Commentary Magazine


Game Plan, by Zbigniew Brzezinski

World Struggle

Game Plan: A Geostrategic Framework for the Conduct of the U.S.-Soviet Contest.
by Zebigniew Brzezinski.
Atlantic Monthly Press. 288 pp. $18.95.

This reviewer must confess to having some initial doubts about a book whose dust jacket sports endorsements from both Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. Yet such is the case with Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Game Plan, an interesting if uneven discussion of American grand strategy for the long-term competition with the Soviet empire. It is an ambitious attempt to provide a comprehensive view of America’s most important security problem since World War II—coping with the Soviet Union.

Brzezinski begins the book by laying out the historical context of the clash between the two empires (a word which he uses in a selfconsciously neutral way), portraying it as a struggle for Eurasia, the World Island which contains most of mankind, its artificially created wealth, and the earth’s natural resources. Following a quick tour of “Peripheral Zones of Special Vulnerability,” Game Plan discusses the Soviet Union as a “One-Dimensional Rival,” an enemy whose sole asset is his raw military power. In the remaining two-fifths of the book Brzezinski sketches out a menu of American goals and strategies.

Despite some minor lapses into a curious patois of Washington and academic jargon, Brzezinski writes vigorously and clearly. He does not refrain from expressing views unlikely to win him favor in the circles in which he has moved thus far, and particularly in the Democratic party. He thinks that strategic defenses make sense, and that they should be deployed sooner rather than later. He dismisses passionate believers in arms control, and disparages both the product and process of most contemporary arms control, referring to it in one form as “the contamination of strategy by pacifism.” He suggests that the United States should pursue a policy of gently prying loose the East European states from Soviet domination. When speaking of our European allies he displays a rare bluntness, accusing them of “shirking their defense obligations.” He has, moreover, no illusions about the possibilities of long-term accommodation with the Soviets, either through condominium or extensive arms control. Indeed, one of the book’s greatest merits lies in its insistence on the simple fact that the United States is locked in a long-term competition with the Soviet Union, and that we must design our strategy accordingly.

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In Brzezinski’s view, the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union takes place along three major fronts: in Western Europe, in the Far East, and in Southwest Asia. He warns that a fourth front could open up—greatly to our disadvantage—along our southern border if corruption and civil strife cause Central America (and ultimately Mexico) to fall into social chaos. On each of the three major fronts there exists a pair of linchpin states (Poland and Germany; South Korea and the Philippines; Iran and Pakistan) whose alignment can tip the balance throughout the region. In each case he gives a quick summary of the forces arrayed on either side; he is particularly good at suggesting how the contest in each region looks from the Soviet point of Eliot A. Cohen, who teaches in the department of strategy at the Naval War College, is the author of Citizens & Soldiers: The Dilemmas of Military Service. His article, “Do We Still Need Europe?” appeared in our January issue.view, including in the text a variety of maps drawn from the vantage point of Moscow—a sobering lesson in geopolitics.

Yet for all this book’s shrewdness, it is not completely satisfactory. Part of the problem stems from Brzezinski’s analysis of the mainsprings of Soviet conduct, which he finds almost wholly in the long traditions of czarist statecraft. “Soviet intentions derive from the historical Russian desire to achieve a preeminent global standing.” Although the author of Game Plan acknowledges that ideology plays some role in shaping how the Soviets do what they do, he believes that it has very little to say about why they do what they do.

Now, one need not proceed to the limits of the opposing view (most articulately expressed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) to think that Communism provides more than some tactical prescriptions and obsolete economic recipes to the Soviet leadership. Not even the most megalomaniacal of the Czars dreamed of imposing not only his rule but the Russian system of social organization on the entire earth, nor did the old Russia ever pose the kind of threat to the world balance of power that the USSR does today. Moreover, insofar as Marxism-Leninism does (as Brzezinski freely concedes) shape the Soviet approach to all matters of foreign policy and war, it would have been worthwhile, in a book of this kind, to speculate about what kinds of vulnerabilities that ideology creates, and how we might exploit them.

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Brzezinski’s curious reluctance to ascribe fundamentally ideological motivations to Soviet leaders is all the more odd in view of his proposal that the United States should use its ideology as a weapon in this long-term struggle, particularly in Eastern Europe. The idea is in many ways an attractive one, but what should the United States do about situations (particularly in the Middle East) in which liberalism—secular, individualistic, and materialistic—excites only the most vicious kinds of loathing? Ideology is more than simply a weapon in the contests between states, to be exploited or discarded according to the dictates of expediency. Rather, it pervades this conflict and many others, and so needs to be considered as part of the environment, not simply as a weapon in the arsenal.

