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Brzezinski’s unique view of the world

Interview with Patrick Vaughan, professor at the Jagiellonian University and author of the biography Zbigniew Brzezinski (Świat Książki, Warsaw, 2010).  Interviewer: Adam Reichardt

June 5, 2017 - Patrick Vaughan - Interviews


ADAM REICHARDT: You wrote the first biography of Zbigniew Brzezinski which came out first in 2010. Why did you choose to write his biography?

PATRICK VAUGHAN: The Cold War was part of my upbringing and I was interested in how it played itself out in the 1970s and 80s. In this respect I thought Brzezinski, as an adviser to several American presidents, was a pretty important historical figure. He helped shape the early study of international relations along with people like Hans Morgenthau, Samuel Huntington, Kenneth Waltz and Henry Kissinger. At the same time he was a pretty important strategic thinker. For example, a few years ago the French writer Gerard Chaliand wrote a book titled Les batisseurs d’histoire: Portraits de quatorze personages qui ont modifie le cours de l’historie. He included a section on Brzezinski along with some of the most important figures in history. Von Clausewitz, Napoleon, Frantz Fanon, Giap, Amilcar Cabral, Sun Zi, T.E. Lawrence, Pedro Pizzaro, Mao, Sun Bin, Henry Kissinger, Diaz del Castillo and Kautilya. But at the same time many of my friends were never really sure who Zbigniew Brzezinski really was. He was just the guy they’d see on television occasionally with a great Scrabble name.

How did the book come about?

Some years ago I wrote an academic article on Poland and Solidarity. That paper won a few awards and got some attention. At the time I thought the end of Cold War was more complicated than the media was presenting. Ronald Reagan did not dismantle the Soviet Union simply by giving a speech at the Brandenburg Gate. And Mikhail Gorbachev did not simply let the Soviet Union fall apart because he was such a nice person. The revolutions of 1989 were part of a long and complicated process. I made the point that in the 1970s everyday Polish workers had the courage to challenge the legitimacy of the Soviet-dominated communist system while many western intellectuals did not. And that resulted in the rise of Solidarity in the summer of 1980 which changed the course of history in a very dramatic way. This article was eventually published in the Polish Review. I was at a conference in New York City and Jan Nowak-Jeziorański gave the keynote address. He was sitting on the stage with a few former American ambassadors. He started reading something he said was important. And I listened for about thirty seconds, and I said, “Hey…..that sounds like my paper…” And it was. I was surprised. I was happy, obviously. But still quite surprised.

Around the same time Brzezinski sent a letter to my office complimenting me on that article. I forget his exact words, but he said he respected the nuance and thoroughness of the scholarship on a very difficult topic. He said the paper was very unusual because I had “decoded” his strategy towards the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe but I had done it in plain language without a lot of academic jargon. I eventually met him at his office in Washington. We talked for an hour or so. At the end of the meeting he offered me access to his private papers and his White House diary. Trudy Werner, his secretary at the time, told me on the way out the door the only other person who had access to these papers was Madeleine Albright, his former graduate student, who helped him with his memoirs from the Carter White House.

What was that strategy?

In its most basic form Brzezinski viewed the U.S.-Soviet rivalry was a conflict between two imperial systems – and this was essentially a struggle over the fate of Eurasia. The Soviet empire after 1945 was in reality the product of sustained historical expansion of the Russian Empire at the expense of several other nations, including Poland. But the multinational nature of the empire was also its Achilles heel. And he developed a strategy to exploit that weakness especially in Eastern Europe which he saw as the weakest link in the empire.

As President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser he sought to contain the Soviet Union with military force if necessary but also to undermine its integrity through more subtle policies like stressing human rights articulated in the Helsinki Accords, supporting Solidarity in Poland, opening relations with China or encouraging nationalism within the Soviet Union. The KGB, for example, was convinced he had used backchannels to engineer the election of Pope John Paul II. And he also understood that the day to day presence of Radio Free Europe in places like Poland was as important as any fighter plane or weapon system in peacefully ending the Cold War. The radio services were really important in the summer of 1980 when Solidarity emerged. In sum, he tried to drive wedges within the communist bloc with the ultimate goal of dismantling the Soviet empire.

Why was it hard to write the book?

I had mixed feelings. I remembered an interview where he said he wanted Saul Bellow to write his biography. So I was a little concerned that I might be dealing with some inflated expectations. And he was also a very controversial figure and he had a number of critics. He was really smart but he wasn’t perfect and those critics would argue that he made some pretty significant mistakes. But his supporters would say those same policies also made him very important to their cause. And because the world is a complicated place it is possible that both sides might have very fair points. This is why he was treated like such a hero last week in places like Georgia or Ukraine even if he was not universally loved in other places. In fact, he might have been better known in Russia and Asia than he was in the United States.

