Zbigniew Brzezinski, the combative, visionary foreign policy intellectual who helped bring Jimmy Carter to the White House in 1977 and then guided him through a series of international crises that contributed significantly to Carter’s defeat at the polls four years later, died Friday night. He was 89.
“My father passed away peacefully tonight” his daughter, Mika Brzezinski said on her Twitter account.
The Polish-born strategist became a lightning rod for criticism over the roles he played in the Iranian hostage crisis, a broad but unrewarding diplomatic confrontation with the Soviet Union, and Carter’s innovative but unevenly implemented human-rights policy.
Brzezinski’s admirers focused on achievements that included the full normalization of U.S. relations with China, an expanded American role in the Middle East that produced an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, and skillful involvement behind the scenes that kept Poland’s 1980 Solidarity revolt against Communist rule alive and effective.
The author of more than 30 crisply argued books, Brzezinski gradually moved away from the strident advocacy of military power and the need to show resolve that made his reputation as an anti-Soviet hawk during his tenure as Carter’s national security adviser.
Once a muscular advocate of U.S. escalation in Vietnam, he gradually came to put more emphasis on the need to be diplomatically and politically supportive of nationalist aspirations in developing countries.
He strongly opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The undeclared border war between Russia and Ukraine led him in 2014 to caution that the West should not bring Ukraine into a military alliance. That risked greater, more dangerous complications with Moscow, he argued.
But Brzezinski maintained that there was more continuity in his thinking than was apparent. “I didn’t have the time to correct distortions or misunderstanding of complex ideas,” he said in a 2014 interview on his career. “In any event, when I was in the White House, it helped me sell our positions to the real hawks in the administration. I took a lot of criticism that would otherwise have been focused on the president.”
Quick of wit and words and unwilling to back away from a fight of any dimension, Brzezinski was a captivating lecturer at Harvard and then at Columbia. As his powerfully written memoir, “Power and Principle” made clear in 1983, he was driven by a lifelong determination to bend leaders and events to his fierce will.
“He does not seem to realize how often his candor, when directed at others, looks like malice and, when directed at himself, looks like shameless egotism,” journalist Strobe Talbott, a future deputy secretary of state and Brookings Institution president, wrote in his review of “Power and Principle” in Time magazine.
Always ready to do battle with bureaucratic and ideological opponents, Brzezinski placed equally strong emphasis on developing warm personal relationships with world figures he respected.