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Brzezinski: Dangerously Wrong

Zbigniew Brzezinski is a well known political scientist and the media often gives him opportunities to voice opinions on foreign policy. How deserving is this accorded credibility? Well, though I have not read much from him, from the looks of this article he wrote in foreignpolicy it would appear that his competence as a expert on international affairs is grossly inadequate and, moreover, because that incompetence is combined with influence, it makes him very dangerous too.

So I will only criticize that article. It is about the dangers of a declining US and the rise of China. (Anyone who is more familiar with his writing and views, please disabuse me of my ignorance if I am shown to misunderstand him.)

My criticisms are two fold: First a hermeneutic critique and then a theoretical one. On the one hand, he seems to have made severely deficient errors in interpreting and applying the ideas in the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. The theoretical critique relies on findings in modern social science.

In Brzezinski’s article, he argues that the decline of the US and the rise of China posses a great threat to the security of the world. He gives almost no explicit support for this pessimistic view except for a brief reference to an ominous “Hobbessian world,” an allusion to the thoughts of the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

While a sudden, massive crisis of the American system — for instance, another financial crisis — would produce a fast-moving chain reaction leading to global political and economic disorder, a steady drift by America into increasingly pervasive decay or endlessly widening warfare with Islam would be unlikely to produce, even by 2025, an effective global successor. No single power will be ready by then to exercise the role that the world, upon the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, expected the United States to play: the leader of a new, globally cooperative world order. 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. Rather than a world where dreams of democracy flourish, a Hobbesian world of enhanced national security based on varying fusions of authoritarianism, nationalism, and religion could ensue.

Perhaps we can reconstruct the argument he has in mind from this suggestion.

Brzezinski may be construing states as similar to what Hobbes viewed people. Hobbes thought, famously and overly pessimistically, that life was “nasty, brutish and short” in a state of nature for human beings. The only way to establish civil society was for everyone to give up much of the freedoms they have in that state of nature (such as the freedom to kill and rob one another) and to submit to an all powerful sovereign (usually a king) who will use force and coercion to enforce cooperation among all for the benefit of all. This sovereign has many powers including life and death over his subjects. Why would anyone submit to this? Because there are clear benefits to living in a civilized society. One gives up certain freedoms from the state of nature in order to achieve some peace-of-mind and more opportunities for cooperative relationships and hence mutual benefit. This is why Hobbessian political philosophy is often termed a kind of “social contract theory” (if I have misunderstood Hobbes, I hope Allen, who likely has studied him more extensively than I, will correct me).

In order for Hobbes to get his argument off the ground, he had to rely on several criteria and premises. 1. that everyone in a state of nature is roughly equal in strength, intelligence, cunning, etc. and mostly care about themselves and thus there will be a perpetual state of “war of all against all.” 2. An absolute sovereign needs to be all powerful. 3. He or she has the implicit or explicit consent of all governed and 4. He or she is disinterested between his subjects and applies the rule of law fairly to insure the benefit of all.

Brzezinski seems to suggest that the US is analogous to such an absolute sovereign and the other states of the world are analogous to people in Hobbes’s world. He also assumes that without an absolute sovereign the world would devolve into something analogous to people in the state of nature, a state of war of all against all. How accurate is this?

Hobbes’s argument requires that all premises set out above are true (it’s complicated why his argument requires all these premises). Not only do states not satisfy all of Hobbes’ premises for his argument which is aimed at individual people and an absolute sovereign, they seem to satisfy none so there is a glaring disanalogy between states and people. Some non-absolute sovereign states are far more powerful than others and thus is not analogous to Hobbes’s first premise. China, for example, can obliterate the tiny state of San Marino quite literally in seconds by pressing one button.

