Zbigniew Brzezinski was one of the most prominent architects of US foreign policy during the 1960s and 1970s. With his death last evening, the world has lost one of its most active “fighters” for the end of Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe.
His father was a Polish diplomat, and Zbigniew grew up in Poland (until 1931), Germany (1931-1935), the Soviet Union (1936-1938) and Canada (1938-onwards); Zbigniew had the rare experience of being a child who temporarily lived in two countries who eventually invaded, occupied, and committed mass genocide within his birth country. His academic interests led him to pursue a masters at McGill University and a doctorate at Harvard University, researching the history and sociology of the Soviet Union.
It was during the 1950s that he and Carl Friedrich collaborated to create what became a 1950s-onward US government “official” definition of totalitarianism as a critique of one-party ideologically-driven states, regardless of the underlying ideology and some other particulars which geopolitics experts will have long, boisterous arguments about for many years to come.
During that time there were also strong arguments in US foreign/military policy circles over the best way to undo Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe; some folks pushed for direct and/or indirect military intervention (“rollback”), whereas Dr. Brzezinski was an advocate for the “containment” strategy of encouraging non-military solutions to the problem.
Dr. Brzezinski was an instructor at Harvard between 1953 and 1959, when he didn’t get a tenure-track job there (… they gave it to Henry Kissinger), he went to Columbia, where among many other accomplishments he mentored Madeleine Albright. Zbigniew advised the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign, he supported the 1964 Johnson presidential campaign, he had a complex relationship with the Vietnam War (in the sense that he supported it at a smaller-scale but quit a Department of State job after Johnson expanded the war), he was a fairly consistent critic of Nixon-Kissinger foreign relations, and he became a strong early supporter and advisor to Carter’s presidential campaign.
Carter’s win in 1976 placed Dr. Brzezinski in the US government as the National Security Advisor, wherein he pushed for stronger non-military engagement with dissidents within the Warsaw Pact countries. This put him into repeated conflict with the Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who advocated for a form of détente wherein neither the USA nor USSR would, publicly at least, call for the overthrow of the government of either country or its allies. Brzezinski also helped USA-People’s Republic of China relationships normalize after 1972 attempts to start the process mostly stopped as the Nixon and Ford administrations concentrated on other situations.
Détente at least temporarily stopped being attempted by either the USA or the USSR as events in 1978 and 1979 Afghanistan led the USA and USSR to use the country as a place to have a proxy war. Insurgents in Afghanistan, including folks in the mujahideen, were funneled money and arms through neighboring Pakistan (Pakistan was chosen because Iran had overthrown its USA-supporting government), money and arms which came from the USA and Persian Gulf countries. Brzezinski supported funding an insurgency against the Soviet-allied Afghanistan government and then the Soviet-directed Afghanistan puppet government for the primary reason of decreasing the odds that Soviet military intervention would happen elsewhere, but the fact that 38 years later Afghanistan is still an unstable country means that historians will be dissecting these US foreign policy choices for a long, long time.
Carter’s defeat in 1980 led to Brzezinski no longer being the National Security Advisor, although he still found places to serve in Reagan’s government. Throughout the 1980s he continued to push for non-military intervention in Eastern Europe, generally pushing for a more complex set of USA-USSR relations than what the Reagan foreign policy team pushed for. In 1988 he endorsed George H.W. Bush for President and his book The Grand Failure was published; in that book he forecast the collapse of the Soviet Union within the following decades, more likely collapsed by 2017 than still around.
… so when the Warsaw Pact country governments started falling apart the next year, he was pleasantly surprised, especially as the process involved far less military repercussions than he had guessed. Dr. Brzezinski left Harvard in 1989, joining the faculty at John Hopkins University. He continued having a strong opinion on most US or Russian political events of the 1990 and 2000s, being particularly opposed to the First Chechen War and the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin on behalf of the Russians, and the 1991 and 2003 US-led military actions against Iraq on behalf of the Americans.
After being mostly neutral about the foreign policy decisions of President Clinton and really outright negative about the foreign policy decisions of President George W. Bush, Dr. Brzezinski endorsed Barack Obama for President in 2007. The last decade of his life saw him continue to release books and essays and continue to hold strong opinions on how both the USA and Russia should be conducting their foreign policies.
Dr. Brzezinski is survived by his long-time spouse Emilie Benes and three children, Ian, Mark, and Mika.
Since it’s a long weekend here in the US, none of the staff at Gizmodo Media Group have (so far) written anything in memorial about this man’s accomplished life. I look forward to updating this as memorials come in.
This lack of coverage so far is unfortunate, because Dr. Brzezinski once got a Gizmodo article for that one time he didn’t accidentally start a nuclear war. To copy and paste from the seventeenth, interview, chapter of Zbig: The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzezinski:
In addition, io9's Mark Strauss once wrote about the neutron bomb, quoting Dr. Brzezinski, and io9's Charlie Jane Anders once had a very short interview with Dr. Brzezinski on the topic of totalitarianism.