Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
18 June 2012
Review by Jiu-Hwa Lo Upshur, Eastern Michigan University
Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power
By Zbigniew Brzezinski
New York: Basic Books, 2012. Pp. viii, 208. ISBN 978–0–465–02954–9.
Descriptors: Volume 2012, 20th Century, 21st Century, Strategy Print Version

This latest book by Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to former President Jimmy Carter, focuses on the volatile and unstable contemporary world, which is more "interactive and interdependent" (1) than ever before. It adds to a growing body of works on the role of the United States in the post-Cold War world.[1] In his Introduction, Brzezinski raises four questions—really sets of questions—each the focus of one of the book's four parts.

1. What are the implications of the changing distribution of global power from the West to the East, and how is it being affected by the new reality of a politically awakened humanity?

2.Why is America's global appeal waning, what are the symptoms of America's domestic and international decline, and how did America waste the unique global opportunity offered by the peaceful end of the Cold War? Conversely, what are America's recuperative strengths and what geopolitical reorientation is necessary to revitalize America's world role?

3. What would be the likely geopolitical consequences if America declined from its globally preeminent position, who would be the almost-immediate victims of such a decline, what effects would it have on global-scale problems of the twenty-first century, and could China assume America's central role in world affairs by 2025?

4. Looking beyond 2025, how should a resurgent America define its long-term geopolitical goals, and how could America, with its traditional European allies, seek to engage Turkey and Russia in order to construct an even larger and more vigorous West? Simultaneously, how could America achieve balance in the East between the need for close cooperation with China and the fact that a constructive American role in Asia should be neither exclusively China-centric nor involve dangerous entanglements in Asian conflicts.

Part 1, "The Receding West," explains how several Western European nations (initially Spain and Portugal, later Britain, France, and Germany) dominated the world for five centuries beginning with the Age of Exploration and ending in the mid-twentieth century after two World Wars. From 1945 to 1990, most of the world was divided into two opposing blocs, each headed by a superpower, the United States and the USSR; that era ended when the exhausted Soviet Union imploded and its former satellite states attained independence. However, the remaining sole superpower, the United States, soon had to reckon with the geopolitical ambitions and increasing economic might of Japan, China, and India.

Although power shifts between regions and nations have occurred throughout history, Brzezinski counts five such shifts during the twentieth century that signal "a historic acceleration in the changing distribution of global power" (25) and a concomitant increase in volatility that will persist in the twenty-first. The recent communications revolution has awakened popular political consciousness and unsatisfied economic longings around the world, especially among the young. These in turn have fueled ethnic and religious tensions within and between nations.

In the early twenty-first century, the structural weakness of the European Union (EU) has prevented the continent from leading the contemporary world as it did in the past. Nor will a resource-rich but politically unstable Russia be a vital force in the near future. Several new nations are seeking to fill the world power vacuum, notably China and India, regional rivals but not world powers. Japan remains a global economic power but lacks the military to project geopolitical power. Thus, "America [is] still peerless [due to the] continued attraction of the American system—the vital relevance of its founding principles, the dynamism of its economic model, the good will of its people and government…. [But] while there is yet no explicitly ideological alternative to the United States in this new century, China's continued success could become a systemic alternative if the American system became widely viewed as an irrelevant model…. Paradoxically that makes the self-revitalization of America more crucial than ever" (35–36).

Part 2, "The Waning of the American Dream," explains that the United States has attracted the most talented, educated, and motivated immigrants worldwide because the American dream promises to satisfy both the idealistic and the material hopes of those who seek its shores. The alternative vision of Marxist materialism that for a time attracted some intellectuals collapsed altogether along with the Soviet Union in 1991.

Brzezinski believes two events, the 9/11 attacks and the consequent "war on terror" in the first decade of the twenty-first century and the world financial crisis at the end of that decade, have shaken America's "peerless" world position. He is highly critical of the wars in Iraq and, though he views the invasion of Afghanistan as justified, faults the military strategy adopted in waging war there, with its high cost to US prestige.

Next comes a catalog of the problems currently confronting the United States: rising national debt, income inequality, banking irresponsibility, decaying national infrastructure, poor schools, and a gridlocked, highly partisan political system. Lest the reader feel depressed by this gloomy state of affairs, Brzezinski goes on to explain why a declining United States during the next two decades is not inevitable, for two reasons. First, countries that hope to challenge American dominance suffer from even worse problems. For example, unless China quickly makes dramatic systemic changes to correct its social retardation and political authoritarianism, which is unlikely, it will not be an attractive alternative as leading world power. As for India, its many structural problems render it unable even to challenge China for regional leadership, let alone the United States for world primacy. Moreover, despite the rise of other economies, as of 2010 the US share of the global economy is still the largest at 25 percent, compared with China's 9 percent. Neither China nor India, owing to their serious structural difficulties, is likely to catch up to the United States. In terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the United States will outstrip both the EU and Japan up to 2050 on account of its younger population, among other factors. Further, it will continue to exert a "suction effect on global talent" (56) due to its entrepreneurial culture, great universities and research institutions, abundant resources, and geographic security, among other important advantages. It will attract both highly educated and motivated as well as poor immigrants, each group hoping for a better life in their new country.

