Zbigniew Brzezinski’s book “The Grand Chessboard” said that Americans would only support the military plans of the US neocons “in the circumstance of a truly massive and widely perceived direct external threat”, another example of a US motive for carrying out the 9/11 attacks.
While the PNAC “New Pearl Harbour” gets most attention as an example of neocon planning, comments about “The Grand Chessboard” can’t be far behind. David Ray Griffin, for instance, believes it’s so important that he believes it should have been mentioned by the 9/11 Commission, and the fact that it wasn’t makes #58 in his list of report “omissions and distortions”:
58. The omission of the fact that Zbigniew Brzezinski in his 1997 book had said that for the United States to maintain global primacy, it needed to gain control of Central Asia, with its vast petroleum reserves, and that a new Pearl Harbor would be helpful in getting the US public to support this imperial effort (127-28).
He spells this out in more detail elsewhere:
...the alleged motive [for 9/11] of al-Qaeda---that it hated Americans and their freedoms---is dwarfed by a motive held by many members of the Bush-Cheney administration: the dream of establishing a global Pax Americana, the first all-inclusive empire in history.
This dream had been articulated by many neoconservatives, or neocons, throughout the 1990s, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union made it seem possible. It was first officially articulated in the Defense Planning Guidance of 1992, drafted by Paul Wolfowitz on behalf of then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney---a document that has been called "a blueprint for permanent American global hegemony"10 and Cheney's "Plan . . . to rule the world."11
Achieving this goal would require four things. One of these was getting control of the world's oil, especially in Central Asia and the Middle East, and the Bush-Cheney administration came to power with plans already made to attack Afghanistan and Iraq. A second requirement was a technological transformation of the military, in which fighting from space would become central. A third requirement was an enormous increase in military spending, to pay for these new wars and for weaponizing space. A fourth need was to modify the doctrine of preemptive attack, so that America would be able to attack other countries even if they posed no imminent threat.
These four elements would, moreover, require a fifth: an event that would make the American people ready to accept these imperialistic policies. As Zbigniew Brzezinski explained in his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard, the American people, with their democratic instincts, are reluctant to authorize the money and human sacrifices necessary for "imperial mobilization," and this refusal "limits . . . America's . . . capacity for military intimidation."12 But this impediment could be overcome if there were "a truly massive and widely perceived direct external threat"13 ---just as the American people were willing to enter World War II only after "the shock effect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor."15 This same idea was suggested in 2000 in a document entitled Rebuilding America's Defenses, which was put out by a neocon think tank called the Project for the New American Century, many members of which---including Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz---became central members of the Bush administration. This document, referring to the goal of transforming the military, said that this "process of transformation . . . is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event---like a new Pearl Harbor."15
No shortage of big claims, then, and if you search around the web you’ll find Griffin isn’t alone. There are plenty of other people commenting on how “The Grand Chessboard” laid out the neocon plans for military action, and, in the quote Griffin uses, “a blueprint for permanent American global hegemony". Does any of this stand up to scrutiny, though? We purchased a copy of the book to find out for ourselves, and what we read proved to be something of a surprise.
The overall thrust of “The Grand Chessboard” isn’t the simplistic “America must rule the world forever” theme that you’d expect from elsewhere, for instance. It’s true that he does describe America retaining its primacy as important:
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 America's 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 wellbeing but more generally to international peace. 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 anarchy. The Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington is right in boldly asserting:
A world without U.S. 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 affairs. 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 world.
The Grand Chessboard
However, as Brzezinski says here, he accepts that American global primacy “is temporary”. He is not arguing that America will rule forever, simply that as the only global superpower, it’s their responsibility to avoid “anarchy”, while at the same time using their position to prepare the structures required for true global power sharing. It’s summed up in the last three paragraphs of his book:
In brief, the U.S. policy goal must be unapologetically twofold: to perpetuate America's own dominant position for at least a generation and preferably longer still; and 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. A prolonged 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 multinational corporations, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations, with many of them transnational in character) and scientific communities and 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. Geostrategic success in that cause would represent a fitting legacy of America's role as the first, only, and last truly global superpower.
The Grand Chessboard
Whether you accept his argument or not, it doesn’t seem to support the idea of America “ruling the world” forever. What about the need to “gain control of Central Asia, with its vast petroleum reserves”? Here’s what Brzezinski actually says about it:
The geostrategic implications for America are clear: America is too distant to be dominant in this part of Eurasia [the 'Eurasian Balkans'] but too powerful not to be engaged. All the states in the area view American engagement as necessary to their survival. Russia is too weak to regain imperial domination over the region or to exclude others from it, but it is also too close and too strong to be excluded. Turkey and Iran are strong enough to be influential, but their own vulnerabilities could make the area unable to cope with both the challenge from the north and the region's internal conflicts. China is too powerful not to be feared by Russia and the Central Asian states, yet its very presence and economic dynamism facilitates Central Asia's quest for wider global outreach.
