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Spring 2012

The West Needs a Long-Term Sense of Purpose

Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of America’s leading strategists, was national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter. His just-published book is Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power. He spoke in February with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels.

NPQ | The core of your strategic vision for the future is of a “larger West” comprised of democratic powers that accommodates China. Yet the West, starting with the United States, is in a period of political decay.

As you have noted, while China focuses on the long term and plots out its future, the US in particular is beset with a short-term mentality. In effect, we are no longer an “industrial democracy” in the strict sense, but a “consumer democracy” where all the feedback signals—the market, the media and politics—are short term and geared to immediate gratification.

Doesn’t that give China the competitive advantage of political capacity in the times ahead?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI | Obviously so.

NPQ | How can America’s short-term mentality be changed? Are the West’s political institutions up to the challenge?

BRZEZINSKI | Yes, if we develop a more effective and longer-range response to the current crisis instead of simply wallowing in the present difficulties—which is likely to further produce the same negative effects that got us into this mess. We are so preoccupied with the current crisis and so lacking in a longer-term perspective that we have no strategic vision which would give us some sense of historical momentum.

Democracy is capable of responding provided we focus on the right aims. The question today is whether democracies can thrive with financial systems that are out of control, that are capable of generating selfishly beneficial consequences only for the few, without any effective framework that gives us a larger, more ambitious sense of purpose. That is the real problem.

There is today a very dangerous imbalance between the lack of budgetary discipline, the commitment to austerity, the determination to keep inflation under control and to maintain a costly social policy on the one hand—all, on the other hand, without any larger conception about which direction our societies as a whole should be heading.

NPQ | The rest of the West is also mired in paralysis. Europe has turned even further inward with the euro crisis as it decides whether to go all the way back to the nation-state or forward to full political union.

What is the solution for Europe?

BRZEZINSKI | I believe that, in the end, the resolution to today’s crisis in Europe won’t work out that badly. The essential political leadership in Europe—the Germans and the French mainly, along with some others—are demonstrating a sense of responsibility for the future of Europe. They are increasingly determined to shape a political framework which will supplant what Europe has been lately, namely a financial union for some and a politically loose community for all. Inevitably, a genuine political union will take shape in stages and steps, probably beginning through a de facto treaty reached by inter-governmental agreement in the near future.

NPQ | A two-speed Europe?

BRZEZINSKI | Why not? There is nothing wrong with a Europe that is in part and simultaneously a political and monetary union at the core, which accepts the leading role of Brussels, surrounded by a larger Europe that doesn’t share the single currency but does share all the other benefits, for example the free movement of people and goods. That is consistent with the post-Cold War vision of an expanding Europe whole and free.

            NPQ | Japan changes prime ministers every few months. It is coasting into a retirement trap based on the accumulated wealth of the past and not looking forward. Is it possible to keep such a Japan within the West, or will it drift toward the Chinese center of gravity?

BRZEZINSKI | I feel confident about the authenticity of Japan’s commitment to democracy. Its political culture is now more Western than its traditional political culture. But, of course, Japan is in the East. A good relationship between it and China would contribute immensely to stability in the Far East, and to a better US-China relationship.

America can play an active role as conciliator between Japan and China just as it did in Europe between France and Germany and between Germany and Poland—but without the direct kind of military involvement on the Asian mainland that the US has had in Europe. Perhaps the better analogy with respect to the US and China is the role Britain played in the 19th century as a stabilizer and balancer on the European continent.

NPQ | Given this crisis of governance in the West, the old G-7 is receding as the anchor of the world system and is increasingly unable to provide “global public goods”—such as financial stability—yet the emerging economies such as China, Brazil and Turkey are as yet unable to do so.

Some see the G-20 as the mechanism of adjustment to a truly multi-polar world. But, is there any precedent in history of a stable global order without one hegemonic power or aligned set of powers setting the rules?

BRZEZINSKI | While the last several centuries did involve a struggle for global domination, and the last 20 years saw a brief moment in which America was globally supreme, we are now entering a phase in which no power is likely to be truly supreme.

This is why, in my view, the idea of an expanded West—which eventually should include both Russia and Turkey—would be a very important element contributing to greater global stability. An enlarged West—in which the US plays the role of conciliator and at the same time of balancer in Asia—would be better able to forge constructive policies to cope with global issues than a world in which there is increasing turmoil and conflict with many small players vying for their own self-interest. Then it would be impossible to put together any large-scale compromise to maintain stability.

As for the G-20, it has some real movers and shakers both economically and politically, but also lots of hangers-on who are there because they fit some statistical measurement. But there is no magic to the number 20. What not 25? Why not just 15? The G-20 will work or not based upon the core powers building the kind of platform I suggest—an enlarged West composed of democracies working in accommodation with the dynamic economies of Asia led by China.

NPQ | The Chinese leadership has shifted in recent years from the defensive posture of “peaceful rise” to Party theorist Zheng Bijian’s new theme of engagement: “build on a convergence of interests to create a community of interests.”

Yet, China is still hesitant to assert a global leadership role, even though it is the world’s largest creditor.

If we are “present at the creation” of a post-American order, what ought to be China’s strategic role and responsibilities?

BRZEZINSKI | Zheng is refining his idea of “convergence of interests” in conversations with Henry Kissinger, myself and others. It is a process. It is a sign that the Chinese are serious in seeking a role to play without hegemonic ambitions—at the moment. Whether they seek hegemony in the future depends on whether we in the West create circumstances in which a convergence of interests becomes attainable for them, or whether accommodation with others instead of us becomes a necessity for their national interests.

Two years ago when I gave a speech in China saying that the US and China should have an informal G-2 relationship, I was applauded and there was enthusiasm. Within a year or so voices emerged that said, “Wait, this is trap” to force China the share the costs of global stability on Western terms since the West itself can no longer afford to pay.

So, China has to decide which role they want to play. With status comes responsibility and obligation. I think they understand that; they just want a key voice in the new order for which they must share responsibility.

For them, this is unprecedented. In the past, their realm of influence has been self-contained. Now it has expanded.

NPQ | The eruption of democracy across the Arab world has meant the resurgence of long-suppressed Islamist parties.

How should the West respond to this development? To the extent that Turkey is a template for how Islamist parties can fit within a secular democratic framework—as Prime Minister Erdogan himself recently argued in a speech in Cairo—should the West support rather than oppose this approach?

BRZEZINSKI | I am very much in favor of drawing Turkey as close to, or as much into, the West as possible. Without doubt, it is America’s best ally in the Middle East.

But Turkey right now is not a template for new Arab democracies because there are no new Arab democracies.

We shouldn’t confuse the political awakening in several Arab countries, which has produced very active populist movements, with the actual appearance of democracy.

What is happening there may lead to democracy, but it may also lead to populist dictatorship. Turkey is, of course, an example of how Islam and secular democracy are compatible, but so far there is no viable imitation in the Arab world.