Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
Zbigniew Brzezinski’s life is remarkable. A Polish immigrant, he built an impressive academic career before entering politics. He became Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor in 1977, less than two decades after gaining US citizenship. After serving in the White House for four years he remained one of the United States’ most influential foreign policy commentators and unofficial advisors to a series of presidents, including Barack Obama. Replace Poland with Germany and Carter with Ford/Nixon and this life description would have been Henry Kissinger’s. Brzezinski, for all his brilliance, lived in Kissinger’s shadow as Kissinger held the mantle for the preeminent academic foreign policy-maker and strategic visionary. Vaïsse engages directly with this comparison by showing how remarkably parallel their lives ran as representatives of the ‘new foreign policy elite’. However, Vaïsse makes a convincing case that the shadow is undeserved, and that Brzezinski’s rightful place is in the limelight next to, rather than behind, Kissinger. This biography is an impressive and highly readable analysis of Brzezinski as a politician, an academic and as a person. It is written as a truly intellectual biography, tracing not only Brzezinski’s career chronologically, but taking time to delve into Brzezinski’s ideas by connecting them to specific events and milieus, while also contrasting them to other ideas at the time. The totality of this work is remarkable, offering a much deeper insight into the thinking underlying US foreign policy than would usually be expected for such a biography. It is ironic that the account is published by Harvard University Press, since Brzezinski decided to enter politics after he was denied tenure at Harvard. A healthy reminder that there is life beyond tenure.