Navigating a complex world

Responding to a question on how can America’s short term mentality be changed, says Brzezinski. Yes, if we develop a more effective and longer-range response to the current crisis instead of simply wallowing in the present difficulties. But we are so preoccupied with the current crisis and so lacking in a longer-term perspective that we have no strategic vision. The democracies that thrive with financial systems that are out of control and generate selfishly beneficial consequences only for the few, without any effective framework, that is the real problem”. Image: Zbigniew Brzezinski at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington.
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The financial crisis of 2007 exposed two things: the systemic defects of the American economic ‘model’ and how political and economic power has in fact ebbed away from the West to the East.

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by Dr. Maleeha Lodhi

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“Anyone who tells you America is in decline or that our influence is waning doesn’t know what they’re talking about”. So declared President Barack Obama in last week’s election year state-of-the-union address. Zbigniew Brzezinski certainly knows what he is talking about when he discusses these issues in his new book: ‘Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power’.

The former national security adviser is among America’s most insightful strategic thinkers and his latest book doesn’t disappoint. The book is a tour de force of his country’s place in a vastly transformed world when the era of western supremacy has passed.

In assessing America’s relative decline Brzezinski joins the wide-ranging debate about whether America’s hour of power has receded and its implications for the world. 

Recent literature offers conflicting views about the emergence of new powers and what this means for US global pre-eminence. From the analysis of the US decline popularised by Paul Kennedy to others who have examined how strategic overstretch and the relative erosion of economic power have contributed to the loss of global influence, a rich though inconclusive debate has been raging. Writers and historians engaging in this debate include Niall Ferguson, Kishore Mahbubani, Joseph Nye, Fareed Zakaria, Thomas Friedman and Richard Hass among others.

Brzezinski’s book positions him in this debate as a realist rather than as a doomsayer. His evaluation of the world’s strategic complexity and new power realities is neither new nor original. But it is the clarity with which he lays this out and draws significant conclusions that makes his analysis compelling.

His principal concern is with the risk of global instability as an immediate consequence of the ongoing dispersal of power. He depicts a world in which the shift of power from the West to the East, what he calls the ‘dynamic political awakening’ of people worldwide and America’s deficient domestic and international performance have combined to create a crisis of power.

He argues that while America remains the pre-eminent power, its leadership is increasingly questioned across the world because of its internal and external challenges. He holds these domestic shortcomings and a misguided foreign policy responsible for denuding America of its global appeal. He identifies an unsustainable national debt, decaying infrastructure and dysfunctional, gridlocked politics to be among his country’s internal liabilities.

He does not see these as irreversible and asserts that America can correct them by leveraging its other assets. But this requires political will and national consensus, which have so far been elusive.

The financial crisis of 2007 exposed two things: the systemic defects of the American economic ‘model’ and how political and economic power had in fact ebbed away from the West to the East. For Brzezinski the date 9/11 similarly laid bare the flaws in America’s foreign policy. This in turn accounts for the dramatic fall in its global standing.

9/11, he writes, provoked three major US reactions: the 2001 military intervention in Afghanistan, endorsement of the 2002 military operation undertaken by Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to crush the PLO in the Palestinian West Bank, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

These actions heightened negative public sentiment towards the US in the Middle East. Engagement in two wars – described as “expeditionary military operations in hostile territories” – was undertaken with little regard for complex settings and conflicted regional neighbourhoods. In an era of global transparency, they led to erosion in America’s global position and delegitimation of its goals.

Brzezinski argues that by pursuing this course the US invited “strategic solitude” notwithstanding ‘cosmetic’ or half-hearted support from its friends and regional allies. The consequences of a foreign policy out of sync with the post imperial age and domestic economic weakening now threaten America’s capacity to play a major world role.

This brings the writer to the central thesis of his book. In a setting of global flux with a high potential for turbulence and increased tension among competitors vying for regional pre-eminence, the lack of global leadership risks economic and political chaos. If America slips when there is no other claimant to global power even by 2025, the post-America scramble will produce instability and turmoil. Brzezinski posits that China is not yet ready to assume a global role, something that Chinese leaders themselves have repeatedly stated.

In an engaging discussion of Chinese ‘strategic patience’ he shows how its leaders are still influenced by Deng Xiaoping’s advice: “Observe calmly, secure our position …… hide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership”.

This urges Brzezinski to offer his own counsel for how to manage this transitional phase in world history. He insists that his call for a renewed US role is not an argument for global supremacy. He rules this out because a strategically complicated world makes this outcome unattainable. But he sees an America pursuing a “new, timely strategic vision” to be crucial to averting the world’s slide into chaos. For this his prescription is plain: renewal at home and acting wisely abroad. Over coming internal shortcomings will also help the US confidently adjust to a rising China.

Brzezinski outlines this geopolitical vision with characteristic lucidity. He makes the case for future relations between the West and East to be reciprocally cooperative. America’s strategy should be to ensure a revitalised and enlarged West (to include Russia and Turkey) while engaging constructively with an ascending Asia. That would mean playing the role of a ‘balancer’ and ‘conciliator’ with Asia’s rising powers, avoiding direct military involvement and consolidating a globally cooperative relationship with China.

A proponent of Realpolitik, Kissinger played a dominant role in United States foreign policybetween 1969 and 1977. During this period, he pioneered the policy of détente with the Soviet Union, orchestrated the opening of relations with the People’s Republic of China, and negotiated the Paris Peace Accords, ending American involvement in the Vietnam War. Various American policies of that era, including the bombing of Cambodia, remain controversial. Image above: Henry Kissinger in 1976.

This aligns him with the views of Henry Kissinger, who has been the most prominent advocate of peaceful co-evolution with China. His arguments also echo Kissinger’s frequently stated belief that any American project designed to organise Asia on the basis of containing China is unlikely to succeed.

Of special interest to Pakistani readers are Brzezinski’s numerous references to the country both in his assessment of the state of geopolitical play in Asia and his advice to Washington about how to navigate through regional complexity to promote stability, rather than compound tensions.

Asia’s stability, he says, will rest in part on how America reacts to two regional triangles centred on China. The first being China, India and Pakistan, while the second relates to China, Japan and Korea. Brzezinski asserts that the US will remain the key player to influence ‘balances’ and determine outcomes.

In the China-India-Pakistan triangle he urges a cautious US role, taking issue with those in his country who advocate a policy of building India as a counterweight to China. He sees such a policy to be inimical to American security interests. This will risk the US getting embroiled in avoidable Asian conflicts. He casts as “unwise” the US decision to sell advanced weaponry to India and enhancing India’s nuclear programme. He disapproves of these for signalling a ‘contain China’ policy.

He also regards a US-India alliance as likely to heighten Muslim animosity towards America, as this will be construed as implicitly directed against Pakistan. Better relations with India are in America’s interest, but says Brzezinski, these “should not imply support on such contentious issues as Kashmir”.

He advocates an active US role in Asia aimed at establishing a constructive American-Chinese relationship that can provide both global economic and political stability at a time of unprecedented change and growing volatility in the world.

Wise counsel for the next occupant of the White House especially as the present incumbent like his predecessor has had no strategic thinker in his team. Its consequence for US policy has been all too telling.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Strategic Vision: America and the crisis of American power, New York, Basic Books, 2012.
Maleeha Lodhi is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.
Source, Cross posted, Title image
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