A conversation with Zbigniew Brzezinski on today’s worldwide turmoil, overstating Iran’s near-term nuclear threat, and why a return to global order may rest on the relationship between the United States and China.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter throughout his term of office, has remained one of the most prominent strategic thinkers in the United States throughout the ensuing three and a half decades. Recently, while talking with FP Group CEO and Editor David Rothkopf, he expressed a concern that we might be living in a period of unprecedented instability worldwide. When Rothkopf asked him to elaborate on the idea, he proposed that they discuss the subject. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
Despite his concerns about worldwide instability, Brzezinski offers a clear vision for what he believes are the essentials for stabilizing the current unrest, a vision that begins with the understanding that first,the United States and China must both embrace one another as the twin centers of power in the modern world.
Brzezinski is bracingly direct in addressing the challenges faced by the United States with its leadership role, the problems faced by the Europeans and those caused by Vladimir Putin, and the deteriorating situation in the Middle East. His is a vision in which the United States must both lead more actively while at the same time set limits as to where and when it will intervene, thus offering an alternative to current U.S. foreign policy that builds on some of the core themes advanced by President Barack Obama concerning the reframing and rethinking of the application of American power. At 86, the former Columbia professor and prolific author offers a clarity and a breadth of experience that few others in Washington can equal and that explains why so many in power, including those in the White House, regularly turn to him for advice. Brzezinski’s most recent book is Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power.
David Rothkopf: You told me that you felt that we’re living in a time of enormous instability worldwide, to the point that it was unprecedented in your recent memory. Can you elaborate on what you meant?
Zbigniew Brzezinski: I would even say that this is historically unprecedented, in the sense that simultaneously huge swaths of global territory are dominated by populist unrest, anger, and effective loss of state control. One of my feelings about the United States is not that we’re declining and are faced with imminent crisis of survival, but that we are losing control of our ability at the highest levels of dealing with challenges that, increasingly, many of us recognize are fundamental to our well-being. And yet we cannot muster the forces or generate the leadership to deal with them. So that makes us, the preeminent power, increasingly devoid of strategic will and a sense of direction.
As for Europe, we saw in the wake of what happened in Ukraine that we cannot expect Europe to assert itself internationally (or even to join us effectively) when challenged for the first time since 1939 with a unilateral effort at territorial expansion by a state in the region. Asia is petrified by the prospects of a rising China, but also by increasing nationalist conflicts with its neighbors.
I skip, of course, the Middle East, which is in turmoil, and Africa, which is beginning to experience it. So I think we’re seeing the kind of world in which there is enormous turmoil and fragmentation and uncertainty — not a single central threat to everybody, but a lot of diversified threats to almost everybody.
DR: Let’s talk about the causes of all this. Why is it happening now? What makes this period different? In the Middle East, there has been discussion about this being the end of the era of Sykes-Picot — foreign powers are unwilling or unable to extend spheres of influence, and local powers are unable to stop grassroots forces within their borders. Is this kind of thing — the decline in international mechanisms to stabilize the world, a retreat by the United States, unwillingness by the current administration to assume a bigger role outside its region for China, and European confusion and weakness, combined with newly empowered forces of unrest on the ground level — responsible for this new era of instability?
ZB: I see some parallels between what’s happening in the Middle East and what happened in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War several centuries ago, namely the rising of religious identification as the principal motive for political action, and with terribly destructive consequences. That’s one aspect.
Secondly, right now, looking more narrowly at the Middle East, what countries in the Middle East right now are really self-sufficient in terms of their identity and sense of unity and power as nation-states? Turkey, Iran, Israel, Egypt. That’s about it. And the rest — very numerous and very restless — lack these attributes. They are unstable or more easily destabilized. And we may be adding to it in a post-U.S. Afghanistan. And who knows what will then be happening in Pakistan?
DR: And post-Iraq Iraq.
ZB: Well, I should have mentioned that, of course. In that context, from my perspective, what we should be doing is, first, trying to work more effectively with those countries that are really serious players, which means some accommodation with Iran, which is an authentic state that is viable and is going to be there. Also, of course, Turkey. And of course Israel, in part for reasons of commonality in terms of civilizational ties, but also, in that context, by the United States providing greater clarity as to what we think is a necessary precondition for success for Israel. And that means a really overt, open adoption of a perspective that most Israelis would accept, except for the extreme right wing, which dominates its politics — namely, some fundamental accommodation of Palestinians’ aspirations.
