Ignatius: Remembering ‘Zbig,’ a guardian of West’s ideals

By David Ignatius

When thinking about the abstract foreign policy framework known as the “liberal international order,” it helps to personalize it by remembering the career of one of its strongest exponents, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Brzezinski, who died Friday, devoted most of his career to explaining and enhancing this idea of a robust, supple, U.S.-led architecture for global security and prosperity. He wanted this American order to be open and flexible, ready to engage the forces of what he liked to call a “global awakening” of rising nations and cultures. But he also insisted it must be strong militarily at its core.

Brzezinski was deeply troubled in his final months by the evidence that this order — the work of his generation — had been undermined almost capriciously by the rise of the inexperienced President Trump. When Brzezinski received the Pentagon’s highest civilian award at a ceremony Nov. 10, two days after Trump’s election, he warned in his brief remarks of coming turmoil in the nation and the world.

He would have been appalled, but not surprised, by the results of Trump’s G-7 meeting on Saturday, after which German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the era when Europe could rely on American leadership was “over to a certain extent.”

I first encountered Brzezinski in the late 1970s when he was national security adviser for President Carter. We talked many times over the next four decades, and in 2008, I engaged him and Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser for the Ford and Bush 41 administrations, in a series of conversations about foreign policy that was published as “America and the World.” It was a manifesto of bipartisan consensus about how to maintain a forward-leaning U.S. role in global affairs.

As Brzezinski’s health weakened this month, I sent him a note suggesting that with the disorder in the world that had accompanied Trump’s presidency, perhaps we should resume those conversations. The response was classic “Zbig” — enthusiastic, oblivious of difficulty, and precisely phrased. “Please advise me of earliest and most convenient schedule for our group to return,” he wrote back. He died four days later.

What made Brzezinski so unusual was that he never rested on his laurels. He was a brilliant analyst who spoke in perfectly punctuated sentences and paragraphs — never in canned sound bites. He considered each question as if for the first time, and he was restless, unsatisfied, willing to consider other arguments.

Brzezinski was a hawk for most of his career. But he became increasingly skeptical that military solutions would produce good results. He was outspoken, for example, in his warnings that the Iraq invasion in 2003 was a mistake. This wasn’t after-the-fact massaging of a position, a la Trump. Brzezinski paid a cost in the insular, self-reinforcing world of Washington foreign policy opinion, until it became clear to nearly everyone that he (joined in this Iraq-War opposition by Scowcroft) had been right.

Brzezinski’s concept of the liberal international order was that it rested on a framework of alliances and global institutions that could adapt as the world evolved. As a Polish refugee, he believed passionately in the freedom and economic interdependence that America defended in World War II and preserved in postwar institutions such as NATO, the World Bank and the United Nations. He was convinced that Soviet power wasn’t a permanent fact of life in Eastern Europe, even back in the 1970s, when such roll-back talk was near heresy among Democrats. He urged that a revived Japan join the Western partnership, and championed the “Trilateral Commission” to embody this idea.

Brzezinski tilted between hawkish and dovish positions, but he usually got it right. When the Russians invaded Afghanistan, he championed covert opposition. When Islamic revolutionaries hijacked Iran, Brzezinski urged the shah to fight back. Later, when a shattered Russia felt cornered, Brzezinski cautioned against the over-isolation of Moscow. And as Iran rushed toward nuclear-weapons capability, Brzezinski supported negotiations to cap the program. And he was a consistent, fearless advocate of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Brzezinski’s worries about Trump grew out of his belief in the interdependent world that America had made. Having seen Western values and freedoms crushed in Poland, he was protective of them. Having seen allies regain dignity and prosperity under an American umbrella, he wanted to maintain it.

Trump’s populism was abhorrent to this son of Polish aristocracy, but it wasn’t just that. Brzezinski didn’t think Trump understood what a precious creation he was jeopardizing by so recklessly challenging the institutions of the West.

David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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