Do American politicians and academics take office for the office itself or for the memoirs? The question often seems to me moot. Every four years, during the dreary and debilitating inter regnum, outgoing officials scurry around publishers or, if they are lucky, have publishers scurry around them. At the same time incoming officials equip themselves with several personal tape recorders and miles and miles of tape on which to record their every move and thought for the next four years. (A few may even buy notebooks in which they may actually write down these matters.) And all to assail the poor public, who might have thought that the actual four years was enough without having it dragged up once again a couple of years on.
It’s hard to beat the members of the Nixon administration, particularly Henry Kissinger, for their recitation of their glorious achievements. Kissinger has already published two vast but truncated volumes – and we are threatened with still one more. Now the Carter years are back with us. Jimmy was first, then came Zbig, then Cy, and we are still waiting for Rosalynn.
Zbigniew Brzezinski was President Carter’s National Security Adviser. Like Henry Kissinger he came first from Europe, then from American academia, and like Henry Kissinger he sought to dominate the US foreign policy bureaucracy. Unlike Kissinger, he failed, perhaps for his better rather than his poorer qualities.
One good thing about Zbig’s memoirs is that they are a great deal shorter than Kissinger’s. Even so, they are not, it has to be said, a barrelful of laughs, even when he describes the elements of humour and repartee in his relationship with Carter. Thus, in Yugoslavia, an interpreter ‘was an unusually striking and very well endowed Serbian lady. At one point the President passed me a note asking if I knew the Serbo-Croat translation for an appropriate and precise description. In my response I complimented the President on his strategic vision’. To be fair, he does acknowledge that such incidents may not be amusing to others.
The Carter administration was often accused, and often unfairly so, of lacking the same sort of strategic toughness with which its predecessor was (wrongly) credited. Perhaps this is why ‘tough-mindedness’ is the quality which Brzezinski is most keen to descry in himself and to discern in others. Many of his assessments of other people are made in terms of the hardness of the stuff between their ears. Now Cy Vance was not at all ‘tough minded’. Indeed, by Zbig’s account he was so woolly as to seem almost sheeplike – except that he was a WASP.
As a member of the legal profession and the once dominant WASP elite, he operated according to their values and rules, but those values and rules were of declining relevance not only in terms of domestic American politics, but particularly in terms of global conditions … He was at his best when negotiating with the decent parties in the world; the British over Zimbabwe, or the Israelis and Egyptians regarding Middle East peace; he was at his worst in dealing with the thugs of this world.
Nonetheless, ‘It was also a point of honour with me, and I felt that Carter appreciated it, that I never used the many opportunities I had of being alone with Carter to engage in any personal sniping at Vance, [Harold] Brown or my other colleagues.’ A curious assertion that – but perhaps, given the snake-pit which the White House had been in the days of Kissinger and Nixon, one which Brzezinski was really anxious to make. It is clear from all the memoirs of the Carter years that whatever the tensions between individuals, they were nothing compared to what had gone before. Kissinger could not truthfully, nor even plausibly, make the same claim to generosity towards his rivals for the President’s ear.
One of the policy issues over which Brzezinski and Vance differed was the development of US–China relations. Vance wanted to promote relations with the USSR and China in tandem; Brzezinski was all for pushing the China tie even at the expense of détente with the Soviet Union. When Vance tried to get Carter to issue an even-handed statement, Brzezinski wrote in his diary, ‘I was amazed that Cy would even go to the President with such a statement. I don’t think it helped to further the President’s confidence in his tough mindedness … I was absolutely incredulous when it was brought up, and I was really relieved by the President’s tough minded decision’ – to can it.
Brzezinski confidently informs his readers, ‘It is a point of fact that in the area of foreign affairs President Carter achieved a historically impressive record’. This is a bit bold or bald, but I think it is largely true. Carter was often harshly criticised, especially from the right, for not displaying what I believe some people like to call ‘the smack of firm government’.
Three years of Reaganism should have made even those people nostalgic for the Carter years. Brzezinski claims a lot when he asserts that the Carter administration ‘contributed significantly to world peace, to greater global justice and to enhanced national security’. But it is not a fatuous claim. Nor is it one which Judge William Clark, Reagan’s Brzezinski, could plausibly make. Indeed, it is not clear that Judge Clark can make any rational claims whatsoever. He it was, remember, who was unable at his confirmation hearings to say where Zimbabwe was. He has apparently failed to learn a great deal in his last three years in Washington. A private Senate briefing which he gave recently on his President’s Central American policy was described by one senator as ‘an unmitigated disaster’. Clark seemed unable to tell the Senators anything at all. What was not clear was whether he was unwilling to reveal anything or, perhaps more troubling, simply incapable of doing so. He said, for example, that he had no idea whether or not the US troops being sent to Honduras would carry live ammunition. Zbig, the hardnosed militarist who was photographed looking down the barrel of an automatic rifle towards Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, would, by contrast, have revelled in revealing the exact calibre and number of rounds issued to each soldier.
At the same time, Brzezinski is surely quite correct to seek recognition of many of the Carter administration’s achievements – its human rights policy, the Panama Canal treaties (imagine what Reagan would be doing there now, had they not been signed), normalisation with China (though to my mind, Vance has the better of that argument), SALT II, even though it was not ratified, and, perhaps, Camp David. It is a not unimpressive list.
In conclusion, Brzezinski points out that the world is likely to become even more turbulent than it already is. He thinks it inevitable that more and more Third World States will acquire nuclear weapons and that some of them are likely to use them in a conflict. Unlike Reagan, he does not foresee any Soviet global domination. ‘The USSR simply lacks the capacity to impose its will on the world in a manner even remotely reminiscent of the predominance enjoyed by the United States during the Pax Americana of the 1950’s … The menace confronting humanity, in brief, is not Soviet hegemony but global anarchy.’
He argues, predictably perhaps, that to respond effectively the United States must concentrate foreign policy making around the President in the White House rather than in the State Department. This could help integrate foreign and domestic policy. He himself found that Carter’s domestic advisers ‘tended to be more “hard-nosed” than the foreign affairs experts produced by academia and diplomacy’. (Maybe because they were more ignorant.) He declares also that US intervention is essential to avoid global chaos.
Without the United States there is no force in the world capable of stimulating and sustaining a serious effort to enhance genuine international co-operation … An internationally passive America will simply contribute to greater global anarchy. A morally indifferent America also runs the risk of becoming increasingly isolated.
He acknowledges that America has done far too little to help promote a more equitable international order: ‘To make relevant American principle to a world in which the craving for political freedom (the central challenge in East–West relations) is reinforced by the yearning for social dignity (the key problem in North–South issues), it will also be necessary for Americans to accommodate themselves both to a more crowded and eventually to a somewhat more egalitarian world.’ He agrees it will be difficult for the American people and the American political system to do any such thing and calls for a blend of American moralism and Realpolitik (such as Carter seemed to try to represent) rather than a constant swing between the two. ‘Rigid moral consistency is not possible in a complicated world, nor is a single-minded focus on power justified in a world in which morally legitimate aspirations are the source of much political and social unrest.’
It is not Brzezinski’s fault that he cannot tell us how we can get there from here.