DR: An independent Palestinian state.
ZB: Yes, the goal should be two states working in collaboration with each other.
DR: And presumably, also added into that is some acceptance of some imperfect states that are stabilizing — like Egypt, where …
ZB: But Egypt is an authentic historical state, and that’s unique. The reason the French and British solutions for stabilizing the region failed, really, was because it was based entirely on force. It was a colonial arrangement with the pretense of national boundaries and national identity for people who didn’t identify themselves in such a European kind of traditional nation-state terms. And when Britain and France, so to speak, failed, we stepped in, playing around with these arrangements, and it has turned out very badly.
The difference between the Bush I war against Iraq and the Bush II war against Iraq is that in the first one, we appealed to the sentiments and interests of the different groupings in the region and had them with us. In the second one, we did it on our own, on the basis of false premises, with extremely brutality and lack of political skill.
DR: In the first instance, there was also a recognition that there were stabilizing factors in the region and that we didn’t want to risk disturbing those stabilizing factors. So, for example, maintaining Saddam in the place precluded some other issues and counterbalanced the Iranians.
ZB: Yes, and he hated al Qaeda, for example. He was a vigorous opponent of it.
DR: So now you’re saying that we’re starting to reap the whirlwind associated with the invasion of Iraq. And in pulling out of Afghanistan, we are almost certain to find opening the door to the Taliban a destabilizing force there. And if we push too hard on democracy in Egypt, we may find ourselves supporting destabilizing forces there as we did when some in the administration seemed to embrace [Mohamed] Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood too quickly and too tenaciously. We went into Libya without a long-term plan, unleashing destabilizing forces there. We failed to take decisive action in Syria, and as a consequence of that and the situation in Iraq, the destabilization in Syria has spread. Risks are everywhere and the world’s major stabilizing powers — the United States, the EU, and the Chinese — have an appetite for constructive intervention in very few of these situations. Do you see us entering a period where we place a new premium on supporting stability, even if it’s not optimal from a political perspective or a democratic perspective? An approach for which there’s plenty of precedent in American foreign policy.
ZB: Well, I think we’re doing that in part already, for example in Egypt. If one looks at the choices — and my strong preferences are dictated primarily by democratic imperatives — well, obviously we should be for the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, I think with some reluctance we are settling for supporting the Army in the hope that the Army will consolidate the state and eventually evolve somewhat like Turkey. It’s probably a better bet. But in the larger sense, what I would say is this: I think the whole region now, in terms of the sectarian impulses and sectarian intolerance, is not a place in which America ought to try to be preeminent. I think we ought to pursue a policy in which we recognize the fact that the problems there are likely to persist and escalate and spread more widely. The two countries that will be most affected by these developments over time are China and Russia — because of their regional interests, vulnerabilities to terrorism, and strategic interests in global energy markets. And therefore it should be in their interest to work with us also, and we should be willing to play with them, but not assume sole responsibility for managing a region that we can neither control nor comprehend.
DR: One more thing on the Middle East before we sort of switch gears, because you talk about an accommodation with Iran, and clearly this has been something that’s been on President Obama’s mind since he was even campaigning. And seeing the United States pushed by circumstances in Iraq to at least act in some kind of tacit parallel effort with regard to ISIS, or the Islamic State, and seeing the nuclear talks going on, many in the region are anticipating a thaw. And they are worried because so many of the problems we’ve had with them over the course of the last 30 years has had to do with their destabilizing role through Hezbollah, their state support of terror, their support for Assad, Hamas, and so forth. Can we trust them as a partner?
ZB: Basically, I see Iran as an authentic nation-state. And that authentic identity gives it cohesion, which most of the Middle East lacks. In that sense, it’s a more solidly defined state than, let’s say, Egypt, which is similar and — but doesn’t have yet authentic, real cohesion. The problem with the Iranian regime of course is, one, its unsettling effects on the Sunnis, particularly Saudi Arabia, and, secondly, its potential threat to Israel.