So, I thought it was important to write an honest book. And to do that I had to try and square all those circles. Walter Isaccson once wrote a biography on Henry Kissinger and he said that experience almost made him crazy. And half way through this project, I understood what he meant. Brzezinski wrote a speech for Senator John Kennedy when he was a young professor at Harvard and he was probably talking to President Obama earlier this year. He had such a long career that sometimes it seemed like he was Forest Gump. There were no previous biographies to consult so it was like making soup from scratch. And for that reason it took a very long time to complete the project. I spent a lot of time in his office, hundreds of interviews with his colleagues (as well as many of his critics) and spent a great deal of time going through his papers at the Library of Congress. It was worth it, but it wasn’t easy. 

You obviously met him many times during your research. What were some of the more memorable moments of your meetings with him? Was there anything about him that surprised you when doing your research?

He was known for being a pretty cold and austere presence on television. I found those who worked for him tended to respect him a great deal even if he was very demanding. I think his former students felt the same way. Charles Gati, who worked with him at Columbia in the 1960s, told me a story. He said that it was really hard for a student to earn his praise, but if you did it really meant something. And to get an “A” in his class was really hard. He might have been the last Ivy League professor that still gave a lot of “Cs”. But students still kept taking his classes. He was also a pretty good family man during an era when many celebrities were not known for that. He was married for 60 years to the same woman – Muska Benes. And his kids emphasise that he usually had time for them and they had a pretty normal upbringing. The family lived in a farm house outside the city full of animals running around the property. They had an old farm horse named “Strawberry” that at times was allowed to walk around loose. I heard that once at a dinner party the wife of an ambassador went into the kitchen and was stunned to see a horse walk through the back door and finish off some of the cocktails left around the table.

 Zbigniew Brzezinski and Cyrus Vance - NARA - 173587

Zbigniew Brzezinski was the National Security Advisor in the Jimmy Carter Administration

He was also one of the last of a generation that put policy above partisan politics. He worked for Jimmy Carter but Ronald Reagan respected his views on the Soviet Union and sought his advice on the situation in Poland in the 1980s. Richard Nixon wrote him an emotional letter after the fall of the Berlin Wall praising him for predicting those events before anybody thought them possible. He angered Democrats by supporting George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis in 1988 but favoured Bill Clinton in 1992. More recently he supported Obama in 2008 but he also criticised him when he thought this was merited. And there weren’t that many Democrats who did that.

As far as our meetings, I suppose there were a few that stand out. I was in his office in Washington and he had to leave the room to answer a call. When he got back he said it was Secretary of State Madeleine Albright calling from Independence, Missouri telling him that Poland had just been formally admitted into NATO. I could see he was very emotionally moved by that. Another time we went to a Japanese restaurant and he was very concerned about what a mistake the US was making by going to war in Iraq. He was very concerned about that, especially the long term consequences of fighting a war in a region the West didn’t really understand.

There were lighter moments. In casual conversations he might talk about sports or the general silliness of pop culture. Once we were eating lunch quickly at the food court below his office. We grabbed a couple of Subway sandwiches but it was so crowded, so we had to find a seat at the Chinese place next door. And for twenty minutes he talked about some big policy issue while playing cat and mouse, trying to hide his sandwich from the young guy working behind the counter at the Chinese fast food place. And he apologized to the kid when we left. “He’s just trying to do his job” he said. So he could be funny like that sometimes.

The last time I was at his house was for a dinner party with the authors from Charles Gati’s book Zbig.

Looking back at the life of Zbigniew Brzezinski – what moments would you say were especially shaping for Brzezinski and his outlook later in life on such things as geopolitics and international relations?

He was an academic, but he learnt about the world from very real events – not a text book. His father was a Polish diplomat in Germany when Hitler came to power in the early 1930s. In 1936 he took a similar position as a Polish diplomat in the Soviet Union. This was at the height of Stalin’s purges and the stories he would overhear around the house gave him a better idea of the true nature of what was actually happening in the Soviet Union than most journalists in the West.