Part 3, "The World after America: By 2025, Not Chinese but Chaotic," argues that, should the United States fail, no one nation is likely to emerge as its successor; rather, the world will enter a prolonged chaotic era. Brzezinski doubts China would seek world hegemony. Its myriad domestic problems will quash any such delusions of grandeur. No latter-day Mao Zedong will emerge. That does not necessarily presage peace in Asia, because many intractable problems could instigate wars: unresolved territorial issues between India and Pakistan, the competition of India and China for resources and regional dominance, and the inflammatory mix of religion and oil in the Middle East and Central Asia. Indeed, a long catalog of issues could draw great powers into regional conflicts or spark war between lesser powers that possess nuclear weapons.

To preserve the international status quo so critical to world stability, especially for smaller, weaker states, requires the global presence of a powerful United States. For instance, a decline in American power before a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would cause even greater instability in the Middle East, as Israel and Iran attempted to assert regional control. The United States would be involved in any Israel-Iran war, which would intensify Islamic radicalism and trigger higher oil prices likely to benefit Russia and China. Brzezinski further postulates that, because the world is now so tightly interconnected, an American setback in the Middle East would affect its relations with other nations and regions as well. For example, Mexico's economic stability would suffer from a lessening of its strong trading ties with a declining United States.

The crux of Strategic Vision is part 4, "Beyond 2025: A New Geopolitical Balance." We read in its opening paragraph that "America's global standing in the decades ahead will depend on its successful implementation of purposeful efforts to overcome its drift toward a socioeconomic obsolescence and to shape a new and stable geopolitical equilibrium on the world's most important continent by far, Eurasia" (121). Only the United States, Brzezinski insists, can form and lead a Eurasian order that would forestall a "new global Balkans" extending from the Middle East to Pakistan and Central Asia. The military glue of this new geopolitical order would be an enlarged and revitalized NATO led by the United States anchored by its bond with Britain. NATO would comprise its present membership, but also, importantly, Turkey and, in time, after reforms, Russia.

Brzezinski stresses that Turkey's role in this alliance will be crucial for a variety of reasons: its history as hegemon in the Middle East in the days of the Ottoman Empire; its successful transformation to democratic governance; its present acknowledged leadership position among Middle Eastern states; and its potential as a model to the Central Asian Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union. Only a Europe linked with the United States could confidently embrace the eventual inclusion of Russia in the new Eurasian order. A Europe that included a democratic Russia in an alliance with the United States would form a bigger and stronger, more outward looking West.

Mutual rivalries, past and present, pose challenges to world stability. Brzezinski favors a continued strong alliance between America and Japan as the eastern anchor of a democratic Eurasian community. He sees two overlapping, potentially volatile regional triangles: China-India-Pakistan and China-Japan-Korea. The United States, he warns, should stay out of potential hostilities in these region, unless they imperil Japan or South Korea, both linked to the United States by mutual defense treaties. Brzezinski anticipates China's continuing economic rise. But he maintains that, while China's military will grow more powerful, it will not be able to challenge the United States in the foreseeable future: since Mao Zedong, China's leaders, conscious of the nation's many problems, have concentrated on internal stability.

As China pursues its long-term goal of expanding its global reach and power, the United States should assess whether and when it might become a constructive partner. Brzezinski thinks the United States should be realistic in accepting China's geopolitical preeminence in mainland Asia, but retain a significant presence in East Asia, honoring its existing treaty commitments in the region, especially with a militarily stronger, more internationally active Japan as its key ally. Although he does not foresee China becoming a constitutional democracy by, say, 2030 (he is more optimistic about Russia), he agrees with most anaysts that, in the future, an older, more middle-class population will have a stabilizing effect on the country.

Brzezinski insists that, though America no longer dominates the world as it did at the end of the Cold War, it remains the single strongest global power, despite many foreign and domestic challenges: "America's central challenge and its geopolitically imperative mission over the next several decades is to revitalize itself and to promote a larger and more vital West while simultaneously buttressing a complex balance in the East, so as to accommodate constructively China's rising global status and avert global chaos…. A stable global order ultimately depends on America's ability to renew itself and to act wisely as the promoter and guarantor of a revitalized West and as a balancer and conciliator of a rising new East" (184, 193). This short book, crammed with facts and acute analysis[2] well presents Zbigniew Brzezinski's considered "strategic vision" of the future world and the changed but still vital leadership role of the United States.

[1] See also Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World, rev. ed. (NY: Norton, 2011), Robert Kagan, The World America Made (NY: Knopf, 2012), and Edward Luce, Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent (NY: Atlantic Monthly Pr, 2012).

[2] As well as five maps and eleven helpful statistical inserts.

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