The question is, how do you best solve that? I certainly don’t accept the notion that the best solution is all options are on the table, which is the politest way of saying we’re going to go to war if we don’t solve the nuclear problem quickly. The fact of the matter is Israel has an effective nuclear monopoly in the region, and it will have that for a long time. And one thing that the Iranians are certain not to do is to undertake some suicidal mission the moment they have one bomb. So the notion that’s been publicized in America that there could be a crazy Iranian rush to have the bomb in nine months is, to me, meaningless. What do you do with a single nuclear weapon that you have for the first time, that you haven’t tested, that you haven’t previously weaponized, that you cannot be sure that you can deliver effectively, and with which you cannot protect yourself from retaliation because you don’t have any more? And the Israelis have a very strong military, and they have about, what — estimates are 150 to 200 bombs. That’s enough to kill every Iranian. So I think that issue is phony.
DR: What about our traditional allies in the region, like the Saudis, the Emirates, the –Bahrain, Jordan certainly, who are all very nervous with this potential of any kind of accommodation with Iran. Do you see it as important to maintain a balance and to cultivate those moderate states as well in the region?
ZB: Well, that depends a great deal on what they do themselves as they acquire more capability for modern warfare and as, perhaps, they are increasingly driven by the morality of national, but even more so sectarian, motives. I, for example, am baffled by the whole history of the recent tragedy in Syria. It’s unclear to me what exactly the Saudis and the Qataris thought they were accomplishing by launching a sectarian war in Syria, and I am even more baffled by what we thought we were going to accomplish by endorsing it as we did in such a hesitant, undefined way.
DR: In many of these places, you’ve got a strong state and then you have the clergy, but there’s no other infrastructure in the country to represent in some organized way other views. And so in Egypt, when [Hosni] Mubarak fell, the only other choice was the Brotherhood. There is a need to build up institutions that provide a moderate alternative, which has not been really addressed.
ZB: And ultimately, that has to come from within. And since the second Iraqi war, we [the United States] became basically disqualified as the eventual promoters and protectors of any constructive outcome. So in my view, it would be better to strike some sort of tacit understanding with the Chinese and the Russians regarding what in the region we will view as an unacceptable threat, and what in the region we’re going to let be.
DR: So, you’re suggesting we have to find some kind of major-power collaborative mechanisms that don’t really exist right now. But the Chinese don’t seem ready to embrace such a role, and the Russians have hardly been constructive.
ZB: Well, the Russians have damaged themselves enormously by their invasion of Crimea and their actions in Ukraine and that makes their ability to undertake any such role more difficult. Also, they are — and we have to face this, and they have to face this — much weaker. It’s really us and the Chinese. And the Chinese are more prudent, but sometimes insensitive of the aspirations and self-interests of their weak, small neighbors. And those countries of course, more than anything else, want our umbrella to protect them. I think we have to be calmly prudent and not become the automatic point of contact whenever any one of the smaller countries gets into a tiff with China and feels all it has to do is phone us and get our commitment.
DR: The Europeans have effectively taken themselves off the playing field by moving towards a structure within the EU where they can’t actually formulate or execute a foreign policy. Are they out of the picture, or is a different kind of partnership possible?
ZB: Well, they are not out of the picture, but I don’t think they sufficiently understood the strength of narrow, self-focused, European nationalisms, in which states and national identities are and have been the preeminent glues that hold things together. And I think the notion of a united Europe was very understandable in the immediate wake of World War II. But then visionary European statesmen faded away.
Where are the fathers of Europe that really believe in the European identity?
Where are the fathers of Europe that really believe in the European identity? And the EU then turned out to be, in the end, essentially a distributed arrangement in Brussels involving money and quid pro quos, but very little sense of common purpose.
