Zbigniew Brzezinski (McGill BA ‘49, MA ‘50) served as National Security Advisor for U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Brzezinski oversaw the normalization of U.S. relations with China, for which Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Equally notable, Brzezinski’s tenure in the White House also included the Camp David Accords of 1978, which established peace between Israel and Egypt, and the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis of 1979. Presently, Brzezinski serves as a counsellor and trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and as a senior research professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
McGill Daily (MD): How would you evaluate the current [U.S.] administration’s handling of the Arab Spring and the war in Syria?
Zbigniew Brzezinski (ZB): I think it has been prudent and cautious, but under the circumstances, that is justified. The Arab Spring, widely proclaimed by journalists as a great democratic phenomenon, is still uncertain of its historical trajectory. It could easily end up as the “Arab Winter.”
MD: How would you evaluate the relationship between the current administration and Israel? Do you think the administration should be tougher with Netanyahu?
ZB: I think the administration should be guided by its best judgment of the American national interest. What is good for America is almost inevitably good for Israel, given its dependence on America.
MD: Do you think that the opposite is true, that what is good for Israel is inevitably good for America?
ZB: No, I think that what is good for America is inevitably good for Israel, given its dependence on [our] military and financial support. Now obviously, America is not dependent on Israel for support.
MD: Do you think that, considering the backlash against the announcement of new settler homes to be built in the West Bank, that the administration should reign in Israel?
ZB: The United States reacted critically and publicly to these decisions. There were statements to that effect both from the White House and from the State Department.
MD: On a different topic, how do you feel about the funding of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan during the Carter administration?
ZB: I think it was a desirable and necessary step, supported by the overwhelming majority of the international community. The Soviet [invasion of Afghanistan] was an outright aggression and it was potentially destabilizing for the entire region.
MD: Is there a way that America could have prevented the growth of the Taliban out of that funding?
ZB: You know, the Taliban arose about ten years after the Soviet invasion. I don’t think you are very familiar with the facts, judging by that question. The Taliban didn’t appear on the scene until about ten years later.
MD: But many journalists and commentators have inferred that the funding of the Mujahideen in the late 1970s was somehow responsible for the rise of the Taliban. Do you contend that?
ZB: The rise of the Taliban was the consequence of the destruction of the Afghan society by ten years of war, which was waged by the Soviets against the Afghan resistance.
MD: Okay, on the subject of Iran: do you think that the United States should bear moral responsibility for the replacement of [the democratically elected president] Mossadegh by the Shah, and the backlash against the Shah by the Islamist regime?
ZB: I think the United States was unwise in the way it handled the Mossadegh challenge. I understand the Iranian resentment about what happened in the early 1950s, in other words, almost sixty years ago.
MD: What would you identify as the greatest success and the greatest failure of your time as National Security Advisor?
ZB: I think the greatest successes were several. I think the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt was a major success; I think the opening, both political and strategic, to China, was a very major breakthrough, which continues to shape international affairs to this time. I think the peaceful resolution of the Panama Canal problem created stability in America’s relations with Central America. I think the greatest setback was, of course, the failure of the rescue mission.
MD: On the topic of Iran today, how do you evaluate the nuclear threat?
ZB: I think it potentially could be serious, but in my judgment, it can be handled effectively without a war.
MD: Do you think the regime is sufficiently irrational to launch, or even threaten to launch, a nuclear weapon?
ZB: I don’t think there is one item of evidence to support that proposition. It is a self-serving regime; it is a very scheming regime; but it is not a suicidal regime. And neither is the country suicidal. The Iranians are very intelligent people.
MD: On the topic of Chinese-American relations, how do you think they should evolve? And what is the biggest challenge to the Chinese-American relationship?
ZB: I think the biggest challenge to the relationship is the rising nationalistic fervor in Asia, and the resulting regional instability. The way to cope with it is to have a close, consultative relationship with the Chinese, so that each side has a better understanding of the other side’s point of view and interests. Okay, one more question, okay?
MD: On the subject of the U.S. economy: do you think that the U.S. economy is doomed to be uncompetitive, and how does the U.S. absorb the non-service economy?
ZB: Let’s look at the economic projections for . Already indications are rising that the recovery is beginning. I think that in the advanced world, that the American economy is the engine of change. Of course, China, in the longer run, may surpass America. But that is several decades away.
MD: How do you think the U.S. should get used to not being the hegemon; that is, how should the U.S. get used to being in a multi-polar world?
ZB: Well, I wrote a book about it, which appeared earlier this year, called Strategic Vision. It is very exactly on that subject. So let me end on a very self-serving plug for my book. If the readers find this interview of interest, perhaps they should look at that book. Could you do me the favour of sending me a copy of the McGill – it’s still called the McGill Daily? I’d love to have it. I very much valued my days at McGill.
— Compiled by Kaj Huddart