The US does not behave in the way an absolute sovereign behaves in a Hobbesian world. It constantly undermines international law and is itself a partisan actor. It is not impartial but unquestioningly biased for its own interests and those of its allies. Its unilateral military actions are not meant to enforce international law but constantly undermines it and it does so for its own interests to the detriment of everyone else. Besides that, other states likely would not consent to absolute rule by the US even if the US does have absolute power over everyone which, of course, is certainly untrue. There are already some world powers that are close in military might to that of the US and under the right circumstances may defeat it in a war (US wars in Vietnam, Korea and Afghanistan are just a few examples).

So there appears to be few similarities between people and states and between an absolute Hobbessian sovereign and the US in the scheme of a Hobbesian framework. Brzezinski’s analogy breaks down on those two fronts.

But his folly does not end there. He assumes that without an absolute Hobbessian sovereign there cannot or is unlikely to evolve peaceful cooperation in a multipolar world with many roughly equally powerful states without an absolute sovereign. For the sake of argument, assume that Brzezinski is right that the US is currently such an absolute sovereign. Is he then also correct that as China matches the US in power there cannot evolve peaceful cooperation between states and that international affairs will likely devolve into a “state of nature” where all is against all because the optimal strategy would be not cooperating?

That is pure rubbish.

First of all, why did Hobbes think that in a state of nature people will devolve into such a state of war of all against all? Some modern philosophers have argued that Hobbes was thinking of a scenario similar to a one-off prisoner’s dilemma game. In this game, it is always rational not to cooperate with another player for defecting is the optimal choice (it strictly dominates in the jargon).


Cooperate Defect
Cooperate 3, 3 0, 5
Defect 5, 0 1, 1


Thus one can argue that players ought to devolve into a Hobbessian State of Nature in situations that are modeled by this game and when there is no absolute sovereign to coerce or enforce rules to cooperate.

But one-off prisoner dilemma games often do not model situations in the real world. Rather relevant situations in the real world are more accurately modeled by iterated prisoner dilemma games (with memory). Here many games are repeated one after another with indefinite (or unknown) number of games. That seems far more like reality because we don’t only play only a single “game” with other players (other people or other states for that matter) in the world and just “go home” afterward. Rather we are stuck with each other for good or bad, doomed to either cooperate or defect in many repeated situations. Moreover, we remember how each behaved in previous games and update our future decision accordingly to take into account that information.

So lets say that in the future, there is relative decline of the US and that is balanced by an ascending China such that there is now a bipolar world with two roughly equally powerful superpowers and thus no one “absolute sovereign” (I’m abstracting from the more likely scenario that it will likely turn into a multipolar world with more than two equally powerful superpowers). Does that mean it is rational for both countries to not cooperate (to defect) such as in one-off prisoner’s dilemma games? No.

The optimal strategy for iterated prisoner’s dilemma games is the famous tit-for-tat strategy. In this game, cooperation can spontaneously evolve and it is completely rational to cooperate. The best strategy is to cooperate at first then play tit-for-tat with random (or actually pseudo-random) forgiveness if the other player keeps defecting. The basic strategy is that one ought to always cooperate unless provoked (this is called a “nice” strategy) and once in a while forgiving non cooperative behavior by cooperating which stops “death spirals” that is, repeated, alternating revenge tactics. Such a strategy is optimal and do not require an absolute sovereign to enforce cooperation.

The success of the tit for tat strategy, which is largely cooperative despite that its name emphasizes an adversarial nature, took many by surprise. In successive competitions various teams produced complex strategies which attempted to “cheat” in a variety of cunning ways, but tit for tat eventually prevailed in every competition.

This result may give insight into how groups of animals (and particularly human societies) have come to live in largely (or entirely) cooperative societies, rather than the individualistic “red in tooth and claw” way that might be expected from individuals engaged in a Hobbesian state of nature.