DR: You know, if you switch over to Asia, Southeast Asians say part of the problem is that the United States is not there to counterbalance the Chinese. China has a plan, they’re going country to country, they’re offering to build railroads and ports, and, you know, they’re sort of creating interdependence — and the United States doesn’t have much to offer. We pivoted, it seemed, briefly, as those efforts have spluttered away in the absence of the leadership provided by people like Hillary Clinton, Tom Donilon, and Kurt Campbell during the first term. Meanwhile, you do have this other interesting phenomenon occurring simultaneously, which is the Japanese reconsidering their defensive military posture while also recognizing that, given the rise of China, they need to embrace India. So you have this Abe-Modi bromance brewing.
ZB: Exactly, yes. And that could in some ways become a major impediment to excessive Chinese expansionism. I say excessive because some of it is understandable. But if it’s motivated by some sense of regional hegemony as one of the building blocks of a globally preeminent posture, then it’s of course something we cannot exactly ignore.
I think our policy ought to be such that the Chinese themselves recognize the obstacles and the costs of insensitive expansionism because of the impact it produces on the countries you mentioned and notably, by way of example, India and Japan. I don’t think we should be out in front in managing all these issues. Let the Japanese take the lead if they want to play a more active regional role — I wouldn’t mind at all to see Japan more internationally involved, globally involved. But if they want to be essentially engaged in some sort of a conflict with the Chinese in which relatively obscure little islands assume symbolic significance, then it’s not in our interest to be supporting that.
DR: It’s not. And yet there is an expectation that we will.
ZB: Because of the treaty. But I think the treaty has to be understood by the parties as involving the fundamental interests of both countries. And that is to say we have a fundamental interest in Japan being a successful democracy with military capabilities that can enhance global stability. We don’t have an interest in Japan being a successful country economically with military capabilities for the pursuit of very specific nationalistic objectives.
DR: I feel like your analogy with the Thirty Years’ War was interesting because that was clearly a period of major protracted chaos that’s evocative of today and that, of course, that ended in the Treaty of Westphalia — the birth of the modern system of nation-sates.
And as you talk about the Middle East and you talk a little bit about Asia, one of the things you’re saying is that the solution isn’t a superpower imposing its will. It’s actually major-power condominium of some sort in each place, where the United States and the Russians and the Chinese and — or maybe the United States and the Indians and the Japanese — find some balance and set a set of priorities that say, we’ll leave it to the regional dispute-resolution mechanisms unless it passes this threshold, at which point we’ll, you know, we will act in concert, either together or within an international forum. Is that — is there in that an evolving model for dealing with this particular period for volatility that you are advocating?
ZB: Maybe. It would be a combination, really, of some practical regional arrangements, but with the fail-safe mechanism for it being ultimately the ability of the United States and the People’s Republic of China to work together, because the Russians really are a side aspect to it, of some importance particularly to the issue we talked about earlier, namely the Middle East and the rise of Muslim awakening and the sectarianism.
DR: So like it or not, we’re moving into a world of a G-2 plus.
ZB: Unstated. Yes.
DR: Right. Well, but the Chinese are very resistant to that idea.
ZB: That’s right. I have a little bit of experience on that, because on the occasion of the 25th or 30th anniversary of the normalization of relations, I was in China for a big event, and I gave a speech in it in which I said, basically, we are now moving into a G-2 world. And the Chinese audience got electrified, and there was a lot of excitement about it and so forth. And then within a few weeks it was made clear by official circles not to applaud this point of view, because this is an American plot to entangle the Chinese into largely American — and excessively so — problems.
DR: Well, you know, it gets into another area of instability you mentioned — which is Africa, where you’ve got violent extremism, you’ve got chronic instability, and you’ve got conflicts now in Sudan and Somalia and Central African Republic and Nigeria and Mali and so on. And, of course, this is a region in which the Europeans have some historical interest.
ZB: To put it mildly.
DR: Yes. And they’ve been modestly involved.
ZB: And modestly successful.
DR: Right. And the Chinese and the United States have growing interest there — more the Chinese than the United States at the moment. You know, is the answer to Africa to let these problems fester? Or do you need this kind of condominium, or the G-2 plus to be operative in a place like that as well?
ZB: Yes. And the Chinese do seem to have long-term interests in Africa. And my hope is that ultimately or in certain cases, Europe can be seen, hopefully, an extension of us, provided we can get, for example, the trade arrangements with the Europeans — tie that with NATO, get Ukraine to become part of Europe, which then in turn is likely to suck Russia towards Europe, because the shadow of China will increasingly loom over Russia. And that all can eventually work to our collective benefit.
