by Zbigniew Brzezinski
Harvard International Review
From 'The Grand Chessboard: American
Primacy and Its Geocentric Imperatives'
For America, the chief geopolitical
prize is Eurasia. For half a millennium, world affairs were
dominated by Eurasian powers and peoples who fought with one another
for regional domination and reached out for global power. Now a
non-Eurasian power is preeminent in Eurasia—and Americas global
primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its
preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained. Obviously,
that condition is temporary.
But its duration, and what follows it, is of critical importance not
only to America's well-being but more generally to international
The sudden emergence of the first and only global power has created
a situation in which an equally quick end to its supremacy—either
because of America's withdrawal from the world or because of the
sudden emergence of a successful rival— would produce massive
international instability. In effect, it would prompt global
The Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington is
right in boldly asserting that,
"a world without US primacy will be a
world with more violence and disorder and less democracy and
economic growth than a world where the United States continues to
have more influence than any other country in shaping global
The sustained international primacy of the United States is central
to the welfare and security of Americans and to the future of
freedom, democracy, open economies, and international order in the
In that context, how America "manages" Eurasia is critical.
is the globe's largest continent and is geopolitically axial. A
power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world's three
most advanced and economically productive regions. A mere glance at
the map also suggests that control over Eurasia would almost
automatically entail Africa's subordination, rendering the Western
Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world's
About 75 percent of the world's people live in
Eurasia, and most of the world's physical wealth is there as well,
both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. Eurasia accounts
for about 60 percent of the world's GNP and about three-fourths of
the world's known energy resources.
Eurasia is also the location of most of the world's politically
assertive and dynamic states. After the United States, the next six
largest economies and the next six biggest spenders on military
weaponry are located in Eurasia. All but one of the world's overt
nuclear powers and all but one of the covert ones are located in
Eurasia. The world's two most populous aspirants to regional
hegemony and global influence are Eurasian.
All of the potential
political and/or economic challengers to American primacy are
Eurasian. Cumulatively, Eurasia's power vastly overshadows
America's. Fortunately for America, Eurasia is too big to be
The time has come for the United States to formulate and prosecute
an integrated, comprehensive, and long-term geostrategy for all of
Eurasia. This need arises out of the interaction between two
America is now the only global superpower
Eurasia is the globe's central arena.
US Secretary of
Defense William Cohen and Ukrainian Defense Minister Olexandr Kuzmuk
watch as NATO
exercises promise a secure Europe.
Hence, what happens to the distribution
of power on the Eurasian continent will be of decisive importance to
America's global primacy and to America's historical legacy.
In that context, for some time to come—for more than a generation—
America's status as the world's premier power is unlikely to be
contested by any single challenger. No nation-state is likely to
match America in the four key dimensions of power (military,
economic, technological, and cultural) that cumulatively produce
decisive global political clout. Short of a deliberate or
unintentional American abdication, the only real alternative to
American global leadership in the foreseeable future is
international anarchy. In that respect, it is correct to assert that
America has become, as President Clinton put it, the world's
It is important to stress here both the fact of that
indispensability and the actuality of the potential for global anarchy. The disruptive consequences of population explosion,
poverty-driven migration, radicalizing urbanization, ethnic and
religious hostilities, and the proliferation of weapons of mass
destruction would become unmanageable if the existing and underlying
nation-state-based framework of even rudimentary geopolitical
stability were itself to fragment.
Without sustained and directed
American involvement, before long the forces of global disorder
could come to dominate the world scene. And the possibility of such
a fragmentation is inherent in the geopolitical tensions not only of
today's Eurasia but of the world more generally.
of European Unity
The United States has always professed its fidelity to the cause of
a united Europe. Ever since the days of the Kennedy administration,
the standard invocation has been that of "equal partnership."
Official Washington has consistently proclaimed its desire to see
Europe emerge as a single entity, powerful enough to share with
America both the responsibilities and the burdens of global
That has been the established rhetoric of the subject. But in
practice, the United States has been less clear and less consistent.
Does Washington truly desire a Europe that is a genuinely equal
partner in world affairs, or does it prefer an unequal alliance? For
example, is the United States prepared to share leadership with
Europe in the Middle East, a region not only much closer
geographically to Europe than to America but also one in which
several European states have long-standing interests? The issue of
Israel instantly comes to mind. US-European differences over Iran
and Iraq have also been treated by the United States not as an issue
between equals but as a matter of insubordination.
The emergence of a truly united
Europe—especially if that should occur with constructive American
support—will require significant changes in the structure and
processes of the NATO alliance, the principal link between America
and Europe. NATO provides not only the main mechanism for the
exercise of US influence regarding European matters but the basis
for the politically critical American military presence in Western
However, European unity will require that structure to
adjust to the new reality of an alliance based on two more or less
equal partners, instead of an alliance that, to use traditional
terminology, involves essentially a hegemony and its vassals. That
issue has so far been largely skirted, despite the modest steps
taken in 1996 to enhance within NATO the role of the Western
European Union (WEU), the military coalition of the Western European
states. A real choice in favor of a united Europe will thus compel a
far-reaching reordering of NATO, inevitably reducing the American
primacy within the alliance.
