the academic connected things past with things future remarkably well but as a strategist he did not apply his foresight to things present as effectively. As Carter told Eizenstat, he had ignored 90 percent of Brzezinski’s ideas during his presidential campaign, many of which, writes Vaïsse, were “at once logical, bold and unrealistic.” Indeed, when Brzezinski graded the administration first six months in office, Carter’s own professorial comment was skeptical—“you’re too generous,” Carter responded, “we must have (a) clear goals and (b) be tenacious.” And his notations on Brzezinski’s weekly reports appear to have often been more realistic than those of their author who indulged in geopolitical flights of fancy.
Eizenstat would agree: Carter certainly ran most things by Brzezinski, but he did not turn his foreign policy over to him. As noted by Vaïsse, Brzezinski was “not a key player” at Camp David, and for Panama, the region he knew least, “his role was secondary.” Unlike or at least more than “his” president, writes Eizenstat, Brzezinski “saw every issue of foreign policy through the anti-Soviet lens of a true Cold War warrior.” His views, adds Eizenstat, “were more heavily colored by the geopolitics [of the Soviet Union] than by the justice of either side’s claims”—with China, which Vaïsse describes as Brzezinski’s “personal success,” in Afghanistan where he allegedly set a “trap” for Moscow, and in the Gulf where, still according to Vaïsse, the Carter doctrine was “really a Brzezinski doctrine.” Indeed, it took all the more time for President Carter to get used to Brzezinski the hard liner—“a dyed in the wool anti-Soviet,” had warned W. Averell Harriman—as earlier, candidate Carter had been previously seduced by a more dovish Brzezinski whose writing then explored alternatives to partition for a new trilateral world order in which the Soviets were “not even a rival.”
“Few administrations,” writes Vaïsse, from Brzezinski’s perspective but in the context of the administration he served, “have known so many tangible successes . . . in only four years.” Eizenstat goes even further: Carter, he writes, “bent the arc of history away from a Soviet power that seemed to be growing without restraint when he took office.” Both authors insist that the majority of the ten foreign policy priorities which Carter and Brzezinski set at the start of the Carter administration were met or on the way to being met by the time the administration had ended. These claims, however, are a matter of calendar. Consider: in January 1981, alliance relations, especially with Europe, were not yet “more active and more solid,” as it is claimed, but frankly in disarray. Instead of a network of global alliances with the so-called “new influential,” there was still renewed talk of a “new Cold War” with the Soviet Union. North-South relations were hardly cooperative and “calmer” yet in Central America, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere. Afghanistan was just getting started, arms control negotiations were at a dead end again, and the arms race clearly on the upswing. The Camp David momentum had been stalled and that of Iran rising, and worldwide arms levels remained on an ascending curve, with new technologies to be sold, more money to buy them and fewer human rights to be defended. What can be said for most of these issues is that progress was indeed to come steadily throughout the 1980s, with Reagan and eventually Bush’s finishing touch. There is no need to deny Carter some credit, but don’t neglect the presidents who came after either. If anything, the Reagan foreign policy began in January 1980 and the Carter-Brzezinski foreign policy ended in November 1989.
Still, two vital issues can be singled out as the central parts of the Carter legacy. For one, there are the Camp David Accords, whose historic significance is beyond dispute: they could not have been attempted and would not have gotten done without Carter, and no other president who attempted a Camp David II (including Clinton and Bush-43) fared well. After the early fiasco of the Brzezinski-inspired comprehensive plan for the Middle East forced an embarrassing U-turn and left the National Security Advisor hitchhiking on his road map to Geneva, a desperate Sadat took the road to Jerusalem and Carter that of Camp David. Forty years later, Eizenstat’s account of the “thirteen brutal days and nights of negotiations” between the Egyptian President and the Israeli Prime Minister is gripping. Follow Carter going “back to his bed room, kneel down, and pray” before putting on suit and tie for more formality on his way to Sadat’s room as a last-minute attempt to save the collapsing negotiations with Begin. This is high drama: Eizenstat’s plain writing fits such moments especially well, and his book details many others that remind us of the best and the worst in Carter and his administration (including the negotiations with Congress for ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty and over SALT II, the internal debate over the so-called malaise speech, and the debate over the most appropriate reaction to Afghanistan).
