Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983).

In the title of his account of four years as Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski offers two concepts that, in his view, should guide US foreign policy. As with so much in this tart apologia, his argument is as often about individuals as about abstractions. “Principle” is a reaction against the realpolitik of the Kissinger era, and its neglect of the human rights issue. “Power” is a riposte to the moralism and “guilt” of Brzezinski’s main rival, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

Brzezinski came into office urging a new form of combative detente. Arms limitation agreements with Moscow had to be matched by Soviet “restraint” in the Third World. Areas of Soviet weakness, such as Poland, had to be exploited. US diplomacy should not wait for agreement with Moscow on the Middle East, but should press ahead with unilateral initiatives. Collaboration with China should be developed, as a means of putting pressure upon the USSR.

There are detailed and closely argued accounts of five foreign policy turning points of the Carter administration: the normalization of relations with China, in which Brzezinski played a key role; the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt; the elaboration of a second SALT agreement with the Russians; the revolution in Iran; and the dispute with Europe on the neutron bomb.

Amid much sniping at Vance, Warren Christopher, the ambassador to Iran at the time (William Sullivan), Helmut Schmidt and his various Soviet interlocutors, Brzezinski tries to show that if only the United States had been tougher, Carter would have been more successful in his foreign policy. Yet while he himself criticizes the US political establishment for lacking a sense of history, his own alternatives are, on closer examination, the products of fantasy.

His policy in Iran was to get the United States to push through a hard-hitting military coup. Yet by early 1979, with the Shah on his way to the airport, this was not possible. The military had taken power the previous November, and had not then been able to reimpose control. Brzezinski gives great play to the fears of Saudi Arabia about the Soviet role in Ethiopia in 1977-1978; he fails to recall that the Russians had had a military presence across the Red Sea, first in Egypt and then in Somalia, for over a decade.

His suggestion that the United States could have stopped the Soviet-Cuban intervention in Ethiopia, or deterred Moscow from further action in the Third World, by sending warships to the battle zone in 1978 is quite unconvincing. In fact, the Russians helped to defuse the situation once Somali forces had been pushed out of Ethiopia and, a point he greatly understates, they cooperated with the United States in bringing the war to an end.

Brzezinski’s problem was that he dug his own grave. US foreign policy did become more forcefully moralizing and more confrontational, but once the US electorate had decided that it wanted someone to embody these policies, it chose the unbridled Reagan variety. Brzeszinski helped to bring the new cold war into being, but it was others who kidnapped the beast and brought it to maturity.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Brzezinski, Power and Principle," Middle East Report 121 (January/February 1984).

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