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Expanding on Zbigniew Brzezinski’s case for continued American hegemony

February 27th, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Having emerged from the Cold War, the United States is the preeminent superpower. However, with the last decade mired in wars, and especially with the 2008 financial crisis, America is full of doubt. With China registering another 9% GDP growth in 2011, America is fearful of being overtaken. PEW Research conducted two global attitude surveys across 18 countries in 2009 and 2011 and concludes there is a robust growing sentiment that China will eventually overtake the United States. 1 To be sure, only 47% in the 2011 survey believed China will eventually overtake, so it is not a majority opinion yet.

That growing sentiment has prompted Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser to Jimmy Carter, to argue that a world without the United States at the helm would be “dangerously unstable.” The Chinese leadership recognized this reality too as he demonstrated with a quote from a high-ranking Chinese official, “But, please, let America not decline too quickly.” 2

Brzezinski went on to argue there is no power today strong enough to take America’s place should there be a sudden and massive crisis to the American system. Once that occurs, he argued, what is more “probable would be a protracted phase of rather inconclusive realignments of both global and regional power, with no grand winners and many more losers, in a setting of international uncertainty and even of potentially fatal risks to global well-being.”

In this context, where the United States is the sole superpower, a certain order persisting under America’s hegemonic watch is to be welcomed. Some may argue, many of the world’s conflicts are a result of American hegemony. That may very well be true too. However, no one can conclude what the world would be like should the Soviet Union have won the Cold War.

Nevertheless, empirical evidence has shown, despite headlines in the news of war and violence, worldwide armed conflict is on the decline. 3 This was argued by Joshua Goldstein lately. Much of this trend has been attributed to United Nations peace keepers for helping to stem blood feud in regional conflicts. While the United States hold the largest number of vetoes in the Security Council, the explicit or implied approval of U.N. interventions that have actually taken place have made a huge difference.

Obviously, Goldstein’s study took into account of death and destruction from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other recent wars. Still, it showed empirically that armed conflict between nation states on the whole have declined. America as a hegemony deserves credit, because this phenomenon has taken place under her watch. For a “friendly” country to invade another, it will need explicit American approval. For a non-“friendly” country to invade another, it risks being invaded by America. Her hegemony offers the world a truce, notwithstanding specific nation states America deem enemies.

China clearly embraces the current world-order too. She seeks to expand her involvement in international affairs through embracing WHO, World Bank, IMF, and WTO. If otherwise, China would form competitive organizations and align other countries against the existing ones. 4

Brzezinski then cautioned, “And as the world after America would be increasingly complicated and chaotic, it is imperative that the United States pursue a new, timely strategic vision for its foreign policy — or start bracing itself for a dangerous slide into global turmoil.” He in fact dedicated a new book precisely on this point. After reading it, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “Strategic Vision is a much-needed wake-up call regarding the international repercussions if America fails to address its multiple domestic crises successfully. A realist but not a pessimist, Brzezinski offers a thoughtful—and, as usual, provocative and timely—must-read for all who are concerned about the future of our country at home and abroad.” 5

Naturally, Brzezinski espouses a strategy where America would retain her dominant position in perpetuity. That is expected of a patriot. Americans can hardly be faulted for expecting their leaders to think this way. As in any sports league, one expects all teams to compete hard and fairly. In that spirit, America has every right to work towards retaining her hegemonic position.

While Brzezinski has not explicitly stated this goal, it is also America’s responsibility, especially while still the hegemon, to ensure our current world-order is organized such a way should America decline, another hegemon can peacefully take her place. Without a mechanism allowing for this peaceful transition, we are all condemned to a possibility of the very chaos he warns us of.

While America is the top dog, it is convenient to not have to consider a world-order dominated by two or more players. The Cold War was marred with proxy wars. Having two hegemons fighting for preeminence already seemed like more dangerous than today’s arrangement. What about a more powerful U.N. with peace keepers armed and resourced to a similar degree like NATO is? After all, Goldstein proved that it has been precisely U.N. peace keeping missions that resulted in the least violence in our history.

