Book Review – Justin Vaïsse, Zbigniew Brzezinski: America’s Grand Strategist

By Hon. William Paul Robert (Rob) Norris, M.A.

Justin Vaïsse. Zbigniew Brzezinski: America’s Grand Strategist. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018. 505 pp. $35.00.

Under heightened apprehension and tightening security, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is set to be sworn into office; as the savvy, incoming Democratic president promises “moral decency” as part of a different approach to politics, much of America remains unsettled by recent deadly and disquieting political violence in Washington, D.C.  In the midst of such domestic tumult, America and the global political world await the opening foreign policy pronouncements and actions of Biden’s foreign policy team, including Jake Sullivan, “a once-in-a-generation intellect” and incoming national security adviser.  To be certain, Sullivan has already hinted at core U.S. foreign policy interests, including a global “restoration of alliances and partnerships” to rally support behind U.S. foreign policy objectives advancing health, environmental sustainability, security and prosperity.  Crucially, he has also already reprimanded Russia, calling on “the Kremlin to free Russian dissident Alexei Navalny.”  This post-Trump American foreign policy orientation – like the nascent Democratic sway over Congress – echoes themes arising out of a previous “long national nightmare”.  From a “bleak mood” associated with Vietnam and Watergate, President Jimmy Carter’s tenacious and witty national security adviser – another esteemed public intellectual – Zbigniew Brzezinski entered the White House armed with a forty-three-page briefing book entitled “Constructive Global Engagement.”

In his classic 2005 book on the U.S. National Security Council, Running the World, David Rothkopf explains that by the 1950s, young Zbigniew Brzezinski was already skeptical of purported Soviet prestige, power and permanence.  As a McGill University student in Montreal, and continuing as a Soviet expert at Harvard and then Columbia, his persistent and prescient policy critiques – like later anti-Soviet policies engineered as President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser – concentrated on the “evolving dysfunctions” of that communist regime; according to Rothkopf, Brzezinski revealed key “cracks in the façade and anticipated the disintegration” of Soviet political and economic systems “better than virtually any other foreign policy figure of comparable stature.”

In this thorough and thoughtful Brzezinski biography, French historian and diplomat, Justin Vaïsse, reinforces the urgency of more deeply analyzing and better understanding Brzezinski, a foremost and formidable Cold War American geo-strategist.  A ubiquitous, implicit theme characterizes this recent book: a rare combination of Brzezinski’s sophisticated understanding of international politics blended with his refined, wily and relentless power of persuasion propelled him into the U.S. Cold War academy, across continents as well as global organizations – he actually helped establish the Trilateral Commission – and ultimately into Washington D.C., including atop the Carter administration and beyond.  Indeed, Vaïsse argues that for the first three years of Carter’s presidency, his national security adviser was indefatigable in arguing “in favor of adopting a harder line toward the Soviet Union,” but by 1980 “he no longer needed to do so.”  Essentially, by the late 1970s, the United States – with allies and enemies positioned across the “worldwide geopolitical chessboard” – confronted a reawakened Soviet threat, and Brzezinski, as “chief strategist” and architect of Carter’s foreign policy, had finally convinced his commander in chief “to be a President Truman before being a President Wilson.”  Even after Carter’s defeat, President Reagan, and his Republican foreign policy team, regularly “sought Brzezinski’s services,” inviting the hawkish Democrat to participate on strategic commissions and eventually join the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. As Edward Luce summarizes, “not many outdid Brzezinski’s cold war hawkishness.”

If, as claimed by Henry Kissinger, Carter’s foreign policy “reaffirmed values of human dignity” but in the end, “hesitated” in tackling new strategic challenges,” then according to Conrad Black, Brzezinski was a rare and vital “voice of reason and strength” within this ambivalent administration.  After meeting Brzezinski on 25 March 1982 – at a dinner for Conrad Black – the late Allan Gotlieb, an influential Canadian ambassador to the U.S. during the 1980s, describes Brzezinski as “brilliant.” Additionally, reflecting on her time as Brzezinski’s student – and then junior colleague in the U.S. National Security Council – former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright characterizes Carter’s national security adviser as “terrifyingly smart.”  Another new book, Undaunted by John O. Brennan, reinforces the significance of Brzezinski’s strategic wisdom.  While this former CIA director undertook early career research focusing upon the Middle East, specifically the Arab-Israeli conflict, he interviewed “Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, George Ball, Joseph Sisco, Sol Linowitz, and Phil Habib”; each éminence grise offered wise counsel, yet “Brzezinski provided the most thoughtful feedback.”

