Zbigniew Brzezinski’s book Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower is a fascinating exploration of how America attained the classification of being an international “superpower”—a country of superior technological and economical advancement—and how three presidents struggled to sustain this status during their terms. Brzezinski posits that the president is not just the leader of America, but a Global Leader.
The president’s actions are visible on a global stage, with America being charged (perhaps unwittingly) with responsibilities it might be fully prepared to engage. Brzezinski suggests that while America not only survived the Cold War, but became its victor, the country was looked to by everyone to fulfill the role of “superpower. ” Like all the comic-book heroes who reflect on the notion of “with great power comes great responsibility,” America found itself wrestling with a new identity.
At the beginning of Brzezinski’s book, he lays out the three central missions (and expectations) of a global superpower: (1) Managing and developing power relationships so that a cooperative global system can emerge; (2) Containing conflicts and preventing terrorism so that global violence decreases; and (3) Promote a common response to environmental and ecological threats and global inequalities (Brzezinski 6). These three tasks are examined at length by Brzezinski, who provides a brief history of the Cold War as a context for his argument that we have, little by little, failed the primary tasks of a global superpower.
He looks toward the Cold War period as a definitive one for America. In fact, he speaks of this era as one of distinct growth and progress. He says “American power faced no peer, no rival, no threat, neither on the western front or the eastern front, nor on the southern fronts of the great Cold War that had been waged for decades on the massive Eurasian chessboard” (22). America was free to continue shaping the course of global unity and development. Brzezinski carefully notes the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the Second World, and how the “so-called” Third World lost political clout.
He makes a convincing argument that the stage was set for America and Europe to continue redefining the boundaries of political, economic, and technological development throughout the next half-century. Brzezinski points to two different perspectives on the world: globalization and neoconservatism. Advocates of globalization “focused on the worldwide impact of technology, communications, and trade as well as financial flows” (31). He also mentions that while America coined the term, the country was not quick to put itself in the driver’s seat.
If anything, it was implied that America would do so. However, there were no other countries capable of pushing the globalization agenda. A “cheerfully optimistic” plan, globalization presented the world with a “hopeful vision” for worldwide cooperation unlike ever before. Globalization, it seems, became popular because it fell in stark contrast to everything that come before it. While being a hopeful agenda, globalization played off fears of the past and the present—it was everything that communism and nuclear competition were not.
Globalization may be a term of optimism, but it cleverly disguises the dark truths of the world that it attempts to undo. Brzezinski also presents a second worldview: neoconservatism, or “neocon,” for short. Brzezinski is scornful of this worldview, which he calls “an updated version of imperialism and … not primarily concerned with new global realities or novel social trends” (37). Instead, it merely switches out anti-Soviet sentiments for anti-Islam ones, effectively resetting America’s priorities into the Middle East. The worldview stems almost directly from post-9/11 tensions and fears therein.
Neoconservative attitudes, he argues, might have fallen by the wayside had 9/11 not given the idea of neocon “the appearance of relevance” (37). And while Brzezinski contends that neocon is a doctrine borne of fear and spilling into domestic policies (i. e. The Patriot Act), it is clear that Brzezinski considers neoconservativism something along the lines of cancerous. It survives where it shouldn’t, it spreads wholesale, and rots away America’s otherwise strong central core. Neocon thrives, if not flourishes, in a “new political culture” where social intolerance is almost fundamental to the doctrine.
It is effectively the complete opposite of globalization. Brzezinski’s book shifts into a “report card” of sorts on how the last three presidents—George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush—have fared in maintaining the three basic principles of a superpower. Bush I, as Brzezinski refers to him, showed that he was up to some challenges and not in the others. He compliments his crisis management, but not his skills as a strategist in transforming Russia or pacifying the Middle East, as Bush aimed to do. Still, according to Brzezinski, “no U. S. resident since the end of World War II had to confront such intensive and extensive global turmoil” (47).