Latin America is another area where America has real problems, and we are learning to be tolerant. We have learned to live with Cuba. We have learned to live with Nicaragua. We have learned to live with Venezuela. And there may be others who will become anti-American. But we are learning to live with all that and avoid conflict. And China is increasingly down there, but they aren’t competing ideologically with us. And we should be tolerant of that. By the same token, we can do the same for them in Asia. That is to say, you sort out your problems nearby, but don’t go to excess. That is to say, tolerate some measure of autonomy.
DR: Some Monroe Doctrine light?
ZB: Yes. And it’s symmetrically sustainable.
DR: It’s interesting, though, because, you know, I mean, in Latin America we have almost no policies to speak of. Occasionally a leader will make a trip. We don’t really do that much. But yet one of the big political crises here at the moment is the border crisis, and if you look at where the people are coming from, it’s countries like Honduras, which is racked by drug wars and has the highest murder rates in the world. And these are crises that are nearby that we haven’t been involved with that are now spilling into our cities and into our states, which suggests perhaps we ought to be a little bit more engaged than we have been. Some of that tolerance you spoke of feels a bit like neglect to some of our neighbors.
ZB: That’s true. And we have to deal with it, to a greater extent, based on our sense of national interest. Consider the human aspects, of course, but don’t let those regimes exploit that in a cynical fashion by shoving into our society the problems that they are unwilling to deal with, in part because of their antiquated social structures, social inequality, lack of social justice, and so forth. And the same thing may well be the case in — let’s say in the relations between China and some of its immediate neighbors that have long felt threatened by China’s presence, but they have to accommodate to the reality that China is going to be there forever.
DR: Again you return to the centrality of the U.S.-China relationship as the most important stabilizing force in this emerging environment.
ZB: And the absence of an ideological collision between us and the Chinese is what differentiates both of us together from our conflict with the Soviet Union or the earlier collision with Hitler and Germany. In both cases, there was intense antagonism, in part because of conventional geopolitical reasons, but in part also because of profoundly conflictive ideological aspirations.
DR: Part of another contributing factor in this instability has, I think, to do with the fact that most of the multilateral mechanisms that we have long ago reached retirement age. You know, most of them were created in wake of World War II. They’ve served us for a long time. Most of them were developed to deal with those realities. And whether it’s the U.N. Security Council or the U.N. overall, or it’s the lack of an enforcement mechanism with the NPT, or it’s the absence of mechanisms to deal with climate or to deal with things like cyber, it seems that the multilateral superstructure of the world could use a little bit of an upgrade.
ZB: And on the case of cyber, the problem is that it’s a threatening issue for the most advanced countries in the world. And that specifically means us and the Chinese in this area. And therefore I’m not sure it’s subject to any generalized solution. It may require a head-on response to it by both of us, either collectively or in some fashion even antagonistically.
An example of what I mean here: We recently exposed Chinese cyberattacks on us. We named the people involved, and we published their pictures; we issued indictments against them, and so forth. I wonder whether that is as effective as if we had instead used their methods and just knocked the hell out of their buildings and institutions engaged in it, at the same time telling the Chinese leadership, very politely, we didn’t like what they were doing to us, so we did exactly the same thing to them. Please don’t continue this, because this can escalate, and we know what we can next do. I think that would be far more credible then generating more public antipathy for the Chinese, thereby making it more difficult to negotiate issues.
DR: But also, we made empty gestures. When you go and say you’re going to indict people who you’re not going to indict and who are never going to come here and will never be prosecuted or pay any penalty — it’s meaningless.
ZB: Exactly. But I am worried that we’re moving to a situation in which they can do terrible things to us — the latest reports again indicate that there is more going on than we know — and then we are sending protests. Instead of protesting, it would be much better, since we’re not killing anybody, to do a little more of the same, plus a little more, more than they have done — to them, so they realize this is pointing in dangerous directions.
