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Zbigniew Brzezinski, A realist of the sternest school

Zbigniew Brzezinski

On 26th May 2017, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the renowned thinker, writer and practitioner of geopolitics throughout the Cold War and National Security Adviser to former US president Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, passed away at the age of 89. Brzezinski was among one of the groups of European exiles who did so much to steer American foreign policy in the second half of the 20th century. Like Henry Kissinger, Brzezinski was a graduate of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. Unlike Kissinger, he was a Democrat, and it was under the Democrat President Carter that he served as the NSA from 1977 to 1981.

Brzezinski, or “Zbig” as he was known, was born in Warsaw, Poland, to Leonia (nee Roman) and Tadeusz Brzezinski. His father was a Polish nobleman and diplomat who served first in Nazi Berlin, then in Soviet Moscow, before being posted to Canada. Brzezinski Jr. was meant to study in Britain, but because of immigration restrictions went instead to McGill University in Montreal, and then, as a graduate student, to Harvard. He arrived there in 1951, just as the study of international relations and regional affairs was being enthusiastically promoted and lavishly funded by foundations connected to the US foreign policy establishment and to the CIA. He received his PhD from Harvard in 1953 for a thesis on the relations between the Leninism of the October Revolution and Stalin’s state.

As the NSA, Brzezinski had to deal with the opening of diplomatic relations with communist China and the consequent severing of relations with Taiwan, and with the negotiations that led to the signing of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Treaty (SALT II). Brzezinski had always been strongly a political liberal (in the American sense) in domestic politics, but also a strong anti-communist, and he interpreted these events, more than either Carter or his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, did, primarily in Cold War terms.

Indeed, one of the features of Brzezinski’s years in the White House was the acknowledged rivalry between him and Vance, a liberal Wall Street lawyer, who finally resigned in protest at Carter’s attempt to rescue the Tehran hostages with an ill-fated Special Forces operation.

Probably the most controversial of his policy decisions in the White House was his response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The question is clouded by secrecy and contradictory recollections by those involved, but Brzezinski himself recalled that a month or so after the Soviet invasion, he went to Pakistan to coordinate the distribution of money to the mujahideen to fight the Red Army. Some have alleged that Brzezinski was in favour of the US financing Osama bin Laden.

Brzezinski was active in many establishment foreign policy institutions, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Bilderberg meetings. In 1973, with the backing of David Rockefeller, he helped to found the Trilateral Commission, where he consistently advocated moderation in US policies. All three institutions were the target of paranoid suspicion on the American right. It was through the Trilateral Commission, which advocated co-operation between the US, Europe and Japan, that he met Carter, then known mainly as a liberal governor of Georgia. In 1975 Brzezinski became Carter’s chief foreign policy adviser, and in 1977, when Carter was inaugurated president, his national security adviser.

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