In many aspects, Bush I’s presidency coincided with many changes in the global theater—ones that Bush, let alone scant few others, were prepared for. The Soviet Union’s collapse contributed directly to America’s assumption of global power. Bush dealt with the collapse as “he cajoled, reassured, flattered, and subtly threatened his Soviet counterpart” (58). It was a brilliant performance, according to Brzezinski, as he juggled diplomacy and policy in the wake of the Soviet Union’s fall.
He assured Britain and France that a reunited Germany would not threaten any of their interests. If nothing else, Bush helped usher Germany toward an era of renewed self-confidence and guide Russia toward a new self-identity. Bush, however, became beleaguered by relations with new independent states—all of whom had risen from the now-fractured Soviet Union. The task was insurmountable. Brzezinski is kind to Bush I in certain regards (giving more leniency to him than he will to Bush II), even going so far as to cite “the pace of events and the complexity of the tasks to be addressed” as to blame (63).
Bush had successfully dealt with each and every contingency of the Soviet Union’s collapse, but had very little time or experience to consider how to manage its aftermath. Compounding Bush’s problems were the fact that Saddam Hussein decided to challenge the U. S. ’s oil interests at the same time. Brzezinski suggests that Hussein believed the U. S. was too preoccupied with managing problems in Eastern Europe to react to any effort on his end. Hussein, however, committed a “fatal error” in understanding “new geopolitical realities” (68). The collapse of the Soviet Union had only bolstered the U. S. s stature as a global superpower. While Brzezinski does not say it outright, Bush had succeeded—facing a trial by fire—to sustain the three basic tenets of a global superpower. Brzezinski makes an interesting connection, however, between Bush’s notion of America’s dominance in the world and its oil interests in Saudi Arabia. The author consistently argues that Bush sees oil as paramount to America’s survival as a superpower. As Bush organized a plan to oust Hussein, Brzezinski foreshadows that Bush is actually setting the stage for the eventual erosion of America’s role and image as a global superpower.
Knowing what lies ahead of America, it is chilling to read Brzezinski’s recounting of these events. Bush’s deployment of ground forces on the “sacred ground of Saudi Arabia” only served to stir religious fanaticism and spark a newfound hatred for America. Brzezinski cites that “Arabs increasingly saw America’s role in the region not as an innovative influence but as a replay of the colonial past” (78). However, Brzezinski suggests that, given a second term, Bush might have been able to further shape and guide the development of these events.
He sees the Bush presidency as leaving many things unfinished and unattended—chiefly, the Israeli-Arab conflict—and unable to complete many policies that would require years to grow into their own. He claims that the Bush administration was too preoccupied with getting reelected to receive a groundswell of support from its international allies. Ironically, Bush’s need to secure another four years to see his strategies come to fruition, got in the way of his presidency’s ability to manage the conflicts in the Middle East.
In short, Brzezinski sees Bush as failing to “seize the opportunity to shape the future or leave behind a compelling sense of direction” (82). There is much more packed into Brzezinski’s assessment, though: while Bush might have been a victim of unprecedented changes in the world, he unwittingly sets into motion a series of events that directly threaten America’s status as a superpower. In the second part of the book (titled “The Impotence of Good Intentions”), Brzezinski casts President Bill Clinton as a great thinker, a believer in globalization and, ultimately, someone who fails to make any genuine progress on the global stage.
There is a great disparity, according to Brzezinski, between what Clinton intended to do and actually accomplish. Clinton called America “the world’s indispensable nation”—a bold statement that might not resonate in today’s post-9/11 climate. In 1992, however, Clinton saw foreign policy as an extension of domestic ones. Brzezinski sees Clinton’s view of the world as “one-dimensional” and charges his presidency with “searching for global demons to justify its subjective insecurity” (89). Clinton’s faith in globalization, Brzezinski contends, oversimplified the post-World War II world.