It follows that America's primary interest is to help ensure that no single power comes to control this geopolitical space and that the global community has unhindered financial and economic access to it. Geopolitical pluralism will become an enduring reality only when a network of pipeline and transportation routes links the region directly to the major centers of global economic activity via the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas, as well as overland. Hence, Russian efforts to monopolize access need to be opposed as inimical to regional stability.
The Grand Chessboard
What he’s suggesting here isn’t that America can “gain control” of the region (in fact we’re told it’s “too distant to be dominant”), rather that it should work to ensure that no one other power controls it, either.
Of course there are still the comments about Brzezinski’s comment on “a truly massive and widely perceived external threat” as being necessary to allow acceptance of the neocon agenda. David Ray Griffin offered another summary of the argument here:
Besides being a rousing success in obtaining increased spending for military purposes, 9/11 also provided the pretext for putting many military bases in Central Asia. Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard, had said that doing so would be crucial for maintaining “American primacy,” partly because of the huge oil reserves around the Caspian Sea. Indeed, it may have been from this book that the Project for the New American Century got its idea that a new Pearl Harbor would be helpful. Brzezinski, explaining that the American public had “supported America's engagement in World War II largely because of the shock effect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor,”  suggested that Americans today would support the needed military operations in Central Asia only “in the circumstance of a truly massive and widely perceived direct external threat.”  And indeed, thanks to the attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration was able to carry out its plan to attack Afghanistan—-a plan that, we now know, had been formulated several months before 9/11.  The White House now has a friendly government in Afghanistan and the Pentagon has military bases there and in several other countries of Central Asia.
Unfortunately, once you’ve read the book, this seems less than convincing.
We cannot find, for instance, anywhere in “The Grand Chessboard” that mentions placing “many military bases” in Central Asia, or in fact any at all, let alone that this “would be crucial for maintaining ‘American Primacy’”. We can’t say 100% that the claim is false, because it’s at least possible that Griffin has inferred this from some part of the book, where we have not. But right now that seems doubtful. If you’ve read the book and can point us to the passage that backs up the claim, email us and we’ll remove this objection. If you’ve not read the book, take a look at this online copy and double-check that we’ve not missed something important.
As we don’t see Brzezinski as suggesting any “needed military operations in Central Asia”, then, the idea that he said a “truly massive” threat would be needed to support them appears to be false. So what was Brzezinski talking about? Here’s a passage with rather more context:
Indeed, the critical uncertainty regarding the future may well be whether America might become the first superpower unable or unwilling to wield its power. Might it become an impotent global power? Public opinion polls suggest that only a small minority (13 percent) of Americans favor the proposition that "as the sole remaining superpower, the U.S. should continue to be the preeminent world leader in solving international problems." An overwhelming majority (74 percent) prefer that America "do its fair share in efforts to solve international problems together with other countries."3
Moreover, as America becomes an increasingly multicultural society, it may find it more difficult to fashion a consensus on foreign policy issues, except in the circumstances of a truly massive and widely perceived direct external threat. Such a consensus generally existed throughout World War II and even during the Cold War. It was rooted, however, not only in deeply shared democratic values, which the public sensed were being threatened, but also in a cultural and ethnic affinity for the predominantly European victims of hostile totalitarianisms.
In the absence of a comparable external challenge, American society may find it much more difficult to reach agreement regarding foreign policies that cannot be directly related to central beliefs and widely shared cultural-ethnic sympathies and that still
require an enduring and sometimes costly imperial engagement. If anything, two extremely varying views on the implications of America's historic victory in the Cold War are likely to be politically more appealing: on the one hand, the view that the end of the Cold War justifies a significant reduction in America's global engagement, irrespective of the consequences for America's global standing; and on the other, the perception that the time has come for genuine international multilateralism, to which America should even yield some of its sovereignty. Both extremes command the loyalty of committed constituencies.
More generally, cultural change in America may also be uncongenial to the sustained exercise abroad of genuinely imperial power. That exercise requires a high degree of doctrinal motivation, intellectual commitment, and patriotic gratification. Yet the
dominant culture of the country has become increasingly fixated on mass entertainment that has been heavily dominated by personally hedonistic and socially escapist themes. The cumulative effect has made it increasingly difficult to mobilize the needed political consensus on behalf of sustained, and also occasionally costly, American leadership abroad. Mass communications have been playing a particularly important role in that regard, generating a strong revulsion against any selective use of force that entails even low levels of casualties.
In addition, both America and Western Europe have been finding it difficult to cope with the cultural consequences of social hedonism and the dramatic decline in the centrality of religious-based values in society. (The parallels with the decline of the imperial systems summarized in chapter 1 are striking in that respect.) The resulting cultural crisis has been compounded by the spread of drugs and, especially in America, by its linkage to the racial issue.
