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Book Review- Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power

Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to President Carter, is out with a new book explaining shifts in global geopolitics from the West to the East- and how America should handle the changes.

Strategic Vision seeks to answer four major questions:

  1. What are the implications for the shifting of the global power from the West to the East, and how is that 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, how did America waste the unique opportunity offered at the end of the Cold War, and how can America leverage its strengths in order to revitalize America’s world role?
  3. What would happen if America declined from its global leadership position, who would be the victims, what would be the effect on global-scale problems, and could China fill the void by 2025?
  4. Post 2025, how should America define its geopolitical goals, how could America work with Europe to engage Russia and Turkey to construct a larger “West,” how could America balance the power in the East without becoming China-centric, and how could America avoid dangerous entanglements in Asian conflicts?

The book outlines a possible strategic vision for America, looking to 2025 and beyond.  It picks up where Brzezinski’s previous book, The Grand Chessboard, left off.  A quote at the beginning of this book, for example, is taken directly from page 210 of that book:

“In the long run, global politics are bound to become increasingly uncongenial to the concentration of hegemonic power in the hands of a single state.  Hence, America is not only the first, as well as the only, truly superpower, but it is also likely to be the very last …

Economic power is also likely to become more dispersed.  In the years to come, no single power is likely to reach the level of 30 percent or so of the world’s GDP that America sustained throughout much of this century, not to speak of the 50 percent at which it crested in 1945.”

Strategic Vision begins by providing a brief historical context of how America achieved superpower status at the end of World War II and then again at the end of the Cold War.

Brzezinski explains America’s clear financial and economic advantage over the Soviet Union.  He writes that “the Atlantic powers were able to institutionalize their dominant position in global affairs through an emerging network of cooperative international organizations, ranging from the World Bank and the IMF to the UN itself, thus seemingly consolidating a global framework for their enduring preeminence.”

In addition, America made sure to secure access to resources. The book says that in 1943, President Roosevelt not so subtly told Britain’s ambassador to the United States, Lord Halifax, while pointing at a map of the Middle East that “Persian oil is yours.  We share the oil of Iraq and Kuwait.  As for Saudi Arabian oil, it’s ours.”

After all the context has been explained, Brzezinski also makes it clear that a shift in the global distribution of political and economic power has been taking place, and was expedited by the financial crisis of late 2007.

That crisis made it clear that “coping with global economic challenges now required the strength of not just of the world’s only superpower, or of the West as a whole, but also of the states that hitherto had been considered not yet qualified to take part in global financial-economic decision making.”

Brzezinski cites the inclusion of Asia, Africa, and Latin America into the G-8, previously an exclusive and largely Western club, into a more globally representative G-20 as evidence.

Symbolic of this change was the fact that the presidents of two major states, the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China, played the most significant leadership roles in the first G-20 meeting held in the United States in 2009.

Then he explains how the rise to global preeminence of three Asian powers (Japan, China, and India) has not only altered the global ranking of power but also highlighted the dispersal of geopolitical power.

He states, for instance, that “… during the 1980s and early 1990s, American public anxiety suddenly focused on Japan.  Public opinion was stimulated not by Japan’s geopolitical assertiveness – for it possessed a pacifist constitution and was a steadfast American ally – but rather by Japanese electronic and then automobile products’ highly visible domination of the American domestic market.  US paranoia was fanned further by alarmist mass media reports of Japanese buyouts of key American industrial assets (and some symbolic ones: e.g., Rockefeller Center in New York City). “

Brzezinski explains how Richard Nixon and then Jimmy Carter engaged China in a common front against Moscow.  As a result, China no longer faced a potential Soviet threat, focused its resources on domestic development, and dramatically modernized its infrastructure.

Regarding India, he writes, “India’s liberalizing reforms – including the deregulation of international trade and investment and the support of privatization – are transforming what was an anemic and cumbersome quasi-socialist economy into a more dynamic economy based on services and high technology, thus putting India on an export-driven growth trajectory similar to that of Japan and China.”

All factors considered, Brzezinski concludes that “The United States is still preeminent but the legitimacy, effectiveness and durability of its leadership is increasingly questioned worldwide because of the complexity of its internal and external challenges.  Nevertheless, in every significant and tangible dimension of traditional power – military, technological, economic, and financial – America is still peerless.  It has by far the largest single national economy, the greatest financial influence, the most advanced technology, a military budget larger than that of all other states combined, and armed forces capable of rapid deployment abroad and actually deployed around the world.  This reality may not endure for very long but it is still the current fact of international life.”

He also notes that “The European Union could compete to be the world’s number two power, but this would require a more robust political union, with a common foreign policy and a shared defense capability.  But unfortunately for the West, the post-Cold War expansion of the European Economic Community into a larger European “Union” did not produce a real union but a misnomer; in fact, the designations should have been reversed.  The earlier smaller “community” of Western Europe was politically more united than the subsequently larger “union” of almost all of Europe.”