DR: Well, with regard to the broader issue, though — for example, as we have discussed in the past, the U.N. Security Council isn’t representative. You know, the U.N. lacks enforcement mechanisms; the NPT lacks enforcement mechanisms. We don’t have effective international climate mechanisms. What multilateral measures might help us get our arms around this period of instability?
ZB: Well, I would say, first of all, before we try to get new multilateral institutions, we have to make certain that a bilateral relationship can be the point of departure for dealing with that problem, because if the bilateral relationship — by which I mean our relationship with China — is not stable and is not guided by a genuine recognition by both sides of our respective interests in working together, then no multilateral institution created in that context is going to work.
So we have to deepen the scope of that relationship with the Chinese (without it being proclaimed, because the rest of the world would object to it), in effect creating a kind of understanding of what the relationship between Rome and Byzantium once was. Rome and Byzantium had many similarities, were extensions of the same empire, but they had separate institutions of power. And we have to face the fact that probably for the rest of our lifetimes — unless things go to hell, which would be even worse — the United States and China are fated to collaborate if the world is to have a system that is effective. And on both sides there is real opposition to that — institutional, traditional, philosophical, and to some extent just human.
And we have different motives. For example, in China I think the military, and especially the navy, has very strong feelings about us [here in the United States], and here in our own society certain business interests feel threatened by Chinese imports, plus there is a kind of latent native opposition to the Chinese.
We are a super-democracy, and they are essentially a self-serving dictatorship.
We are a super-democracy, and they are essentially a self-serving dictatorship. And we overlook the fact that our super-democracy is not so perfect these days and we face so many, many, liabilities that we might better concentrate on them a little bit more.
DR: We just had this kind of tour of the horizon, which is what we said we were going to do, and talked about a lot of different sorts of events, and in each one of the cases we find that kind of incentive — you know, all roads don’t lead to Rome but they lead to Beijing and Washington in some way or another.
In Syria there was a role for China, and with Iran sanctions there was a role for China. The future of stabilizing the region and the future demand for oil there is a link to China. The ability to apply sanctions to Russia in the wake of Ukraine is adversely impacted by the degree to which the Chinese and the other BRICS don’t want to go along with our plans. So they’ve got a card to play in that hand. Clearly in all of the Asian things there is a central Chinese role; even in Pakistan and South Asia there is a historical role. And economically in Africa and in Latin America, they have a very big role.
Again, the only other party in the world — the only other entity comparable to the role of the United States and the Chinese — is the Europeans, who have embraced the kind of federalism in terms of foreign policy that has essentially left them on the sidelines.
ZB: The problem is, you’re discussing a concept — the kind of directed, coherent foreign policy that states have historically employed — which in the case of America and China has substantive meaning. Americans and Chinese identify with a nation-state that is theirs and that cumulatively exercises enormous power. Who are the Europeans? You go to Paris or you go to Portugal, you go to Poland, and you ask, who are you people? They’ll tell you, we’re Portuguese, we’re Spanish, we’re Polish. Who are the people that are really European? The people in Brussels, in the EU bureaucracy. Europe has not been able to move to the level of patriotic identification with the concept.
DR: They tried to legislate something or achieve it by fiat — and in the case of the United States, for example, it took a hundred years and the bloodiest war that had ever happened in the world —
ZB: That’s right. That’s a good point.
DR: — to get to that kind of cohesive viewpoint.
ZB: And we don’t wish the Europeans some sort of civil war out of which somebody will emerge supreme because of the variety of nations in Europe.
Meanwhile we have to be very careful in how we try to cultivate the relationship with the Chinese in a cooperative fashion without ultimately setting in motion sensitive reactions to their sense of identity. Being the standard-bearers of a country that’s existed for 5,000, 6,000 years, they probably have a more relaxed attitude about who they are and about us being different and yet being quasi-partners than we have about them. So we can easily become overinvolved emotionally in their internal problems. They don’t get involved emotionally in our internal problems.
DR: And they’re also much more comfortable with the long view and slow burn —
DR: — and we’re much more now-now about everything.
ZB: Also, the Chinese were never as stupid as the Russians, who came to us and said repeatedly, “We’ll bury you.” Not exactly an enticing invitation to a cooperative relationship.