Beyond simply surveying compelling characters and chapters of Cold War American foreign policy, Vaïsse’s biography also counters past and present “ethno-nationalist” assumptions by probing an ad hominem query: “was Brzezinski an anti-Soviet hawk and cold warrior just because of his Polish origins?”  Vaïsse retorts: “this would be too simple an explanation.”  Instead, his book offers powerful insights into the rich operational code and complicated foreign policy record of this “talented, tenacious and hard-working immigrant.”  In explaining that “strategy is not really a profession; it is a discipline,” Vaïsse reinforces that how Brzezinski actually became an American “master strategist”: relentlessly cultivating his strengths and networks; honing his skills while broadening his expertise; analyzing, articulating and later acting upon key American objectives; continually working to align means to ends; anticipating big shifts in the strategic environment; and ultimately understanding “multiple dimensions of power.”

In digging into the roots and realities of “the very solid bond” – a rare political symbiosis – that evolved between Carter and Brzezinski, Vaïsse also focuses upon the bipartisan respect this presidential confidant garnered from various Republicans, as key members of the Grand Old Party saw Brzezinski as “the voice of anti-communist reason among the Democrats, and as a hawk.” Frankly, key Republicans respected him because he discerned strategic “signs of decay in Marxism-Leninism” and comprehended the significance of deep philosophical and political changes stirring in Eastern Europe, including his native Poland – “the Soviet Union’s most important European satellite.”  Crucially, Vaïsse also analyzes concomitant idiosyncratic and bureaucratic – even existential – conflicts arising within the Carter administration, as Secretary of State Cyrus Vance clashed with Brzezinski; their deep tensions “muddied the water” within the administration as well as in strategic regions of the world, including what Brzezinski characterized as an “arc of crisis” stretching from Bangladesh through Islamabad to Aden.

This bold biography is essential reading for students of the Cold War and scholars of contemporary American foreign policy.  Far from simply focusing on the Carter administration, Vaïsse helpfully identifies key domestic determinants – including the rise of the Cold War University, fostering the rise of new, elite foreign policy specialists and rivals like Kissinger and Brzezinski – and turbulent international factors, including a rekindled Cold War and “upheavals” associated with the Iranian Revolution, that altered the shape and substance of U.S. foreign policy and changed global politics well beyond the 1970s.  Additionally, attentive Canadians ought to be interested in this scholarly work about the remarkable trajectory of a newcomer lad named Zbigniew Brzezinski, son of Poland’s wartime consul general in Montreal.  In short, while not flawless, this timely book provides a persuasive, privileged aperture through which to observe “the secret world of presidents and their most trusted advisers.”


Norris serves as the Senior Government Relations Officer for the Canadian Light Source, one of Canada’s premiere science facilities, and only synchrotron, located at University of Saskatchewan. He is also Board Chair, Canada World Youth. From 2007-2015, Norris was a member of Saskatchewan’s Legislative Assembly, serving in Premier Brad Wall’s cabinet as Minister of Advanced Education, Employment, Labour, Immigration, Innovation and SaskPower. From late 1997-1999, he served as Legislative Assistant with foreign policy responsibilities in the Canadian House of Commons. He has a Master’s degree in Political Science, focusing on Canadian foreign policy, from the University of Alberta. He extends a special thanks to Tim Chander, a communications manager within the Government of Alberta, for – 30 years ago – recommending a closer examination of Brzezinski.


Kasie Hunt, Alex Moe and Dareh Gregorian, “Chilling: Security tightens around the Capitol ahead of Biden inauguration amid ‘increased threat’,” NBC News, 12 January 2021.

Evan Osnos, Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now (New York: Scribner, 2020), 164-5.

Eli Yokley, “Half of Voters Call for Cabinet to Remove Trump as Bulk of Republicans Say He Should Retain ‘Major Role’ in Party,” Morning Consult, 7 January 2021.

Andrew Preston, “The U.S. must practice the democracy it preaches,” The Globe and Mail, 9 January 2021, O4.

