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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Making the Grades With Brzezinski

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How can you tell when an American statesman has just published a serious new book? He appears on all the comedy shows. Isn't that Madeline Albright talking to Bill Mahr? And there's Zbigniew Brzezinski joshing with Jon Stewart, pushing his latest "Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower." It worked -- I bought it.

Brzezinski's central idea is that the collapse of the Soviet Union began a new phase of history in which the United States is the uniquely paramount power and all others are "essentially regional." The three tasks for the United States are to manage international power relations, contain conflicts and address the world's "increasingly intolerable inequalities." This framework allows Brzezinski to turn the jumble of current events into the patterned order of history and as well to judge each of the United States' three post-Cold War presidents. He grades them on eight categories including post-Soviet space, Middle East, environment, Atlantic alliance and gives each an overall grade. George H.W. Bush is "solid" and gets a B. Bill Clinton is "uneven" and receives a C. The "catastrophic" George W. Bush gets a F. (I hope that doesn't mean he has to take it over.)

It is valuable to be reminded of how many crises the elder Bush faced in 1989, his first year in office, and how well he handled them. They include Poland's election of a non-communist government, the massacre at Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bush I was able to finesse the reunification of Germany the next year, when Soviet divisions were still stationed in East Germany. His skills and experience in the international arena helped the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 occur with minimal bloodshed and chaos. That same expertise was evident in the coalition he assembled to combat Iraq after it seized Kuwait in August 1990.

Brzezinski's criticism of the elder Bush is that he was a master tactician with no strategy. He didn't follow up. He lacked the "vision thing."

Clinton had a vision but that was part of his problem. He saw globalization as inevitable, which led to a certain passivity in foreign affairs. In that, he was very much a child of the Gilded Age that ended the 20th century when history did indeed seem over, superceded by technology.

Brzezinski gives Clinton a B- for his handling of post-Soviet space but is himself somewhat inconsistent on Russia, saying the "logical course" was to "forge a long-term policy designed to draw Russia into a more binding relationship with Europe." But ringing Russia's western flank with new NATO countries and Clinton's laissez-faire attitude toward the looting of Russia by the oligarchs hardly seems to moving toward that end.

Even odder is the remark: "Clinton, however, deserves credit for an initiative that subsequently has become an obstacle to a resurgence of Russian imperialism: the U.S.-sponsored Baku-Ceyhan pipeline" that gives the West direct access to Caspian and Central Asian oil. I would argue that the pipeline (a project in which Brzezinski played a role as presidential emissary) along with the NATO encirclement have led to the rougher more nationalist Russia of today.

George W. Bush, the "catastrophic" president does, however, get the same B- in post-Soviet Space that Clinton does. And yet relations between the United States and Russia are frostier than ever. Is that a failure of diplomacy on the part of the United States or does the problem lie within Russian itself? "Russia," he writes, "cannot decide whether it wants to be an authoritarian, imperialist, socially backward Eurasian state or a genuinely modern European democracy." One place to watch in the post-2008 world is Ukraine; if shut out of Europe and NATO its "vulnerability will excite Russia's residual imperial ambitions." And even the comedians won't find anything funny in that.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."