March 12 update: This, of course, was before the crash.
A conversation with Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft
Two former national security advisors look at how the world has changed.
September 28, 2008
This spring, two of the most respected figures in American foreign policy sat down to talk about the United States and its place in the world. Zbigniew Brzezinski served as national security advisor to President Carter. Brent Scowcroft was national security advisor to presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald R. Ford. Their conversation was moderated by David Ignatius, a columnist for the Washington Post. The following are edited excerpts
* Ignatius: I want you to talk a bit more about the nature of American leadership in this very complicated world. First, is American leadership necessary?
Brzezinski: It can be a catalyst. Not for actions directed by the United States but for actions that the local community — maybe we can call them stakeholders in a global system — is prepared collectively to embrace. That kind of leadership is needed. But for that kind of leadership to emerge in America, we not only need very special people as leaders — and they do come up occasionally — but we need a far more enlightened society than we have.
I think Americans are curiously, paradoxically, simultaneously very well-educated and amazingly ignorant. We are a society that lives within itself. We’re not interested in the history of other countries.
Today we have a problem with Iran. How many Americans know anything about Iranian history? Do they know that it is a bifurcated history? There have been two Irans. And those two different periods, pre-Islamic and post-Islamic, dialectically define the tensions and the realities of Iran today. [Americans] know nothing about it.
Quite a few Americans entering college could not locate Great Britain on the map. They couldn’t locate Iraq on the map after five years of war. Thirty percent couldn’t identify the Pacific Ocean. We don’t teach global history; we don’t teach global geography. I think most Americans don’t have the kind of sophistication that an America that inspires, and thereby leads, will have to have if it is to do what this 21st century really will demand of us.
Scowcroft: I could easily just say amen. But again, this is a part of who we are and from where we have arisen. For most of our history, we’ve been secure behind two oceans, with weak neighbors on each side. Americans don’t have to learn foreign languages. They can travel as widely as most of them want and never leave the United States. So most Americans instinctively just want to be left alone. I don’t think they want to mess with the problems of the world.
Brzezinski: They want to enjoy the good life.
Scowcroft: They want to enjoy the good life.