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Brzezinski's engaging, candid memoir of puppeteers behind scenes; Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981, by Zbigniew Brzezinski. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc. 573 pp. $22.50.

By Earl FoellEditor of The Christian Science Monitor / April 13, 1983

History lists quite a few leaders who chose as grand vizier or eminence grise an expert born outside the homeland. But no great power I'm aware of has had back-to-back foreign viziers, as the United States did in the past decade.

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The sequence is even more extraordinary because the two exponents of Realpolitik (both from Central Europe) were chosen by presidents of quite different political philosophy and party.

Inevitably Zbigniew Brzezinski's memoir of his years in office will be compared to Henry Kissinger's. And, because the two men's European-ness is heightened by accent and a residual American belief that US leaders are descended from Billy Budd and Europeans from Machiavelli, both are likely to be compared to Metternich and Talleyrand.

After all, American political writers still quote Henry Stimson on statesmanly behavior (''gentlemen do not read each other's mail''), while Kissinger tapped his aides' phones and Brzezinski sought, unsuccessfully, to bug Sadat's and Begin's cottages at the Camp David peace talks.

But such contrasts exaggerate. The two were not so different from, say, Dean Acheson in applying Realpolitik in the world. And they aren't as similar to each other in outlook and operation as their common transatlantic origin might imply. Nor are their books. Kissinger aims more for the grand sweep, sometimes revealing the method of his magic, sometimes concealing it. Brzezinski's memoir has less historic sweep, more miscellaneous detail, but is engagingly honest about how the puppeteers worked behind scenes.

There are several ways to read ''Power and Principle.'' One is for its frank, sometimes blunt portraits of major figures: Jimmy Carter, Cy Vance, Harold Brown , Fritz Mondale, Helmut Schmidt, Deng Xiaoping, Giscard d'Estaing, Lopez Portillo. Another is for detailed background, showing how crucial negotiations were carried out: Camp David Mideast talks, Peking normalization, SALT II, southern Africa, the Iranian hostage crisis. A third (less colorful but more important) approach involves reading for structural insights into how best to run the foreign policy of a superpower.

Underlying all three is the question raised by Professor Brzezinski's title; namely, is it possible to conduct foreign relations in a way that is both principled and unafraid to use power? The former White House national-security adviser raises this question occasionally. But, regrettably, I don't feel he answers it consistently or satisfactorily. It's a vital question for a still idealistic democracy that is given to bouts of naivete alternating with tough-mindedness. We need to keep pursuing the answer assiduously as we examine our dealings over nuclear missiles, dictators, and trade warfare.

Brzezinski seems to have used his title in part to reassure us that Carter policy was not a good-cop, bad-cop combination in which Secretary of State Cyrus Vance played the Billy Budd role and White House adviser Brzezinski the Machiavelli role. ''Zbig'' makes it clear that he was in full accord with the Vance-Carter support of a global human rights policy. He makes it clear that he , too, believed in the concept of getting away from a Euro-North America-centered world and including the third world in the equation. He indicates his own role in helping to persuade Carter to name Vance as secretary of state; his early feeling of enthusiasm for Vance's soft and patient approach; and his later respect for Vance even when that enthusiasm had turned to criticism over Soviet, China, and Iran policies. But he does not conceal his deep anxiety over Vance's inclination to take a relatively trusting attitude toward Leonid Brezhnev's tactical moves.

Brzezinski's self-searching is honest enough to let us see his impatience with a policy in which grand principle appears to override national interest or in which principle does not seem to take into account what unprincipled opponents may do. He observes coolly of Vance, ''He was at his best when negotiating with decent parties in the world: the British over Zimbabwe or the Israelis and Egyptians regarding Middle East peace; he was at his worst in dealing with the thugs of this world.''

Brzezinski says candidly that he wanted to carry on a retaliatory strike alongside the hostage rescue operation in Iran. (He had earlier argued for seizing Kharg Island and Iranian citizens to barter for the imprisoned Americans in Tehran.) Vance was against either act, in fact against the rescue operation itself.

Brzezinski consistently sought tougher policies toward the Kremlin than did negotiator-mediator Vance. He favored using the leverage of China against Moscow. And he writes admiringly of Deng Xiaoping that the Chinese leader's White House discussion of war risks in Vietnam and on the Soviet border was the ''single most impressive demonstration of raw power politics that I encountered in my four years in the White House.''