A conversation with Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft

This spring, two of the most respected figures in American foreign policy sat down to talk about the United States and its place in the world. Zbigniew Brzezinski served as national security advisor to President Carter. Brent Scowcroft was national security advisor to presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald R. Ford. Their conversation was moderated by David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post. The following are edited excerpts:the most respected figures in American foreign policy sat down to talk about the United States and its place in the world. Zbigniew Brzezinski served as national security advisor to President Carter. Brent Scowcroft was national security advisor to presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald R. Ford. Their conversation was moderated by David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post. The following are edited excerpts: *

Zbigniew Brzezinski: I was struck the other day that the president, in his State of the Union message, said the war on terror is the defining ideological challenge of the century. And I said to myself, "Isn't that a little arrogant?" This is the year 2008, and here we are being told what the defining ideological challenge of the century is. Suppose in 1908 we were asked to define the ideological challenge of the 20th century. Would many people say right-wing and left-wing, red and brown totalitarianism? Or in 1808, the challenge of the 19th century, how many people would say on the eve of the Congress of Vienna, a conservative triumph, that the 19th century would be dominated by nationalist passions in Germany, France, Italy, Poland and throughout much of Europe?

It's not going to be the war on terror that defines the ideological challenge of our century. It's something more elusive. I think it involves three grand changes.

One is what I call the global political awakening. For the first time, all of humanity is politically active. That's a very, very dramatic change. Second, there's a shift in the global center of power from the Atlantic world to the Far East. Not the collapse of the Atlantic world, but the loss of the domination it's had for 500 years. And the third is the surfacing of common global problems that we have to address, lest we all suffer grievously. I mean climate and environment, but also poverty and injustice.

David Ignatius: Zbig, just to complete that thought, what in our ability to deal with those changes today has broken?

Brzezinski: If I had to reduce it to one factor, I would say it is the loss of American confidence. My experience as an adult has been wrapped up in a big global struggle, the Cold War. But we waged it with confidence. What I find dismaying these days is this culture of fear that one encounters everywhere.

It's wrapped up with the shock of 9/11, clearly. The fact that the whole country watched it on television shook American confidence. And sad to say, I think fear has also been propagated. That has not been helpful. The kind of issues we have to address are not going to be addressed well if the country is driven by fear.

Ignatius: Brent, how would you lead off in assessing the nature of our problem? What's broken in our ability to respond?

Brent Scowcroft: I look at the world in much the same way Zbig does. But let me start from a more historical background. I think the end of the Cold War marked a historical discontinuity in the world environment.

The Cold War was an intense concentration on a single problem. It mobilized us. It mobilized our friends and allies against a single bloc. It affected our thought processes. It affected our institutions, everything we did. I don't know if there's ever been a time we were more concentrated.

And suddenly, historically in the blink of an eye, that world came to an end, and it was replaced by a world without the existential threat of the Cold War. If we made a mistake, we might blow up the planet -- that was gone. Instead, there were 100 pinprick problems. Instead of looking through one end of the telescope, at Moscow, we were looking through the other end at this myriad of little problems. And we were dealing with them with thought processes and institutions geared for that one end of the telescope.


Ignatius: What was it like to sit in the White House in a world where the great fear was nuclear annihilation?

Scowcroft: There was the ever-present thought that if either side made a serious mistake, it could be catastrophic for humanity. Did we spend all our waking moments thinking about that? No. But it was a combination of that and a struggle to understand what the Soviets were up to, and what was their capability of, for example, a technological development that could suddenly make us vulnerable, and change this standoff to an asymmetry.

Ignatius: Zbig, what did it feel like for you to be in the cockpit?

Brzezinski: Well, one of my jobs was to coordinate the president's response in the event of a nuclear attack. I'm not revealing any secrets, but it was something like this: We would have initial warning of an attack within one minute of a large-scale launch by the Soviet Union. Roughly by the second minute we'd have a pretty good notion of the scale and the likely targets. By the third minute, we would know more or less when to anticipate impact and so forth. By the third minute, the job of the national security advisor was to alert the president that this was ongoing, that we have this information. And the president then decides how to respond.

It begins to get complicated immediately. If it's an all-out attack, the response is presumably easier. You just react in total. But suppose it's a more selective attack. There are choices to be made. The president is supposed to weigh the options. How will he react? There's an element of uncertainty here. In any case, the process is to be completed roughly by the seventh minute. By which time -- I assume this was roughly the same with you guys, right?

Scowcroft: So far, uh-huh.

Brzezinski: By the seventh minute, the order to execute had to be transmitted and whatever we decided had to be carried out. Roughly by the 28th minute, there's impact. That is to say, you and your family are dead. Washington's gone. A lot of our military assets are destroyed. But presumably, the president has calmly made the decision how to respond. We're already firing back. Six hours later, 150 million Americans and Soviets are dead. That is the reality we lived with. And we did everything we could to make it as stable, as subject to rational control, as possible. To be nonprovocative but also to be very alert and determined so that no one on the other side could think they could pull it off and survive.

It's very different now. I think Brent has described it very well -- 100 pinpricks. The new reality is a kind of dispersed turbulence. And that requires, I think, a different mind-set, a more sophisticated understanding of the complexity of global change.


Ignatius: I want you to talk a bit more about the nature of American leadership in this very complicated world. First, is American leadership necessary?

Brzezinski: It can be a catalyst. Not for actions directed by the United States but for actions that the local community -- maybe we can call them stakeholders in a global system -- is prepared collectively to embrace. That kind of leadership is needed. But for that kind of leadership to emerge in America, we not only need very special people as leaders -- and they do come up occasionally -- but we need a far more enlightened society than we have.

I think Americans are curiously, paradoxically, simultaneously very well-educated and amazingly ignorant. We are a society that lives within itself. We're not interested in the history of other countries.

Today we have a problem with Iran. How many Americans know anything about Iranian history? Do they know that it is a bifurcated history? There have been two Irans. And those two different periods, pre-Islamic and post-Islamic, dialectically define the tensions and the realities of Iran today. [Americans] know nothing about it.

Quite a few Americans entering college could not locate Great Britain on the map. They couldn't locate Iraq on the map after five years of war. Thirty percent couldn't identify the Pacific Ocean. We don't teach global history; we don't teach global geography. I think most Americans don't have the kind of sophistication that an America that inspires, and thereby leads, will have to have if it is to do what this 21st century really will demand of us.

Scowcroft: I could easily just say amen. But again, this is a part of who we are and from where we have arisen. For most of our history, we've been secure behind two oceans, with weak neighbors on each side. Americans don't have to learn foreign languages. They can travel as widely as most of them want and never leave the United States. So most Americans instinctively just want to be left alone. I don't think they want to mess with the problems of the world.

Brzezinski: They want to enjoy the good life.

Scowcroft: They want to enjoy the good life.

And our political structure seems more and more to cater to the narrow interests of Americans rather than their broader interests. Only in time of peril do our leaders really focus decisively on the international scene -- the beginning of the Cold War, for example, or when Roosevelt tried to steer us in the right direction in the prelude to World War II, or when Eisenhower reached out to Europe to form NATO. It takes that kind of leadership.

When Americans can be stimulated, I think we're good-hearted. We're not narrow and avaricious. But our political structure doesn't seem to play to that. And as I said before, in the world as it is now, only the United States can exercise enlightened leadership. Not direct people what to do. But say, "Gather round. This is the way the world community needs to go."

Brzezinski: Amen.

Scowcroft: We're the only ones who can be the guiding light.

The Brzezinski-Scowcroft conversation has been gathered into a book, "America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy," published by Basic Books and the New America Foundation and available this month.