Rehabilitating US Imperialism

Review of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US stood triumphant as the lone superpower with no peer rivals and in a unique position to reshape the international system in its interests.

However, as Brzezinski notes in his new book, Second Chance, “barely fifteen years after the wall came down, the once proud and globally admired America was widely viewed around the world with intense hostility, its legitimacy and credibility in tatters, its military bogged down…, its formerly devoted allies distancing themselves, and world-wide public opinion polls documenting widespread hostility toward the United States.”

While Brzezinski excoriates the Bush Administration for what he calls its “catastrophic leadership,” he does not put the current imperial crisis merely at the feet of the toxic Texan. Instead, he argues that the last three Presidents have failed to craft a new grand strategy for the US and each in turn contributed to the current crisis.

As the former National Security Advisor to the Carter Administration, Brzezinski is no leftist. He is perhaps the most insightful imperialist thinker produced by Cold War liberalism and the most important one to confront America’s imperial crisis and propose a strategy to rehabilitate it.

Brzezinski reviews the records of the last three presidents attempt to shape the emerging new world system. To lead the world he argues a new grand strategy would have to take shape around are three priorities: (1) shaping the power relationships toward a more cooperative global system; (2) containing civil wars, preventing terrorism and halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and (3) ameliorating rising global inequality and spreading ecological crisis.

According to Brzezinski, the first Bush Administration did not develop a new grand strategy to address these priorities, relying on a vague slogan that the US was committed to a “New World Order.”

Amidst the dramatic transformations brought about the collapse of the Russian Empire, Bush I scrambled to keep up and essentially relied on conventional great power diplomacy to maintain the status quo among great and lesser powers, not lead their transformation.

Brzezinski singles out Bush’s failure to capitalize on its military victory in the Gulf War as his presidency’s “original sin.” He did not turn military success into a political victory to address the regions problems especially the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Instead Bush maintained the regional status quo.

Even worse he established military bases in Saudi Arabia and maintained sanctions against Iraq. All of these failures would provoke Arab anger and provide fertile grounds for the appeals of Al Qaeda against the US.

Brzezinski is no less scathing toward the Clinton Administration for failing to come up with a grand strategy. Clinton instead hoped that economic globalization would of its own accord erode conflicts between nations in the world system.

Brzezinksi argues that this naïve economic determinism led the Clinton administration to inadequately attend to statecraft among great and regional powers. Moreover, Clinton’s trumpeting of globalization left the US vulnerable to criticism and resistance from victims of multinationals, IMF/World Bank structural adjustment programs, and the Asian economic crisis.

Globalization’s inequalities both eroded US legitimacy and sparked what Brzezinski calls a populist movement dramatically expressed through the Seattle protest in 1999 that shut down the World Trade Organization meeting.

Brzezinski attacks the Clinton Administration for encouraging America’s elites to indulge in “social hedonism.” He argues that the ruling class’ unwilling to pay taxes or subordinate itself to international treaties and rules provoked denunciations of the US as a callous hyper-power. Its behavior risked fraying the strategic alliance with other global leaders, especially Europe.

George Bush’s foreign policy turned a problematic position into a catastrophe. Neoconservative advisers shaped his administration’s strategy in the wake of 9/11. In place of fostering alliances engaged in deterrence Bush announced his doctrine of preemptive war carried through by the US, whether other powers came along or not, telling other regimes “you’re either with us or against.”

Brzezinski argues that the neocons have foolishly narrowed US policy to the Middle East ignoring other strategic interests. Moreover, they demonized Moslems and Arabs and turned the US into an open partisan of Israel compromising any semblance of neutrality in negotiations over the Palestinian crisis.

As a result of Bush’s policies and wars, Brzezinski concludes that the regime has done “calamitous damage to America’s global standing,” caused a “geopolitical disaster” of broken alliances, destabilized Central Asia and the Middle East, increased the stimulus for terrorist counter-attacks, and encouraged rather than deterred the spread of weapons of mass destruction as all those under threat from the US race to build a bomb out of self-protection.

Most troubling for Brzezinski is how Bush has encouraged Russia, China and “rogue states” like Iran to begin forming a potential rival alliance that could threaten the primacy of American leadership of Europe in shaping the world system.

In a startling passage, he summarizes the consequences of Bush’s “suicidal statecraft”: “Europe is now increasingly alienated. Russia and China are both more assertive and more in step. Asia is turning away and organizing itself while Japan is quietly considering how to make itself more secure. Latin American democracy is becoming populist and anti-American. The Middle East is fragmenting and on the brink of explosion. The world of Islam is inflamed by rising religious passion and anti-imperialist nationalisms. Throughout the world, public opinion polls show that U.S. policy is widely feared and even despised.”

Brzezinski concludes that the US must conduct a regime change, replacing the Bush administration and its neocon policy advisers with foreign policy realists and chart a new grand strategy capable of repairing the damage done by the last three Presidents. The 2008 election is America’s second chance and, given the dire predicament of its current imperial crisis, he says there will not be a third.

Brzezinski proposes that the US take up Human Rights as the guiding principle of a new grand strategy. By focusing on human rights, the US can undue its lost legitimacy, win over its alienated allies, and rehabilitate itself in the eyes of those suffering in poverty and aspiring to fulfill the nationalist aspirations.

To carry this through, the US must rebuild its alliance with Europe and incorporate China, Japan, and Russia into formations like NATO and a rehabilitated WTO, thereby preventing the development of imperial rivals.

The US must conceive of its project as promoting national interests that are also in the interests of the global community. It must impose self-restraint on the social hedonism of the ruling class in order to spend money and build international formation that implement global policies to further the world’s common interests.

