(Subtitle: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives)

This is a breathtaking book by former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Published in 1997, it is one of the few forward-looking foreign policy books of the 90s that, after September 11, 2001 still resonates from almost every page. Want to know why the United States is at war in Afghanistan and not Pakistan? Why Saudi Arabia's many deficiencies are tolerated? Why US foreign policy towards China seems to swing from appease to annoy and back again? Grand Chessboard tilts convincingly at these questions and many more.

Brzezinski organises his 220 page manuscript into seven chapters, and this review will follow that format with a summary of each.

  1. Hegemony of a New Type

    Brzezinski shows here how America1 is truly the world's first global power. Outlining clearly and succinctly how this is not an accident, the book briefly outlines other empires throughout history (Persian, Mongol, Roman, Spanish, British, etc.) in a "compare and contrast" that draws some surprising lines through what you thought you knew about these regions and powers.

  2. The Eurasian Chessboard

    When Chapter 2 begins "For America, the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia." you know the author is about to take you to unexpected places, and Brzezinski doesn't disappoint. Inverting the world map (Ever tried that? It's worth seeing.) immediately isolates the "control zones" for the Eurasian megacontinent. This is the "chessboard" of the title. After the players are identified, five questions are asked:

    • What kind of Europe should America prefer and hence promote?
    • What kind of Russia is in America's interest, and what and how much can America do about it?
    • What are the prospects for the emergence in Central Eurasia of a new "Balkans," and what should America do to minimize the resulting risks?
    • What role should China be encouraged to assume in the Far East, and what are the implications of the foregoing not only for the United States but also for Japan?
    • What new Eurasian coalitions are possible, which might be most dangerous to the U.S. interests, and what needs to be done to preclude them?
    From these provocative questions the topics of the next 5 chapters are drawn.

  3. The Democratic Bridgehead

    A critical and perceptive review of NATO and an equally interesting overview of the European Union from an American perspective are the central features of this chapter. Also here is an assessment of the various European countries' motives for "bucking the system", or thwarting American actions at various times in recent history.

  4. The Black Hole

    This is where the book, from a very recent history perspective, really starts to warm up. Describing the disintegration of Russia as a primary cause of the current instability at the old and new "edges" of the world's territorially largest state is not a new idea. But detailing the resources that these areas control, who wants them, and what the US is likely to do about it, is fresh. Remarkably so considering the book was written in 1997. Also in this chapter is Brzezinski's view that to maintain hegemony in this region, the US must push as hard as possible for Russia to throw in its lot with Europe, and stay out of its recently lost areas, no matter how predominant it might still be thereabouts.

  5. The Eurasian Balkans

    Oil. Afghanistan. Iraq. And it's nowhere near over in this region. Here's where the books predictive powers are most strained, and yet this is the chapter that evoked my "breathtaking" review. At the end of this chapter, you may well emerge convinced that Black Sea Oil is essentially going to control foreign policy, and probably mean a lot more troops overseas before too long. The extremely recent (as of this writing) election in Turkey is cast in a very different light by Turkey's identification with Russia and Iran as the "local big boys" through which and with which the US must deal here.

  6. The Far Eastern Anchor

    Wondered why, with what seems like all the will in the world, the two Koreas are not yet united? Part of the answer, if you follow the arguments in this chapter, has to be because 30,000 US troops on the Korean peninsula serves as yet another thread in the "Gulliver-style" containing of China. But, refreshingly, Brzezinski argues for an end to the current "do one thing, say another" China-bottling policy currently in place. Arguing instead that the best policy is "balancing" Asia in the way that Britain used to do on the continent, in this case using Japan as the counterweight.

  7. Conclusion

    The final chapter is, unapologetically, a call to arms:

    "In brief, America as the world's premier power does face a narrow window of historic opportunity. The present moment of relative global peace may be short lived. (!) This prospect underlines the urgent need for an American engagement in the world that is deliberately focused ... to perpetuate America's own dominant position for at least a generation and preferably longer still; and to create a geopolitical core of shared responsibility for peaceful global management."

Heady stuff! And highly recommended, no matter what your politics.

NOTE: I do not share all of the author's views, or even most of them. The book, however, is most successful where it prompts you to go, do some research on one or another of its claims, and find out for yourself.

Published by Basic Books, part of the Perseus Books Group. ISBN 0-465-02726-1