The Hegemonic Imperative
THE GRAND CHESSBOARD: AMERICAN
PRIMACY AND ITS GEOSTRATEGIC IMPERATIVES
Basic Books, 1997, xiv + 223 pgs.
Professor Brzezinski displays in this book an inordinate fondness for intellectual games. A
minor and forgivable weakness, you might think. But unfortunately the games our author
proposes to play put at risk the lives of millions of Americans.
Our eminent author, the former security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, that jellyfish of
strength, finds America faced with a unique opportunity. Great empires have existed throughout
history: the Roman, the Chinese, the Mongol, the British. But never before now has a country
been in a position to dominate the entire world. "The collapse of its rival [the U.S.S.R.] left the
United States in a unique position. It became simultaneously the first and only truly global
power" (p. 11).
The key to world supremacy, Brzezinski holds, lies in control of the Eurasian continent.
"Until recently, the leading analysts of geopolitics have debated whether land power was more
significant than sea power and what specific region of Eurasia is vital to gain control over the
entire continent. One of the most prominent, Harold Mackinder, pioneered the discussion early
in this century with his successive concepts of the Eurasian 'pivot areas'...and, later, of the
Central-East European 'heartland' as the pivotal springboards for the attainment of continental
domination" (p. 38).
But we have now gone beyond Mackinder. The issues that confront us are no longer land or
sea power. No longer can we be concerned only with control over a mere part of Eurasia. A truly
global power must dominate the entire Eurasian continent. (Incidentally, our Great Global
Thinker has not managed to get right the first name of his predecessor in World Chess. It was
"Halford" not "Harold." Alas, I fear that I am a mere scholiast, unfit to inhabit the Olympian
heights where Brzezinski dwells.)
An obvious difficulty in our author's argument must have long since occurred to most
readers. How can Brzezinski claim both that the United States is the only global superpower and
that the key to global power is control of Eurasia? America holds no territory on the European
Such an elementary point has of course dawned on our Strategic Thinker, and he has a
ready reply. Control need not mean physical occupation. The United States holds strong salients
on the peripheries of both Europe and Asia: in Europe, through the Nato Alliance, and in Asia,
through our alliance with Japan. By extension of Nato and cultivation of the Japanese
connection, together with a modus vivendi with China, United States dominance over Eurasia
can be secured for at least the near future.
I have sometimes spoken slightingly of our Great Thinker, but I do not mean to
underestimate him. He is a theorist of striking ingenuity. In each region of the world he
considers, he builds his case like a grandmaster at chess. If Turkestan does this, then we must do
that, unless of course Russia does so-and-so, in which case, we must do the following in Poland
and Germany...etc. I cannot convey in brief compass the intricacy of his discussion, but one fact
stands out. Although the Cold War has officially ended, Professor Brzezinski fears a Russian
"The post-Soviet Russian elite had apparently also expected that the West would not aid in,
or at least not impede, the restoration of a central Russian role in the post-Soviet space," our
author writes. "They thus resented the West's willingness to help the newly independent states
consolidate their separate political existence" (p. 103). Even those Russians inclined to
friendship with the West have not reconciled themselves to the loss of the Ukraine. Such
revanchism must be firmly resisted: a place in the American Empire is however reserved for
Russia should she see reason and knuckle under.
Though Professor Brzezinski is alive to every nuance in what he pompously calls the
geostrategic situation, one question gets no more than a moment's attention from him-and it is
the most vital question of all. Why should the United States bother with global hegemony? Do
we not, on his own showing, risk conflicts with others by pursuit of a global strategy? The
situation in Korea, e.g., is in our author's account one that requires delicate balancing, lest
struggle with China erupt. And even if we avoid conflict, do not our commitments cost us billions
of dollars? Why, for instance, should we assume most of the defense burden of Japan? Because of
our umbrella of protection, Japan need devote only a minute portion of its budget to defense.
Wouldn't we likewise be better off with lower spending for military commitments to others?
Important questions, you might think; but Brzezinski's defense of global hegemony is
confined to a brief statement: "Short of a deliberate or unintentional American abdication, the
only real alternative to American global leadership in the foreseeable future is international
anarchy. In that respect, it is correct to assert that America has become, as President
Clinton put it, the world's 'indispensable nation'" (p. 195).
The good professor's "argument" is no more than a crude verbal trick. By "international
anarchy" he means nothing more than a system of states not controlled by a hegemonic power or
otherwise unified. Since no other country has sufficient power to assume global control, then if
we set aside the imperial purple, by definition a state of anarchy remains.
But why is this bad? Professor Brzezinski does not reveal to us the secret. He does refer to
various problems, such as population explosion and "poverty-driven migration," but it is not clear
why American hegemony is needed to cope with them. One strongly suspects that for our author,
the pursuit of global power is its own justification.
Those content with less demanding goals for United States policy, such as protection
against foreign at-tacks, have no reason to pursue hegemony and every reason to resume our
traditional policy of nonintervention in European affairs. The two major countries most likely to
be hostile to the United States in the near future are of course our old Cold War friends Russia
and China. Neither, as our author makes clear, is in a position to damage our interests.
Owing to the collapse of the Soviet Union, "Russia's international status was significantly
degraded, with one of the world's two superpowers now viewed by many as little more than a
Third World regional power....The geopolitical void was magnified by the scale of Russia's social
crisis. Three-quarters of a century of Communist rule had inflicted unprecedented biological
damage on the Russian people" (p. 89).
But what of China? Is not this rising and dynamic power the Achilles heel of isolationism? If
we do not contain her power or, better, ally with her, will not China pose a grave threat to
United States security? Although the Chinese rate of economic growth has been of late
spectacular, there is little reason to expect this to continue. And even if she sustained her growth
rate over the next twenty-five years, "China would still be relatively very poor. Even a tripling of
GDP would leave China's population in the lower ranks of the world's nations in per capita
income.... [E]ven by the year 2020, it is quite unlikely even under the best of circumstances that
China could become truly competitive in the key dimensions of global power" (pp. 163-64).
Let us leave Professor Brzezinski to his grand global chessboard. The rest of us can be
content with a slight modification of Washington's Farewell Address: the affairs of Eurasia do not
concern the United States.