The more cooperative players are to begin with the quicker and more beneficial the strategy will work to the benefit of all players. However, as many game theorists are also quick to point out, trust is asymmetric: it is far easier to break than to build back up once it is broken. Distrust or broken trust also has multiplier effects and is contagious. Rather than consent to be ruled by an absolute sovereign, in situations modeled by iterated prisoner’s dilemma, it is most rational to instead build trust from the beginning. The US has consistently undermined trust in international affairs by its capricious unilateral actions, military, political and economic. But the faster people start building trust and cooperating, the more beneficial this strategy will be for everyone. Even the iterated prisoner’s dilemmas underscores the actual situation in the world for these games assume that all players are only interested in themselves. In the real world, interests often overlap and, moreover, there exists some instances of empathy, altruism, friendship and alliances across nations (some sense of cosmopolitanism and the brotherhood of mankind).

We can excuse Hobbes’s ignorance for he lived 300 years before the development of modern game theory. Brzezinski cannot rely on such an excuse. His argument seems to be dependent on the assumption that states in the world takes on a Hobbessian structure with the US as absolute sovereign and furthermore the world needs such a structure to maintain peaceful cooperation. Not only is he wrong, and furthermore, wrong, but he is dangerously wrong. He has likely misunderstood and misapplied Hobbes’s ideas which are themselves deeply flawed. By arguing that the world needs an absolute sovereign and, hence, presumably promoting international support for continued American hegemony instead of embracing and promoting a multipolar world with rational and trustworthy actors, Brzezinski may be undermining the possibility of peaceful global cooperation.

  1. April 12th, 2012 at 17:48 | #1

    Thanks for a very useful dissection.

    Brzezinski is an old servant of Empire who long ago drank its Kool Aid. His beliefs still prevail in the US government but younger generations, according to Gallup and Pew, no longer subscribe to such nonsense.

    Thank God.

  2. pug_ster
    April 12th, 2012 at 19:54 | #2

    Gees, since when the US has become the superpower, how many countries went down the tubes because of the US? Dozens. I think that if US goes down as the superpower, there will be peace between many of the Asian nations, as China will send more diplomats whereas US sends more bullets.

  3. zack
    April 13th, 2012 at 00:25 | #3

    it’s because the USA selfishly benefits and profits from creating wars all over the globe with themselves being the primary arms supplier worldwide.

    btw Melekataus, great analysis, very concise and in depth. You really ought to write a book.

  4. China southern
    April 13th, 2012 at 03:31 | #4

    Zack, if America is how you say it is, then shouldnt the posters here do the right thing, hand in their green cards and head back to the Motherland? Surely thats the morally right position, and talk is very cheap.

  5. April 13th, 2012 at 06:34 | #5

    @China southern
    This post is a discussion of Brzezinski’s ideas not about how bad the US is. Get a life please. Wew!

    And why are you using China in your name?

  6. April 13th, 2012 at 08:02 | #6

    @China southern
    Why not?

    I do not reside in the US.

    When you can’t discuss the issue at hand and resort to attack on the person, you are simply practising a common tactics used in the cultural revolution.

  7. raffiaflower
    April 13th, 2012 at 09:02 | #7

    `morally right”:LOL!!
    Dis reminds me of the 1930s line from Mae West: goodness had nothing to do with it!! when asked about her diamonds.

    Morality has nothing to do with the tired old go-back-to-China retort. If it did, then the Caucasian Europeans who committed the greatest genocide in modern history should do the right thing first by handing the land back to the natives. But ain’t happening soon, right?
    Chinese built the railroads, washed the dirty linen, etc, and have every right to be in America as the whites. Criticizing lousy governance and corporate/elitist greed that use American Exceptionalism as cover for invasions, plunder, does not equate with disloyalty to your country either.
    Oh, and Chinese in Communist, gasp!, China criticize the government plenty too – tho they are more circumspect about doing it, among themselves, but mostly not while standing in front of the trash. Leave China soon if you want to – but let me tell you nicely: don’t do it during the May 1 rush!