Carter’s Camp David shows presidential leadership at its best, when only a few key actors are involved, with a single war-and-peace issue to solve over a short, do-or-die period of time. Every president faces at least one such decisive test during his years in office—Truman with the Berlin blockade, Eisenhower over Quemoy and Matsu, Kennedy during the missile crisis and so forth. That is the time when the president’s role is decisive: his history and his sense of the moment, his convictions and his sense of himself, his idea of the nation and of the world—the time when it can be said unequivocally that no other president could have acted the way he did, knowing what was known at the time.
No less certainly, Iran remains the administration’s main and most lasting failure. For that debacle at least, all would agree that no one comes out well, least of all Brzezinski, described by Eizenstat as a hardliner to the end, and in an increasingly open conflict with Cyrus Vance—a conflict that proved conclusive when Vance resigned a bit later. The Carter administration may have lost the Shah but it did not lose Iran and “certainly did not cover itself with glory,” according to Eizenstat. Where Brzezinski was right on—perhaps the only thing—was, as he told Carter, that “no one in Washington really understood Iran well enough to provide a hardheaded analysis.” But that neither started nor ended with Carter, and the confusion lingered long past the Shah’s departure from Iran: over his return, about the hostages and after their release, during Iran’s war with Iraq and past the 1991 Gulf War, after September 2001 and past the U.S. war in Iraq, whether the analysis got better or not the policies did not; and after they finally seemed to do so over the nuclear issue, new generations of ghosts left behind since Carter have come back to haunt us.
“A journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover,” wrote James Baldwin, “what you will do, what you will find or what you will find will do to you.” With Nixon, Kissinger became all he could be and more but that was not enough and after his White House years he still thought of himself as one of history’s privileged interlocutors-in-waiting. More modestly or realistically, past Carter, four more decades of check-to-cheek dancing with history satisfied and even completed Brzezinski. Unlike Kissinger, he never struggled to remember and adapt what he used to say and do or forget what he used to do and argue. With Kissinger, you could never leave or ignore the “world restored,” meaning, the post-Napoleonic Europe which had been the focus of his doctoral thesis. To that extent, Kissinger’s prose was “timeless,” writes Vaïsse, but it was also repetitive, meaning that it never escaped the moment (the nineteenth century) and the Old World (Europe) that defined him as an academic and a person no less than a strategist. With Brzezinski, on the other hand, the discourse was more dynamic, and there was always a new world to discover, a new order to engineer, a new issue to unveil, a new concept to propose.
Earlier, and especially after 1968 when he made of “a position of responsibility” his “single goal,” there had been a nagging sense that he adopted too easily the fashions of the moment, however “very flimsy or very derivative” these might be, just “to stay in the stream” and “have an impact,” complained Stanley Hoffmann, a former Harvard colleague of Brzezinski and a bit of a mentor for Vaïsse. In the end, though, it is that fluidity that made him most challenging after his White House years, as he remained a reliable chronicler of the future, some of which he forecast well and some poorly—but so what? Mao said of Stalin that he was 70 percent right and 30 percent wrong. Well, even reversing these numbers to fit the expectations of Western democracies, over a lifetime of intensive scholarship—Vaïsse’s biography of Brzezinski’s work includes more than 150 significant items of published work—that sort of performance would add up into a strong A.
According to Brzezinski, he had become a scholar “simply because Harvard gave [him] the opportunity to become a scholar.” But his ambition, he told Vaïsse, was not to “merely contribute material useful to others for footnoting.” Raised in an educated and urban Polish diplomatic family, he wanted to teach the Soviet Union and Communist affairs to the country he had adopted at the relatively advanced age of thirty, and along the way help free his native country which he had left for Canada at the age of ten. Throughout, Brzezinski’s will to do thus motivated his will to be: replacing Cyrus Vance like Kissinger had replaced William Rogers was not the point of his clash with the Secretary of State. To be the president’s thinker-in-chief was, he felt, more satisfying than being his negotiator-in-chief—he wanted to be Bismarck rather than Talleyrand. In 1981, he welcomed his return to academia “100 percent” and his subsequent journey was not of a money-seeking variety. Zbig remained immune to the consulting bug. He had a monastic sense of his duties.