Mark MacKinnon, “Biden’s World,” The Globe and Mail, 16 January 2021. Scott Detrow, “Why Biden’s National Security Adviser Plans to Focus on the U.S. Middle Class,” NPR, 30 December 2020. Quoting Jake Sullivan: “We’ve reached a point where foreign policy is domestic policy, and domestic policy is foreign policy.” Bob Dylan, “Political World,” Oh Mercy (New York: Columbia Records, 1989).

Molly Nagle and John Verhovek, “President-elect Joe Biden formally introduces national security and foreign policy team: Several history-making nominees comprise Biden’s picks,” ABC News, 24 November 2020.

Natasha Bertrand, “The inexorable rise of Jake Sullivan,” Politico, 27 November 2020.

John Bowden, “Incoming national security adviser calls for immediate release of Kremlin critic Navalny,” The Hill, 17 January 2021.

Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019), 10.

Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019), 34.

Vaïsse, Brzezinski, 294.

Jon Ward, Camelot’s End: The Democrats’ Last Great Civil War (New York: Hachette, 2019), 200. Ward reinforces that “Brzezinski had been pushing covert efforts to undermine Soviet legitimacy since the beginning of the Carter Presidency.”

Rothkopf, Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2005), 160.

Vasse, Brzezinski, 120.

Vaïsse, Brzezinski, 157. “… in collaboration with David Rockefeller, he had founded the Trilateral Commission, a private organization that brought together American, European, and Japanese elites.” Chris Whipple, The Spy Masters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future (New York: Scribner, 2020), 4. Whipple characterizes Brzezinski as “Carter’s wily national security adviser.”

Vaïsse, Brzezinski, 275. Of note, Joe Scarborough’s Saving Freedom: Truman, the Cold War and the Fight for Western Civilization (New York: HarperCollins, 2020), is dedicated to “Dr. Brzezinski and all those public servants who dedicated their lives to liberating Europe from the scourge of Soviet communism.” Scarborough is married to Mika Brzezinski, the daughter of the late Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Vaïsse, Brzezinski, 289.

Vaïsse, Brzezinski, 282.

Vaïsse, Brzezinski, 275.

Vaïsse, Brzezinski, 367.

Edward Luce, “Zbigniew Brzezinski and the untimely death of American statecraft,” Financial Times, 31 May 2017.

Henry Kissinger, World Order (New York: Penguin, 2014), 310.

Conrad Black, The Invincible Quest: The Life of Richard Milhous Nixon (Toronto: McClelland, 2007), 1015.

Allan Gotlieb, The Washington Diaries, 1981-1989 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006), 47.

Madeleine Albright, Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st Century Memoir (New York: HarperCollins, 2020), 68.

John O. Brennan, Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad (New York: Celadon Books, 2020), 81-2.

David Runciman, “Don’t be a Kerensky!” London Review of Books, 3 December 2020, 18. Runciman references Brzezinski’s academic and political rival Kissinger in noting that: “the ethno-nationalists, whose persistent influence on American politics eventually gave us Trump, have always regarded Kissinger as an untrustworthy and disloyal foreigner.”

Vaïsse, Brzezinski, 8.

Vaïsse, Brzezinski, 8.

Vaïsse, Brzezinski, 2.

Vaïsse, Brzezinski, 406.

Vaïsse, Brzezinski, 272.

As a counterpoint to such mutual loyalty, John Bolton’s memoir suggest that as National Security Adviser, he “found Trump’s foreign policy hopelessly incoherent,” Jonathan Stevenson, “Revenge Served Tepid,” The New York Review of Books, 20 August 2020, 14.

Vaïsse, Brzezinski, 367.

John Connelly, From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 643.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, “The Cold War and It’s Aftermath,” Foreign Affairs (Fall 1992), 43.

John Bew, Realpolitik: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 274. Vaïsse, Brzezinski, 334.

In his recent book, The Inevitability of Tragedy: Henry Kissinger and His World (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2020), Barry Gewen reinforces that the rivalry has yet to fade, suggesting from his vantage point that Brzezinski “was never able to escape his rival’s shadow,” 292. The debate continues.

Henry Kissinger, World Order (New York: Penguin, 2014), 153.

Vaïsse, Brzezinski, 130.

This phrase is borrowed from K. Ward Cummings, Partner to Power: The Secret World of Presidents and Their Most Trusted Advisers (Amherst: Prometheus, 2018).

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