Hostility to America Has Never Been So Great
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, remains one of America’s few eminent strategic thinkers. His just published book is The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership (Basic Books, 2004). He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels recently.
NPQ | Toward the end of your new book, The Choice, you state your ultimate thesis: “It is essential for American leadership to recognize that, in this age of worldwide political awakening and shared international vulnerability, security depends not only on military power but also on the prevailing climate of opinion, the political definition of social passions and the foci of fanatical hatreds.”
With the Abu Ghraib photos and the general diplomatic and security debacle of the Iraq war, hasn’t the United States already lost the battle for a sympathetic climate of world opinion, making itself even more a focus of hatred than before 9/11?
Zbigniew Brzezinski | Yes. And no. Yes, the US has certainly harmed itself badly, even dangerously. No, because the battle is a never-ending one with no final victory or defeat.
It is important for the US to try to recoup. If not, the progressive deterioration of America’s position will undermine our leadership and plunge the world into intensifying chaos.
In our entire history as a nation, world opinion has never been as hostile toward the US as it is today. In the past, in particular during the Cold War, there were major waves of anti-Americanism, usually associated with the left. Today, anti-Americanism is a pervasive global outlook that embraces both the left and right. Tragically, most of that is self-inflicted.
It is not only the Iraq policy of the Bush administration that has caused this. The Bush administration is the first administration since the onset of the Cold War 50 years ago not to place itself in the political mainstream, not to reflect moderation, not to practice at least defacto bipartisanship, but to embrace extremist principles. Inevitably, extremism produces recklessness. That is what we are seeing now.
NPQ | You have written about the key global appeal of America’s open society, its democracy and respect for human rights. Now, many abroad—including China and the Arab countries—see hypocrisy.
How badly has the torture and abuse of Iraqis by American forces damaged America’s credibility and reputation?
Brzezinski | It is very badly damaged. And I have the moral right to say so: For years I pressed the cause of human rights, even when it was unpopular back in the 1970s. Also, I have been critical of the Bush project on Iraq all along, even at a time when most Democrats were silent and some were even cheerleaders.
However, when some of the more egregious violators of human rights abroad argue now that we are as bad as they are, they forget one central relevant aspect of all this: What happened in Abu Ghraib prison is repeated on a huge scale on a daily basis in various gulags around the world. The difference is that, elsewhere, such sadistic excesses are not usually exposed by the regimes concerned. Our system, relatively promptly—within a few months—is exposing the crimes and responding with open investigations and prospective punishments.
The fact of the matter is, it is Americans who have exposed what happened on their own and it is US senators who are investigating the matter. It is the US president, of whom I am very critical, who has apologized publicly. It is Americans who will make sure the guilty will be punished.
This same could not be said about China, or Russia, or many others, including the Arabs.
NPQ | There is another aspect of America that, in your view, has not been so appealing or helpful to the American image abroad—its mass culture, which you’ve labeled “out-of-control secularism” and a “permissive cornucopia.”
On top of these human rights issues now, isn’t there necessarily a conflict between the sensate liberalism of America’s postmodern mass culture, projected globally by the media, and the socially conservative culture of Islam? When Ayatollah Sistani, the Shiite leader in Iraq, and his followers see Janet Jackson bare her breast at the Super Bowl, doesn’t that provoke even more anti-American passion?
Brzezinski | Your example, actually, is rather mild considering what else goes on in American culture and finds its way to the rest of the world. There is extreme pornography, even on midafternoon TV. Many aspects of American culture are, one has to admit, objectionable, vulgar, disgusting and morally degrading.
There is thus no doubt that this intensifies the cultural cleavages in the world. Americans must face this fact because otherwise we are in no position to criticize other cultures for their religious principles or concerning relations between the sexes. Some degree of modesty about our own way of life is called for.
But that does not negate the fact that, by and large, there is a global trend toward more freedom and more democracy. In many respects, the US remains in the forefront of these trends.
NPQ | In your book, you worry that America’s political isolation might lead to the rise of a “countercreed.” It seems to me there are three candidates. First, the “get-rich-is-glorious-stability” creed of China. Second, the “quality-of-life” creed of Europe that rejects American mass consumption patterns. Three, political Islam that rejects globalized secularism.
Given the damage being done to the US by Bush’s foreign policy, are any of those candidates in your view?
Brzezinski | All the candidates you mention have the same limitation: They can’t be global creeds. Both China and Europe are inward oriented and don’t generate political passions aside from self-interest. It is very difficult to see comfortable Europeans waging a global struggle on behalf of five-week vacations.
Political Islam generates passion, but it is hard to universalize it unless accompanied by some idea of global conversion to Islam. That will motivate a few, but it is unlikely to mobilize many in non-Islamic societies.
The countercreed that I fear may be arising is a combination of the widespread revulsion against globalization as a self-interested process of the relatively few rich to disempower the poor along with an intensified anti-Americanism which views the US as not only the motor of that unfair globalization but also as the source of political and cultural imperialism.
That outlook can appeal simultaneously to people in Asia as well as Latin America, in Africa as well as Europe and Russia. This strikes me as a possibility because of the intensified anti-Americanism that has resulted from the egregious way that the Bush administration misled the world about the reasons for war in Iraq, and then the mishandling of the war itself.
NPQ | What is the American strategy to avoid the rise of this countercreed?
Brzezinski | Americans need to wake up to the fact that something very signiﬁcant has happened in the wake of 9/11. We were all shocked by that, but then a small group with extremist views exploited that shock and hijacked American foreign policy. With enormous arrogance and contempt for others, they embarked on a policy that isolated us from the world as never before.
The country needs to remember that the previous 60 years of success in American foreign policy over many administrations came from the rejection of extremism—both of the right and the left. After 9/11, a group of strategic extremists managed to gain control of a president with messianic proclivities and no grasp of the complexity of the global situation. Their cumulative actions have done unprecedented damage to America’s long-term interests.
That is why there is now the need for a choice: Will America return to the past successes of global leadership or damage itself critically in the extremist pursuit of global domination?