DR: Well, then let me ask you one last question. We’ve talked about constructively sort of some of the mechanisms by which one could stabilize, but it’s the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War, and you can’t help but look at the situation particularly in the Middle East right now and see some distant echoes of the Balkans in the period mainly before the First World War, and Central Europe more broadly.
If you can imagine ISIS going, for example, into Jordan and changing the whole complexion of this thing instantly because the United States and Israel feel compelled to respond, then you can see this escalating. But you can also see this intersecting with a third intifada. You could see it intersecting with what’s going on in Crimea and Ukraine in that part of the world. There’s the possibility of a kind of wildfire here, of some sort of trigger. Does that worry you in this?
ZB: Yes, but only up to a point. That is to say, yes, there are some similarities with 1914, but in 1914 the major powers had a rather narrow vision of the world in general, were preoccupied with their most immediate concerns, and they figured that they could resolve them by the use of force, which then escalated into what came to be called a world war.
I don’t think any of the equivalent powers today have that orientation. We don’t want to be deeply drawn into the Middle Eastern crisis. The Russians would prefer us to be drawn more deeply into it, but then not themselves. The Chinese are playing the game of watching from the side. And that provides, I think, some distance and some degree of insurance that this is not going to explode and do anything equivalent to 1914.
That doesn’t, however, mean that we should be passive. It does mean that we should be prudent in the use of our force and try to work with what we can.
And this is why I — at the beginning of this conversation — very deliberately mentioned the existing nation-states in the Middle East that have some historical geopolitical viability: Turkey, Iran, Israel; Egypt potentially, although probably not very actively; and then, in the transcendental level, with China as a kind of co-equal stakeholder – a vague stakeholder, with the stakes never being precisely defined, in some residual global stability; with the Russians, once past their current complication with the Europeans, a potential ally; with India and Japan as potential second-level players; and with both we and the Chinese accepting our special preeminence, theirs on the Asian mainland, ours in the Western Hemisphere and Europe, and also in a special relationship with Japan. And that’s the best we can do, and I think we can operate on that basis in the course of this century. It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be dangerous and destructive, but I don’t think we’re sliding to a world war. I think we’re sliding in an era of great confusion and prevailing chaos.
DR: But it could take a while to get to broad recognition and acceptance of a model you just talked about.
ZB: Well, it’s not the question of whether acceptance is going to be there. That reality is there, and we have no choice.
DR: No, but you may have a period where people don’t act. Looking at the situation in Iraq now, one scenario that seems quite plausible to me is that [Bashar al-] Assad gets a hold of a chunk of Syria and we decide not to push him out because we see him as a useful counterbalance to ISIS. Then, [Nouri al-] Maliki looks at us trying to push him out; the Iranians are willing to tolerate him — he doesn’t want to be a puppet of the Iranians, but it’s a better offer — and so the Iranians and Maliki sort of stabilize the Shiite portion of Iraq. And so you get this kind of no man’s land encompassing part of Syria and part of Iraq that falls under the de facto control of the Islamic State. And so in the middle of this region we’ve not only rewritten the map. But in the middle of it, you then have a radical Islamic state.
ZB: And if you keep an open mind, we may also be in a situation in which Israel and Iran actually develop a stake in each having nuclear weapons, which is the way things were heading when the Shah was in power. I mean, who was helping the Shah’s nuclear program and who was helping the Israeli nuclear program? They were both helping each other through the French. They didn’t envisage it as a zero-sum game the way [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is today. I can envisage a nuclear-armed Israel and a nuclear-armed Iran being a source of stability in the region.
DR: Certainly that doesn’t seem to be on the horizon given where Israel is right now.
ZB: It is certainly caught up in a destructive cycle at the moment. That’s why I feel that it’s our obligation to speak truth to our friends. And as I have said, if you establish Palestine as a genuine independent co-partner with Israel, Israel and Palestine have the potential to become the Singapore of the Middle East. They have all the brainpower, all the initiative, and could drive big, revolutionary changes in the region. So that could be a subpart of resolving the current turmoil. But unlike in the past it is not the dominant story, no longer central. It is just one among many rapidly changing crises that we need to address or face the consequences of having stood by and done too little.
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