Brzezinski and his Great Game

The Grand Chessboard
IR 6602 – Geostrategy

Troy University

Peter Bakke
[email protected]

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The temptation of imperial overreach, to become the Athens of the twenty-first century and embark on self-defeating Sicilian expeditions, is ever-present… which is born of arrogance of power.
Robert J. Art

Intervening everywhere is not an option.
Richard Haas

What I fear is not the enemy’s strategy, but our own mistakes.

Every country has a wish list that reads like a menu without prices.
Joseph Nye

Future ages may well shudder with horror as they remember us.
Martin van Creveld

Zbigniew Brzezinski’s book “The Grand Chessboard: American primacy and its geostrategic imperative” serves as a blueprint for 21st century U.S. foreign policy. In the book, Brzezinski, a former National Security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, argues that Eurasia is the keystone to America’s future as the world’s first and (according to Brzezinski) possibly last global superpower. Eurasia is thus the geography-based chessboard upon which the “Grand Game” is to be played and Brzezinski’s premise is that the United States and its allies are competing for global hegemony against other coalitions and major powers – principally Russia, China and Japan. Brzezinski states:

It is imperative that no Eurasian challenger emerges, capable of dominating Eurasia and thus also of challenging America. The formulation of a comprehensive and integrated Eurasian geostrategy is therefore the purpose of this book.” (italics in original) (p xiv) 

The roots of Brzezinski’s Eurasian-centric worldview can be traced to his own personal background as an exile from Nazi/Soviet occupied Poland and also from the well known geopolitical discussions that were held in the early years of the previous century when Halford Mackinder (not Harold, as Brzezinski writes) and Karl Haushofer each weighed in on the underpinnings of geopolitics. The pedigree of Brzezinski’s book therefore appears to be largely based on realist power politics. However, I will argue that Brzezinski’s prescriptions for continued American global hegemony are aligned more in the vein of multilateralist liberal internationalism than the hardcore realist and unilateralist approaches of Mackinder and Haushofer. I will also discuss a recurring theme that runs through the entire book – what seems to be Brzezinski’s pervasive and poorly substantiated imperative for America to rescue the world from itself. Furthermore, I will point out that Brzezinski’s call for American empire is based on a weak discussion of vital (versus desirable) American national interests supporting his argument. Brzezinski also discloses a complete disregard for the populous and resource-rich continents of South America and Africa in his geopolitical musings about the need to oppose a future Eurasian competitor. Lastly, Brzezinski displays a complete lack of respect for the utility of the United Nations.

In his book, Brzezinski frequently acknowledges the American public’s reticence for empire, but nonetheless relentlessly presses for the continuation and even expansion of American global hegemony. He also hints about, but does not explore, the visceral and militant Islamic opposition to American hegemony spanning a wide swath of the planet. Like most critiques of Mackinder’s and Haushofer’s ideas, Brzezinski shows no inclination to analyze events from a non-Western perspective. What China, Russia or Japan think about the writings of Mackinder and Haushofer is explored in few, if any, Western-oriented readings on geopolitics that I encountered – just as Brzezinski fails to explore his exhortations of American empire in any alternate light of non-Western attitudes and reactions. He explores his ideas from a consistently Western viewpoint, seeming to be nonchalant about how his aggressive grand plans may be seen from Beijing, Moscow or Tokyo. He extols America’s democratic, economic, military and cultural virtues and ignores any vices whatsoever.

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Brzezinski begins his book with a brief rationalization for why America needs to be the world’s global policeman. His argument is discussed more below, but it could be summed up as: “It goes without saying.” Brzezinski then takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of world military history. He touches briefly on the Roman, Chinese, and Mongol imperial empires – giving special admiration to the vast extent of the Mongol conquest (and its surprisingly quick demise). He then describes the rise and decline of several European powers including Spain, Germany and Britain. He ends this brief magical history tour with America’s rapid emergence as the world’s first “indispensable country,” one that stands supreme above all others and which reigns as “the only comprehensive global superpower” (Brzezinski, 1997, p.24).

