The American foreign affairs establishment seems finally to have gotten worried about the antics of the Boy Emperor. It stood by, more or less mute, while the Bush Administration abandoned the United States’ traditional role as a status quo power. We no longer stand for peace, legality, stability and prosperity in the face of the challenges of revisionist powers, nations that seek a total recasting of the global balance of power. Older examples include Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, Communist Russia and Mao’s China. With the help of the neoconservatives who have taken over the Pentagon, we have now become the most revisionist power in history, using our armed missionaries to stuff our version of democracy and free markets down the throats of all other peoples on earth. Overcome by pride, arrogance and the erroneous conclusion that we “won” the cold war (we just didn’t lose it as fast or as badly as the former USSR), many Americans have come to believe that we are a New Rome, a colossus athwart the world, beyond law or the need for friends, exercising hegemony over all other nations through our overwhelming military force.

Zbigniew Brzezinski is a perfect representative of the old cold war establishment. He’s a Democratic Party hawk who once sought to demonstrate to President Jimmy Carter and the nation that he could be just as unscrupulous in the role of National Security Adviser as his Teutonic predecessor, Henry Kissinger. Both men were university professors of international relations before entering the government as civilian militarists. One of Brzezinski’s last official acts was to begin arming insurgents in Afghanistan with the intent of provoking a Soviet intervention. When later asked by the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur whether he regretted having supported Islamic fundamentalism and given arms and advice to future terrorists, Brzezinski replied, “What is more important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?” Whatever turns out to be more important in world history, Brzezinski has always kept the interests of his native Poland (now our “enthusiastic new ally,” as he proudly puts it) in the forefront of his strategic thinking.

In The Choice, Brzezinski recommends that the United States try to reclaim its former identity as a status quo power and return to a policy of leadership rather than of domination over the rest of the world. With this book, he is refashioning himself as a realpolitik critic of the Bush Administration, a position that could help the cause of peace. He is, however, so cautious in his analyses as to defeat his purpose. After our unsanctioned, unilateral assault against Iraq, he understands how hard it would be to restore the world’s trust in our country. But at the same time he wants to avoid being read out of the establishment as a “liberal,” at the risk of forfeiting his perks as a guest on the international deep-thinkers circuit–e.g., the Trilateral Commission, which he once headed–and as a $25,000-per-diem adviser, along with George Will, Richard Perle, Henry Kissinger and others, to the embattled right-wing media mogul Conrad Black. He therefore cushions his criticism of current Bush Administration policies in every cliché ever uttered about America’s magnificence in a “unipolar world.”

He endlessly cites “the historically unique scope of sovereign American power,” claims that “Washington, D.C., is the first global political capital in the history of the world,” asserts that “foreign affairs have become inside-the-Beltway affairs,” contends that we are “the world’s social pioneer,” muses on “the centrality of American economic vitality for the well-being of the world economy,” worries whether “America’s culture [is] compatible with an essentially imperial responsibility” and concludes, as if he were a Bush speechwriter, “The fact that America possesses peerless global political clout makes it the focus of envy, resentment, and, for some, intense hatred.” Each of these propositions can be seriously questioned.

The United States is bogged down in Iraq fighting a civil war we helped to spawn and what is well on its way to becoming a nationalist insurgency against easily identifiable foreign invaders intent on stealing the country’s resources. Warlord-ruled Afghanistan is once again a breeding ground for terrorists and the world’s largest producer of opium. In championing and even emulating Ariel Sharon’s approach to Israel’s neighbors, the United States forfeits all influence in the Islamic world and has greatly contributed to the long-term dangers to Israel itself. George Bush’s militarism has undermined the claims of economic “globalization” and insured that the Third World conflates the two. The United States’ loss of global economic influence is now irreversible. In 2003 China grew at a rate of 9.1 percent, and it is becoming the trading partner of choice for the developing world. Bush’s policies have caused the unraveling of the Atlantic Alliance and the hollowing out of NATO. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s support of American radicalism means that Britain will have no influence in Europe for decades. Meanwhile Bush promotes our “full spectrum dominance,” the pursuit of which is speeding the decline of the American empire even faster than would otherwise be the case.

Brzezinski tacitly admits these problems and has some intelligent things to say about them. He recognizes that the only way to fight terrorism is to try to separate the activists from their passive supporters so that the passive supporters will supply intelligence on the activists. He knows that the only way to do that is to address the legitimate grievances of the passive supporters and to alter our policies accordingly. Using our high-tech military to kick down front doors and barge into private homes only creates more terrorists. As Correlli Barnett, the prominent British military historian, has observed, the US attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq have increased the threat of Al Qaeda. From 1993 through the 9/11 assaults of 2001, there were five major Al Qaeda attacks worldwide; in the two years since then there have been seventeen such bombings, including the Istanbul suicide assaults on the British consulate and an HSBC Bank. High-tech military operations against terrorists are the problem, not the solution.

Brzezinski warns that “Victory in the Cold War left America standing astride the world. Not only was it dominant, but no globally appealing and intellectually comprehensive indictment of the American system was readily available.” But that has changed. “Anti-globalization has been evolving intellectually from a vague sentiment into a counter-creed, reinforced emotionally by anti-Americanism…. America…undercuts the credibility of its moral leadership by demanding of others what it rejects for itself.” Brzezinski’s message, in short, is that “worldwide hostility could…be as threatening to America, despite its global power, as regional hostility has proven to be for Israel.”

It’s refreshing to hear this from Brzezinski. But none of this is new, and all of it probably comes too late. Moreover, Brzezinski’s treatment of the critical shortcomings of our government is pathetically inadequate and fails notably to register any sense of his own responsibility for the growth of Al Qaeda, whose rise owes much to Carter’s support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. He ignores the spiraling growth of militarism and the rampant misuse of secrecy to cover up the deals and crimes of insiders. He criticizes the growing influence of ethnic interest groups over American foreign policy, including Likudniks, Armenians and Greeks, but omits mentions of the activities of Polish-Americans. He says virtually nothing about our out-of-control “defense” budgets (he regards the current level of Pentagon spending as “relatively tolerable”). Nonetheless, as it is clearly intended, this little book might get Zbig a slot in a John Kerry administration. They are pretty much on the same wavelength.