Brzezinski Grades Presidents, U.S. Foreign Policy Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser for President Jimmy Carter, assesses the foreign policies of the three most recent U.S. presidents in Second Chance. He says Washington has squandered its first chance at global leadership.

Brzezinski Grades Presidents, U.S. Foreign Policy

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. The most optimistic note in Zbigniew Brzezinski's book about current U.S. foreign policy is the title, "Second Chance." In the view of Brzezinski, who was national security advisor in the Carter White House, Washington has squandered its first chance at global leadership. Brzezinski writes about our three most recent presidents, the only three leaders who have led the U.S. after the Cold War, after Washington's Soviet rival imploded. And Dr. Brzezinski, ever the political science professor, gives grades to George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush with their conduct of foreign policy. The elder Bush scores the best.

Mr. ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI (Author, "Second Chance"): The overall grade for him, I give him a B. Missed opportunities, though initially a great tactical performance. Clinton gets C because he did some good things, but he had eight years to do some major things and he was too self-indulgent and too deterministic in his attitude to do more than he might have done, and he didn't. So he gets a C. And then the third one is, of course, our current president.

SIEGEL: I think we can hear it coming, yes.

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Yes, and his leadership I discuss and characterize as historically catastrophic, and I give him an F, a failure.

SIEGEL: I hope you're grading in the way that you graded, say, when you were a professor back at Columbia some time ago. This is the current era of grade inflation because those would be terribly bad grades into the present.

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Well, it certainly isn't grade inflation, but when I taught at Columbia, earlier at Harvard, later Johns Hopkins, I very rarely gave straight A's, and if I ever did I always wrote the student a personal letter in advance of issuing the grades, advising him or her…

SIEGEL: Not to get a fat head.

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: …that he's getting a straight A.

SIEGEL: I see.

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: So I would have liked to have given an A to someone, and I think Bush I had the opportunity to earn it, and then gradually the situation deteriorated, and I'm afraid that right now we are facing a very serious crisis regarding the future, and the next 20 months are going to be absolutely decisive.

If we surmount the next 20 months without the war in Iraq getting worse and expanding to a war with Iran, I think there's a good chance we'll recoup because we still have the potential to recoup. But if we do get into that larger conflict, then I'm afraid the era of American global preeminence will prove to be historically very, very short.

SIEGEL: There's an area of the world that you speak of, you write of, as the global Balkans, and it stretches from the Middle East off into western China, where there are Muslim minorities. The global Balkans, capable of what we saw in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s?

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Well, in essence, yes. You know, why are the Balkans considered to be a kind of the word that implies international trouble? Because essentially the European Balkans were a region in which internal strife in that region had a suction effect on external powers, and I argue in my book that the area from the Suez to St. John is today the modern equivalent of the Balkans, what I call the global Balkans, and today the United States is running a real risk if it is not prudent in the next 20 months of getting bogged down in a war that will cut across Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and then inevitably Pakistan, and if that happens to us, we'll be alone, and we'll be bogged down for at least 20 years.

SIEGEL: You write a great deal about the possibility of China and Russia developing a deeper strategic partnership and presenting real competition to the United States in that region and generally around the world. What evidence is there, first of all, that the Chinese and the Russians have overcome the mutual suspicions of the communist era?

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Well, first of all, it will be a tactical alliance. It's not going to be an ideological alliance. And tactical alliances are in essence partial alliances. But the evidence is there in at least two very major areas. One, arms. The Chinese are the major purchasers of Soviet or Russian arms, and thereby also they are subsidizing the Russian arms industry, and that creates links between the military establishments.

And secondly, the Chinese are also significantly expanding their dependence on energy supplied by Russia, and that of course is critical to their economic development. And they are beginning to cooperate on some international issues For example, their position on Iran is certainly closer between the two of them than either of them with us.

SIEGEL: You quote - I believe its Raymond Aron, the French political philosopher as saying that - I believe he's saying that power in the world is wielded only effectively in this era when it's attached to some idea. And one thing that I found very interesting in your analysis is that while we all have come to identify Bush II foreign policy with neo-conservatism, you find that the idea in Clinton foreign policy, which was globalization, was an embrace of globalization - do you detect on the political scene right now any large idea that any of the potential presidents who might be elected next time out have attached themselves to?

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: No, no great unifying idea. I think some have been more outspoken and courageous in criticizing our current policy, but I think the definition of a shared idea is still elusive. I try to suggest what that might be, which is essentially a combination of dignity, diversity and democracy in an age in which the world population is becoming politically awakened and to which America can then offer something, just as in the past we defended democracy against totalitarianism in the 20th century, and then the two earlier centuries we were essentially a haven of liberty for people who wanted to actually live their lives in liberty, and that's why largely they immigrated to America.

But whether we can become identified with that appreciation of diversity, which means tolerance for other people's views; dignity, which means social justice for people who live in an age in which they know that social injustice exists because they see it on television, through Internet; and only through that process with democracy, whether that may not be too complicated an option for a large populace democracy such as America is.

SIEGEL: Well, Zbigniew Brzezinski, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. He's the author of "Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower." You can read Dr. Brzezinski's list of the 10 key events which have shaped U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War at our Web site,

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