Brzezinski focuses exclusively on the importance of the Eurasian continent and its momentousness to the world, to the exclusion of all other worldviews. This “World-Island” is a vast region that Mackinder called the “Heartland” and the “geographical pivot of world history” (Mackinder, p. 27). Mackinder believed that whoever controlled the Heartland controlled the world – a feeling obviously shared by Brzezinski. In his time, Mackinder saw the Heartland as a threat to British supremacy, particularly if Germany and Russia formed an alliance that would create an axis “from Lisbon to Vladivostok,” thus creating his worst fear that “the empire of the world would then be in sight” (Mackinder, p. 30). Haushofer, on the other hand, saw the Heartland as a vast store of physical resources and raw materials for the German people, a place that he considered to be the “mystical cradle of world conquerors” (Parker, (2), p. 106). Brzezinski seems to firmly believe in Mackinder’s famous axiom:

Who rules East Europe controls the Heartland
Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island
Who rules the World-Island commands the World. 

With the control of Mackinder’s Heartland in mind, Brzezinski proposes that there are four regions that the U.S. should concentrate its military, diplomatic and economic resources upon (he calls use of such resources a policy of “maneuver and manipulation”). His four areas of major concern all border on the Heartland and include the “Democratic Bridgehead” (Europe), the “Black Hole” (Russia), the “Eurasian Balkans,” (former Soviet republics in Central Asia) and the “Far Eastern Anchor” (Japan). He devotes a chapter to each of these pan-regions, theorizing in each about a dizzying variety of moves and counter moves and the advantages and disadvantages of each area. However, his main thesis regarding fear that a preponderant competitor will arise out of Eurasia seems to be undermined by his own writing that questions the ability of any one power to unite the vast “World-Island” of Eurasia: “Cumulatively, Eurasia’s power vastly overshadows America’s (but) Eurasia is too big to be politically one” (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 31). If Eurasia is too big to unite, how can any Eurasian power threaten America? This is particularly relevant if America continues and strengthens its alliances with other major non-Eurasian centers of power such as Europe and South America.

“The Grand Chessboard” concludes with Brzezinski counseling the reader that “The time has come for the United States to formulate and prosecute an integrated, comprehensive, and long-term geostrategy for all of Eurasia,” and he adds that “… how it manages Eurasia’s key geographic pivots will be crucial to the longevity and stability of America’s global primacy” (Brzezinski, 1997, p 194). These recommendations have immense social and economic cost implications for the people of the United States. How long can the American public continue to subsidize such an American empire? Brzezinski does not address the issue, although it is clear that he recognizes the limits of the American public’s support of open-ended, ill-defined international engagements.
“America is too democratic at home to be autocratic abroad. This limits the use of America’s power, especially its capacity for military intimidation. Never before has a populist democracy attained international supremacy. But the pursuit of power is not a goal that commands popular passion, except in conditions of a sudden threat or challenge to the public’s sense of domestic well-being. The economic self-denial (that is, defense spending) and the human sacrifice (casualties, even among professional soldiers) required in the effort are uncongenial to democratic instincts. Democracy is inimical to imperial mobilization.” (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 35)

Brzezinski also worries, like Alfred Thayer Mahan, that “democracies (are) unwilling to pay the price of continued … power and had not the foresight to ensure adequate military preparedness” (Sprout, p. 420). So, despite Brzezinski’s acknowledgement of the American public’s reticence to American empire, he continues to press on with his global Leviathan antidote to the world’s ills. Additionally he states, “The attitude of the American public toward the external projection of American power has been ambivalent … (there is) a general public preference for ‘sharing’ global power with others, rather than for its monopolistic exercise” (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 24, p. 26). Despite obvious public reluctance to support American empire, it is Dr. Brzezinski’s strong belief that continued massive global engagement is in the best interest of the United States.

His complete disregard for the possible use of South American (and even African) resources to counter a rising Eurasian competitor is striking. Even Mackinder noted more than a half century ago that, “The development of the vast potentialities of South America might have a decisive influence upon the system,” (Mackinder, p. 31) which might be utilized to strengthen the United States against a rising Eurasian competitor or coalition. Mackinder also postulated that the “insular crescent” of countries surrounding the Heartland could come together as a counterweight to a Eurasian power. Brzezinski advocates a grand strategy that completely ignores America’s own backyard. The small nation of Singapore is mentioned six times in the book, but no mention is made of Brazil or other potential resource-rich South American partners. His book is unabashedly Eurasian-centric, but in the meantime, recent news indicates that China is pushing its influence in Central and South America, including a compact with Cuba to drill for offshore oil (Janofsky).