Lastly, the rate of economic growth is no longer able to keep up with growing material expectations, with the latter stimulated by a culture that places a premium on consumption. It is no exaggeration to state that a sense of historical anxiety, perhaps even of pessimism, is becoming palpable in the more articulate sectors of Western society.
The Grand Chessboard
Brzezinski here is simply pointing out a number of reasons why the exercise of US power abroad might be unpopular with citizens at home. The “truly massive” threat is one way around that, but Brzezinski himself isn’t tying that to any particular issue, despite the constant quotes to suggest otherwise. Nor is he expecting that to happen, as is clear from an earlier passage in the book:
It is also a fact that America is too democratic at home to be autocratic abroad. This limits the use of America's power, especially its capacity for military intimidation. Never before has a populist democracy attained international supremacy. But the pursuit of power is not a goal that commands popular passion, except in conditions of a sudden threat or challenge to the public's sense of domestic well-being. The economic self-denial (that is, defense spending) and the human sacrifice (casualties even among professional soldiers) required in the effort are uncongenial to democratic instincts. Democracy is inimical to imperial mobilization.
Moreover, most Americans by and large do not derive any special gratification from their country's new status as the sole global superpower. Political "triumphalism" connected with America's victory in the Cold War has generally tended to receive a cold reception and has been the object of some derision on the part of the more liberal-minded commentators. If anything, two rather varying views of the implications for America of its historic success in the competition with the former Soviet Union have been politically more appealing: on the one hand, there is the view that the end of the Cold War justifies a significant reduction in America's global engagement, irrespective of the consequences for America's global standing; and on the other hand, there is the perspective that the time has come for genuine international multilateralism, to which America should even yield some of its sovereignty. Both schools of thought have commanded the loyalty of committed constituencies.
Compounding the dilemmas facing the American leadership are the changes in the character of the global situation itself: the direct use of power now tends to be more constrained than was the case in the past. Nuclear weapons have dramatically reduced the utility of war as a tool of policy or even as a threat. The growing economic interdependence among nations is making the political exploitation of economic blackmail less compelling. Thus maneuver, diplomacy, coalition building, co-optation, and the very deliberate deployment of one's political assets have become the key ingredients of the successful exercise of geostrategic power on the Eurasian chessboard.
The Grand Chessboard
There’s a similar line here about “a sudden threat”, but again, Brzezinski is just saying that’s one circumstance that might make a difference. Not that he expects that to happen, or recommends it, or that it’s necessary for anything, because as you can see, overall he is recommending diplomacy over military action. There’s another example here:
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 aspirants.
The Grand Chessboard
And consider what Brzezinski suggests should happen with regard to Iran:
...it is not in America's interest to perpetuate American-Iranian hostility. Any eventual reconciliation should be based on the recognition of a mutual strategic interest in stabilizing what currently is a very volatile regional environment for Iran. Admittedly, any such reconciliation must be pursued by both sides and is not a favor granted by one to the other. A strong, even religiously motivated but not fanatically anti-Western Iran is in the U.S. interest, and ultimately even the Iranian political elite may recognize that reality. In the meantime, American long-range interests in Eurasia would be better served by abandoning existing U.S. objections to closer Turkish-Iranian economic cooperation, especially in the construction of new pipelines, and also to the construction of other links between Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. Long-term American participation in the financing of such projects would in fact also be in the American interest.2
2. It is appropriate to quote here the wise advice offered by my colleague at CSIS, Anthony H. Cordesman (in his paper on "The American Threat to the United States," February 1997, p. 16, delivered as a speech to the Army War College), who has warned against the American propensity to demonize issues and even nations. As he put it: "Iran, Iraq, and Libya are cases where the U.S. has taken hostile regimes that pose real, but limited threats and 'demonized' them without developing any workable mid- to long-term end game for its strategy. U.S. planners cannot hope to totally isolate these states, and it makes no sense to treat them as if they were identical 'rogue' or terrorist' states. . . . The U.S. lives in a morally gray world and cannot succeed by trying to make it black and white."
The Grand Chessboard
There should, if possible, be a reconciliation between Iran and the US. “The U.S. lives in a morally gray world and cannot succeed by trying to make it black and white”. Not quite the sentiments you’d expect from a hard-core supporter of the neo-con cause, perhaps. But then that’s because, when you look at the whole book rather than snipped and carefully rearranged quotes, a very different picture emerges. There’s no real call here for military action, increased defence spending, or, it seems, building military bases in Central Asia or anywhere else. And the idea that the Brzezinski comment of an “truly massive” threat is tied to a desire to see any of these things happen appears entirely false. As ever, though, don’t take our word for it: read the book and make up your own mind.