by Zbigniew Brzezinski

Harvard International Review

Winter 1997/1998

From 'The Grand Chessboard - American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives'

from HarvardInternationalReview Website




For America, the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia. For half a millennium, world affairs were dominated by Eurasian powers and peoples who fought with one another for regional domination and reached out for global power. Now a non-Eurasian power is preeminent in Eurasia—and Americas global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained. Obviously, that condition is temporary.

But its duration, and what follows it, is of critical importance not only to America's well-being but more generally to international peace.



The sudden emergence of the first and only global power has created a situation in which an equally quick end to its supremacy—either because of 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.


The Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington is right in boldly asserting that,

"a world without US primacy will be a world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and economic growth than a world where the United States continues to have more influence than any other country in shaping global affairs. The sustained international primacy of the United States is central to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the world."

In that context, how America "manages" Eurasia is critical. Eurasia is the globe's largest continent and is geopolitically axial. A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world's three most advanced and economically productive regions. A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over Eurasia would almost automatically entail Africa's subordination, rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world's central continent.


About 75 percent of the world's people live in Eurasia, and most of the world's physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. Eurasia accounts for about 60 percent of the world's GNP and about three-fourths of the world's known energy resources.

Eurasia is also the location of most of the world's politically assertive and dynamic states. After the United States, the next six largest economies and the next six biggest spenders on military weaponry are located in Eurasia. All but one of the world's overt nuclear powers and all but one of the covert ones are located in Eurasia. The world's two most populous aspirants to regional hegemony and global influence are Eurasian.


All of the potential political and/or economic challengers to American primacy are Eurasian. Cumulatively, Eurasia's power vastly overshadows America's. Fortunately for America, Eurasia is too big to be politically one.

The time has come for the United States to formulate and prosecute an integrated, comprehensive, and long-term geostrategy for all of Eurasia. This need arises out of the interaction between two fundamental realities:

  1. America is now the only global superpower

  2. Eurasia is the globe's central arena.

US Secretary of Defense William Cohen and Ukrainian Defense Minister Olexandr Kuzmuk

watch as NATO exercises promise a secure Europe.


Hence, what happens to the distribution of power on the Eurasian continent will be of decisive importance to America's global primacy and to America's historical legacy.

In that context, for some time to come—for more than a generation— America's status as the world's premier power is unlikely to be contested by any single challenger. No nation-state is likely to match America in the four key dimensions of power (military, economic, technological, and cultural) that cumulatively produce decisive global political clout. Short of a deliberate or unintentional American abdication, the only real alternative to American global leadership in the foreseeable future is international anarchy. In that respect, it is correct to assert that America has become, as President Clinton put it, the world's "indispensable nation."

It is important to stress here both the fact of that indispensability and the actuality of the potential for global anarchy. The disruptive consequences of population explosion, poverty-driven migration, radicalizing urbanization, ethnic and religious hostilities, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction would become unmanageable if the existing and underlying nation-state-based framework of even rudimentary geopolitical stability were itself to fragment.


Without sustained and directed American involvement, before long the forces of global disorder could come to dominate the world scene. And the possibility of such a fragmentation is inherent in the geopolitical tensions not only of today's Eurasia but of the world more generally.



Implications of European Unity

The United States has always professed its fidelity to the cause of a united Europe. Ever since the days of the Kennedy administration, the standard invocation has been that of "equal partnership." Official Washington has consistently proclaimed its desire to see Europe emerge as a single entity, powerful enough to share with America both the responsibilities and the burdens of global leadership.

That has been the established rhetoric of the subject. But in practice, the United States has been less clear and less consistent. Does Washington truly desire a Europe that is a genuinely equal partner in world affairs, or does it prefer an unequal alliance? For example, is the United States prepared to share leadership with Europe in the Middle East, a region not only much closer geographically to Europe than to America but also one in which several European states have long-standing interests? The issue of Israel instantly comes to mind. US-European differences over Iran and Iraq have also been treated by the United States not as an issue between equals but as a matter of insubordination.

The emergence of a truly united Europe—especially if that should occur with constructive American support—will require significant changes in the structure and processes of the NATO alliance, the principal link between America and Europe. NATO provides not only the main mechanism for the exercise of US influence regarding European matters but the basis for the politically critical American military presence in Western Europe.


However, European unity will require that structure to adjust to the new reality of an alliance based on two more or less equal partners, instead of an alliance that, to use traditional terminology, involves essentially a hegemony and its vassals. That issue has so far been largely skirted, despite the modest steps taken in 1996 to enhance within NATO the role of the Western European Union (WEU), the military coalition of the Western European states. A real choice in favor of a united Europe will thus compel a far-reaching reordering of NATO, inevitably reducing the American primacy within the alliance.

