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.

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.

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.''

One occasionally catches sight of the combination of power-and-principle (note the order in which the two words occur) that Brzezinski favors. He says, for instance, that the toughly pursued human rights policy of the Carter administration resulted in the freeing of Jacobo Timerman and other democratic voices in countries like Argentina and Chile, and succeeded in speeding reforms in South Africa. What it did for dissidents in the USSR or political leaders in the West Bank is less clear.

He seems more lucid on the uses of power alone. He clarifies quite strikingly, for instance, the way in which arms and trade talk with China was used to warn Moscow against trying to draw a noose around Saudi Arabia.

But in the end one senses a certain wry puzzlement in his candid report that Mr. Carter only once in four years asked him to say grace at the policy breakfasts where major decisions were discussed. There seems to be some overtone here that the President saw Brzezinski as a secular pragmatist, balancing against idealists like Vance. Something like the autocrat, the bureaucrat, and the plutocrat of the breakfast table. (Brzezinski reminds us at several points that he and the President sometimes discussed religion in the solitude of the Oval Office, so the security adviser was certainly qualified to say grace.)

The view of Carter that emerges over the course of the book should serve to correct some of the inexcusable misconceptions propounded by Washington pundits. Even though Brzezinski isn't a disinterested party, the accumulation of detail he presents should puncture the view of Carter as indecisive, ''flip-floppy,'' or naive. His faults of administration seem to come more from the opposite side of the spectrum: digging in his heels too obdurately over some lesser issues, getting bogged down in detail. His ability to be decisive, to mediate, to analyze options and master new strategic ideas, to absorb blame, even to put national good above personal political fortune, all seem to be substantiated in detail. So, unfortunately, does a tendency to give in to pettiness when an opponent nettles him.

(If Brzezinski is accurate, Helmut Schmidt lapsed into a far greater degree of personal pettiness. This tragically spoiled a central relationship in the Western alliance at a time when a resolution of today's European missile crisis might more easily have been dealt with. Instead, two men whose analytical bent and political outlook were essentially similar bickered and lost time in dealing with a nuclear weapons problem on which basically they were in agreement.)

Mixed in with grand strategy and personal profiles are moments of mirth and wry humor. An account, for instance, of the time at Camp David when Brzezinski dropped by Mr. Begin's cabin to play chess. Begin claimed he hadn't played since 1940, when a Soviet NKVD (secret police) agent arrested him in mid-game. The two men went on to split a two-game match. Mrs. Begin came in toward the end , and Brzezinski was surprised to hear her exclaim: ''Menachem just loves to play chess!''

Or the moment, also at Camp David, when Brzezinski's daughter, Mika, and Amy Carter were driving around in a golf cart and nearly ran down the Israeli prime minister.

Brzezinski does not reach for grand policy designs as self-assertively and smoothly as does Kissinger. We are not treated here to Metternich reincarnated, but rather to a pragmatic technician of foreign policy. And his conclusions are in that vein.

Future presidents might make his last chapter part of their pre-inaugural reading. That chapter starts with a scenario for the future that seems already dated, anchored in the crises of the '70s and early '80s. But it goes on to present a careful analysis of how a president may best organize his foreign policy apparatus. Brzezinski argues, with step-by-step logic, the case for (1) centering foreign policymaking on the secretary of state or (2) centering it on the security adviser at the president's side in the White House. It should not be surprising that he comes to the conclusion that the latter will increasingly make sense. His principal points: The departments of State and Defense (as well as the CIA) continue to diverge in outlook. Therefore neither cabinet secretary can objectively meld their views. Nuclear warfare time margins are being cut to the point where quick decisionmaking is essential. Secretaries of state tend to ''confuse diplomacy with foreign policy,'' and someone is needed to keep policy needs uppermost. A trusted coordinator at the elbow of the president is more likely to be ''responsive to sensitive domestic, economic, and other concerns.''

Any incoming president needs to think through such matters carefully before he plunges into the maelstrom. But he need not necessarily take the course Brzezinski obviously prefers. Only one president later (and two secretaries of state, two national-security advisers later), we have a situation he could not have anticipated: a foreign minister who is very sensitive to domestic and economic concerns, and who does not - at least yet - confuse diplomacy with foreign policy.

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