That thirty-five-year closing period of Brzezinski’s life—his “age of authority”—is badly shortchanged by Vaïsse, and it is narrated almost like an afterthought. Teaching was important to him, and during much of that time he was quite good at it. To be sure, his reputation added to his professorial charisma, and his odd eloquence to his pedagogical skills, including a flair for the catchy and decisive phrase, as if his non-native English entitled him to let his newly-acquired foreign words move on their own, each sentence a paragraph and each paragraph a challenging argument. The books he wrote during that period are dutifully mentioned by Vaïsse, but with quick and frankly superficial takes that understate Brzezinski’s contributions and passions during three decades of national transformation and global mutation. Yet that is the time when he fully became America’s grand strategist. There was still much fluidity, but there was also a new strategic acumen and moral consistency, which extended to the way the United States views its role in the world and conducts its external relations. Along with Kissinger and the New Mandarins the two of them inspired, he “Europeanized” America’s foreign policy and exposed it to the complexities of historical and geopolitical thinking, but without compromising his own idea of what America is and what it does. Sadly, Brzezinski is no longer here to make his case.
“I am not concerned by the verdict of history,” wrote a “disturbed and frustrated” Dean Acheson, a Cold War ago, to Louis Halle, a former staff member-turned-scholar, “there ain’t no such thing.” Acheson was thinking of Truman no less than of himself—Truman, an “ordinary provincial” like Carter who did not have the social and political savoir-faire of the Georgetown set which Brzezinski learned to endure. But ultimately history does render a final verdict, however long it takes, and Truman’s, we know now, was eventually reversed in appeal. At last, Carter is getting the second look he always deserved—which just shows that history, too, likes to give time the time to take its time. To that extent, Eizenstat’s “what-ifs” on behalf of the second term Carter never got are neither necessary nor convincing. One-term presidents can also be consequential, just ask George H. W. Bush.
Still, by now there has been enough time. Yes, Carter (and Brzezinski) made tons of mistakes which Eizenstat (and Vaïsse) readily acknowledge, and yes, the country felt despondent and was troubled at the close of the Carter presidency. Yet, whatever difference Carter made during his four years in office, he can now remind us most helpfully of the ways in which we used to think of the presidency. That is not the least of Eizenstat’s most useful contributions—a reminder of the days when the president was someone Americans could be proud of irrespective of the ways they thought of his policies. No, there was nothing wrong for a presidential candidate to want a government as good as the people; yes, once elected Carter paid a heavy political price for what many viewed as sheer provincial simplicity, but how refreshing it is now to read about a president whose “lack of political sensitivity was sometimes breathtaking.” Nor was it bad for the U.S. president to allow his personality and personal values toward right and wrong, in America and in the world, to be seen and heard; yes, that made him look a bit weak both domestically and abroad, but how comforting it is now to be reminded of a future that was meant to be worth building. Sure, Carter’s attention to details was unnerving—a president should have better things to do than trying to “know as much about every issue as the expert he had chosen to guide his decisions.” But in a moment of presidential insouciance to facts, Carter’s “insatiable curiosity” is missed. And at a time when reading is not fashionable in the Oval Office, it is with indulgence that we read about his early tendency to return White House–staffers’ memos with “circled typographical errors and grammatical mistakes” he found—tweeting does not offer many such opportunities. And most of all, how good it is to be told, as Eizenstat does, of a president whose character gave him a humbling respect for the office about which he claimed no pre-ordained entitlement during his first term let alone about an eventual second term.
Was that “high drama” or a “calamitous farce,” asks Eizenstat about some of the events that gave the Carter administration a bad name? Our answer is sad: it was high drama then but it has turned into a calamitous farce now. Read both books, therefore, and be attentive to the drama, but don’t be amused by the appearance of a farce.