His father took a diplomatic post in Canada in 1938. From there he followed the events of the Second World War very closely especially the activities of the Polish Home Army. He was thus deeply impacted by the news of the Katyń massacre and very disturbed when Franklin Roosevelt would refer to Stalin affectionately as “Uncle Joe”. He was in high school in Montreal on May 8th 1945. There was an announcement that the war had ended. Many of his classmates cheered and went out onto the streets waving Canadian and British flags. But many were also waving Soviet flags. So that gave him very mixed feelings. He was obviously happy the war had ended. But for Poles this was not really a time to celebrate because the Soviet Union was in the process of occupying Eastern Europe. And the West simply did not understand what was really happening. That would not really occur until the next year when Winston Churchill talked about an Iron Curtain falling across Europe. Brzezinski was still in college when he told his father that his lifetime goal was the liberate Poland from the Soviet Union. And I think his policies over the years played a role in doing that.

Obviously for Poland, Brzezinski played a special role. How much do you think his Polish heritage played into his understanding of the world and especially his thinking on US foreign policy during the Cold War?

His Polish heritage was very important. But he spoke several languages and spent several years as a young man living in Montreal. His wife was Czech and he became a US citizen in the late 1950s. So, he saw the world through many lenses. But I think his dedication to Poland was always very deep and very emotional. Richard Pipes once said that the academics most sympathetic towards the Soviet Union were usually the ones that lived furthest away from it. I think that probably applies to Brzezinski. He knew Polish history extremely well and understood the situation behind the Iron Curtain better than any academic of his era. But to impact change it took more than just talking. His book Unity and Conflict in 1960 anticipated the fragmenting nuances within the communist world. And he sought to widen the divide between the Soviet Union and Poland in those years. He was always asking questions, looking for insights that he could not get anywhere else. He said he learnt more about the problems within the communist systems talking to taxi drivers or the ladies taking coins for the toilet. He said they were a more reliable source of information about what was really happening in those countries. Because talking to the official sources was usually a waste of time.

Brzezinski is most noted for his thinking during the Cold War period, often credited as the one man who predicted the fall of the Soviet Union. What were some of his lesser known ideas that you think he should have gotten more credit for?

He anticipated the political and social importance of the information age. In the 1960s he started writing that the West was adapting to what he called the “technetronic” era and the Soviet Union was not. The Soviet Union claimed to be a revolutionary society but it was really run by a clique of conservative bureaucrats deeply suspicious of new technology. As a result the Soviet Union was becoming ossified and was likely to implode along nationalist lines.

He wrote a book in 1970 called Between Two Ages. It is a pretty dense read, but it was quite prescient. He talks about how computers across American universities were beginning to “talk to each other” and thus describing what would become the internet. This would make the world more interconnected but also very turbulent. And I think we’re seeing some of that now. He was also very concerned about the US going to war in the summer of 1990 after Iraq occupied Kuwait. He warned that going to war in such a sensitive region was extremely unpredictable once it starts. For many of the same reasons he was one of the few establishment voices who very vocally opposed the US going to war in Iraq in 2003. And I think he was pretty accurate about that.

With Brzezinski’s death and all the changes going on in the world – from Russian aggression in Ukraine, the rise of China, Europe’s crisis of identity and Trump’s America First policy – can we say that we have lost one of the last great advocates for strong Atlanticism?

For years he criticised American officials that discussed foreign policy only in terms of four year election cycles. I think this past election probably really depressed him in that sense. In contrast China and Russia looked at foreign policy in much longer historical terms. That was one reason Brzezinski favoured extending NATO eastward in the 1990s. That was not a popular decision at the time and many people now view it as a mistake. But he was disturbed by what he saw as the premature euphoria surrounding the events of 1989 and the “end of history” ideas in the West. While many Americans were celebrating the end of the Cold War he was stressing the very real dangers of leaving a geopolitical vacuum in the middle of Europe. He had experienced that as a young man growing up in Poland in the 1930s. He told Bill Clinton quite early on that Russia had a very deep historical memory—and if given the opportunity it might one day seek to re-establish its presence in its “near abroad”. For that same reason he thought it was paradoxically in Russia’s own long term interest to help stabilize a region that had been at the root of so much instability in the previous century and caused so much damage to Russia in two catastrophic world wars. But that wasn’t an easy case to make at that time and obviously not everybody was convinced. In his final few books he emphasised that NATO must maintain a strong alliance in order to stabilise Europe in this part of the world. If it did not, the United States and Europe risked drifting apart and thus repeating many of the mistakes that marked the first half of the 20th century. My guess is that he died last week hoping he had been wrong about that.

Patrick Vaughan is a professor at the Institute of American Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and author of the biography Zbigniew Brzezinski published by Świat Książki, Warsaw, 2010.

Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe.

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