In conclusion:

    a. America fixes her domestic problems (and in combination perhaps rearrange the world) so she continues her dominance.
    b. At the same time find a mechanism which allows for a new hegemon to take her place should that day arrive.
    c. Or, build U.N. version 3.0. If the League of Nations was version 1, then the current U.N. is version 2. The current U.N. is really toothless in restraining the United States, so logically, it would mean the United States would have to abdicate her reign and help lead the world in creating a stronger U.N..

America should pursue “a” in earnest, but I would advise any American president to also pursue “b” or “c” concurrently.


  1. Richard Wike, “From Hyperpower to Declining Power, Changing Global Perceptions of the U.S. in the Post-Sept. 11 Era.” Pew Research Center. September 7, 2011. http://www.pewglobal.org/2011/09/07/from-hyperpower-to-declining-power/
  2. Zbigniew Brzezinski, “After America – How does the world look in an age of U.S. decline? Dangerously unstable.” Foreign Policy. JAN/FEB 2012 http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/01/03/after_america
  3. Joshua S. Goldstein, “Winning the War on War,” Dutton/Penguin, Sept. 2011 http://winningthewaronwar.com/
  4. Information Office of the State Council, “China’s Peaceful Development.” The People’s Republic of China. September 2011, Beijing http://www.gov.cn/english/official/2011-09/06/content_1941354.htm
  5. Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.com/Strategic-Vision-America-Crisis-Global/dp/046502954X
  1. zack
    February 28th, 2012 at 01:15 | #1

    great post, but it seems to me that the US of today would much rather leave the world in bloody conflict than cede any sort of power or hegemonic gain to China or any other contender. THe US would much rather seek war-preferably asymmetric- with its designated rivals because it generates so much wealth and jobs for its military industrial complex, and it is hoped that it would delay the rise of China in this case.

    the US is no different to any other hegemon; it will fight tooth and nail to ensure it remains top dog, even if it means militarily invading and threatening China or aiding and abetting her enemies.

    THis is why i’ve always maintained that the US should never be trusted; the only language leaders of the US understand are those of power and leverage, not of honour or morality.

  2. zack
    February 28th, 2012 at 01:54 | #2

    take for example the “friendly advice” everyone from The Economist to the World Bank is trying to give China: that it must liberalise its economy so that it’s exactly like the western model. It’s no secret that China’s model is a clear cut stake in the heart to the Washington consensus of a liberalised market economy with all across privatisation-the very privatisation that’s caused the massive decline in infrastructure in the US, massive corporate greed, and of course the current GFC.

    the US at this moment in time is no friend to China; what sort of friend expects to change their friends cultural and traditional beliefs? would you accept a friend who expected you to go to church with him and convert to his brand of Christianity?

  3. pug_ster
    February 28th, 2012 at 07:52 | #3

    Good post but I don’t agree with Brzezinski’s assessment with how US is maintaining the ‘stability’ of the world order when it because as the solo superpower. Look at the US’ ‘war against terror’ campaign in the last decade, they laid so much unnecessary carnage into so many countries. If there’s anything we need, we need Russia and China to be defiant against the US aggression toward the weaker countries like what they are doing in Syria.

  4. LOLZ
    February 28th, 2012 at 08:28 | #4

    US’ supreme military strength has certainly stopped nations from invading other nations, however it cannot stop nations from crumbling from within. US politics often encourages the US government to destabilize non-Western friendly government.

    The thing is that in many parts of the world, the idea of political freedom is in direct conflict with stability. The Arab Spring has demonstrated it perfectly. The US can certainly stop Egypt from invading Israel outright, and the US can determine the fate of dictators in states which it has direct control over. However the US cannot stop the Egyptian people from becoming increasingly anti-West and anti-Israel once the US sponsored dictator is removed from power. In a similar vein, the West cannot stop Hamas/Hezbollah from coming into power through natural elections.

