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Ex-National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski: Spokespersons of US Right 'In Most Cases Stunningly Ignorant'

Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski says that US diplomacy will continue as before despite the leak of diplomatic dispatches by WikiLeaks. He spoke with SPIEGEL about how US President Obama should react and how the American right sees the world.

US Tea Party activists gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. for a rally called "Restoring Honor," organized by conservative television personality Glenn Beck, in August. Zoom

US Tea Party activists gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. for a rally called "Restoring Honor," organized by conservative television personality Glenn Beck, in August.

SPIEGEL: Will American foreign policy ever be the same after this embarrassing leak of US diplomatic dispatches?

Brzezinski: Absolutely. There was a saying once in Vienna during the good old days of the Habsburg Empire that when things went wrong and people were asked for comment, the comment usually was: "Well, it's catastrophic but not serious." And that's the way this is.

SPIEGEL: The US government sounds more alarmed.

Brzezinski: Most of the cables revealed consistency with what the United States said publicly. There may be some embarrassing things, but basically, business will go on as usual. Our cables aren't very different from the cables the German ambassadors send or Russian ambassadors or Chinese or French.

SPIEGEL: These nations are deeply offended by the indiscretions, though. Could the Americans recall ambassadors to mend fences?

Brzezinski: I would think not, unless there is something in the cables that an ambassador has said about a senior statesman of the country to which he's assigned, which would preclude any degree of personal relationship between the ambassador and that senior statesman.

SPIEGEL: The US Ambassador in Berlin, Philip Murphy, wrote a very unflattering report on German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. He called him "arrogant" and "opportunistic" and concluded: He is no Genscher.

Brzezinski: That may make it more difficult, although Murphy probably deals more seriously with the chancellor than the foreign minister, given the nature of the German arrangements.

SPIEGEL: So it will return to business as usual? Really?

Brzezinski: There are slightly mystifying aspects to this whole operation. I do see some strange degree of emphasis on some issues.

SPIEGEL: For example?

Brzezinski: Just look at the degree of emphasis that has been put in the initial wave of revelations on discrediting several pro-American Arab governments by highlighting their demands for military action against Iran. That could be very troublesome within some Arab countries. It's also interesting that so much emphasis is put on leaks that could be calculated deliberately to damage American-Turkish relations.

SPIEGEL: In any case, the overall picture that emerges is that of a disoriented world power. Nowadays, America has to rely on very unreliable partners in important regions of the world. It knows next to nothing about dangerous foes like North Korea. And it is extremely wary of an ever stronger China.

Brzezinski: Is any of that news? America has relied on unstable partners throughout its history. And it is clear that China is historically self-confident while we feel the historical forces are against us.

SPIEGEL: US officials say the leaks might endanger the effort to improve relations with Russia. Is that a serious concern?

Brzezinski: Not to me at this stage, unless someone shows me things which I should consider in that light.

SPIEGEL: A Georgian ambassador has charged Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin with corruption. Some reports describe Russia as a modern mafia state.

Brzezinski: Everyone knows that there are allegations that he is extremely rich. Then the question is how you become rich when you are a public servant, and, of course, there is a well-known answer to that.

SPIEGEL: Also, Putin is described as an alpha male while President Dmitri Medvedev is perceived as somewhat of a weakling. Would you agree?

Brzezinski: There is some reason to share that view. After all, Medvedev was hand-picked by Putin. But it is also a fact that Medvedev is now beginning to surface much more as a serious player. I had an opportunity to participate in a meeting with him in Moscow four weeks ago, and he struck me as a very self-confident person with his own individual views on foreign policy. We will know within a year or so whether Medvedev now has genuinely independent support.

SPIEGEL: The dispatches show how European leaders are clamoring for access in Washington and the US coolly plays them against each other.

Brzezinski: Interrelationships between people are affected by respective hierarchies, who is on top, who is less on top. Anyone familiar with royal courts knows that. And the US descriptions of Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel or Silvio Berlusconi basically fit thousands of cartoons that have appeared about them.

SPIEGEL: As National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, you tried to prepare Americans for a more multipolar world -- one with a stronger China and a weaker US. Americans did not like that idea and Carter was voted out of office after one term.

Brzezinski: That concept is now very much a reality when you look at the rise of countries like China and India.

SPIEGEL: And the American decline. Are Americans aware of that trend or does the fate of Carter await President Barack Obama should he openly address the issue?

Brzezinski: I am very worried that most Americans are close to total ignorance about the world. They are ignorant. That is an unhealthy condition in a country in which foreign policy has to be endorsed by the people if it is to be pursued. And it makes it much more difficult for any president to pursue an intelligent policy that does justice to the complexity of the world.

SPIEGEL: Yet the American right is still convinced of American exceptionalism.

Brzezinski: That is a reaction to the inability of people to understand global complexity or important issues like American energy dependency. Therefore, they search for simplistic sources of comfort and clarity. And the people that they are now selecting to be, so to speak, the spokespersons of their anxieties are, in most cases, stunningly ignorant.

SPIEGEL: If you were still national security advisor, how would you tell President Barack Obama to react to WikiLeaks?

Brzezinski: To relax and to carry on. His basic instincts on the large issues of foreign policy are fundamentally correct and in tune with history,

SPIEGEL: Just his instincts? Not his policies?

Brzezinski: There is a lack of strategic implementation. Look at the standstill in the Middle East. The hesitation on Iran is another, and the absence of a kind of shared strategic perspective with the Europeans on Russia. To tackle this, it will require more of an effort to correct than if he had been more energetic and more committed to push forward with his world view shortly after the assumption of office.

Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz


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About Zbigniew Brzezinski
Zbigniew Brzezinski, 82, was national security advisor in the administration of President Jimmy Carter. He remains an influential voice on questions of global strategy and foreign affairs. Born in Warsaw, his father was a Polish diplomat. He now teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
Interactive Atlas

A time lapse of 251,287 documents: The world map shows where the majority of the cables originated from, and where they had the highest level of classification. View the atlas ...

Reaction from the US Government
In a statement, the White House has condemned the publication of "private diplomatic discussions" with foreign governments by SPIEGEL and four other international media on Sunday. Click on the link below to read the statement in full.
White House Statement
We anticipate the release of what are claimed to be several hundred thousand classified State Department cables on Sunday night that detail private diplomatic discussions with foreign governments.

By its very nature, field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information. It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions. Nevertheless, these cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders, and when the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only US foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world.

To be clear -- such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government. These documents also may include named individuals who in many cases live and work under oppressive regimes and who are trying to create more open and free societies. President Obama supports responsible, accountable, and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal.

By releasing stolen and classified documents, Wikileaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals. We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information.

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