'Zbig': Renowned geopolitical maestro
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'Zbig': Renowned geopolitical maestro

Zbigniew Brzezinski received the US Medal of Freedom from then-president Jimmy Carter in 1981. Brzezinski died last Friday at 89. (AP file photo)
Zbigniew Brzezinski received the US Medal of Freedom from then-president Jimmy Carter in 1981. Brzezinski died last Friday at 89. (AP file photo)

Last week's death of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the renowned thinker, writer and practitioner of geopolitics throughout the Cold War and onetime national security adviser to former US president Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, has elicited generally positive global reviews and assessments of his achievements. He died on Friday at the age of 89.

"Zbig", a nickname of respect and endearment his students and friends used to refer to him, was a formidable policy intellectual who was anti-communist and anti-Soviet Union to the bone. His death closes another individual chapter of the all-consuming ideological conflict of the last century between US-style market capitalism bent on basic rights and freedoms and communism with its totalitarian state control and authoritarian characteristics.

News platforms across the continents commonly note Brzezinski's career trajectory from an immigrant boy from Poland carving out a life in Canada because his diplomat father had been posted there just prior to the outbreak of World War II. He received two degrees at McGill University and earned his doctorate at Harvard.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

His student work invariably centred on the abuses and excesses of the Soviet Union, a state formed in 1917 that posed a threat to global order and bore inherent contradictions. Eventually the Soviet Union's internal stress and strain led to its demise in 1991. Brzezinski did not foresee it as such but the logic of his academic work was consonant with the Soviet collapse.

After receiving his doctorate, Brzezinski went on to the faculties of Harvard, Columbia and Johns Hopkins University, where he taught US foreign policy and geostrategy. Along the way, he advised political leaders from the Democratic Party from John F Kennedy to Lyndon B Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, but the turning point was his convergence with Jimmy Carter in 1973 through the Trilateral Commission promoting global coordination between the United States, Europe and Japan.

As national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, Brzezinski was known for many outcomes, particularly the (failed) Iran hostage rescue in April 1980, which led to then-secretary of state Cyrus Vance's resignation and effectively sealed Mr Carter's election defeat later that year.

Brzezinski also helped solidify the US-China normalisation -- back then commonly called the People's Republic of China (PRC) -- and thereby shifted away from the Republic of China or Taiwan. And he was instrumental in dealing with the Soviets through the second round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Brzezinski played a brief but crucial role in the early aid of the local "mujahideen" rebels, a policy that succeeded under former president Ronald Reagan and contributed to the Soviet Union's downfall.

Much more can and will be said of his legacy. But to his students, he will be remembered as "Zbig" and his classes will go down as a policy laboratory of global policy problem-solving. He was not a professor in the traditional teaching sense, with its focus on course outlines, reading lists and office hours. Zbig was more like a convenor who harnessed and honed young minds.

At Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC, his academic base alongside policy work at the nearby think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, Zbig taught a large lecture course of nearly a hundred people, which seemed like half of the student body. The focus each week was on some geopolitical hotspot or another that required presidential attention. Zbig did to the class what he did for Jimmy Carter, reducing global politics into a 15-minute briefing, equipped with policy options and recommendations.

The Zbig technique was simple. Take a global issue that needed action at the time and give it a title, say, how to respond to China's unstoppable rise through major forays such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) -- in today's parlance.

Second, come up with an upshot, a key part of the equation where all that is needed to be known in one solid paragraph, perhaps two, but not more than three -- say, what and how the BRI and the AIIB would expand China's footprints all over Eurasia at the expense of the hitherto US-led global order, including US fiscal constraints in response.

The third part is to clearly and cogently define what's at stake, say, how US global leadership would be diminished and perhaps how China's model of authoritarian capitalism could dominate the world.

Fourth, come up with three and usually no more than five options for what to do. These could range from rejecting and staying out of BRI and AIIB, joining and sharing global leadership with China, or joining but impeding China's global aims by securing US allies and partners.

Finally, recommend one. In this case, the Zbig pick would be the latter -- to be China's partner but still be first among equals. Sometimes it would be to recommend the latter but publicise it as something else, such as remaining preeminent but ostensibly joining and sharing. The ideal is never an option. In this way, all problems can be reduced and handled under constrained circumstances.

Students from the lecture course were eligible to enter an essay competition, written in opinion-editorial style, for a place in Zbig's 20-only seminar. Admission would yield learning not just from him but also from classmates. It was a seminar where nearly all the hands went up during the questions and comments time. And it was necessary to put a hand up while thinking about what to say and hoping not to be called first.

Being Euro-centric and Atantic-focused, he was not without blind spots. Zbigniew Brzezinski gave short shrift to Southeast Asia. Asean hardly registered in his acronymic lexicon, although it was not uncommon in Washington DC in the early 1990s when the trauma and scars of the US defeat in Vietnam were still latent. Asia at the time was all about China and Japan. To Zbig, China was to be partnered with in some fashion because the Soviets were a bigger threat, while Japan was to be embraced as an indispensable ally.

Zbigniew Brzezinski was a Cold War intellectual fighter and policymaker for a cause he believed in. As global politics and parameters move from the Atlantic to the Pacific, he adapted to the 21st century but his core thinking and contributions are attributable to the previous century. For many of his students, he will be recalled for his clarity of thought and for being on the right side of history.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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