The price of failing to implement this strategy is two fold. First, the US will spur Russia and China among others to form a rival axis of power that could tip the world toward larger imperial wars. Second, it will antagonize the emerging populist rebellion against global inequality.

This widening inequality is producing “revolutionaries-in-waiting … the equivalent of the militant proletariat of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries … [The] political awakening is now global in geographic scope, comprehensive in social scale …, strikingly youthful in demographic profile and thus receptive to rapid political mobilization, and transnational in sources of inspiration because of the cumulative impact of literacy and mass communications. As a result, modern populist passions can be aroused even against a distant target, despite the absence of a unifying doctrine such as Marxism … Only by identifying itself with the idea of universal human dignity — with its basic requirement of respect for culturally diverse political, social, and religious emanations — can America overcome the risk that the global political awakening will turn against it.”

Brzezinski’s book is a liberal manifesto for rehabilitating imperialism. But it relies on a fundamental, faulty assumption that the world’s nations, both great powers and war torn nations, can be led by the US as a global commonweal.

While it is true that Bush’s incompetent and reckless strategy exacerbated conflicts between rival powers, it did not create them. As Lenin argued in Imperialism, capitalism compels great powers to compete with one another generating all sorts of conflicts and inevitably military conflagrations. Only this competitive dynamic can in the final instance explain the increasing antagonisms between China, Russia and the US in particular that have developed in the wake of the Cold War.

Moreover, while Brzezinski’s program of social reform to address global inequality and climate change might produce at best more aid, a revitalized peace core, and implementation of the Kyoto Protocols, it will not address the systemic causes of the world’s growing problems.

The period of our rulers providing guns and butter is long gone. The competitive pressures of the capitalist race to the bottom preclude fundamental social reforms because of the vicious competition built into the system and dramatically increased since the 1970s.

Brzezinski’s grand strategy of human rights may position the US better to win its way in the system than the previous three failed ones, but it will not overcome the imperialist and exploitative pressure built into capitalism.

The alternative to these lies in precisely what he most fears, what he calls rising populism or at other moments the tyranny of the majority. Only such a mass movement from below can win social reforms.

And for that new rebellion against social inequality to win and replace capitalist imperialism and class exploitation with genuine democratic control of society by the majority, it will need both Marxism and revolutionary parties. That which Brzezinski wants to preempt is the only solution — worker’s revolution.

Ashley Smith is a writer and activist from Burlington, Vermont. He writes frequently for Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. He can be reached at Read other articles by Ashley.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Wallace Nixon said on May 8th, 2007 at 9:55am #


    Mr. Brzezinski seems to want to save the apple and the worm. Capitalism has been flexible and resilient but like piracy is not open to reform. He wants a kinder and gentler American hegemony. Forget it!

  2. Eric Patton said on May 10th, 2007 at 3:46pm #

    Marxism represents the coordinator class, not the working class.

  3. wingnut said on May 17th, 2007 at 5:08am #

    Yep, capitalism is a pyramid scheme of servitude. Its infested with inequality… its easy to see. Its a slavery system… join or die. Its felony extortion “pay-up or lose your wellbeing” just like old Chicago mobs. Unfortunately, Elliot Ness isn’t around to save us, and the U.S. Dept of Justice has condoned and promoted the pyramid scheme. (See the pyramid scheme symbol on the back of the USA one dollar bill, as wanted.)

    Here’s another picture of the servitude system.

    Profiting causes inflation, end of discussion on THAT. DUH!

    The Great Pyramids are out in the dessert for a reason, kids. Its to remind us ALL… that we WILL have “a tendency” to stack children into pyramids of inequality and servitude on THIS planet. Gramma always told us… that the children on the BOTTOM of farmyard pyramids… ALWAYS GET HURT… SO DON’T STACK THE CHILDREN! Capitalists have ignored God’s words, and chosen their “owned” way instead. Not good. There were NEVER any pricetags or titles of ownership on ANY Earth material when man got here… so by our very own laws… we have no right to EVER claim ownership on Earth materials. ORIGINAL OWNER was NEVER located… so nobody can “squat” an Earth resource, by God’s and USA laws.

    Also, there’s no slots for “fairness officer” or “equality cop” or “church policy enforcer” within business… FOR GOOD REASON. Church policies ARE NOT ALLOWED within capitalism/business. NOT GOOD, KIDS! AND… our USA courtrooms are dressed as church simulators with false deities in robes “on high”… and are un-level, architecturally. WHY???

    The caps use the “BUT-5” system of avoiding looking at the pile of dead oppressed poor meek Christians in the cities. The BUT-5 system is this…

    1. They brought it on themselves.
    2. They CHOSE that way of life.
    3. Been going-on for years.
    4. Can’t change it – controlled by big biz/gov.
    5. We need to WORK-AROUND things (as opposed to work-thru).

    BUT-5 … the world’s BEST packet of excuses to allow the capitalists to DENY they are killing us all. So, capitalism, the great planet and mankind forsaking machine… the giant con… the Masonic sham… the pyramid scheme… continues. So does the runaway shopping and enjoyments addictions of the USA cattle. Hoard-a-thon!!

    Remove pricetags and titles of ownership, and then ASK people to go to work on mankind-helping projects FOR FREE… and the problems go away, including greenhouse gasings. Make workplaces LOVING!

    Keep competing instead of cooperating, and you’ll kill the planet and its occupants. Your choice, kids.

    MaStars – Mothers Against Stuff That Ain’t Right

  4. Brooke said on February 13th, 2008 at 10:30am #

    …. Wtf? ‘Pyramid of servitude’?

    Great argument, really. You really convinced me that capitalism is horrible.
    Wow, I’m a goddamn socialist now.

    (Anyhoo, good arguments Ms. Smith. I enjoyed reading your article.)