    In many ways, the US’ military industrial complex combining with religious differences b/w Christians/Jews and Muslims are the root cause of much instability around the world today. Military actions has only worsened the situation.

  5. February 28th, 2012 at 11:21 | #5

    Thanks. I understand your point. Kissinger describes this peculiar behavior as “missionary.” I think if you think in realpolitik terms, this is a strategy to go for more than your fair share at the table. It is a way to compete. Not entirely different than an NBA team intentionally fouling the other team with unnecessary roughness to throw them off mentally.

    If you have ever listened to an NBA fan radio station, you will quickly realize that station is propaganda for that team. The U.S. media is one massive station for team USA.

    But if we look at statesmen like Brzezinski, Kissinger, and others, we will realize they have a much sober view of the world.

    The United States do not want to drive China and Russia into a strong strategic partnership. You observed that American leaders understand only power. That’s probably true with all world leaders. In that context, America has plenty of restraints.

    What’s really unsettling for us common folks is the brinksmanship that needs to be played in order for peace to persist.

    I personally wouldn’t worry about the World Bank’s “friendly advice.” Remember though that report was done with a Chinese thinktank in Beijing. Chinese leaders will implement what they think is helpful to Chinese society.

    An exercise we can do is to compare the World Bank’s recommendations with what is already in the current 5-year plan. Unless the World Bank is dangling $100 billion if China implements its recommendations, there is not much meat behind it.

  6. February 28th, 2012 at 11:34 | #6

    Oil is a vital national interest, and the U.S. will find ways to get access and control. For the misfits – I think policies toward oil-less countries like North Korea and Cuba – are legacies of the Cold War.

    In his new book, “Strategic Vision,” Brzezinski wrote:

    In 1943, President Roosevelt not so subtly told Britain’s ambassador to the United States, Lord Halifax, while pointing at a map of the Middle East, that “Persian oil is yours. We share the oil of Iraq and Kuwait. As for Saudi Arabian oil, it’s ours.”

    I think the ‘carnage’ is usually about controlling oil.

  7. February 28th, 2012 at 11:41 | #7

    Good point. I think the “missionary” nature of U.S. foreign policy in meddling inside other societies have both benefits and costs. The U.S. media never get the public into discussing that. Some argue in fact taking the fight to foreign lands makes America safer. With a strong military you will win in the short term. But even George Kennan has said that in the long run, this cannot ‘win.’

  8. Charles Liu
    February 28th, 2012 at 12:56 | #8


    DW, US cost & benefit aside, what’s true is we do it out of our own self-interest, not altruism. For example media’s state-influenced ideological posture on China, government grant to political dissidents to interfere China’s domestic politics, pumping millions into Falun Gong prior to Beijing Olympics for PR war, continued funding of VOA/RFA, TGIE, Uighur separatists.

    Are any of these truly in China’s best interest over our own? I submit NONE.

  9. February 28th, 2012 at 14:17 | #9

    In my above comment to zack, I said:

    If you have ever listened to an NBA fan radio station, you will quickly realize that station is propaganda for that team. The U.S. media is one massive station for team USA.

    After thinking about it, I think I really meant to say:

    If you have ever listened to an NBA fan radio station, you will quickly realize that station is propaganda for that team’s fans. The U.S. media is one massive station for team USA’s fans.

    If you get such fans together, they are not going to be rational. They will be one mob against another mob.

  10. February 28th, 2012 at 14:33 | #10

    @Charles Liu
    I think you are right. On the other hand, if the Chinese government cannot handle few million of funding here and there by the U.S. government of groups politically opposed to China, then that government is simply pathetic.

    Back to that sports analogy. The U.S. has the big muscles to play rough whereas China doesn’t. China has to live with that reality just as every other country has to. Look at Japan – if you talk to Japanese citizens, many of them lament the fact that Japan has not much political influence, because things she does are usually to buttress U.S. foreign policy.