There was still much to be done with the collapsed Soviet Union and the aggression of Saddam Hussein. Clinton set about redefining the expectations of a superpower. He crafted an agenda of globalized interests and cooperation, including (1) American and Russian cooperation to end the arms race between the two; (2) shared security in the wake of less nuclear weapons and threats therein; and (3) the interests of an undivided Europe could be married to America’s own (94). Brzezinski, rightly so, sees this agenda as too ambitious, riddled with rhetoric and platitudes, and too simple to engage.
Still, the Clinton presidency moved forward with this agenda—one that came into direct conflict with agendas and ideals set forth in the earliest days after the Cold War. Brzezinski praises Clinton’s “hopefully deterministic view of globalization” as the reason behind America and Europe’s success in establishing the World Trade Organization (109). Clinton is also lauded for consolidating NATO and the European Union, but Brzezinski is not effusive with this praise. Clinton “did not leave a historically grand imprint on the world,” Brzezinski says, and further presents America as a country painted in broad strokes, not deliberate ones.
It is suddenly clear that Brzezinski, with his book, is following the three-act structure of a tragedy. He sees each successive presidency as heading through increasingly dangerous waters which ultimately lead toward a tragic, inevitable end. This can only leave George W. Bush as the eventually beggar to America’s demise—a president who inherits the nation as it rests on its most unstable foundation ever. Its position as a global superpower is shaken by the events of 9/11 and Bush is put to tests that no presidency has faced before.
Still, Brzezinski manages to remain objective in his assessment of Bush; he is critical, certainly, but he uses the facts to speak for his feelings regarding the Bush administration’s handling of being a superpower. Brzezinski calls 9/11 “an epiphany” for Bush and calls him “transformed” following the events (136). Bush initially emerged as a decisive leader, dealing with immediate threats with immediate responses. Called “The War on Terror,” Bush led an immediate attack on the Taliban, which had sheltered al Qaeda.
The Taliban is routed and, shortly thereafter, Saddam Hussein’s regime is destroyed in a matter of weeks. Bush was, rightly so, proud. Yet Brzezinski calls Bush’s strategies as arrogant and driven by hubris. Brzezinski includes a quote from a senior Bush official to prove his point: “We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do” (137).
It is a disturbing statement, hinting at imperialist plans that have not yet taken place, and demonstrates a dramatic shift in presidential tone. America has now shifted from being a superpower into, for the first time in history, an aggressor nation. Brzezinski blames Bush’s neoconservative views for his presidency’s direction. He not only examines Bush’s staff, which he notes “vastly outranked [Bush] in seniority and experience,” but claims that Bush consistently reveals a “basic ignorance of foreign affairs” (138).
Everything Bush did, it seems, was rooted in post-9/11 fears. /11 is repeatedly used as justification for America’s actions in foreign affairs. For Bush, 9/11 “was a call to a special mission, a personal epiphany with touches of a divine vocation” (143). This is particularly dangerous, Brzezinski suggests, as it marks a distinct shift in approach and basic ideology. Never before has the country been guided by a man driven by gut feelings and someone who gives public speeches rife with “swaggering challenges” (143). In Brzezinski’s book, Bush seems blissfully unaware of the ramifications of his actions.
His insistence on having a “War on Terror” amounts to a war against an unidentifiable enemy with no country. However, the Bush administration repeatedly mentions the enemy has “strong anti-Islamic connotations” which only serves to shape Islam’s opinion of America into one of outright (and justifiable) hatred. Bush’s actions only serve to further invite “new recruits to terrorism against America or Israel” (149). While Bush argues that Muslims must “hate freedom,” Brzezinski argues that the increasing animosity against America is due to the country’s motions as a neo-colonial power.
