Yesterday afternoon, I joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in listening to a presentation by former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Brzezinski was in Chicago promoting his new book, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power. The topic of his lecture was Can America Lead in the 21st Century? The lecture was part of a year-long Council series on the same topic.
I think Brzezinski's short answer to the question is yes, but... and the but is pretty big here.
Brzezinski described four main changes in global leadership and power structure that will affect the US leadership goals.
1. Global politics has significantly changed for the first time in 600 years. The past 600 years involved hegemonic war, not religious or ideological war, but war for land, war for empire and war for greed. The goals of these hegemonic wars were access to ports, outposts, colonies and control over land and resources. It started within Europe, but eventually moved out to the Americas, India and Asia and was the birth of international politics. In the 20th century, the change was that the victor became paramount and determined how mankind would be organized politically, but these wars were still hegemonic.
There have been significant changes in the 21st Century. The US no longer has the power or legitimacy to be dominant. Conventional warfare has been transformed with the possibility of nuclear war which serves as a restraint on hegemonic warfare, escalation makes no sense. Today global power is diffused and disbursed between the West and East with the rise of China and India joining Japan as a global power (and Indonesia in the background). There has been a global political awakening and places that were previously drawn into hegemonic war by the dominant powers are now concerned about their own national identity, politics and the politics of other countries.
2. Continuing turmoil in Eurasia is likely to intensify into political conflict. Brzezinski has been looking at this issue for a while. Here and here are web posts of his 1997 article on A Geostrategy for Eurasia. There are border issues and water issues and Russian aspirations to absorb the central Asian states. It's also an area of power competition and escalating violence. It's mostly secular in-fighting now, but it is vulnerable to religious passions, per Brzezinski.
3. The United State's should have a pacifying role, promote and engage the countries of the West, but not get involved in conflicts seeking its own hegemony. The new 21 century struggle will be one for survival over global warming and social and political inequality. Brzezinski thinks our involvement under Bush (although he did not specifically name Bush, it was clear that was what he meant) was regrettable. He feels that as we move further into the 21st century, the US will be well advised to work closer with its allies and act as a mediator between conflicting countries like India and China, but not engage on behalf of one over the other. He feels NATO is the organization within which to revitalize the West and increase our legitimacy in the world. Brzezinski noted that Europe has been bogged down from it's years of hegemonic warfare and now by its economy. It has little taste for further conflict.
Acceptance of Turkey and Russia into the West are what Brzezinski feels we need to revitalize Europe. Turkey is the best (only) example of a traditional Islamic State transformed into a modern country modeled on European successes. While "not perfect", it's a secular Democracy with civilian control over its military and it has been economically successful. If Turkey becomes a part of Europe, it could shield the rest of Europe from Eurasian conflicts.
Brzezinski observed that he fought against the USSR for most of his life, but that it's still a European country culturally, philosophically, religiously, and artistically. It's more like the rest of Europe in those areas than it is like the East. The only Western aspects that it's missing are a tradition of law over the sovereign, human rights and democracy, but that is beginning to change in modern Russia. He observes a new confidence in the Russian people now that the element of fear is gone. This needs to be reinforced by the West and can be done if we are intelligent about it. We should create a larger platform of cooperation with Russia to deal with the conflicts in Eurasia.
4. Two negative developments could affect our ability to lead in the 21st century. First, we may be sucked into war with Iran. He thinks such a war would be ill-advised and indicated our silently allowing Israel to pursue such as war would be about the same as our engaging ourselves. He pointed out that Iran has the capability to make life for Americans miserable and such a war would likely destabilize Iraq and even Turkey, putting the entire region into turmoil. It will also dramatically increase the price of oil.
If Iran committed some hostile act like a 9/11 event (as he was asked about in the question and answer session), the US would have to react, but he does not believe that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is a good idea because we could not control the scope, duration, casualties or the outcome. Brzezinski supports continuing with sanctions and the US working with it's allies to put economic and political pressure on Iran. He also feels that we'd be far more successful creating a credible threat than actually carrying out an attack pointing out that threats worked great throughout the Cold War and still work well between Japan and S. Korea on the one hand and North Korea on the other.
The second danger is that the US and China become hostile with each other. Brzezinski observed pressures in that direction. China is not ideological as was the old USSR, but it has a self-confidence bordering on the feeling of superiority and they don't want us inching in on that perceived superiority. The US has it's ideology and he cautions us to show restraint in pursuing it.
In the question and answer session, Brzezinski sad that Americans have to become more sophisticated about the world and understand better what we can achieve and what we cannot. I'm going to write more about that later.