Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, remains one of America’s leading strategic thinkers. He negotiated the normalization of U.S.-China relations in 1979. He spoke to The WorldPost earlier this week about Russian hacking, Taiwan and Trump.
You’ve long spoken about the “political awakenings” from the Arab Spring to the Maidan protests in Ukraine as a new element affecting world affairs. Now, a different form of awakening is sweeping the Western democracies ― populism that seems to have an affinity for Vladimir Putin. What is that about?
I think the affinity for Putin is overblown, largely promoted by self-serving journalists. Certainly, some individual leaders of these movements profess admiration for his strongman approach to governance, but I see little evidence there is some kind of popular groundswell in any serious country.
'The populist movements in the European democracies are the result of confusion and liberation.'
The populist movements in the European democracies are the result of confusion and liberation. Europeans are liberated from the past of a continent divided by the Cold War and now integrated economically, which has brought new challenges, not [the] least over migration issues. So there is confusion, and little agreement, about where they are headed in the future. As a consequence, we are getting an hysterical mess in which the recourse to violence, I’m afraid, will play an ever greater role. The situation will become more dangerous as time goes on.
Much of the above is also applicable to the current state of the American democracy. Instead of clear-headed leadership, we have sloganeering and an intensifying inclination towards domestic violence.
Some groups and political leaders may cast themselves as pro-Russian, yes, and the Russian intelligence agencies are stirring up trouble, trying to undercut European unity on Russian sanctions by encouraging sympathetic political forces. But that is all marginal compared to [the] underlying dynamic I’ve described.
Speaking of Russian intelligence agencies meddling in democracies, the CIA and FBI have accused Russia of trying to tip the recent U.S. election in Donald Trump’s favor. President Obama has implicated Putin directly. Is Russia the culprit? Does Putin play that kind of direct role?
Yes. Russian intelligence was involved, no question. Yes. Putin plays that kind of direct role. Russian intelligence is not some independent agency. It is an agency of the state organized for specific political purposes. Putin absolutely controls the state apparatus. No doubts there.
The meddling had a deliberate aim. The intention was to complicate American political life, initially without too much confidence that Putin would be able to influence events and help Trump win. Later on, as conditions changed and Trump gained traction, they were encouraged to go deeper. They became more ambitious and assertive.
'Russian intelligence is not some independent agency. It is an agency of the state. ... Putin absolutely controls the state apparatus. No doubts there.'
Having said that, I don’t mean to suggest Russian efforts were the fundamental or in any way decisive factor of President-elect Trump’s victory. He won soundly for domestic reasons and because of his considerable political skill. But it is also wrong to say Russian efforts had no impact.
A top intelligence official told me last week that the Russians and Americans have been engaged in trying to influence elections around the world for decades. All we are seeing, he said, is “old tactics, new methods” enabled by advanced cyber tools. Is that so, or would you say this kind of influence meddling is a new departure?
The new methods give activities of this sort a wider scope than ever before. And thus they are indeed more influential and effective than ever before. That is new and, of course, deeply troubling.
President-elect Donald Trump upset the geopolitical apple cart by taking a call from Taiwan’s president and making some follow-up comments suggesting he questions the long-standing “One China” policy that recognizes Beijing’s rule over that island nation. You personally negotiated that “One China” policy with Deng Xiaoping when you served as national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter. What dangers do you see in this apparent change of course?
The danger I see is provoking antagonism in this foremost relationship of American foreign policy without any significant strategic accomplishment. It is not in our interest to antagonize Beijing. It is much better for American interests to have the Chinese work closely with us, thereby forcing the Russians to follow suit if they don’t want to be left out in the cold. That constellation gives the U.S. the unique ability to reach out across the world with collective political influence.
'A world in which America and China are cooperating is a world in which American influence is maximized.'
I don’t think it is worth dissipating that with a gesture, such as the phone call, that is not followed by any constructive action. It is a pointless irritant.
A world in which America and China are cooperating is a world in which American influence is maximized. If we reduce that through stupid irritations, what do we accomplish?
Some are concerned that the new Trump administration will cozy up with Russia and seek to thaw present tensions. Wouldn’t that be good for global stability because it will then break the current momentum that is pushing China and Russia together in a hostile bloc against the West?
Russia is not a rival to America in terms of what it has to offer in dealing with China. The Chinese know damned well that, though we may be weakened, depleted and confused, America is basically still number one in the world, and they, the Chinese, are also almost a number one. China thus has a choice to make. If it chooses to be against America, it will end [up] losing out. It is more in their interest to belong to the dominant pack. The reverse is also true for the U.S. if it pushes China away.
There is nothing particularly complicated about this. It is only a matter of recognizing some fundamental strategic realities. If we irritate the Chinese to the point where they begin to look for alternatives, they will find them. We won’t find that a very comfortable situation, but one fraught with dangers.
'If we irritate the Chinese to the point where they begin to look for alternatives, they will find them.'
Some worry that Trump’s “America First” approach, which has questioned the value of alliances as well as trade and climate pacts, will amount to a withdrawal from the world. With Europe in turmoil, and Russia not truly a world-class player, wouldn’t that leave China as the only major power with a global outlook?
To underscore the strategic reality I’ve already outlined, the U.S. and China are the world’s dominant powers. To the extent we have worked together over the years since the normalization of relations, it has not been for the evil purpose of war or conquest, but for the good of enhancing the security and stability required for each to pursue their own interests. In today’s world, China can’t lead alone. Neither can the U.S.. To put it in sharper, if seemingly paradoxical terms, if America tries to go it alone in the world without China, it will not be able to assert itself.
If we keep that in mind, we can begin, gradually, to shape a world that is more stable than the world today, which is very unstable and very unpredictable. America’s long-term interests lie fundamentally with deepening our ties to China, not uprooting them for perceived short-term gain.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.