Commentary Magazine

Out of Control, by Zbigniew Brzezinski

What Ails Us

Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the 21st Century.
by Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Scribner’s. 240 pp. $21.00.

The tremors and aftershocks from the earthquake that swallowed up the Soviet empire have not yet ceased. Not only is the Soviet region itself still in turmoil, but even here, far from the epicenter, the political ground continues to rumble beneath our feet, pushing up new formations. A recent instance is the new book by Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter and a leading light of U.S. foreign policy. Out of Control aims to describe the political dynamics of the post-cold-war world; it is also interesting for what it reveals about Brzezinski’s own political evolution.

Although he served a liberal President, Brzezinski has been regarded as leaning more to the conservative side. The various memoirs of the Carter administration, not least Brzezinski’s own, Power and Principle, make it clear that he took a conservative or hard-line position in a long series of internecine battles over policy. In 1988, he broke with the Democratic party to endorse George Bush for President over Michael Dukakis.

Brzezinski’s first vocation was as a Sovietologist. As a collaborator of the late Carl J. Friedrich, he was one of those who helped to develop the concept of totalitarianism, and he remained immune to fashionable equivocations about the realities of the Communist experiment. “It was especially due to the efforts of Brzezinski,” note Seymour Martin Lipset and Gyorgy Bence in a recent paper, “that the totalitarian interpretation never lost touch with Soviet developments.”

But now, while most conservatives are still basking in the West’s victory in the cold war, Brzezinski has come to deliver a warning: far from ushering in the end of history, the conclusion of the cold war may mark the onset of a new time of troubles.

What Brzezinski sees is a world divided between rich and poor. The rich—meaning citizens of the West and especially the United States—are decadent. They live in a “permissive cornucopia,” defined here as “a society in which everything is permitted and everything can be had.” It is a society in which God is dead and in which television “is rapidly replacing the roles traditionally played by the family, by the church, by the school.” Above all, it is a society characterized by the absence of self-control and the breakdown of “social criteria of moral discernment.”

On the other side, the poor are numerous and growing more so. Moreover, thanks to the wonders of modern communication, they are more aware of the rich, and of their own comparative disadvantage, than ever before. “A politically awakening world is less and less likely to tolerate massive disproportions in the conditions of life,” remarks Brzezinski. As a result, “inequality” has become “the central issue of our times.”



What should be our response to all this? In the first place, writes Brzezinski, America “must accept the reality and even the necessity of some gradual readjustment in the distribution of global power and wealth.” But even if we were not ready to relinquish some of our power, our ability to exercise world leadership would be constrained by our internal rot. Power, Brzezinski notes, is not tantamount to authority, and America lacks authority because others find its hedonistic culture unworthy of respect.

America’s decay is manifest in a list of twenty “basic dilemmas” that Brzezinski enumerates. These run the gamut from the budget and trade deficits to inadequate health care and deteriorating infrastructure to crime, poverty, racism, multiculturalism, and gridlock. Solutions to these dilemmas, Brzezinski believes, can come only secondarily from governmental action or any other quick fix. What “America clearly needs” is “a period of philosophical introspection and of cultural self-critique”—in short, a spiritual rebirth.

Yet despite the need for such a rebirth, in Brzezinski’s judgment it is highly unlikely that we will see “a return to the traditional centrality of institutionalized and formal religion.” Then what can be the source of renewal? Its seeds lie in “the West’s ecological movement,” which may be “auguring the emergence of a broader acceptance of the principle of self-denial as the point of departure for a globally shared moral consensus.”

In Brzezinski’s view, ecology and equality are linked because “the most egregious offenders” against the environment have been the rich nations. (“It is in Europe and North America that a number of species have already been wiped out in their entirety.”) Thus, the rich must learn self-denial both in order to help the poor and in order to alleviate the “ecological problem” which is “ultimately threatening all of humanity.”

