For most people in their eighties, life is a gradual winding down. For Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the key architects of America’s cold war strategy – “Jimmy Carter’s Kissinger”, as he was once called – being 83 isn’t much different from 43. Brzezinski plays singles tennis every day – “one of my partners is older than me,” he tells me with some amusement. At the crack of dawn he is often found opining trenchantly on Morning Joe, the MSNBC daily news show co-hosted by his daughter Mika. And he remains a much sought-after adviser to secretaries of state and presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, though nowadays Brzezinski finds it hard to conceal his disappointment with his former mentee. “I’m all in favour of grand important speeches but the president then has to link his sermons to a strategy,” Brzezinski says. “Obama still has some way to go.”
We meet at Teatro Goldoni, one of Washington’s best Italian restaurants, located on the infamous K Street, home to many of the town’s lobbying groups. It is also a block from the Center for Strategic International Studies, one of DC’s biggest think-tanks, where Brzezinski, national security adviser to Carter from 1977 to 1981, is a trustee. I get there a few minutes early to fiddle with my tape recorder. Brzezinski strides in on the dot of our agreed time and grips my hand firmly. Dressed in a low-key suit and tie, Brzezinski is leathered and lean and still has almost a full head of hair. He talks in paragraphs, virtually without pause. Though I have known Brzezinski for years – and received news tips from him by email and fax – I still feel unsettled by his piercing gaze. Many of his Soviet interlocutors and White House colleagues were reportedly kept off balance by his hawkish manner.
“I don’t know much about food,” Brzezinski says as we settle down in his favourite booth, elevated slightly above the main restaurant floor. “I come here because it tastes nice and it’s convenient.” Despite having eaten here dozens of times, Brzezinski is still puzzled by the menu. “Remind me again, what is linguine?” he asks the waiter, who launches into a detailed description. “And what kind of meat do you have in your lasagne?” Brzezinski continues. The waiter explains that “as usual” it’s minced beef. Before ordering food, we had both chosen the same drink. “You know that red drink that they have before lunch in France?” says Brzezinski. “Perhaps wine?” the waiter suggests. “No, no, it’s stronger than that.” Remembering my maternal grandfather, who loved aperitifs, I have an epiphany. “Dubonnet?” I suggest. “Yes, yes, I’ll have a Dubonnet,” Brzezinski says. “It’s really a very good drink.”
When talking about the state of the world, Brzezinski, who still has traces of a Polish accent, chooses his language more forensically. His father was a Polish diplomat and Brzezinski, who was educated at a British prep school in Montreal during the second world war, had spent most of his first decade at diplomatic compounds in France and Hitler’s Berlin. Brzezinski Sr must have done something very right, or very wrong, to get posted to Canada after that. “In those days, the British still referred to it as BNA,” Brzezinski says. “British North America.” Brzezinski attributes his verbal skills to his prep school. “I entered the school not knowing a word of English and at the end of the first year in June I picked up a prize for literature,” he says. It must also have been there that he acquired his knowledge of food, I think to myself.
I spent the previous night reading through Brzezinski’s new book – Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power. “That must have been a sad evening,” says Brzezinski, chuckling. I had no difficulty staying awake, I reply. The book offers a bracing portrait of a “receding west” with one half, Europe, turning into a “comfortable retirement home”, and the other, the US, beset by relative economic decline and a dysfunctional politics. In this rapidly changing new world, America’s growing “strategic isolation” is matched only by China’s “strategic patience” in a challenge likely to strain the electoral horizons of US policymakers.
The book is full of sharp advice: the US should prod Europe to bring both Russia and Turkey into an enlarged west. America should hedge against China’s rise, without explicitly attempting to contain it. Most important, the US should revitalise its domestic economy if it wants to stave off further decline. On all counts, Brzezinski seems pessimistic about the likelihood that Washington’s elites will start to act strategically again. “If the US doesn’t revitalise at home, it will fail internationally,” he says. “If it does, we may not necessarily fail internationally – but we will have to be intelligent to succeed. But if we continue to fail domestically, we will have no chance internationally, even if we do the right things.”
We are already toying with our respective starters – Brzezinski has a mixed green salad and I have gone for a beet salad. The Dubonnet is going down nicely. “We [Americans] are too obsessed with today,” Brzezinski continues. “If we slide into a pattern of just thinking about today, we’ll end up reacting to yesterday instead of shaping something more constructive in the world.” By contrast, he says, the Chinese are thinking decades ahead. Alas, Brzezinski says, Obama has so far failed to move into a strategic habit of mind. To a far greater extent than the Chinese, he concedes, Obama has to respond to shifts in public mood. Brzezinski is not very complimentary about American public opinion.
“Americans don’t learn about the world, they don’t study world history, other than American history in a very one-sided fashion, and they don’t study geography,” Brzezinski says. “In that context of widespread ignorance, the ongoing and deliberately fanned fear about the outside world, which is connected with this grandiose war on jihadi terrorism, makes the American public extremely susceptible to extremist appeals.” But surely most Americans are tired of overseas adventures, I say. “There is more scepticism,” Brzezinski concedes. “But the susceptibility to demagoguery is still there.”
When our main courses arrive, Brzezinski looks suspiciously at his steaming plate of duck ragù pasta. “It’s quite a large portion,” he says to the waiter, who does not reply. “And your plate of lasagne is also very big,” he says pointing at my dish. Unlike Brzezinski, who picks discriminatingly but never wholeheartedly at his main course, I have little difficulty finishing mine. We decline the waiter’s offer to follow our Dubonnet with a glass of wine. “This is quite enough, thank you,” says Brzezinski.
We return to the subject of ignorance, which Brzezinski lists as one of America’s six “key vulnerabilities” in his book alongside “mounting debt’, a “flawed financial system”, “decaying national infrastructure”, “widening income inequality”, and “increasingly gridlocked politics”. He contrasts the level of knowledge of Chinese policymakers with that of their American counterparts. Having befriended Deng Xiaoping, China’s former leader, who led the country out of its long dark Maoist night, Brzezinski is an unabashed admirer of China’s diplomatic skills. He even had Deng round to his DC home for dinner. The diminutive Chinese leader was amused when Brzezinski served him from a bottle of Russian vodka he had been given for Christmas by the Soviet ambassador.