In brief, a long-range American geostrategy for Europe will have to address explicitly the issues of European unity and real partnership with Europe. An America that truly desires a united and hence also a more independent Europe will have to throw its weight behind those European forces that are genuinely committed to Europe's political and economic integration.


Such a strategy will also mean junking the last vestiges of the once-hallowed US-UK special relationship.



The NATO Imperative

A policy for a united Europe will also have to address—though jointly with the Europeans—the highly sensitive issue of Europe's geographic scope.

  • How far eastward should the European Union extend?

  • And should the eastern limits of the EU be synonymous with the eastern front line of NATO?

The former is more a matter for a European decision, but a European decision on that issue will have direct implications for a NATO decision. The latter, however, engages the United States, and the US voice in NATO is still decisive.


Given the growing consensus regarding the desirability of admitting the nations of Central Europe into both the EU and NATO, the practical meaning of this question focuses attention on the future status of the Baltic republics and perhaps also that of Ukraine. There is thus an important overlap between the European dilemma discussed above and the second one pertaining to Russia. It is easy to respond to the question regarding Russia's future by professing a preference for a democratic Russia, closely linked to Europe.


Presumably, a democratic Russia would be more sympathetic to the values shared by America and Europe and hence also more likely to become a junior partner in shaping a more stable and cooperative Eurasia. But Russia's ambitions may go beyond the attainment of recognition and respect as a democracy. Within the Russian foreign policy establishment (composed largely of former Soviet officials), there still thrives a deeply ingrained desire for a special Eurasian role, one that would consequently entail the subordination to Moscow of the newly independent post-Soviet states.

With regard to Russia, the United States faces a dilemma.

  • To what extent should Russia be helped economically—which inevitably strengthens Russia politically and militarily—and to what extent should the newly independent states be simultaneously assisted in the defense and consolidation of their independence?

  • Can Russia be both powerful and a democracy at the same time?

  • If it becomes powerful again, will it not seek to regain its lost imperial domain, and can it then be both an empire and a democracy?

US policy toward the vital geopolitical pivots of Ukraine and Azerbaijan cannot skirt that issue, and America thus faces a difficult dilemma regarding tactical balance and strategic purpose. Internal Russian recovery is essential to Russia's democratization and eventual Europeanization. But any recovery of its imperial potential would be inimical to both of these objectives.


Moreover, it is over this issue that differences could develop between America and some European states, especially as the EU and NATO expand.

  • Should Russia be considered a candidate for eventual membership in either structure?

  • And what then about Ukraine?

The costs of the exclusion of Russia could be high— creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in the Russian mindset—but the results of dilution of either the EU or NATO could also be quite destabilizing.



Problems at the Periphery

Another major uncertainty looms in the large and geopolitically fluid space of Central Eurasia, maximized by the potential vulnerability of the Turkish-Iranian pivots. In the area from Crimea in the Black Sea directly eastward along the new southern frontiers of Russia, all the way to the Chinese province of Xinjiang, then down to the Indian Ocean and then westward to the Red Sea, then northward to the eastern Mediterranean Sea and back to Crimea, live about 400 million people, located in some twenty-five states, almost all of them ethnically as well as religiously heterogeneous and practically none of them politically stable.


Some of these states may be in the process of acquiring nuclear weapons.

This huge region, torn by volatile hatreds and surrounded by competing powerful neighbors, is likely to be a major battlefield both for wars among nation-states and, more likely, for protracted ethnic and religious violence. Whether India acts as a restraint or whether it takes advantage of some opportunity to impose its will on Pakistan will greatly affect the regional scope of the likely conflicts. The internal strains within Turkey and Iran are likely not only to get worse but to greatly reduce the stabilizing role these states are capable of playing within this volcanic region.


Such developments will in turn make it more difficult to assimilate the new Central Asian states into the international community, while also adversely affecting the American-dominated security of the Persian Gulf region. In any case, both America and the international community may be faced here with a challenge that will dwarf the recent crisis in the former Yugoslavia.

A possible challenge to American primacy from Islamic fundamentalism could be part of the problem in this unstable region. By exploiting religious hostility to the American way of life and taking advantage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Islamic fundamentalism could undermine several pro-Western Middle Eastern governments and eventually jeopardize American regional interests, especially in the Persian Gulf.


However, without political cohesion and in the absence of a single genuinely powerful Islamic state, a challenge from Islamic fundamentalism would lack a geopolitical core and would thus be more likely to express itself through diffuse violence.