It is in part Brzezinski’s undervaluing of ideology that leads him to a generally optimistic prognosis. “[T]he Soviet Union is like a giant with steel hands but rotten innards. It can crush in its grip weaker opponents but a spreading corrosion is eating away at its system.” If the United States can only deploy its forces skillfully, patching a weakness here, capitalizing on a strength there, it is certain to win. If the U.S. does not lose the contest, Brzezinski argues, it will have won; if the USSR does not win, it will have lost.

There is much to be said for such optimism, but Brzezinski passes lightly over his view of the end game in this prolonged match. He does not expect a central nuclear war, and even a limited conventional conflict is, as he and others have pointed out, quite unlikely. He notes the many weaknesses of the Soviet position in Eastern Europe, as well as the many internal demographic, economic, and even ecological problems. He advocates a more aggressive policy than many of his colleagues in the academic world, at any rate, would feel comfortable with, and argues that such a form of genteel rollback would ensure American victory—not through a knockout, perhaps, but certainly on points.

But Brzezinski does not spell out how he expects the Soviet Union to react to these developments. He appears to think that it will grudgingly concede its loss of global power as long as its immediate security interests go unthreatened, which is more or less what one would expect of a sensible Great Power. Surely, however, a reversal of history of such magnitude, unaccountable from the point of view of Marxist theology, would create enormous and possibly unpredictable tensions in the Soviet leadership. Perhaps, in the end, the Soviets could accommodate such a catastrophic deviation front the course of events their beliefs lead them to expect: if so, one would like to know how. In any event, Brzezinski’s coyness about how the game ends, if it ever does, leaves his reader dissatisfied, precisely because of the book’s obviously large ambitions. To say, as he does in his conclusion, that winning is a process, not a result, is to evade the larger question, particularly when he mentions the possibility that a successful U.S.-Soviet competition could conceivably lead to a dissolution of the Great Russian empire.

Game Plan has other weaknesses, most notably a lack of rigor in military analysis. Although Brzezinski has not shunned military detail, he does not delve deeply enough into it to make convincing operational arguments. For example, he proposes the creation of more light divisions, plus the airlift to sustain them, in order to meet possible Soviet aggression in the Persian Gulf. How, precisely, these light divisions could stop heavy Soviet formations is unclear; the analogy which Brzezinski draws between British light forces fighting Argentine infantry in the Falk-lands and American forces opposing Soviet mechanized forces in the Persian Gulf is simply untenable. Moreover, Brzezinski never spells out the extent to which the resources freed up by withdrawing 100,000 troops from Europe would actually remedy the deficiencies of the Rapid Deployment Force.

Although Brzezinski does make casual reference to the use of the so-called emerging technologies (very accurate, very “smart” long-range rockets and missiles), he fails to provide the reader with a good enough sense of the military environment in which the superpowers will conduct their competition. Perhaps that would require more speculation than Brzezinski would feel comfortable with, but then this is, quite properly, a speculative rather than a scholarly book. The new military technologies—in particular, the development of weapons with sophisticated computer guidance, but also the evolution of radically new kinds of weapons such as electromagnetic rail guns, lasers, etc.—may completely change the strategic environment in which the contest will take place. If not, then at least the author of Game Plan should explain why not.

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None of the above, however, should be taken to suggest that Game Plan is anything but an instructive work. If nothing else, by tackling a project of this scope, and by having the courage to make unpopular observations and (for some at least) extremely disturbing proposals, Brzezinski has suggested how we should go about thinking through what is, after all, the enduring strategic problem of our time. Most important, perhaps, is the tough-minded common sense that he brings to bear on the strategic competition. His discussion of the Strategic Defense Initiative provides a good example of this. He properly rejects as extreme and self-contradictory the arguments of the most vociferous opponents of SDI, who hold that it will prove both easy to foil and tremendously destabilizing; at the same time, he argues that the notion of a perfect defense against nuclear weapons will prove chimerical. Instead, he suggests that the advent of anti-missile defenses will create more balanced force structures for both sides, which works to the advantage of the United States.

Above all, Game Plan reminds us of the importance of thinking strategically about the long-term competition with the Soviet Union. With one or two notable exceptions, this kind of thinking does not get done in government, and for several decades, at any rate, precious little of it has taken place outside it, at either universities or think-tanks. Unfortunate as this may have been in the past, it is perilous today, because the imperative of strategic thought arises from a steady slippage in America’s relative strength vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Despite the best efforts of the Reagan administration, the United States has barely managed to undo the worst damage to the defense establishment caused by years of underfunding. Brzezinski’s generally optimistic approach and conclusions, therefore, must be set against a background of eroding American power. This is not to suggest that the Soviet Union does not face its own, and indeed far more severe, difficulties. It is, however, to say that lackadaisical strategy-making is an indulgence we can no long afford.

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