“The Chinese are really good at diplomacy – and even at making their interlocutors feel very uncomfortable,” Brzezinski says. “Sometimes they look at you while you’re making a point and they start laughing. And you’re saying to yourself, ‘Am I really a fool? What am I saying that’s so ridiculous?’ I very early on realised that their negotiating technique is a form of masterful manipulation. I was also struck by how well informed the top Chinese leaders are about the world,” he says. “And then you watch one of our Republican presidential debates ... ” Brzezinski does not feel it necessary to complete the sentence but he later adds: “The GOP field is just embarrassing.”
I push him further on Obama. Shortly before our lunch, the president returned from Australia where he announced plans to deploy 2,500 Marines there to shore up alliances in Asia. This is exactly the kind of move that baffles Brzezinski. What’s wrong, I ask, with Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia? Doesn’t it make sense to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and shift attention to the rising east?
When Brzezinski feels strongly, he barely pauses between paragraphs. “I was not aware that Australia was about to be invaded by Papua New Guinea, or by Indonesia,” he replies. “I assume most people think Obama was thinking of China. What’s worse is that the Chinese will think he’s thinking of China and to define our engagements in the east in terms of China is a mistake. We have to focus on Asia but not in a manner that plays on everyone’s anxieties ... It becomes very easy to demonise China and they will then demonise us in return. Is that what we want?”
The waiter removes our plates of which only mine is clean. We skip dessert and order coffee – a decaffeinated cappuccino for Brzezinski and a double espresso for me. I am curious about what Brzezinski thinks it will take to get the US back into a more pragmatic mindset. Could this year’s presidential election make a difference? Brzezinski looks pensive. “The question is, ‘Does Obama have it in his guts to strategise as well as sermonise?’ ” he asks. “I don’t know the answer to that. I really don’t know.”
Brzezinski quotes a senior Chinese official who reportedly said of America: “Please don’t decline too quickly”. He then lampoons the standard American candidate’s response to any talk of decline, which is simply to assert that America’s greatness will return if only people would believe in it. “ ‘Help is here. Smile a lot. Everything will disappear. It will be fine’ – well, sad to say, it doesn’t work that way. People are ignorant and scared. It will take more than that.”
Brzezinski admits he has voted Republican a couple of times in his life – notably in 1988 when he endorsed George HW Bush over Michael Dukakis. But in 2012 he would not dream of doing so. “A good election is one that would shape out in an intelligent victory by Obama,” he says. “There is no sign of that from the other side.” Which means Obama will win, I prompt? Not at all, says Brzezinski. “My fear is that two or three weeks before the election something will happen – an October surprise,” he continues. “If Iran was struck by Israelis during October, the negative effects would not be felt until late November and December. The first effect would be, ‘Ah, how wonderful. Let’s get behind the Israelis.’ Then all bets would be off.”
It seems like a downbeat note on which to conclude a lunch that has taken place at such high velocity. As the waiter hands me the bill, Brzezinski asks when was the last time I did something like this. I mention the late Christopher Hitchens with whom I had lunch a few years back. “Ah, now, that must have been lively,” says Brzezinski, his face brightening. I ask whether he watched the debate between Hitchens and Tony Blair about religion. Brzezinski’s expression alters. “That guy [Blair] is a lightweight,” he says. “I don’t like his political morals and how he’s been enriching himself since leaving office. He preaches high moral language but ... ” Brzezinski pauses as if wondering whether to continue. “I have a visceral contempt for Blair,” he says. “Not dislike. Just contempt.” The bill settled, Brzezinski departs as briskly as he arrived, and with another of those iron handshakes.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.