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A nation must think before it acts.
Kori Schake, Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017).
Geoffrey Sloan, Geopolitics: Geography and Strategic History (New York: Routledge, 2017).
James Stavridis, Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans (New York: Penguin, 2017).
Justin Vaisse, Zbigniew Brzezinski: America’s Grand Strategist (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2018).
“Recently, Americans have manifested an absence of historical consciousness and sense of proportion,” wrote American scholar Theodore Friend, in the spring 2009 volume of this journal. He could have added that such an absence is scarcely restricted to Americans. Indeed, with their free press, absence of censorship over publications, tradition of a vigorous debate on international relations, foreign policy, and the national interest, and adversarial politics, Americans have a greater ability to consider contrasting views than those who live in other powerful nations. As elsewhere, however, U.S. citizens have put up with the expression of views that can be simultaneously so present-minded and so assertive and unreflective, that their analytical value is limited. Those who are confident that they can see clear-cut lessons in history, geography, strategy et al. may collect their fans who like argument by assertion, but they tend to be wrong-footed by the non-linear development of human society. The capacity of the contingent to ambush the confident has been amply shown in the past and the present, and there is no reason to assume that the future will be any different.
The most heavyweight of the books reviewed here is also the most satisfactory, the biography of Zbigniew Brzezinski (1928-2017). With its focus on Brzezinski’s intellectuallife, connections, and policymaking, this book is a skillful study of the interaction between ideas, issues, and circumstances, and one that is alive to the crucial roles of links, patronage, institutions, and originality in the pursuit of careers and the propagation of ideas. The Vaisse work is a sophisticated assessment of how the U.S. foreign policy élite changed under the impact of the Vietnam War and how the different strands of the Cold War moved together and separately. The role of Harvard University, which emerges as a viper-pit, and Brzezinski’s very variable relations with Henry Kissinger both excite interest. In 1974, Brzezinski’s critique of détente led to a marked cooling in relations, only to do so again as the one linked to Jimmy Carter and the other to Gerald Ford. Vaisse regards Brzezinski as more perceptive about Soviet strength than concerning the Vietnam War.