    Mele, imo, if ZB did not exist, it would be necessary for America to invent him. American Exceptionalism needs elder figures (kind of) like ZB to make the case for foreign invasions, plunder, destabilization, meddling in every corner, etc, under the cloak of bearing the burden for the world’s Greater Good.
    Another ZB will arise, when he leaves the building, presenting the same sort of phoney pious discourses that US should be the centre of the universe.
    In reality, as the whole universe knows by now: it’s all about the oil, stupid!!

  8. April 13th, 2012 at 12:20 | #8

    This is a really good article, once again by Melektaus. Though, I have to admit, I have drank the empire Kool Aid.

    Honestly I am sympathetic to Dr. Brzezinski’s narrative that in a sudden and rapid decline of a hegemon, the world can descend into chaos. Melektaus clearly and rationally argued that may not necessarily be the case.

    The reason I am sympathetic to the Dr. Brzezinski narrative is because if that can possibility is at 0.1%, 10%, or whatever, our world must put in a mechanism in place allowing the reshuffling to transition smoothly – likely into a multi-polar configuration.

    I can imagine a sudden withdrawal of the 40,000 military personnel from Japan may trigger a rapid armament of Japan on her own. Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama argued for a East Asian Community in similar fashion to the E.U., because instinctively he knows the U.S.-Japan alliance may not necessarily last forever. This is a proactive step in dealing with that possibility I just mentioned.

    Being the hegemon, of course the United States will do everything it can to preserve that dominance. To me, this way of thinking is very much human nature. I think it is worthwhile to be sympathetic to that narrative as a way to evolve forward.

  9. April 13th, 2012 at 17:49 | #9


    Yes, the world can definitely descend into worse chaos. However, Brzezinski may be making that possibility more likely by advocating American hegemony. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    As for Japan, as the US withdraws, it may increase its own military power to replace the US’s presence. Or it might shift allegiance and become friendlier to China and Russia. But I do not think it will become more belligerent because it will lose such a huge support from the US. The Middle East is similar. Israel, if it were to lose the US’s military support, would likely become more tractable and less belligerent because it loses power and become more equal to their neighbors which will likely make them more likely to use diplomacy instead of coercion and other aggressive, risky unilateral motions. Taking the US out of the equation will likely IMO, cause people around the world to reevaluate their position and to not rely on coercion or force or unilateralism because the safety of a US bodyguard will not be their to bail them out of a bad situation. So a multilateral world IMO is more likely to be peaceful.

  10. April 13th, 2012 at 22:54 | #10

    Yes, I understand your points.

    I guess regardless of how likely we each believe the post reshuffling’s chaotic-ness might be, proactive hedging could and should be done in case such a day comes. What do you think?

  11. zack
    April 14th, 2012 at 01:19 | #11

    @China southern
    by your logic, Americans and British ought to eschew profitable trade with China and allow their own economies to implode in this day and age of global financial crisis in order to follow their own political rhetoric of ‘human rights and ethics’. The fact that they do not demonstrates the moral debauchery and hypocrisy of those selfsame countries who also identify themselves as ‘Western’: preaching one thing whilst hypocritically doing another.

    On the other hand, you’ll never hear such patronising or missionising from the Chinese side, therefore the onus is not on them to sever ties with America or any other Western country. You fail again, better luck next time.

  12. April 14th, 2012 at 14:01 | #12

    YinYang :
    Yes, I understand your points.
    I guess regardless of how likely we each believe the post reshuffling’s chaotic-ness might be, proactive hedging could and should be done in case such a day comes. What do you think?

    In some ways, I think the UN is a closer approximation for the absolute sovereign than the US. At least with the UN, member states consent to agreements and the UN tends to be more objective and neutral. Other orgs such as WTO and so forth also seem to help reduce tensions and even conflict.

  13. pug_ster
    April 15th, 2012 at 19:39 | #13


    Another sign that the US is losing its influence over its cold war enemy, Cuba. Every country south of the US wants to re-incorporate Cuba back to the Organisation of American States (OAS). Even Canada’s harper is showing some sign of doing that.

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