One of the reasons why I enjoy returning to old classics is the gems that it often reveals and one rarely finds anymore in contemporary sources. Take for example Zbigniew Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard, published in 1997, after which it immediately became one of the essential books in the study of geopolitics. At the time of its release, Brzezinski was an established name and no political outsider: former US National Security Advisor (to Jimmy Carter), the main organiser behind The Trilaterial Commission, he was also a renowned academic and prolific commentator of international affairs well until his death in 2017.
While critics of the American foreign policy often use Brzezinski as a mere scarecrow, he should be praised for the frankness and honesty with which he discusses the basic operational principles for preserving the US global dominance. What European politicians only dare to whisper when media or Uncle Sam don’t hear them, Brzezinski lays down as a key fact – the United States has been the first global empire and it’s in its national interest to keep it that way. How does it do that? Well, this is where it starts to get rather unpleasant and painful, particularly for those in the EU who like to speak of a ‘geopolitical Europe’.
With regards to NATO, Brzezinski says that it ‘is an alliance that, to use traditional terminology, involves essentially a hegemon and its vassals’. Mind you, he has nothing in principle against the EU becoming an equal partner in the Alliance, but the Europeans first must wish it so and do something in that regard. Secondly, he also explains the importance of Europe for America: it is its
‘essential geopolitical bridgehead on the Eurasian continent. America’s geostrategic stake in Europe is enormous. Unlike America’s links with Japan, the Atlantic alliance entrenches American political influence and military power directly on the Eurasian mainland. At this stage of American-European relations, with the allied European nations still highly dependent on U.S. security protection, any expansion in the scope of Europe becomes automatically an expansion in the scope of direct U.S. influence as well. Conversely, without close transatlantic ties, America’s primacy in Eurasia promptly fades away. U.S. control over the Atlantic Ocean and the ability to project influence and power deeper into Eurasia would be severely circumscribed.’
The hard truth is that the fact that Europe is dominated by the United States’ foreign policy is to a great extent the result of a series of its own decisions. Brzezinski does nothing but point out this relative weakness, including when he discusses efforts and ambitions of France and Germany to address this. One cannot complain of the American hegemony without simultaneously admitting that, for the Europeans since the Second World War, it has always been an ‘empire by invitation’, as pointed out by another well-known thesis by Geir Lundestad.