by Zbigniew Brzezinski
Volume 11, Number 6
April 17, 2016
is a counselor at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies and was the National Security
Advisor to President Jimmy Carter from 1977-81.
He is the author,
most recently, of
America and the Crisis of Global Power.
The author acknowledges the helpful contribution of his
research assistant Paul Wasserman, and the scholarship
on the subject of colonial brutality by Adam Hochschild,
Richard Pierce, William Polk, and the Watson Institute
at Brown University, among others.
As its era of global dominance ends,
the United States needs to take the
lead in realigning the global power architecture.
Five basic verities regarding the emerging redistribution of global
political power and the violent political awakening in the Middle
East are signaling the coming of a new global realignment.
The first of these verities is
that the United States is still the world's politically,
economically, and militarily most powerful entity but, given
complex geopolitical shifts in regional balances, it is no
longer the globally imperial power.
But neither is any other major
The second verity is that Russia
is experiencing the latest convulsive phase of its imperial
devolution. A painful process, Russia is not fatally
precluded - if it acts wisely - from becoming eventually a
leading European nation-state.
However, currently it is
pointlessly alienating some of its former subjects in the
Islamic southwest of its once extensive empire, as well as
Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia, not to mention the Baltic
The third verity is that China
is rising steadily, if more slowly as of late, as America's
eventual coequal and likely rival; but for the time being it
is careful not to pose an outright challenge to America.
Militarily, it seems to be
seeking a breakthrough in a new generation of weapons while
patiently enhancing its still very limited naval power.
The fourth verity is that Europe
is not now and is not likely to become a global power. But
it can play a constructive role in taking the lead in regard
to transnational threats to global wellbeing and even human
Additionally, Europe is
politically and culturally aligned with and supportive of
core U.S. interests in the Middle East, and European
steadfastness within NATO is essential to an eventually
constructive resolution of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
The fifth verity is that the
currently violent political awakening among post-colonial
Muslims is, in part, a belated reaction to their
occasionally brutal suppression mostly by European powers.
It fuses a delayed but deeply
felt sense of injustice with a religious motivation that is
unifying large numbers of Muslims against the outside world.
But at the same time, because of historic sectarian schisms
within Islam that have nothing to do with the West, the
recent welling up of historical grievances is also divisive
Taken together as a unified framework,
these five verities tell us that the United States must take the
lead in realigning the global power architecture in such a way that
the violence erupting within and occasionally projected beyond the
Muslim world - and in the future possibly from other parts of what
used to be called the Third World - can be contained without
destroying the global order.
We can sketch this new architecture by
elaborating briefly each of the five foregoing verities.
First, America can only be
effective in dealing with the current Middle Eastern
violence if it forges a coalition that involves, in varying
degrees, also Russia and China.
To enable such a coalition to
take shape, Russia must first be discouraged from its
reliance on the unilateral use of force against its own
neighbors - notably Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic States -
and China should be disabused of the idea that selfish
passivity in the face of the rising regional crisis in the
Middle East will prove to be politically and economically
rewarding to its ambitions in the global arena.
These shortsighted policy
impulses need to be channeled into a more farsighted vision.
Second, Russia is becoming for
the first time in its history a truly national state, a
development that is as momentous as it is generally
The Czarist Empire, with its
multinational but largely politically passive population,
came to an end with World War I and the Bolshevik creation
of an allegedly voluntary union of national republics (the
USSR), with power resting effectively in Russian hands, took
The collapse of the Soviet Union
at the end of 1991 led to the sudden emergence of a
predominantly Russian state as its successor, and to the
transformation of the former Soviet Union's non-Russian
"republics" into formally independent states.
These states are now
consolidating their independence, and both the West and
China - in different areas and different ways - are
exploiting that new reality to Russia's disadvantage. In the
meantime, Russia's own future depends on its ability to
become a major and influential nation-state that is part of
a unifying Europe.
Not to do so could have
dramatically negative consequences for Russia's ability to
withstand growing territorial-demographic pressure from
China, which is increasingly inclined as its power grows to
recall the "unequal" treaties Moscow imposed on Beijing in
Third, China's dramatic economic
success requires enduring patience and the country's
awareness that political haste will make for social waste.
