Our Common Geopolitical Challenge

Remarks delivered by Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski at the plenary session of the Global Policy Forum

Below are remarks delivered by Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski at the plenary session of the Global Policy Forum in the presence of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Turkish President Abdulla Gul.   The Forum, presided over by President Medvedev, is held annually in Varoslavl, Russia and is attended by international and domestic opinion leaders.

The presence here among us today of 2 leaders of historically important states as well as of many distinguished guests is an opportunity to reflect on the common challenge to all of us inherent in the ongoing transformation of global politics.

Let me begin my presentation by making three broad assertions, then briefly elaborate each of them, and conclude by making a specific proposal. 

  • First, global peace is threatened not by utopian fanaticism, as was the case during the 20th century, but by the turbulent complexity inherent in the volatile phenomenon of global political awakening;
  • Second,  comprehensive  and enduring  social   progress  is  more attainable  by democratic participation  than by authoritarian mobilization;
  • Third, in our time global stability can be promoted only by larger-scale cooperation,  and  not  through imperial domination.

The 20th century was dominated by fanatical ideological efforts to recreate societies by brutal totalitarian methods on the basis of utopian blueprints.   20th century Europe knows best the human costs of such simplistic and arrogant ideological fanaticism.  Fortunately today, with the exception of some highly isolated cases, such as North Korea,  it is unlikely that a new attempt at large-scale utopian social engineering could arise.

That is largely so because in the 21st century, for the first time in human history, the entire world is now politically awakened.  The peoples of the world are restless, they are interconnected,  they are resentful of their relative social deprivations, and they increasingly reject authoritarian political mobilization.  It follows that democratic participation is in the longer-run the best guarantee both of social progress and political stability.

On the global arena, however, the combination of rising populist aspirations and of the inherent difficulties of shaping common global responses to political and economic crises  poses the danger of international disorder to which neither Germany alone, nor Russia alone, nor Turkey alone, nor China alone, nor  America alone can provide an effective response. Indeed, potential global turmoil – coincidental with the appearance of novel  threats to universal wellbeing and even to human survival – can be effectively addressed only  within a larger cooperative framework  based on more widely shared democratic values. 

The basic fact is that interdependence is not a slogan but a description of an increasingly imperative reality.  America realizes that it needs Europe as a global ally, that its cooperation with Russia is of mutual and expanding benefit, that its economic and financial inter-dependence with rapidly rising china has a special political sensitivity, that its ties with Japan are important not only mutually but to the wellbeing of the pacific region.   Germany is committed to a more united Europe within the EU and to close links across the Atlantic with America, and in that context it can safely nurture mutually beneficial economic and political cooperation with Russia. Turkey, which launched almost 100 years ago its social and national modernization with Europe largely as its model, is assuming a larger regional role  as an economically dynamic and politically democratic state, while also a member of the Atlantic alliance as well as Russia’s good neighbor.  And Russia, recognizing that its modernization and democratization are mutually reinforcing and vital to its important world role, also aspires to a broader collaboration with  Europe,  with America, and quite naturally so with its dynamic neighbor to the east, China.

The time is thus ripe for translating the values and interests that bind us together into more comprehensive ties.   That requires the deliberate promotion of genuine reconciliation between historically conflicting peoples. The EU would not exist today if it were not for the deliberate effort made by France and Germany—not only on the official level but especially between their peoples – to foster a genuine and deeply rooted national reconciliation.  The EU could not have embraced central Europe if more recently a similar ongoing effort had not been pursued between the Germans and the Poles. Turkey and Russia, though enemies in the past, are now good neighbors, and Turkey and the EU are engaged in complicated negotiations regarding a mutually beneficial relationship. A wider-still Europe cannot come into being without a similar and broadly gauged reconciliation between the Poles and the Russians. And an even broader  cooperative framework can emerge as America and Russia expand their collaboration, taking advantage of the fact that on the people-to-people level there has never been any truly intense animus between Americans and Russians.

In any case, we need to face the reality that in the decades ahead, larger scale cooperation between regions will be essential to global wellbeing.  The on-going emergence as major players of dynamic and populated Asian states– most notably of China, earlier of Japan, and soon of India and of Indonesia – as well as of increasingly close Asian inter-state organizations all reflect the advantages of  large-scale cooperation among the world’s regions.  In fact, the more regional cooperation in Asia itself, the less likely is Asia to repeat Europe’s  painful 20th century history, and the more likely is broader cooperation also between the new east and the old west.

The potential for such cooperation also suggests, if new major conflicts are averted, that in the decades ahead the now politically awakened people of the world may eventually share a universal political culture in which global cooperation will be reinforced – though with some unavoidable local variations – by constitutionally based democratic  principles.  Japan, South Korea, India provide examples of the global potential for cross-cultural democratic universality.   It is timely to make note of that more hopeful prospect, especially in the face of the current inclination to engage in historical pessimism.  And so it is timely also to think concretely and practically,  in geopolitical terms,  of how we can step-by-patient step advance and institutionalize such a more promising future.

All of the above requires a sense of historical and geopolitical direction not only from our governments, but also from our peoples.  Governments, by necessity, have to focus on the more immediate dilemmas, disagreements, and conflicts.  Even if guided by a shared vision of the future, their time-perspective is limited by the need to address often contentious issues.  That is why the attainment of an eventually wide-ranging  accommodation that creates a  more interconnected and increasingly shared democratic space could benefit from a collective effort by a team of respected private citizens primarily  from the EU, from Russia, from Turkey, from Ukraine, and from America to conceptualize a flexible time-table – pointed towards 2050 -- for a step-by-step, decade by decade, implementation of the oft-cited slogan about a cooperative community from Vancouver east to Vladivostok.

To be meaningful, such a non-official initiative — which I am proposing today and which I hope our respective governments might encourage—will need to be both ambitious and yet practical.  The obstacles to it are deeply rooted in varying geopolitical interests and in historical memories.  It will take  joint as well as patient efforts to overcome residual national fears and suspicions. Flexible and evolutionary arrangements for eventually widening the EU,  in addition to some deliberate upgrading of the existing transcontinental and trans-Atlantic  frameworks, may be needed. Europe and the Atlantic community would not be what they have become, despite continuing difficulties, if it was not for the fact that for many years visionary-minded Europeans and Americans did engage in protracted,  patient, and persistent advocacy. We can learn from that experience. Indeed, our meeting here in Yaroslavl could be the point of origin for the launch of the proposed non-official initiative designed to plan the future architecture for such wider trans-Atlantic and trans-Eurasian cooperation.