Self-restraint on the part of the West should extend beyond economics and ecology. The West has been guilty of a “patronizing and parochial” attitude, considering itself to be “inherently superior, not only on the level of economic development but in political maturity.” In addition to becoming more humble in its attitude and more circumspect in its advice to the rest of the world, the United States must yield to changes in international politics.

“The UN’s time has finally come,” declares Brzezinski: we must work for “the deliberate enhancement of the UN’s political role, even at some cost to the unilateral power of some presently dominant states.” Indeed, we must look beyond strengthening the UN to “a progressive expansion in the scope of the authority wielded by the various [international] bodies”—because “the only long-term alternative to global anarchy is some form of a global confederal structure.”



These themes—Western guilt, American decline, environmentalism, inequality, world confederation—have been more popular among liberals than among conservatives in recent decades. If sounding them demonstrates a courage to think afresh in the light of dramatic changes in world politics, Brzezinski is to be applauded. But are the thoughts themselves persuasive?

In one of his passages on inequality, Brzezinski refers to “the gulf in the texture of life” between the rich and the poor nations. By this he means life “both in its material and in its spiritual dimensions.” This is odd because, in writing about the rich nations everywhere else in the book, Brzezinski emphasizes their spiritual poverty, rooted in the “permissive cornucopia.” The poor, however, do not suffer from this cornucopia, and if they have spiritual problems, he does not mention them, leaving the reader to infer that the poor are richer spiritually.

But are they? Brzezinski laments the violence to which the children in rich countries are subject when they watch television, but some of the violence that our rich children see (if they ever watch news programs) is being committed by poor children in places like Somalia, the Sudan, India, Sri Lanka, and Bosnia. It is violence committed for the sake of plunder and for the sake of hatred, which suggests that sins like greed and racism are no more unique to the rich than is violence.



Brzezinski’s prescription for America’s spiritual ills is hardly more compelling than his diagnosis. “A community that partakes of no shared absolute certainties . . . is a community threatened by dissolution.” But is environmentalism a more likely source of absolute certainties than traditional religion? Let us hope not, for an environmentalism that is not based on science is mischievous, and science eschews absolute certainties.

Nor is Brzezinski convincing when he argues that America’s ills, spiritual and economic, prevent it from exercising international leadership. In the 1940’s, the United States (with its allies) rallied to prevent first Hitler and then Stalin from conquering Europe. The standard of living of the average American in that decade was roughly one-third of what it is today; indices of health, education, and the like were appreciably lower than what we now enjoy. As for our spiritual ills, our greatest one, racism, was virulent and endemic: Jim Crow prevailed in the armed forces and in the nation’s capital. If, despite such domestic drawbacks, America was equal to the global challenges of the day, why, apart from want of will, can it not meet today’s far easier ones?

About Brzezinski’s proposed solutions to global problems I have my doubts as well. If the UN’s time has come, one would not know it from following the agony in Bosnia. Inflated estimates of the world body arose in the wake of the Persian Gulf crisis, but in that conflict the UN was important only as a vehicle for a determined American policy. As for wealth transfers from the rich nations to the poor, a great deal of evidence suggests that these yield little benefit, and that the key to development can be found not in charity but in market economics.

Finally, I am especially disappointed in Brzezinski’ apparent loss of interest in the democratic revolution. A member of the board of the National Endowment for Democracy, Brzezinski has been one of the few among the foreign-policy elite to take the democracy issue to heart. Now he writes dismissively that “notions of ‘democracy’ are fashionable.” When he asserts “the need for a globally shared concept of the meaning of the good life,” he invests his hopes not in democracy—which has spread within the last nineteen years from about twenty countries to about eighty—but in environmentalism, arguably a more “fashionable” cause these days than democracy, and arguably much less likely to provide a basis for the global consensus he seeks.

Brzezinski’s warnings are a tonic for complacency about the end of history. But his sour assessment of America’s present condition makes for a discordant postscript to the great victory of the West in the cold war, and offers little hope for the future.

About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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