America is no longer a superpower to be respected—it is a power that closely recalls British colonialism and Israeli overtures. America’s lack of historical perspective leads to their failure to recognize this fact, Brzezinski says (151). In fact, it can be argued that Brzezinski sees America as trying to shoehorn accelerated democracy into the country: “Democracy historically has emerged through a prolonged process of enhancement of human rights, first from the economic and then to the political, first among some privileged classes and then on a wider scale. That process, in turn entails the progressive appearance of the rule of law, nd the gradual imposition of legal and later constitutional rules over the structures of power. ” (155)
The fact that the Bush administration tried to rush a highly complicated, overarching series of sweeping economic and political changes is not lost on Brzezinski. “Short-sighted American efforts” did not take into account the likely result of this action: violence. In every place America has tried to institute democracy—Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia—the footprint of war is visible. This has also led to other ramifications beyond anti-American sentiments—it has invited the rise of competitors to America’s status as a superpower.
Brzezinski notes “the emerging partnership between China and Russia on a number of international issues” (156). He sees this as not coincidental, but a direct result of America’s overtures in the Middle East. Oil producers who hate America’s presence in the Middle East may seek more politically stable allies, such as China. This is a frightening yet entirely plausible concept, especially in light of extremely high gas prices and an America almost exclusively dependent upon petroleum. Brzezinski sees this political shift toward China as potentially devastating to the Atlantic community.
He urges America to change immediately their course of action in the Middle East, chalking it up to a “lesson” (156). America has isolated itself, Brzezinski says, by undertaking a costly military campaign largely on its own. Bush effectively created his own test of the contemporary superpower. The war in Iraq has done little beyond shift the world’s attention to the catastrophic failure of U. S. policy in the Middle East. This failure is America’s and America’s alone. Unlike the Cold War, which had the benefit of other countries’ presence, America has gone it alone and failed a challenge it created for itself.
Bush’s policies toward the Middle East have become “strategically self-defeating” (163) and reduced America’s ability to influence events. Brzezinski claims that the next president “will have to mount a monumental effort to restore America’s legitimacy as the major guarantor of global security and reidentify America” (177). This task comes in light of Brzezinski’s claim that Bush, unlike his father and Clinton, will go down in history as a “vigilante” (179). While this is a bold, if not comic, way of characterizing Bush, it is not without its merits.
Bush has clearly used 9/11 for his own political machinations and, effectively, the undoing of America’s legitimacy as a superpower. He has tapped post-9/11 fears as justifications for his actions and shifted the emphasis away from worldwide political and social cooperation to policies underscored by vengeance. Brzezinski’s appraisal of geopolitical concerns affecting the United States is scary, to say the least. Over the past fifteen years, a number of issues and trends threaten not only our status as a superpower, but our well-being and future survival as a society.
He points toward “an explosive Middle East,” “a resentful Russia,” and “an Iran predominant in the Persian Gulf” as several reasons America should change its policies and directions. If nothing else, Brzezinski paints America as a country that is increasingly undercutting its own relevance, having enjoyed a brief period of success, security, and stability. The three central tasks of global leadership have been underperformed by America, Brzezinski claims. The arc of failure on America’s part is more than clear in Brzezinski’s assessment of the past three presidencies.
The throughline of failure is remarkable, beginning with Bush I and currently with his son. Bush may not have seized several strategic opportunities prior to his second term, but he is praised for his tactical skill and resolve. Clinton is characterized as a president far too enamored with the platitudes of globalization, besieged by personal problems, and ultimately ineffective. Bush II, however, is not given any latitude whatsoever on the part of Brzezinski. He entered the presidency without a clear strategy and emerged post-9/11 as a man changed, bent on revenge, and stubbornly unaware of world affairs.
Brzezinski draws alarming and disquieting portraits of not just three successive presidents, but the future of America itself. We have, according to Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower, become a nation that has lost more than its luster. We have lost too many principles and ideals along the way. George W. Bush has consistently ignored historical lessons and misunderstood the current geopolitical landscape. He has steered the country away from its three basic responsibilities as a superpower and left it as one in dire need of reclaiming its self-identity.