The best political prospect for
China in the near future is to become America's principal
partner in containing global chaos of the sort that is
spreading outward (including to the northeast) from the
If it is not contained, it will
contaminate Russia's southern and eastern territories as
well as the western portions of China.
Closer relations between China
and the new republics in Central Asia, the post-British
Muslim states in Southwest Asia (notably Pakistan) and
especially with Iran (given its strategic assets and
economic significance), are the natural targets of Chinese
regional geopolitical outreach.
But they should also be targets
of global Sino-American accommodation.
Fourth, tolerable stability will
not return to the Middle East as long as local armed
military formations can calculate that they can be
simultaneously the beneficiaries of a territorial
realignment while selectively abetting extreme violence.
Their ability to act in a savage
manner can only be contained by increasingly effective - but
also selective - pressure derived from a base of
U.S.-Russian-Chinese cooperation that, in turn, enhances the
prospects for the responsible use of force by the region's
more established states (namely, Iran, Turkey, Israel, and
The latter should also be the
recipients of more selective European support.
Under normal circumstances,
Saudi Arabia would be a significant player on that list, but
the current inclination of the Saudi government still to
Wahhabi fanaticism, even while engaged in ambitious
domestic modernization efforts, raises grave doubts
regarding Saudi Arabia's ability to play a regionally
significant constructive role.
Fifth, special attention should
be focused on the non-Western world's newly politically
memories are fueling in large part the sudden and very
explosive awakening energized by Islamic extremists in the
Middle East, but what is happening in the Middle East today
may be just the beginning of a wider phenomenon to come out
of Africa, Asia, and even among the pre-colonial peoples of
the Western Hemisphere in the years ahead.
Periodic massacres of their
not-so-distant ancestors by colonists and associated wealth-seekers
largely from western Europe (countries that today are, still
tentatively at least, most open to multiethnic cohabitation)
resulted within the past two or so centuries in the slaughter of
colonized peoples on a scale comparable to Nazi World War II crimes:
literally involving hundreds of
thousands and even millions of victims.
Political self-assertion enhanced by
delayed outrage and grief is a powerful force that is now surfacing,
thirsting for revenge, not just in the Muslim Middle East but also
very likely beyond.
Much of the data cannot be precisely established, but taken
collectively, they are shocking.
Let just a few examples suffice.
In the 16th century,
due largely to disease brought by Spanish explorers, the population
of the native Aztec Empire in present-day Mexico declined from 25
million to approximately one million.
Similarly, in North America, an
estimated 90 percent of the native population died within the first
five years of contact with European settlers, due primarily to
In the 19th century,
various wars and forced resettlements killed an additional 100,000.
In India from 1857-1867, the British are suspected of killing up to
one million civilians in reprisals stemming from the Indian
Rebellion of 1857.
The British East India Company's use of
Indian agriculture to grow opium then essentially forced on China
resulted in the premature deaths of millions, not including the
directly inflicted Chinese casualties of
the First and Second Opium
In the Congo, which was the personal
holding of Belgian King Leopold II, 10-15 million people were killed
between 1890 and 1910. In Vietnam, recent estimates suggest that
between one and three million civilians were killed from 1955 to
As to the Muslim world in Russia's Caucasus, from 1864 and 1867, 90
percent of the local
Circassian population was forcibly
relocated and between 300,000 and 1.5 million either starved to
death or were killed.
Between 1916 and 1918, tens of thousands
of Muslims were killed when 300,000 Turkic Muslims were forced by
Russian authorities through the mountains of Central Asia and into
China. In Indonesia, between 1835 and 1840, the Dutch occupiers
killed an estimated 300,000 civilians.
In Algeria, following a 15-year civil
war from 1830-1845, French brutality, famine, and disease killed 1.5
million Algerians, nearly half the population.
In neighboring Libya, the Italians
Cyrenaicans into concentration
camps, where an estimated 80,000 to 500,000 died between 1927 and
More recently, in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989 the Soviet Union
is estimated to have killed around one million civilians; two
decades later, the United States has killed 26,000 civilians during
its 15-year war in Afghanistan.
In Iraq, 165,000 civilians have been
killed by the United States and its allies in the past 13 years.
(The disparity between the reported
number of deaths inflicted by European colonizers compared with the
United States and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan may be due in
part to the technological advances that have resulted in the more
productive use of force and in part as well to a shift in the
world's normative climate.)