    But I am also a firm believer in actions and reactions. The Western media may be awfully unfair to China, but disgust over Western media helps generate domestic support within China for the Chinese government policies. It’s hard to measure – for each convert the Western media may get, there could be countless others waking up to what they are up to.

    I believe we are entering a turning point now as far as “freedom,” “democracy,” and “human rights” go. I think these dogma will increasingly be less effective abroad and may at the end bite Western societies (especially the U.S.) hard. They have calcified.

  11. melektaus
    February 28th, 2012 at 19:10 | #11

    Looks like Brzezinski is just trying to scare people into buying his books. The US is not a force for peace but a force for war and always has been. I liked what Goldstein said in another article (also in foreignpolicy but I can’t remember the title). He basically claimed that the major military power that has been far and away the most peaceful in the last 30 years is China. China will be what the democratic peace theorists and the leviathan-hegemonists claim of the US: a truly peaceful force for good in the world instead of one that proclaims to be one but causes instability and conflict wherever it has ever gone.

  12. melektaus
    February 28th, 2012 at 19:16 | #12

    Found the Goldstein article entitled “Think again: War”


    “Since Chairman Mao’s death, China has been hands down the most peaceful great power of its time.”

    I’m pleasantly surprised that FP has allowed such a voice of reason to be aired in their fascist/neocon midst.

  13. February 28th, 2012 at 22:55 | #13

    On action/reaction – Obama’s Asia ‘pivot’ gives perfect excuse for China to increase military spending:

  14. February 28th, 2012 at 22:59 | #14

    One thing I find surprising is Goldstein’s assertion that Americans support the U.N.. The U.S. media propagandizes against it as a ‘talk shop’ and I get that same response from my friends too.

  15. melektaus
    February 29th, 2012 at 13:25 | #15


    The media and the rightwing politicians all seem to be against the UN but Goldstein is probably basing his assertion on a Pew poll that showed 79% of Americans support an increased role played by the UN in the world.


  16. February 29th, 2012 at 13:58 | #16

    Thanks for the link. Listened to that program when it originally aired on NPR.

  17. March 1st, 2012 at 14:05 | #17

    I have a few problems with Brzezinskis’ narrative:

    1. While I agree that cultures and art and science have often thrived under a hegemon (China offers many of those examples in its histories), having a hegemon per se does not lead to flowering of culture, art, and science. Thus, while cultures and art and science have thrived (mainly in the West) the last few hundred years with the world under a Western hegemony, the maintenance of Western hegemony over the world through military might per se will not necessarily ensure continue thriving of that civilization. In other words, mere maintenance of a military hegemony is not sufficient and may not lead to a public good at all.

    2. I am concerned that Brzezinskis’s theory seems to be based more on fear than on any positive offering. Personally I think the world needs to move bravely forward not coward in the security of the known.

    I am also concerned with the “narrow” way Brzezinskis defines human and global welfare. While the world has seen less conflicts overall, that per se does not mean the world had been better off. Yes, perhaps conflicts are merely conflicts – and the suppression of that is good. However, suppression of conflicts may also reflect suppression of genuine voices across the world. After all, in a world where most of the people are enslaved and beholden to a few, there will also be less conflicts. But we may not necessarily see that to be good from the perspective of global welfare per se. Are the last few hundred years the golden age of human development, where a hegemony had enforced a global security that empowered everyone to thrive? Or are the last few hundred years an age of human enslavement, where a few had enslaved the many? Do the answer change if we only focus on the post WWII years? If so, how much?

    In my view, the focus on amount of warfare per se as an indicia of human welfare overlooks the opportunity / potential that may be missed. A defeated nation may not see more combat actions, but would the maintenance of that status quo necessarily mean that the nation is better off?

    A global hegemon may promote global peace, but is that peace extracted at the expense of the world? Is that peace secured by grossly violating rights of other peoples to thrive and to develop – by silencing others’ voice and potential to develop?