Brzezinski is seen by many as a Cold Warrior. Does he still see the world through that lens? How did Brzezinski’s worldview come about? Much of his policy reasoning can be traced to the influence of geopolitical theorists such as Mahan, Mackinder and Haushofer, however I want to briefly explore some personal aspects of Brzezinski’s life that may have solidified his hawkish cum liberal internationalist view of the world.
Brzezinski was born in 1928 to a Polish diplomat. The postings of his father took young Brzezinski to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. In 1938 his father was posted to Canada and shortly thereafter the Nazis invaded Poland. The destruction of Poland in 1939, incidentally, was hailed by the geopolitician Haushofer as “a heroic stroke of seldom attained greatness” (Herwig, p. 234). The Brzezinski family subsequently found themselves exiled without a home country (Brzezinski, 2006). Following the war, the usurpation of Poland by the USSR, agreed to by the Allies at the Yalta Conference, must have been a bitter blow to Brzezinski. The loss of Poland to the Communist bloc was to him an example of power politics incarnate. It meant that Brzezinski could not return to his native country. Poland was forcibly occupied by the current tenants of the Heartland (that is, by Soviet Russia, as Mackinder would put it) (Parker, 2, p. 106). The military domination of his homeland by the Nazis, then the Soviets, followed by the cruel matter of handing over Poland to the post-war Soviet bloc must have left an indelible mark on Brzezinski – one which likely informed his worldview that military power was key to the fate of nations and also that the geographic position of Poland between the two great powers of Germany and Russia had a fateful effect upon its history.

Brzezinski eventually moved to the United States and became a citizen in 1958. When he did not get tenure at Harvard University, he moved to New York and taught at Columbia. During this time he began formulating and expressing his worldviews via several books. He was instrumental in the creation of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE and became a co-founder of the Trilateral Commission. One member he asked to be part of the commission was Jimmy Carter. When Carter became President, Brzezinski was asked to become U.S. National Security Advisor (Brzezinski, 2006).

It was in this position of power that Brzezinski experienced first hand some geopolitical setbacks. While on his watch, the Iranian hostage crisis developed. It was at Brzezinski’s insistence that the ill-fated rescue attempt called ‘Desert One’ was executed to bring the hostages back – with disastrous results. The resulting domestic political fiasco had a negative effect upon Carter’s Presidential re-election bid, which he lost. Brzezinski also oversaw the nascent arming and training of Islamic fundamentalists who were used as proxies to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. This support eventually resulted in the financing and growth of some groups and individuals that eventually became al Qaeda.

Given these momentous personal experiences and the fact that his native country of Poland is part of the Heartland, it is not surprising that Brzezinski favors a Mackinder and Haushofer worldview that concentrates upon the Eurasian landmass. His belief in the virtues of American rule and its current place in the world easily explains his belief that it is America’s destiny to be vitally involved in every aspect of the Eurasian chessboard. Finally, the utility of NATO and its direct involvement in the containment and eventual demise of the USSR surely gave Brzezinski an abiding faith in the use of effective multilateral alliances to combat a global competitor.

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“The Grand Chessboard” appears to be written for popular consumption, not for a scholarly audience. For example, the book does not have consistent or adequate citations and Brzezinski does not provide a bibliography or a list of suggested readings. It is a relatively short monograph with seven chapters that each gives the feeling of a professorial lecture. Its extemporaneous tone continues in the mid-chapters with formulaic “if X happens then counter with Y” propositions. It is difficult for a reader to absorb the many permutations and combinations of U.S., Russia, China, Japan, and E.U. policy actions and reactions that are posed in these chapters.

A further shortcoming of the book is Brzezinski’s faint attempt to define exactly what America’s vital national interests are and how his policy of American empire protects them. It seems America is required to be the world’s policeman simply because Brzezinski says so. His primary reason for American hegemony appears simply to be the prevention of international anarchy (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 30). He states, “America’s withdrawal from the world or because of the sudden emergence of a successful rival – would produce massive international instability. In effect, it would prompt global anarchy.” This philosophy is reminiscent of the Islamic proverb, “Better a thousand days of tyranny than one day of anarchy.” Avoiding potential international chaos is a laudable goal, but it is only one leg of what should be a three- or four-legged structure. Despite the shortcomings described above, the book provides a wealth of geoploitical information. Also, Brzezinski’s writing style may be somewhat awkward, but his prose is efficient and to the point.

