As American policy-makers ponder how to reverse away from their setback at the hands of Iraqi fighters, the serene strategic horizons of Zbigniew Brzezinski may offer some comfort. The father of the Albright doctrine (‘What’s the point in having such a great army if you never use it?’) and a key architect of us expansionism after the Cold War, Brzezinski’s 1997 The Grand Chessboard achieved near-canonical status with Washington’s foreign-policy establishment. That work argued that America’s historically unprecedented status as sole global superpower could not be expected to endure forever; in 1945 the us accounted for 50 per cent of world gdp; by 2020, it might be less than 15 per cent. But if America is the first, it will also be the last to occupy such a position. No other state—Europe, Russia, China, Japan—could conceivably hope to replicate America’s royal flush of economic-technological dynamism, military might, political cohesion and cultural predominance. The emergence of potential hegemonic rivals would therefore bring about a period of anarchic conflict, not a new form of stability. Through ‘purposeful management’ of the other major states, its strategists should therefore aim to prolong us primacy for as long as possible, a generation or more, by preventing the rise of any such challenger. Or as Brzezinski famously put it: ‘to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together’.

The ultimate goal, however, was to create a us-led trans-Eurasian security framework to ensure systemic stability when American superpowerdom finally did begin to decline. This required developing ‘strategically compatible partners’ who might be drawn into a ‘grand accommodation’ under the leadership of the us, which would ‘stimulate and arbitrate’ among the other powers. To this end, the European Union and nato should be enlarged eastwards, China co-opted and, with Russia, eventually engaged within a trans-continental system that would ‘absorb the inevitable social and political shocks and strains’ of capitalist development while eventually evolving into the core of a new global power structure.

Where the rigidly empiricist Brzezinski could be said to score over the more philosophical, cultural and historical ruminations of a Fukuyama, a Huntington or a Ferguson is in the specificity of his tactical prescriptions. Thorny questions on the future of Taiwan, Turkey or the Korean peninsula are briskly settled within the requirements of the larger framework. The son of a Polish diplomat, Brzezinski arrived in Canada as a 10-year-old on the eve of the Second World War. His master’s thesis at McGill on Soviet nationality policy was conceived along conventional Cold War lines. After a stint at Harvard, he moved to Columbia in 1960, and has since provided counsel to a string of Democrat presidents. As Carter’s National Security Adviser from 1976, one of his principal initiatives involved intensive funding of the Afghan mujahedin. A grey eminence during the Clinton administrations, he has continued to orbit in Beltway circles, vociferously promoting nato expansion.

The Choice, Brzezinski’s post-Iraq offering, operates within the same basic framework as The Grand Chessboard, but the serene self-confidence of the earlier work has given way to a more troubled tone. A ‘global community of shared interests’ centred around an expanding, us-led Atlantic alliance still offers a beacon of hope; yet threats are now more apparent, not least that of an emerging ‘anti-American creed’ among the losers from globalization—the risk that ‘the dissatisfied of the world’ might unite. In both books, Eurasia is the central arena in which global hegemony must be secured; in 1997 the problem area was the ‘Eurasian Balkans’, comprising Central Asia, the Caucasus and parts of Iran and Turkey, with the Middle East appended as part of a broader ‘zone of instability’. The Choice now extends this to include South and Southeast Asia, and renames it the ‘Global Balkans’. This sub-region of Eurasia between Europe and the Far East ‘contains the world’s greatest concentration of political injustice, social deprivation, demographic congestion and potential for high-intensity violence’, as well as ‘most of the world’s oil and natural gas.’ It is also substantially Muslim.

What allies can the us rely upon for support in stabilizing the region? Local powers—Israel, India, Russia, Turkey—all turn out to be compromised for one reason or another. Turkey, though a reliable nato anchor, helpful since the Korean War and more recently in Georgia and Azerbaijan, is hobbled by its Kurdish and Islamist problems. Russia is powerful in the region but also resented there for its former imperial role, and anyway offers a poor social example. India, though another regional heavyweight and with a more acceptable domestic regime, comes with the baggage of poor relations with Pakistan and China. Israel enjoys many advantages—a strong military and unstinting American domestic support—yet its interests in the region are ‘not entirely congruent’ with those of the us, which require good relations with Riyadh and the Emirates. Anti-American passions in the region may be stimulated by the perception of the us as ‘sponsoring Israeli repression of the Palestinians’.