A Pragmatic Approach to China

A geostrategic issue of crucial importance is posed by China's emergence as a major power. The most appealing outcome would be to co-opt a democratizing and free-marketing China into a larger Asian regional framework of cooperation. But suppose China does not democratize but continues to grow in economic and military power?


A "Greater China" may be emerging, whatever the desires and calculations of its neighbors, and any effort to prevent that from happening could entail an intensifying conflict with China. Such a conflict could strain American-Japanese relations—for it is far from certain that Japan would want to follow America's lead in containing China—and could therefore have potentially revolutionary consequences for Tokyo's definition of Japan's regional role, perhaps even resulting in the termination of the American presence in the Far East.

However, accommodation with China will also exact its own price. To accept China as a regional power is not a matter of simply endorsing a mere slogan. There will have to be substance to any such regional preeminence.


To put it very directly,

  • How large a Chinese sphere of influence, and where, should America be prepared to accept as part of a policy of successfully co-opting China into world affairs?

  • What areas now outside of China's political radius might have to be conceded to the realm of the re-emerging Celestial Empire?

Although China is emerging as a regionally dominant power, it is not likely to become a global one for a long time to come—and paranoiac fears of China as a global power are breeding megalomania in China, while perhaps also becoming the source of a self-fulfilling prophesy of intensified American-Chinese hostility. Accordingly, China should be neither contained nor propitiated.


It should be treated with respect as the world's largest developing state, and— so far at least —a rather successful one. Its geopolitical role not only in the Far East but in Eurasia as a whole is likely to grow as well. Hence, it would make sense to co-opt China into the G-7 annual summit of the world's leading countries, especially since Russia's inclusion has widened the summit's focus from economics to politics.

For historic as well as geopolitical reasons, China should consider America its natural ally. Unlike Japan or Russia, America has never had any territorial designs on China; and, unlike Great Britain, it never humiliated China. Moreover, without a viable strategic consensus with America, China is not likely to be able to keep attracting the massive foreign investment so necessary to its economic growth and thus also to its attainment of regional preeminence. For the same reason, without an American-Chinese strategic accommodation as the eastern anchor of America's involvement in Eurasia, America will not have a geostrategy for mainland Asia; and without a geostrategy for mainland

Asia, America will not have a geostrategy for Eurasia. Thus for America, China's regional power, co-opted into a wider framework of international cooperation, can be a vitally important geostrategic asset— in that regard coequally important with Europe and more weighty than Japan in assuring Eurasia's stability.



Emerging Challenges

In the past, international affairs were largely dominated by contests among individual states for regional domination. Henceforth, the United States may have to determine how to cope with regional coalitions that seek to push America out of Eurasia, thereby threatening America's status as a global power. However, whether any such coalitions do or do not arise to challenge American primacy will in fact depend to a very large degree on how effectively the United States responds to the major dilemmas identified here.

Potentially, the most dangerous scenario would be a grand coalition of China, Russia, and perhaps Iran, an "antihegemonic" coalition united not by ideology but by complementary grievances. It would be reminiscent in scale and scope of the challenge once posed by the Sino-Soviet bloc, though this time China would likely be the leader and Russia the follower. Averting this contingency, however remote it may be, will require a display of US geostrategic skill on the western, eastern, and southern perimeters of Eurasia simultaneously.

A geographically more limited but potentially even more consequential challenge could involve a Sino-Japanese axis, in the wake of a collapse of the American position in the Far East and a revolutionary change in Japan's world outlook. It would combine the power of two extraordinarily productive peoples, and it could exploit some form of "Asianism" as a unifying anti-American doctrine. However, it does not appear likely that in the foreseeable future China and Japan will form an alliance, given their recent historical experience; and a farsighted American policy in the Far East should certainly be able to prevent this eventuality from occurring.

Also quite remote, but not to be entirely excluded, is the possibility of a grand European realignment, involving either a German-Russian collusion or a Franco-Russian entente. There are obvious historical precedents for both, and either could emerge if European unification were to grind to a halt and if relations between Europe and America were to deteriorate gravely. Indeed, in the latter eventuality, one could imagine a European-Russian accommodation to exclude America from the continent. At this stage, all of these variants seem improbable. They would require not only a massive mishandling by America of its European policy but also a dramatic reorientation on the part of the key European states.

Whatever the future, it is reasonable to conclude that American primacy on the Eurasian continent will be buffeted by turbulence and perhaps at least by sporadic violence. America's primacy is potentially vulnerable to new challenges, either from regional contenders or novel constellations.


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.