Just as shocking as the scale of these
atrocities is how quickly the West forgot about them.
In today's postcolonial world, a new historical narrative is
emerging. A profound resentment against the West and its colonial
legacy in Muslim countries and beyond is being used to justify their
sense of deprivation and denial of self-dignity.
A stark example of the experience and
attitudes of colonial peoples is well summarized by the Senegalese
poet David Diop in "Vultures":
In those days,
When civilization kicked us in the face
The vultures built in the shadow of their talons
The blood stained monument of tutelage…
Given all this, a long and painful road
toward an initially limited regional accommodation is the only
viable option for the United States, Russia, China, and the
pertinent Middle Eastern entities.
For the United States, that will require
patient persistence in forging cooperative relationships with some
new partners (particularly Russia and China) as well as joint
efforts with more established and historically rooted Muslim states
(Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia if it can detach its foreign
Wahhabi extremism) in shaping a
wider framework of regional stability.
Our European allies, previously dominant
in the region, can still be helpful in that regard.
A comprehensive U.S. pullout from the Muslim world favored by
domestic isolationists, could give rise to new wars (for example,
Israel vs. Iran, Saudi Arabia vs. Iran, a major Egyptian
intervention in Libya) and would generate an even deeper crisis of
confidence in America's globally stabilizing role.
In different but dramatically
unpredictable ways, Russia and China could be the geopolitical
beneficiaries of such a development even as global order itself
becomes the more immediate geopolitical casualty.
Last but not least, in such
circumstances a divided and fearful Europe would see its current
member states searching for patrons and competing with one another
in alternative but separate arrangements among the more powerful
A constructive U.S. policy must be patiently guided by a long-range
vision. It must seek outcomes that promote the gradual realization
in Russia (probably post-Putin) that its only place as an
influential world power is ultimately within Europe.
China's increasing role in the Middle
East should reflect the reciprocal American and Chinese realization
that a growing U.S.-PRC partnership in coping with the Middle
Eastern crisis is an historically significant test of their ability
to shape and enhance together wider global stability.
The alternative to a constructive vision, and especially the quest
for a one-sided militarily and ideologically imposed outcome, can
only result in prolonged and self-destructive futility.
For America, that could entail enduring
conflict, fatigue, and conceivably even a demoralizing withdrawal to
its pre-20th century isolationism. For Russia, it could mean major
defeat, increasing the likelihood of subordination in some fashion
to Chinese predominance.
For China, it could portend war not only
with the United States but also, perhaps separately, with either
Japan or India or with both.
And, in any case, a prolonged phase of
sustained ethnic, quasi-religious wars pursued
through the Middle
East with self-righteous fanaticism would generate escalating
bloodshed within and outside the region, and growing cruelty
The fact is that there has never been a truly "dominant" global
power until the emergence of America on the world scene. Imperial
Great Britain came close to becoming one, but World War I and later
World War II not only bankrupted it but also prompted the emergence
of rival regional powers.
The decisive new global reality was the
appearance on the world scene of America as simultaneously the
richest and militarily the most powerful player. During the latter
part of the 20th century no other power even came
That era is now ending...
While no state is likely in the near
future to match America's economic-financial superiority, new
weapons systems could suddenly endow some countries with the means
to commit suicide in a joint tit-for-tat embrace with the United
States, or even to prevail.
Without going into speculative detail,
the sudden acquisition by some state of the capacity to render
America militarily inferior would spell the end of America's global
The result would most probably be global
chaos. And that is why it behooves the United States to fashion a
policy in which at least one of the two potentially threatening
states becomes a partner in the quest for regional and then wider
global stability, and thus in containing the least predictable but
potentially the most likely rival to overreach.
Currently, the more likely to overreach
is Russia, but in the longer run it could be China.
Since the next twenty years may well be the last phase of the more
traditional and familiar political alignments with which we have
grown comfortable, the response needs to be shaped now.
During the rest of this century,
humanity will also have to be increasingly preoccupied with survival
as such on account of a confluence of environmental challenges.
Those challenges can only be addressed
responsibly and effectively in a setting of increased international
And that accommodation has to be based
on a strategic vision that recognizes the urgent need for a new