Right-hand man to President Carter from Iran hostage crisis to Salt Two arms treaty
If the template for the job of White House national security adviser had been written in the 1970s, two men, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, would have served as the models. Both were born in central Europe, had distinguished academic credentials, impeccable political connections and wrote extensively about the state of the world. And both were able to practice what they preached in print as the right hand men of the occupant of the Oval office.
Brzezinski, who has died at the age of 89, was far from his predecessor’s doppelganger, but his record in office can stand fair comparison. On his watch, under President Jimmy Carter, the US normalised relations with China, severing ties with Taiwan in the process, signed the Salt Two arms treaty with the Soviet Union, brought Egypt and Israel together in the Camp David accords and concluded the Panama Canal treaty, ceding control to Panama. In each decision he was an influential player.
On the downside, the US was caught flatfooted by the Khomeini revolution in Iran, allowing the deposed Shah refuge in the US, which eventually led to the Iran hostage crisis, a factor in Mr Carter’s election defeat in 1980. Brzezinski was also instrumental in arming the Afghan mujahideen after the Soviet invasion of 1979, a policy that came back to haunt the US two decades later (to prove his point, flamboyantly, he was photographed in the Khyber Pass pointing a rifle across the border).
From their White House vantage point, both men had notoriously poor relations with the state department, respectively headed by William Rogers and Cyrus Vance, whom they viewed as staid and unimaginative. Vance eventually resigned in protest over the abortive hostage rescue mission in 1980, an operation Brzezinski actively supported.
But both Kissinger and Brzezinski were known for their world views and doctrines, seeing the globe as a global chess board around which the US and USSR moved pieces. No national security adviser since them has had the temerity to venture so far, preferring roles as the facilitators of policies rather than as their intellectual authors.
Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzezinski, born in Warsaw on March 28, 1928, was much influenced by his upbringing. His family was Polish nobility and his father, Tadeusz, a diplomat posted to Berlin, Moscow and finally Canada. From the first two of those postings the son had indelible first-hand experiences of the rise of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin’s notorious purges.
Canada provided him refuge from the invasion of Poland in 1939 and the world war that first engulfed Europe. He was brought up in Montreal, educated at McGill University and subsequently moved through the finest American universities, including Harvard and Columbia, before his final association as a professor at Johns Hopkins. He became an American citizen in 1958.
President Jimmy Carter presents Brzezinski with the Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony in Washington on January 17 1981 © AP
Just as Dr Kissinger had hitched his star to Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York before gravitating to Richard Nixon, Brzezinski’s first important political connection was the Lyndon Johnson campaign in 1964. He then advised Hubert Humphrey four years later, but he struck pay dirt with the initially improbable presidential bid of Mr Carter, then a relatively obscure former southern governor from Georgia. The candidate’s intelligence and ambitions, allied to his inexperience in foreign policy, were the sort of clay which Brzezinski thought he could mould into a coherent global view.
That, predictably, brought him into conflict with Vance, a diplomat of much distinction but one more inclined to find accommodations with Moscow than provoke it. The two worked well together on the Salt Two Treaty but too often the national security adviser’s impulsiveness rubbed the secretary of state up the wrong way. So did his habit of maintaining separate relations with the likes of Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador in Washington, independent of the state department.
In another departure, hardly surprising given his own background and his president’s natural inclinations, Brzezinski placed human rights far higher up the policy agenda than had previously been the case. That constituted a significant departure from standard US policy, which tended to tolerate, as in General Pinochet’s Chile, human rights abuses in return for fealty to the US.
After leaving office, he became, not unlike Dr Kissinger, a prolific commentator and author on foreign policy, but without ever quite achieving his predecessor’s level of access. He broke with the Democratic Party and endorsed President George H W Bush in 1988 and was critical of Bill Clinton’s long reluctance to intervene in the Balkans in the 1990s. But he was a fierce critic of the younger President Bush’s war in Iraq and fulsome in his praise of Barack Obama, even though he was never admitted into his policy circle.
An engaging conversationalist and avid tennis player, he is survived by his wife, the sculptor Emilie Benes, two sons and a daughter, Mika, the TV news host, who announced his death on Friday.