A Geostrategy For Eurasia

The point of departure for the needed policy has to be hard-nosed recognition of the three unprecedented conditions that currently define the geopolitical state of world affairs: for the first time in history,

  1. a single state is a truly global power

  2. a non-Eurasian state is globally the preeminent state

  3. the globe's central arena, Eurasia, is dominated by a non-Eurasian power

However, a comprehensive and integrated geostrategy for Eurasia must also be based on recognition of the limits of America's effective power and the inevitable attrition over time of its scope. The very scale and diversity of Eurasia, as well as the potential power of some of its states, limit the depth of American influence and the degree of control over the course of events.


This condition places a premium on geostrategic insight and on the deliberately selective deployment of America's resources on the huge Eurasian chessboard. And since America's unprecedented power is bound to diminish over time, the priority must be to manage the rise of other regional powers in ways that do not threaten America's global primacy.



In the short run, it is in America's interest to consolidate and perpetuate the prevailing geopolitical pluralism on the map of Eurasia. That puts a premium on maneuver and manipulation in order to prevent the emergence of a hostile coalition that could eventually seek to challenge America's primacy, not to mention the remote possibility of any one particular state seeking to do so.


By the middle term, the foregoing should gradually yield to a greater emphasis on the emergence of increasingly important but strategically compatible partners who, prompted by American leadership, might help to shape a more cooperative trans-Eurasian security system. Eventually, in the much longer run still, the foregoing could phase into a global core of genuinely shared political responsibility.

The most immediate task is to make certain that no state or combination of states gains the capacity to expel the United States from Eurasia or even to diminish significantly its decisive arbitrating role. However, the consolidation of transcontinental geopolitical pluralism should not be viewed as an end in itself but only as a means to achieve the middle-term goal of shaping genuine strategic partnerships in the key regions of Eurasia.


It is unlikely that democratic America will wish to be permanently engaged in the difficult, absorbing, and costly task of managing Eurasia by constant manipulation and maneuver, backed by American military resources, in order to prevent regional domination by any one power. The first phase must, therefore, logically and deliberately lead into the second, one in which a benign American hegemony still discourages others from posing a challenge not only by making the costs of the challenge too high but also by not threatening the vital interests of Eurasia's potential regional aspirants.

What that requires specifically, as the middle-term goal, is the fostering of genuine partnerships, predominant among them those with a more united and politically defined Europe and with a regionally preeminent China, as well as with (one hopes) a post-imperial and Europe-oriented Russia and, on the southern fringe of Eurasia, with a regionally stabilizing and democratic India. But it will be the success or failure of the effort to forge broader strategic relationships with Europe and China, respectively, that will shape the defining context for Russia's role, either positive or negative.

It follows that a wider Europe and an enlarged NATO will serve well both the short-term and the longer-term goals of US policy. A larger Europe will expand the range of American influence—and, through the admission of new Central European members, also increase in the European councils the number of states with a pro-American proclivity—without simultaneously creating a Europe politically so integrated that it could soon challenge the United States on geopolitical matters of high importance to America elsewhere, particularly in the Middle East. A politically defined Europe is also essential to the progressive assimilation of Russia into a system of global cooperation.

Meeting these challenges is America's burden as well as its unique responsibility. Given the reality of American democracy, an effective response will require generating a public understanding of the continuing importance of American power in shaping a widening framework of stable geopolitical cooperation, one that simultaneously averts global anarchy and successfully defers the emergence of a new power challenge.


These two goals—averting global anarchy and impeding the emergence of a power rival—are inseparable from the longer-range definition of the purpose of America's global engagement, namely, that of forging an enduring framework of global geopolitical cooperation.

In brief, the US policy goal must be unapologetically twofold:

  1. to perpetuate America's own dominant position for at least a generation and preferably longer still

  2. to create a geopolitical framework that can absorb the inevitable shocks and strains of social-political change while evolving into the geopolitical core of shared responsibility for peaceful global management

A prolonged phase of gradually expanding cooperation with key Eurasian partners, both stimulated and arbitrated by America, can also help to foster the preconditions for an eventual upgrading of the existing and increasingly antiquated UN structures. A new distribution of responsibilities and privileges can then take into account the changed realities of global power, so drastically different from those of 1945.

These efforts will have the added historical advantage of benefiting from the new web of global linkages that is growing exponentially outside the more traditional nation-state system.


That web, woven by:

  1. multinational corporations

  2. NGOs (non-governmental organizations, with many of them transnational in character)

  3. scientific communities

  4. reinforced by the Internet

...already creates an informal global system that is inherently congenial to more institutionalized and inclusive global cooperation.

In the course of the next several decades, a functioning structure of global cooperation, based on geopolitical realities, could thus emerge and gradually assume the mantle of the world's current "regent," which has for the time being assumed the burden of responsibility for world stability and peace.


Geostrategic success in that cause would represent a fitting legacy of America's role as the first, only, and last truly global superpower.