In brief, a long-range American geostrategy for Europe will have to
address explicitly the issues of European unity and real partnership
with Europe. An America that truly desires a united and hence also a
more independent Europe will have to throw its weight behind those
European forces that are genuinely committed to Europe's political
and economic integration.
Such a strategy will also mean junking the
last vestiges of the once-hallowed US-UK special relationship.
The NATO Imperative
A policy for a united Europe will also have to address—though
jointly with the Europeans—the highly sensitive issue of Europe's
The former is more a matter for a
European decision, but a European decision on that issue will have
direct implications for a NATO decision. The latter, however,
engages the United States, and the US voice in NATO is still
Given the growing consensus regarding the desirability of
admitting the nations of Central Europe into both the EU and NATO,
the practical meaning of this question focuses attention on the
future status of the Baltic republics and perhaps also that of
Ukraine. There is thus an important overlap between the European
dilemma discussed above and the second one pertaining to Russia. It
is easy to respond to the question regarding Russia's future by
professing a preference for a democratic Russia, closely linked to
Presumably, a democratic Russia would be more sympathetic to
the values shared by America and Europe and hence also more likely
to become a junior partner in shaping a more stable and cooperative
Eurasia. But Russia's ambitions may go beyond the attainment of
recognition and respect as a democracy. Within the Russian foreign
policy establishment (composed largely of former Soviet officials),
there still thrives a deeply ingrained desire for a special Eurasian
role, one that would consequently entail the subordination to Moscow
of the newly independent post-Soviet states.
With regard to Russia, the United States faces a dilemma.
extent should Russia be helped economically—which inevitably
strengthens Russia politically and militarily—and to what extent
should the newly independent states be simultaneously assisted in
the defense and consolidation of their independence?
Can Russia be
both powerful and a democracy at the same time?
If it becomes
powerful again, will it not seek to regain its lost imperial domain,
and can it then be both an empire and a democracy?
US policy toward the vital geopolitical pivots of Ukraine and
Azerbaijan cannot skirt that issue, and America thus faces a
difficult dilemma regarding tactical balance and strategic purpose.
Internal Russian recovery is essential to Russia's democratization
and eventual Europeanization. But any recovery of its imperial
potential would be inimical to both of these objectives.
it is over this issue that differences could develop between America
and some European states, especially as the EU and NATO expand.
The costs of the
exclusion of Russia could be high— creating a self-fulfilling
prophecy in the Russian mindset—but the results of dilution of either the EU or NATO could also be quite destabilizing.
Another major uncertainty looms in the large and geopolitically
fluid space of Central Eurasia, maximized by the potential
vulnerability of the Turkish-Iranian pivots. In the area from Crimea
in the Black Sea directly eastward along the new southern frontiers
of Russia, all the way to the Chinese province of Xinjiang, then
down to the Indian Ocean and then westward to the Red Sea, then
northward to the eastern Mediterranean Sea and back to Crimea, live
about 400 million people, located in some twenty-five states, almost
all of them
ethnically as well as religiously heterogeneous and practically none
of them politically stable.
Some of these states may be in the
process of acquiring nuclear weapons.
This huge region, torn by volatile hatreds and surrounded by
competing powerful neighbors, is likely to be a major battlefield
both for wars among nation-states and, more likely, for protracted
ethnic and religious violence. Whether India acts as a restraint or
whether it takes advantage of some opportunity to impose its will on
Pakistan will greatly affect the regional scope of the likely
conflicts. The internal strains within Turkey and Iran are likely
not only to get worse but to greatly reduce the stabilizing role
these states are capable of playing within this volcanic region.
Such developments will in turn make it more difficult to assimilate
the new Central Asian states into the international community, while
also adversely affecting the American-dominated security of the
Persian Gulf region. In any case, both America and the international
community may be faced here with a challenge that will dwarf the
recent crisis in the former Yugoslavia.
A possible challenge to American primacy from Islamic fundamentalism
could be part of the problem in this unstable region. By exploiting
religious hostility to the American way of life and taking advantage
of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Islamic fundamentalism could undermine
several pro-Western Middle Eastern governments and eventually
jeopardize American regional interests, especially in the Persian
However, without political cohesion and
in the absence of a single genuinely powerful Islamic state, a
challenge from Islamic fundamentalism would lack a geopolitical core
and would thus be more likely to express itself through diffuse
Approach to China
A geostrategic issue of crucial importance is posed by China's
emergence as a major power. The most appealing outcome would be to
co-opt a democratizing and free-marketing China into a larger Asian
regional framework of cooperation. But suppose China does not
democratize but continues to grow in economic and military power?