Brzezinski reveals in his writing a deep sense of what Alexis de Tocqueville called ‘American exceptionalism’ – which mirrors the deeply entrenched American idea of historical Manifest Destiny. Brzezinski’s evangelical ardor for America’s place in the sun is revealed by his admiration for the superiority of the American domestic experience, made clear by his statement that, “American global power is exercised through a global system of distinctively American design that mirrors the domestic American experience. Central to that domestic experience is the pluralistic character of both the American society and its political system” (Brzezinski, 1997, p 24). He further enthusiastically states that, “America’s political institutions and free market economy (create) unprecedented opportunities for ambitious and iconoclastic inventors, who were not inhibited from pursuing their personal dreams by archaic privileges or rigid social hierarchies” (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 4).
It seems as if Brzezinski’s book is lecturing Andrew Jackson on the fine points of expanding the new American nation westward (or in the present case, globally) simply because it has so much to offer the world. Brzezinski continues by fretting, “What will America bequeath to the world as the enduring legacy of its primacy?” (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 210). Let us hope that the historical judgment of the U.S., which Brzezinski seems to care so deeply about, it is not similar in tone to Hans Weigert’s condemnation of Haushofer’s strategy for world conquest: “It is here that this cold, hard, dynamic science of war-geography, backed by propaganda and maps of terrifying suggestion, is hammered out’ (Weigert, 1941, p. 3).

Much of the planet, particularly most of Islam, reacts negatively to Brzezinski’s belief in the superiority of American culture and virtues. His claim that America has “become the object of careful study and political imitation.” (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 26) seems to be tone deaf to Islam’s insularity when it comes to the lure of the West. To his credit, Brzezinski does fire a warning shot across our bow (four years prior to 9-11) by stating: “A possible challenge to American primacy from Islamic fundamentalism (may occur) by exploiting religious hosility to the Ameican way of life… Islamic fundamentalism could undermine several pro-Western Middle Eastern governments” (Brzezinski, 1997, p 53).

Despite this momentary nod to Islamic reistance, Brzezinski yet again pushes with con brio the ideal of American global preponderance as a global good, stating: “The currently dominant American global system., within which ‘the threat of war is off the table,’ is likely to be stable only in those parts of the world in which American primacy, guided by a long-term geostrategy, rests on compatible and congenial sociopolitical systems. Linked together by American-dominated multilateral frameworks” (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 56 ). However, history has shown us that modern war is not off the table, even in parts of the world dominated by American primacy (the Middle East for example), and the world is neither completely compatible nor congenial to all American interests, particulary those that have been forcibly imposed upon other nations.

Brzezinski’s thinly disguised belief that America is destined to be the world’s savior has a quality to it not unlike a post-modern Manifest Destiny. This forms the foundation for America’s continued belief that it is a morally superior nation and therefore it has a mission to convert the world to its way of life. The thrust of America’s mission is to spread its form of democracy, freedom and economic model to the rest of the world and of this mindset Brzezinski is a true believer.

In the early 1800’s, America pushed westward to prevent, in part, the further consolidation of the French and Spanish colonies in North America. Likewise, “The Grand Chessboard” proposes that America enter into the “Great Game” to “prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together” (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 40). Unlike Haushofer, who put the ‘terror’ in territory, Brzezinski does not propose the actual taking of land in the Heartland. He lobbies for indirect control via maneuver and manipulation in concert with our allies, recognizing that, “…the issue of territorial possession has lately been waning in salience” (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 37). Parker tells us that “Haushofer saw Germany’s future as being above all an eastern one linked to the Middle East, Russia and Central Asia.” Brzezinski’s grand strategy comprises a similar Eurasian linkage for America’s continued global primacy.

Brzezinski has been called a ‘hawk,’ but his strategy laid out in “The Grand Chessboard” speaks more to liberal internationalism. To his credit, he realizes rightly that the U.S. alone cannot bear the burden of being the world’s global Leviathan. Such a view embraces liberal internationalism’s logic of requiring the cooperation of other nations to tackle a wide range of common problems. This cooperative multilateralism is implied by much of his writing, but one conspicuous absentee from any of his discussions is the United Nations. This institution, created in large part by the United States, has been engaged in 60 UN peacekeeping operations since 1948 (UN Peacekeeping Missions). These actions must be of considerable value to the United States that should be recognized and valued. Brzezinski mentions the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization and The World Bank as examples of a ‘web’ of special organizations that support American hegemony, but he lends no weight in the book whatsoever to the United Nations, other than mentioning the Security Council in passing. His lack of respect for this important institution is only exceeded by his ardor for NATO. Brzezinski seems to think that an Eastward expansion of NATO can solve most of America’s security dilemmas. His proposed creation of TESS (TransEuraian Security System) to help relieve America of some of its burden of empire is a transparent expansion of NATO into Eurasia (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 208).

