The Grand Chessboard of 1997; Or, The World According to America

Posted on May 28, 2023
tl;dr: The world has changed, but not that much. Brzeziński's analysis provides useful insight into the world of yesterday and of today.

The Grand Chessboard by Zbigniew Brzeziński explores the world according to America (at least, in 1997.) Brzeziński was a Polish-born political analyst with no shortage of high-profile roles on his resume, serving as a counsellor to Johnson from ‘66-68 and National Security Advisor from ‘77-81 under Carter. The Grand Chessboard presents Brzeziński’s own geopolitical analysis of the world and its various key ‘pieces’ to the American Imperial puzzle. Thus, it particularly focuses on Europe (particularly France and Germany), Russia, the Caucasus, and China in their geopolitical contexts. This book is necessarily outdated. It thus provides a combination of insight into the mindset of the American ruling class in the mid-90s and prescient insight into key transformations or moves of the chessboard that have since transpired. In this review, I’m hoping to answer whether this book is still worth reading.

Brzezinski approaches the world from the American-Imperialist perspective. This is both a strength and a weakness of the book. He speaks in total support of the American empire, and sees the establishment of supra-governmental organisations in regions other than North America as a necessary step towards the future that would favour both the influence of these supra-governmental organisations and the United States. On the EU, for example, he sees a united Europe as a goal of France and Germany that would benefit the bargaining power of the European region as a whole. According to this, the expansion of the EU acts inherently to strengthen American power while many Western European states remain “American protectorates” whose foreign policy is determined by their allegiance to the United States. This analysis is perhaps not wrong, but assumes that this is a good thing, or at least that the good of America should be put above that of Europeans. Similar analysis or favouring of supranational organisations is discussed for other parts of the world. In Asia, he notes that there is a relative weakness of systematic ties between nations; that nothing is comparable to those in Europe. Given this, Brzeziński proposes development of more concrete ties to stabilise the region for America’s benefit. Brzeziński’s analsyis continually puts state aims above those of the populace. In particular, the aims of the United States to preserve its hegemonic status are placed above all. While this allows keen insight into the actions of the U.S. in the years prior to and following publication, it assumes a ‘big man’ intepretation of history, with the will of the general populace largely ignored. 

Brzeziński’s analysis is necessarily out-of-date. Again, this is advantageous in the sense of providing effective analysis of the time when it was published, but it cannot be entirely relevant to the modern reader. Despite this, much of the analysis is predictive or explanatory of subsequent developments. For instance, the author notes Britain’s apathy to Europeanism which has since led to Brexit. The possibility of a dispersed fundamentalist Islamic insurrection in the middle east has somewhat come to fruition. Most relevant in 2023, the geopolitical importance of Ukraine for Russia’s future was deeply emphasised, which Putin has now acted on. And, if general concern for human rights wasn’t a good enough explanation for Western concern over Ukraine was an insufficient explanation for you, this book does a great job at illustrating the real reasons everyone else cares about the fate of Ukraine. That being said, Brzeziński is generally set in a Cold War mindset where America’s actions are justified, and where their actions are seen to defend democratic values and not just their own influence. I largely disagree with this interpretation of American motivations, and I do think that the general attitude towards America has changed in the last 26 years (though admittedly I wasn’t even born until 4 years after this book’s release.) Rather than a paragon of democracy, the American empire is, in my opinion, more often seen as an Empire which seeks primarily to benefit America. Therefore, the general lack of cynicism towards America’s actions is the most outdated part of this book, but representative of Brzeziński’s own personal and professional history. 

Interestingly, Brzezinski is also skeptical of China’s succession to a world power status. Largely this skepticism has proved false so far as China now holds the second largest economy, and is undoubtedly a ‘world power’ by any other measure. What he does seem to get right though is that China continues to have trouble making committed alliances in its own region with major players like Japan and South Korea which continue to prefer America. Additionally, China does continue to be a ‘developing’ economy with large portions of its population living in poverty. This doesn’t really, in my opinion, undermine its status as a world power at this point. Prior to reading this, I had not properly considered the regional instability of Asia. It is, I think, easy to see the developed-ness of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, and the rapid economic approach of other nations like Vietnam and China, and take these successes as a sign of stability. According to Brzezinski, however, the rapidity of development, ongoing border conflicts, and the continued uncertainty of whether a Western or Eastern hegemon will prevail is illustrative of ongoing power negotiations in the region that have the potential to erupt. 

Above the relevance of the analysis today, the value of The Grand Chessboard lies primarily in the prominence of Brzeziński as a political actor. The analysis presented in this book is prescient because it is the analysis which has informed the decisions of former and current leaders. It is right not just because Brzeziński is a skilled analyst, but because he has had the power to ensure that decisions are made using his perspective. Therefore, I do think that this book continues to be worth a read even as the global political landscape has transformed. A quarter of a century in geopolitics is both a long-time and not that long at all. I think you’ll find it more relevant than most would expect.