"Greater China" may be emerging, whatever the desires and
calculations of its neighbors, and any effort to prevent that from
happening could entail an intensifying conflict with China. Such a
conflict could strain American-Japanese relations—for it is far from
certain that Japan would want to follow America's lead in containing
China—and could therefore have potentially revolutionary
consequences for Tokyo's definition of Japan's regional role,
perhaps even resulting in the termination of the American presence
in the Far East.
However, accommodation with China will also exact its own price. To
accept China as a regional power is not a matter of simply endorsing
slogan. There will have to be substance to any such regional
To put it very directly,
How large a Chinese sphere of
influence, and where, should America be prepared to accept as part
of a policy of successfully co-opting China into world affairs?
areas now outside
of China's political radius might have to be conceded to the realm
of the re-emerging Celestial Empire?
Although China is emerging as a regionally dominant power, it is not
likely to become a global one for a long time to come—and paranoiac
fears of China as a global power are breeding megalomania in China,
while perhaps also becoming the source of a self-fulfilling prophesy
of intensified American-Chinese hostility. Accordingly, China should
be neither contained nor propitiated.
It should be treated with
respect as the world's largest developing state, and— so far at
least —a rather successful one. Its geopolitical role not only in the
Far East but in Eurasia as a whole is likely to grow as well. Hence,
it would make sense to co-opt China into the G-7 annual summit of
the world's leading countries, especially since Russia's inclusion
has widened the summit's focus from economics to politics.
For historic as well as geopolitical reasons, China should consider
America its natural ally. Unlike Japan or Russia, America has never
had any territorial designs on China; and, unlike Great Britain, it
never humiliated China. Moreover, without a viable strategic
consensus with America, China is not likely to be able to keep
attracting the massive foreign investment so necessary to its
growth and thus also to its attainment of regional preeminence. For
the same reason, without an American-Chinese strategic accommodation
as the eastern anchor of America's involvement in Eurasia, America
will not have a geostrategy for mainland Asia; and without a
geostrategy for mainland
Asia, America will not have a geostrategy for Eurasia. Thus for
America, China's regional power, co-opted into a wider framework of
international cooperation, can be a vitally important geostrategic
asset— in that regard coequally important with Europe and more
weighty than Japan in assuring Eurasia's stability.
In the past, international affairs were largely dominated by
contests among individual states for regional domination.
Henceforth, the United States may have to determine how to cope with
regional coalitions that seek to push America out of Eurasia,
thereby threatening America's status as a global power. However,
whether any such coalitions do or do not arise to challenge American
primacy will in fact depend to a very large degree on how
effectively the United States responds to the major dilemmas
Potentially, the most dangerous scenario would be a grand coalition
of China, Russia, and perhaps Iran, an "antihegemonic" coalition
united not by ideology but by complementary grievances. It would be
reminiscent in scale and scope of the challenge once posed by the
Sino-Soviet bloc, though this time China would likely be the leader
and Russia the follower. Averting this contingency, however remote
it may be, will require a display of US geostrategic skill on the
western, eastern, and southern perimeters of Eurasia simultaneously.
A geographically more limited but potentially even more
consequential challenge could involve a Sino-Japanese axis, in the
wake of a collapse of the American position in the Far East and a
revolutionary change in Japan's world outlook. It would combine the
power of two extraordinarily productive peoples, and it could
exploit some form of "Asianism" as a unifying anti-American
doctrine. However, it does not appear likely that in the foreseeable
future China and Japan will form an alliance, given their recent
historical experience; and a farsighted American policy in the Far
East should certainly be able to prevent this eventuality from
Also quite remote, but not to be entirely excluded, is the
possibility of a grand European realignment, involving either a
German-Russian collusion or a Franco-Russian entente. There are
obvious historical precedents for both, and either could emerge if
European unification were to grind to a halt and if relations
between Europe and America were to deteriorate gravely. Indeed, in
the latter eventuality, one could imagine a European-Russian
accommodation to exclude America from the continent. At this stage,
all of these variants seem improbable. They would require not only a
massive mishandling by America of its European policy but also a
dramatic reorientation on the part of the key European states.
Whatever the future, it is reasonable to conclude that American
primacy on the Eurasian continent will be buffeted by turbulence and
perhaps at least by sporadic violence. America's primacy is
potentially vulnerable to new challenges, either from regional
contenders or novel constellations.
The currently dominant American
global system, within which "the threat of war is off the table," is
likely to be stable only in those parts of the world in which
American primacy, guided by a long-term geostrategy, rests on
compatible and congenial sociopolitical systems, linked together
by American-dominated multilateral frameworks.