There is a problem with Brzezinski’s dual call for American hegemony and reliance upon international cooperation to stem the rise of a Eurasian competitor. It centers on the fact that acting as a hegemonic power by definition alienates other nations. The United States claims to have the world’s common interests at heart, as Brzezinski tells us: “The ultimate objective of American policy should be benign and visionary: to shape a truly cooperative global community… in keeping with the fundamental interests of mankind (Brzezinski, 1997, p. xiv). However, any continued unilateral actions by the U.S. will be met with suspicion. This is seen today with the problems America is experiencing in Iraq and Afghanistan and with the global war on terrorism. To create a harmonious international consortium, the U.S. will have to yield leadership to other countries on at least a few common issues.

The following statement by Brzezinski is not an accurate portrayal of the situation American finds itself in today: “As the imitation of American ways gradually pervades the world, it creates a more congenial setting for the exercise of the indirect and seemingly consensual American hegemony… that hegemony involves a complex structure of interlocking institutions and procedures, designed to generate consensus” (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 27). This consensual, multilateral worldview may have been in the making during the post-Cold War1990’s when Brzezinski’s book was written, however this particular view has been generally abandoned under the Bush II administration in its first 6 years. Thankfully, there are signs that the administration is moving back towards a more consensual leadership role, including the use of European aid in the difficult negotiations with Iran regarding it nuclear program. The U.S. is even moving toward bilateral discussion with Iran, at the prodding of the European states.

Brzezinski’s proposed plan for American foreign policy has many names: global hegemony, preponderance, primacy, and empire. The case he puts forth in “The Grand Chessboard” is relatively simple – America is morally required to continue its dominant role on a global scale. But doing so results in a costly (and ghastly) toll of American blood and treasure, which Brzezinski largely ignores. In crafting and explaining his grand strategy, Brzezinski left out a thorough examination of its many costs. A recent poll indicates that worldwide respect for American values and culture continues to dwindle, even among staunch allied countries (Knowlton).

Brzezinski’s book could have had more impact had the author not only explored the costs of relinquishing empire, but of continuing and expanding it as is being done today in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have pointed out several other potential problems with Brzezinski’s strategy in addition to cost and arrogance, including a lack of respect for the utility of the United Nations, a total dismissal of Central and South America’s value in aiding the pursuit of American goals, a tone deaf approach to the global resistance of the spread of American democratic, economic and cultural ideals (particularly the violent resistance of Islam), a complete lack of non-western geopolitical analysis (resulting in a paucity of China, Japan and Russia perspectives to his interventionist strategies), and the absence of precisely defined vital (vs. desirable) national interests.

Many argue that America should resist the temptation of power because it will inevitably result in imperial overreach. Fettweis reminds us that, at a minimum, continued American expansion would virtually assure the rise of a Eurasian competitor or alliance of competitors (Fettweis, p. 10). So, the basic question remains: If America continues to act as the global Leviathan and plays the “Great Game” against China, Russia, Japan and others – does it have the economic and military will and resources to sustain its hegemonic position? Mackinder once said: “European civilization is, in a very real sense, the outcome of the secular struggle against Asiatic invasion” (Mackinder, p.28). Are we to inherit the same 19th century philosophy? America must decide: Resist or yield to the imperial impulse. And if America pursues empire, is Brzezinski’s highly interventionist global game plan the one we want to use for our strategy?

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A confident and care free republic – the city on the hill, whose people have always believed that they are immune from history’s harms – now has to confront not only an unending imperial destiny but also a remote possibility that seems to haunt the history of empire: hubris followed by defeat.
Michael Ignatieff

Geopolitics can ennoble as well as corrupt. It can choose between two alternatives – the
value of power and the power of values.


Geopoliticians justify their proposals by asserting that war is the natural state of man. They present a recipe for the prosecution of war by geographic means.

Preemptive war against regimes that openly (opposes our rules) is our most important long-term goal in this struggleThomas Barnett


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