    3. Many people – including the Chines gov’t – have welcomed a multi-polar world. That is seen as good by the developing world as a turning of table of sorts – that the dispossessed now finally have a voice in the world. The requirement of a global hegemon seems antithetic to this idea of a more multi-polar world.

    In my view, having a multi-polar world does not necessarily mean endless conflicts. Sure a multi-polar world may mean greater competition – and perhaps greater warfare. But it may also mean greater democratization of affairs – giving the peoples and traditions around world more voice than they’ve had the last few hundred years.

    I am actually worried that tge notion that we must have a “hegemony” to maximize human welfare can be perverted to justify that the strong has a natural right to make everyone like them. Hence, the world must have “human rights” or “freedom” or else evil will overtake the world. The strong must maintain the light for the world, less the world go dark. From that, perhaps we might even justify that a few has the natural right to dispossess the many. I mean, if in dispossessing the many, a few can propel themselves into great advancements in art, culture, and science, would Brzezinskis consider that to be desirable?

    4. Because I don’t think either a hegemonic or multi-polar world is either inherently stable or unstable, I don’t buy the idea that we must transition from a hegemonic to another hegemonic world. I am not against that idea per se, but I don’t see it as a duty that one hegemon must hand the baton of hegemony to another either. I am also not against the U.S. healing itself so it can maintain its hegemony. But if it’s the same type of hegemony as in the past, I’d be disappointed. The issue is not hegemony, but the type of hegemony.

    5. I’d caution against the notion of UN 3.0. While a true government of the world that caters to all people is an ideal, I question whether we are really ready for it. In many nations, we see affirmative action aimed to protect the weak, the traditionally dispossessed. It has caused many problems. If UN 3.0 come about, all the world’s problem will be turned into a civil rights problem of sorts.

    But are we ready for affirmative action of sorts on a global scale? Are citizens of developed world really ready to help the citizens of the developing nations to become equals? Do people really see each other – no matter the nationality, ethnicity, class, gender – as equal?

    I think UN 3.0 – a strong UN that actually governs the world and not just promote diplomacy among sovereigns – is still a long way to come. I still believe the best way forward to promote human welfare for now, given today’s attitudes, values, etc. – is through capable nation-states and the upholding of national sovereignty.

  18. March 1st, 2012 at 14:50 | #18

    Thanks for this thoughtful and more encompassing perspective. I am going to have to work on version 2.0 now of the article.

  19. melektaus
    April 6th, 2012 at 12:20 | #19

    I just read a brzezinski paper in foreignpolicy which argued that the decline of the US will likely cause instability and chaos in the world. But brzezinski gives not a shred of evidence for this. Not a single shred.


    He seems to rely on a Hobbesian conception of the leviathan and view the USA as such a leviathan. This is ferocious ignorance. I don’t even know where to begin with this idiotic claim.

  20. April 6th, 2012 at 13:51 | #20

    Glad you brought this up. I noticed his articles rarely cite any sources. I guess that’s the privilege for being somebody. 🙂

    What about this case – the former Soviet Union. As it declined rapidly and suddenly, it basically fell apart. It would take a long period before it finds footing in Russia.

    But then, that’s in fact a case supporting your argument. Not withstanding Georgia, the outcome of the sudden and rapid decline of Soviet Union was actually quite peaceful.

    The violence and chaos Brzezinski referred to are probably more on the scale of WW2.

  21. melektaus
    April 7th, 2012 at 13:27 | #21


    As far as I know (since Brzezinski offers no argument to this effect but assumes it obviously true) his argument is that the US behaves as a leviathan in the Hobbes sense (he mentions Hobbes, in passing, in that article). In Hobbes’ book, a Leviathan is required to maintain the social contract and to prevent disorder. Brzezinski assumes that

    1. Such a Leviathan is required to maintain international peace and order (i.e. that there is no other way without such an enforcing agent to do so)

    2. That the US is such a Leviathan

    Both assumptions are false for obvious reasons. I may write an article on this later.

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