The point of departure for the needed policy has to be hard-nosed
recognition of the three unprecedented conditions that currently
define the geopolitical state of world affairs: for the first time
a single state is a truly global power
non-Eurasian state is globally the preeminent state
globe's central arena, Eurasia, is dominated by a non-Eurasian
However, a comprehensive and integrated
geostrategy for Eurasia must
also be based on recognition of the limits of America's effective
power and the inevitable attrition over time of its scope. The very
scale and diversity of Eurasia, as well as the potential power of
some of its states, limit the depth of American influence and the
degree of control over the course of events.
This condition places a
premium on geostrategic insight and on the deliberately selective
deployment of America's resources on the huge Eurasian chessboard.
And since America's unprecedented power is bound to diminish over
time, the priority must be to manage the rise of other regional
powers in ways that do not threaten America's global primacy.
In the short run, it is in America's interest to consolidate and
perpetuate the prevailing geopolitical pluralism on the map of
Eurasia. That puts a premium on maneuver and manipulation in order
to prevent the emergence of a hostile coalition that could
eventually seek to challenge America's primacy, not to mention the
remote possibility of any one particular state seeking to do so.
the middle term, the foregoing should gradually yield to a greater
emphasis on the emergence of increasingly important but
strategically compatible partners who, prompted by American
leadership, might help to shape a more cooperative trans-Eurasian
security system. Eventually, in the much longer run still, the
foregoing could phase into a global core of genuinely shared
The most immediate task is to make certain that no state or
combination of states gains the capacity to expel the United States
from Eurasia or even to diminish significantly its decisive
arbitrating role. However, the consolidation of transcontinental
geopolitical pluralism should not be viewed as an end in itself but
only as a means to achieve the middle-term goal of shaping genuine
strategic partnerships in the key regions of Eurasia.
It is unlikely
that democratic America will wish to be permanently engaged in the
difficult, absorbing, and costly task of managing Eurasia by
constant manipulation and maneuver, backed by American military
resources, in order to prevent regional domination by any one power.
The first phase must, therefore, logically and deliberately lead into the second, one in which a benign American
hegemony still discourages others from posing a challenge not only
by making the costs of the challenge too high but also by not
threatening the vital interests of Eurasia's potential regional
What that requires specifically, as the middle-term goal, is the
fostering of genuine partnerships, predominant among them those with
a more united and politically defined Europe and with a regionally
preeminent China, as well as with (one hopes) a post-imperial and
Europe-oriented Russia and, on the southern fringe of Eurasia, with
a regionally stabilizing and democratic India. But it will be the
success or failure of the effort to forge broader strategic
Europe and China, respectively, that will shape the defining context
for Russia's role, either positive or negative.
It follows that a wider Europe and an enlarged NATO will serve well
both the short-term and the longer-term goals of US policy. A larger
Europe will expand the range of American influence—and, through the
admission of new Central European members, also increase in the
European councils the number of states with a pro-American
proclivity—without simultaneously creating a Europe politically so
integrated that it could soon challenge the United States on
geopolitical matters of high importance to America elsewhere,
particularly in the Middle East. A politically defined Europe is
also essential to the progressive assimilation of Russia into a
system of global cooperation.
Meeting these challenges is America's burden as well as its unique
responsibility. Given the reality of American democracy, an
effective response will require generating a public understanding of
the continuing importance of American power in shaping a widening
framework of stable geopolitical cooperation, one that
simultaneously averts global anarchy and successfully defers the
emergence of a new power challenge.
These two goals—averting global
anarchy and impeding the emergence of a power rival—are inseparable
from the longer-range definition of the purpose of America's global
engagement, namely, that of forging an enduring framework of global
In brief, the US policy goal must be unapologetically twofold:
perpetuate America's own dominant position for at least a generation
and preferably longer still
to create a geopolitical framework
that can absorb the inevitable shocks and strains of
social-political change while evolving into the geopolitical core of
shared responsibility for peaceful global management
phase of gradually expanding cooperation with key Eurasian partners,
both stimulated and arbitrated by America, can also help to foster
the preconditions for an eventual upgrading of the existing and
increasingly antiquated UN structures. A new distribution of
responsibilities and privileges can then take into account the
changed realities of global power, so drastically different from
those of 1945.
These efforts will have the added historical advantage of benefiting
from the new web of global linkages that is growing exponentially
outside the more traditional nation-state system.
That web, woven by:
NGOs (non-governmental organizations,
with many of them transnational in character)
reinforced by the Internet
...already creates an
informal global system that is inherently congenial to more
institutionalized and inclusive global cooperation.
In the course of the next several decades, a functioning structure
of global cooperation, based on geopolitical realities, could thus
emerge and gradually assume the mantle of the world's current
"regent," which has for the time being assumed the burden of
responsibility for world stability and peace.
in that cause would represent a fitting legacy of America's role as
the first, only, and last truly global superpower.