Foreign Policy Blogs

Remembering My Mentor Zbigniew Brzezinski

Brett Edkins and Dr. Brzezinski in Guilin, China.

By Brett Edkins

When I first met Zbigniew Brzezinski, he was 78 years old. I was a recent college graduate looking for a job.

It was 2006, and three decades after serving as Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Dr. Brzezinski was still a giant of American foreign policy. On every major issue, diplomats, scholars, and politicians sought his opinion and strategic guidance. His long opposition to the war in Iraq was now the mainstream consensus, and it made him a sudden and surprising darling of the political left.

Sitting in his office in a brown, tufted leather chair, Dr. Brzezinski quietly reviewed my resume and transcript. I did not think I would get the job as his research assistant, so I was not too anxious. I was just excited to be meeting someone so famous. Brzezinski paused. “What happened in biochemistry?” he asked. He sounded serious. I wasn’t sure what to say. How could I explain away that terrible grade? After what seemed like a long pause, Brzezinski grinned. He was ribbing me.

Thankfully, Brzezinski hired me despite my biochemistry grade, and for two years I had a front row seat to American foreign policy.

One of my first tasks was to accompany Dr. Brzezinski to a meeting with Democratic members of the House of Representatives. A black town car with tinted windows drove us to Capitol Hill. Addressing the group, Brzezinski outlined a simple four-point approach to ending the war in Iraq. Brzezinski had an uncanny ability to speak in self-contained, perfectly constructed paragraphs. After his remarks, a few congressmen asked me to send them a copy of Brzezinski’s speech. I told them, there was no speech, no prepared remarks.

Afterwards, Nancy Pelosi ushered Brzezinski out of the building, along with former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark, who also addressed the group. I found myself walking next to Albright and tried to make small talk. She worked for Brzezinski in the Carter White House and helped him write his memoirs, Power and Principle. Brzezinski, she told me, was the nicest boss she ever had. When they worked together, Albright never knew what to call herself, “assistant” or “research assistant,” so Brzezinski told her to use whatever title helped her get what she needed from other people. Albright said that quickly devolved into calling herself “Grand Empress of Diplomacy” or something similarly outrageous.

The next few weeks were spent editing Brzezinski’s new book, Second Chance, which assessed the foreign policies of Presidents H.W. Bush, Clinton, and W. Bush, and suggested that America had one last chance to restore its political credibility and reclaim the mantle of the world’s leading power. Brzezinski and I bickered (politely) throughout the editorial process, as I tried to make his dense, insightful prose lighter and more colloquial. Sometimes I won. Usually he won. But we both enjoyed the back-and-forth.

The book became a New York Times bestseller after Brzezinski appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I munched on M&M’s in the studio’s green room as Brzezinski and Stewart cracked jokes and talked about the book. Brzezinski leveled some harsh criticism on President Bush for squandering the global consensus after 9/11 on a war of choice in Iraq, and for his “Manichean paranoia”—his tendency to see the world in black and white, divided us from them, and using our assumed moral superiority as an excuse to justify immoral acts.

When Dr. Brzezinski was on your side, you could ask for no better spokesman. During the Bush years, he excoriated neoconservatives for advocating the ill-conceived and historically naïve war in Iraq. “You don’t change a region by injecting a foreign army and pulverizing a state and then saying that you are, in fact, nurturing democracy,” he once said. His sharp tongue warned against expanding the conflict into Iran, as some in the administration wanted.

In October 2007, Brzezinski and I traveled to China, along with his wife Emilie, a renowned sculptress known to her friends as Muska. The Chinese held Dr. Brzezinski in high regard for his role in normalizing diplomatic relations between our countries. When Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, normalization was far from certain, despite the progress made under President Nixon. Brzezinski, however, was determined to make it happen. In 1978, over the objections of the State Department, he went to China to begin negotiations. By December, an agreement had been reached to establish full diplomatic ties, ending decades of estrangement and hostility and laying the foundation for what is arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world today.

On our first full day in China, Brzezinski and I met with former President Jiang Zemin, instantly recognizable in his oversized black glasses. Jiang cheerfully told us about his exercise routine and weekly lessons in English and world history. He recounted the many Brzezinski books he had read. And he discussed Taiwan, the Iranian nuclear issue, and other global issues with Dr. Brzezinski. In the next ten days we met with the Chinese prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, and dozens of other dignitaries and scholars.

Our Chinese hosts, mostly former military officials, took us on a whirlwind tour of the country. In Beijing, we visited the Forbidden City. Fourteen black-suited bodyguards circled Brzezinski at all times. In Guilin, we took a boat down the Li river. Our host offered us a snack of fried fishes on a stick. Quick on his toes, Dr. Brzezinski feigned a seafood allergy, and I got stuck scarfing down the little anchovies. In Zhengzhou, we toured a Buddhist temple and a provincial museum. Every night ended with a large dinner and toasts of highly-alcoholic baijiu. After one particularly extravagant ten-course meal, Brzezinski quipped, “How do you like my 1.3 billion friends?”

Meanwhile, back in the United States, the 2008 presidential campaign was heating up. In August 2007, Dr. Brzezinski became one of the first foreign policy heavyweights to endorse Barack Obama. Brzezinski even campaigned with Obama in Iowa in March 2008, introducing him for a major speech about the Iraq War, a conflict that both men opposed from the beginning.

He also used his sharp tongue to defend Obama from critics. In the midst of the Democratic nomination fight, Tucker Carlson, then of MSNBC, asked Brzezinski about Hillary Clinton’s claim that Obama had no foreign policy experience. Brzezinski let it rip: “Well I sort of don’t take that very seriously. She says she’s been to eighty countries and trips. My travel agent has been to a 150 countries and trips. That doesn’t make him qualified to be president.” Then he compared Clinton to Mamie Eisenhower. The Morning Joe crew roared with laughter, calling the critique “devastating.”

Dr. Brzezinski did not suffer fools or foolish arguments. He would listen politely, then calmly dismantle your argument until there was nothing left. As his research assistant, you had to present your work logically, carefully, and, above all, you had to be prepared for a tough cross examination.

This was excellent preparation for law school, which is where I went after my two-year stint with Dr. Brzezinski. Back when he hired me in 2006, I had a rudimentary understanding of foreign policy, but no framework for understanding the geopolitical implications or overall significance of events happening abroad. Brzezinski changed that, instilling in me a sense of realism and history.

For most, Zbigniew Brzezinski will be remembered as a foreign policy great—a man who helped end the Cold War, establish diplomatic ties with China, and negotiate peace between enemies in the Middle East. For me, he was an example to emulate, to strive for. He was also a genuinely fun person to work for. I will miss him.

 Brett Edkins is an attorney and a Forbes contributing writer living in New York City. He graduated from Yale Law School in 2011.

 
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