Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor under Carter and currently at John Hopkins, spoke at Yale on April 9. His lecture was entitled “A Historically Relevant Foreign Policy”. He did not address Afghan issues at length; however, he did frame the region within a wider strategic context for US policy. As usual, my notes are followed by my comments.
Professor Brzezinski began by pointing out the difficulty of predicting what the crucial issues of the 21st century will be. President Bush’s statement in his last State of the Union that Islamic terrrorism is the defining ideological struggle of the century seems presumptive. Eight years into any previous century, predictions about the coming decades would almost certainly have been wrong.
In a broad strokes, however, we can say that for the first time the world will be dealing with truely global issues (poverty, the environment, proliferation) against a background of increasing social and political turmoil. Brzezinski spoke about the “global political awakening” and shift of power from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The central question is: will the world end up coming together or falling apart?
The immediate challenges are 1. the financial crisis (which has the potential to create unrest within nations and antagonism between them) and 2. “The Global Balkans”, the area of 550 million people East of Egypt and West of China, that is in the throes of the most intense part of its political and religious awakening.
The region cannot be handled in the old imperial way, when 4000 Britons ruled 250 million Indians. The other option – brutality like in Chechnya – is forbidden by our self-restraints. There must be a way to overcome resistance in this region to America and the West, and for this we need strategic clarity. Other than Iran, and the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, this means a new plan for AfPak.
Brzezinski largely approved of Obama’s reassessment. Severing links between the Taliban and Al Qaeda with limited reconciliation is good, because it seperates the local issues from the global. The weakness is still in the Pakistan policy. The use of more military force is a bad idea, and usually backfires. He suggested looking at the national interests involved, and bringing in India. He remained vague on what a new understanding of the strategic issues would involve, however, other than to say that the US must be careful not to become bogged down in local disputes forever.
The real question will be how Obama turns his good understanding of the issues facing the world into concrete action. His conceptual realignment of American foriegn policy must be turned into an operational framework.
In my understanding, Brzezinski’s comments boiled down to: AfPak is crucial; we have to do something to fix it; this needs to happen quickly so we can move on to the other crucial things we have to fix.
Other than being rather obvious and non-specific, such an attitude risks the same problems that Western intervention has been facing all along: a frantic feeling of urgency, without a strategic sense of how harness the attention productively. It’s the kind of thinking that risks trying to do everything, and does nothing well, that keeps one foot out the door but doesn’t allow for local legitimacy to develop either. This may be a harsh reading, since he only intended to lay out the outline for a future plan, however the vagueness was worrying as a policy recommendation.