As a consequence, the European Union is not a major independent power on the global scene, even though Great Britain, France, and Germany enjoy a residual global status.

Brzezinski explains how the dispersal of global power is furthered by the emergence of a volatile phenomenon: the worldwide political awakening of populations until recently politically passive or repressed.  Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Arab world are cases in point.

He discusses how more than any other country, America’s multiethnic democracy has been the object of fascination, envy, and even hostility.  But he also asks: is the American system still an example worthy of emulation?  And do other countries still view America as a positive influence on world affairs?

A critical point he makes is that Americans must understand that our strength abroad will depend increasingly on our ability to confront problems at home.

Two experienced public policy advocates, R.C. Altman and R.N. Haass, for example, wrote in a 2010 Foreign Affairs article “American Profligacy and American Power” that “The post 2020 fiscal outlook is downright apocalyptic … The United States is fast approaching a historic turning point: either it will act to get its fiscal house in order, thereby restoring the prerequisites of its primacy in the world, or it will fail to do so and suffer both domestic and international consequences.”

Brzezinski highlights our liabilities- America’s mounting national debt, flawed financial system, widening income inequality coupled with stagnating social mobility, a decaying national infrastructure, a public that is highly ignorant about the world, and our increasingly gridlocked and highly partisan political system- and our strengths – America’s overall economic strength, innovative potential, demographic dynamics, reactive mobilization, geographic base, and democratic appeal.

The majority of the book, though, focuses on what the world is going to look like without an effective successor to American hegemony, with some deliberation on the rise of China.  Brzezinski predicts a protracted phase of rather inconclusive and somewhat chaotic realignments of both global and regional power, with no grand winners, but many losers. These struggles will create an environment of international uncertainty full of risks to global well-being.

Key international institutions such as the World Bank or the IMF, which are already under pressure for a general realignment of voting rights, may gain popularity.  The UN Security Council may become widely viewed as illegitimate.

The Japanese, fearful of China dominating Asia, might become more aligned with Europe.  Similarly, leaders in India and Japan might consider an alliance to counter China’s rise.

Russia eyes the independent states of the former Soviet Union while Europe is pulled in several directions based on the predilections of its member states.

According to Brzezinski, some Chinese observers of international affairs have begun to postulate what could be the beginning for a doctrinal claim of the universal validity of the Chinese model.  As one of those individuals has stated:

“The malfunctioning of the international mechanism today is the malfunctioning of the Western model dominated by the “American model.”  At a deeper level, it is the malfunctioning of Western culture.  Even as it actively participates in global governance and properly fulfills its role as a large developing country, China should take the initiative to disseminate the Chinese concept of “harmony” around the world.  In the course of world history, a country’s rise is often accompanied by the birth of a new concept.  The concept of “harmony” is a theoretical expression of China’s peaceful rise and should be transmitted to the world along with the concepts of justice, win-win, and joint development.”

He explains the impact that America’s decline would have on the most geopolitically imperiled states (e.g., Georgia, Taiwan, South Korea, Belarus, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.).

The final section of the book focuses on the numerous challenges that America will encounter when it attempts to utilize its assets to overcome its drift toward a socioeconomic obsolescence and to shape a new and stable geopolitical equilibrium on the world’s most important continent, Eurasia.

A quote sums up much of that section, “Europe, alas, is looking inward, Russia still at its recent past, China to its own future, and India enviously at China.”

A quote made by Medvedev, explains Brzezinski’s questionable view of Russia: “Our current domestic, financial, and technological capabilities are not sufficient for a qualitative improvement in the quality of life.  We need money and technology from Europe, America, and Asia.  In turn, these countries need opportunities that Russia offers.  We are very interested in the rapprochement and interpenetration of our culture and economies.”

Brzezinski believes that America and Europe must embrace more formally Turkey as well as Russia in a larger framework on cooperation based on such shared values and on their democratic commitment.  To that end, he argues that Russia could eventually become a member of both the EU and NATO (anything is possible).

Zbigniew Brzezinski provides a detailed and balanced view of what the world may look like in 2025 and beyond in Strategic Vision.  This book is filled with data as well as anecdotal evidence and is a must read for anyone who either has an interest in International Relations or who wants to better understand what the geopolitical landscape will likely look like over the next few decades.

Featured image from Shutterstock

Ryan Peckyno

Ryan graduated from West Point (BS) and Penn State, Main Campus (MBA). He worked for P&G, Lockheed Martin, the United States Army, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Motley Fool, Pinnacle Consulting, and various nonprofits.

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Categories: Book Review, Foreign Policy, National Security, Policy

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