“History is much more the product of chaos than of conspiracy.” —Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, quoted in Hedrick Smith, “Brzezinski Says Critics Are Irked by His Accuracy,” The New York Times, January 18, 1981
As winter turned into spring in 1976, various relatives and friends mentioned to me a parishioner at my local Roman Catholic church, St. Cecilia’s of Englewood, NJ. Nobody I knew had remarked on him during his 16 prior years as a professor at Columbia University. But proximity to potential power, as foreign policy adviser to the presumptive Democratic nominee for President, now made him an object of curiosity. “That’s Brzezinski,” they whispered, pointing at a figure near the back of the church while trying not to draw undue attention to themselves in the process.
That was my remote introduction to Zbigniew Brzezinski, who died yesterday at age 89. I would learn shortly that he had raised his family (including daughter Minka, now a morning-show fixture on MSNBC) in a Victorian house only several blocks from my home. But the psychic distance from that white-collar area to my blue-collar neighborhood might as well have put him on the other side of the moon.
By the time I entered Columbia myself two years later as a freshman, my interest in him had strengthened. The campus—particularly the school newspaper that I wrote for, filled with political science majors and/or liberals—was now avidly following his adventures in Washington, where he had gone, on extended sabbatical from the university, to serve as National Security Advisor under President Jimmy Carter. Soon, that service had taken on all the aspects of an intramural mudfight, as Brzezinski’s hawkish views clashed with the more dovish perspective of another university academic now in the State Department, the Sovietologist Marshal Shulman.
In Washington, Brzezinski became more familiar than he might have liked with the notions of “conspiracy” and “chaos” that he discussed in the above quote. Right-wingers (and a few left-wingers) charged in the late Seventies and Eighties that a group that he had helped establish, the Trilateral Commission (formed, in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, of prominent academics and politicians from North America, the European Union and Japan with a strong orientation toward global economics), was a secretive cabal out to rule the world.
At the same time, Carter Administration foreign policy was increasingly regarded by large parts of the American public as being rocked by chaos. Brzezinski battled internally not just against Shulman but also against Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. By the third year of Carter’s Presidency, that internal sense of coming apart was being mirrored almost nightly on the evening news, with OPEC generating a second American oil shortage in less than a decade and American hostages being seized in Iran.
When he spoke to the New York Times Hedrick Smith, then, Brzezinski was being as defensive as he was philosophical in leaving office. He said what had annoyed his critics was how often his vision of policy had been borne out. He derided “any grand schemes regarding a new international world order,” noting that policymakers were simply liable to be “overwhelmed by events and information.”
No policymaker, even the best, gets it right all of the time, and Brzezinski didn’t either. He correctly predicted that the strain of dealing with so many different nationalities would lead the U.S.S.R. to collapse. But in his eagerness to hasten that day, he backed the ill-fate attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages and supported financing the mujahideen in Afghanistan in response to the Soviet deployment of forces there, unknowingly encouraging the forces of radical Islam that have bedeviled the U.S. in the Mideast these last two decades.(It must also be said that, long before it became universally truth even in Democratic circles, this onetime "hardliner" warned that George W. Bush's Gulf War would turn out to be a "historic, strategic and moral calamity.")
Himself the annoyed target of political paranoids, Brzezinski in 1981 couldn’t imagine a President who promoted both chaos and conspiracy. But that is what life is like in the U.S. today. The thoughtless blusterer once derided memorably by Jeb Bush as the “chaos candidate” is now the Chaos Commander in Chief, an executive who sows doubt in the efficacy and value of the government he leads by screaming about nonexistent plots (e.g., about President Obama wiretapping him).
To his credit, unlike other Cold Warriors who sought to undermine Soviet Communism only to make their peace with Vladimir Putin, Brzezinski before his death criticized both the Russian dictator and the American President who has uttered nary a word of criticism of him. He castigated the Russian President's "thuggish tactics" and "thinly camouflaged invasion" of the Ukraine in 2014, while this year scathingly dismissed Trumplomacy: The president, who said, “has not given even one serious speech about the world and foreign affairs.”