Zbigniew Brzezinski, or Zbig as he was universally known in Washington to spare excessive strain on unpractised American tongues, was one of three high profile Central Europeans who helped shape US foreign policy in the final third of the 20th century. Henry Kissinger was a German; Madeleine Albright was by birth Czech; Brzezinski was Polish. And he brought to his four years at the heart of power, as President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, a Pole’s instinctive suspicion of Russia and all its works.
The three overlapped intriguingly. Each made their name in academia. Like Kissinger, Brzezinski came to the US as a young man but never lost his foreign accent. Like Albright, he could be categorised as a hawk on communism, and on communism’s grim afterlife in the former Yugoslavia. Of Kissinger he was a rival, both academically and politically; of Albright he was an early intellectual patron.
Brzezinski’s brilliance was doubted by nobody. What is more, his tough approach to the Soviet Union was vindicated by events when he was in power by Russia’s use of proxy countries to advance its geostrategic ambitions, and by Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979. But his tenure at the NSC was chiefly memorable for his running feud with the Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, ever afterward cited as the ultimate case study in how not to run foreign policymaking in Washington.
The two were polar opposites. Vance was among the last of those well-born, well-connected Wall Street lawyers whose attitude to government service was one of noblesse oblige. A self-effacing member of the East Coast establishment, Vance’s instinct was to soothe, negotiate and compromise. Brzezinski was brash and brimming with ideas, a bit undisciplined and a bit of a mischief-maker. Above all he was a firm believer that the only thing Russians respected was strength — and the readiness to use it.
In the end he outlasted Vance in their bureaucratic war of…