The myth of ‘human rights’

He was the public face of US foreign policy, but Zbigniew Brzezinski (1928-2017) was far from being an original thinker, says Mike Macnair

Brzezinski: blind hawk

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who died on May 26, was the former ‘national security advisor’ (NSA) to president Jimmy Carter. Unlike his predecessor, Henry Kissinger (who is still alive, though older than Brzezinski), he was not a serious intellectual producer. Rather, his publications show him as a dedicated follower of media-intellectual fashions, whose only consistent idea was Polish aristocratic, nationalist hostility to Russia, presumably learnt in his childhood.

He was therefore probably not the architect of the turn in US policy to ‘human rights’ which took place under Carter, and associated US reorientations (in particular, replacement of third world, nationalist military regimes by corrupt, ‘parliamentary’ forms, and backing of guerrilla operations against various Soviet-supported regimes, including the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and Islamist mujahedin against the Daoud regime in Afghanistan). But he could be seen as a public face of this turn.1

He may have had some substantive political effect in world politics - eg, over the Khomeini regime and ‘Iran embassy hostages’ in 1979-80 - by tipping the balance towards the ‘hawks’ in the debate in the Carter administration between those in the defence department who wanted to mount a rescue mission and state department doves, who wanted to try diplomacy. If so, his legacy is the incoherence of modern US policy in the Middle East, driven by the desire for revenge on states and regimes which have ‘dissed’ the US - most prominently Iran.

These issues, and the curious role of the NSA itself, make it worthwhile for this paper to comment briefly on his life and role.

Brzezinski was born in Warsaw on March 28 1928, the son of a Polish diplomat of szlachta (gentry) antecedents. His father was posted to Montreal as Polish consul-general in 1938 and brought his family with him. Brzezinski was therefore 11 when the Hitler-Stalin pact and invasion of Poland produced the partitioning of that country - old enough to remember the ‘golden days’ of a childhood when, in spite of the 1920s land reform, his family’s class still largely ran an independent Poland, if under the tutelage of Britain and France.2 He was 17 and about to start at McGill University, Montreal, when the Potsdam conference allocated Poland to the Soviet sphere of influence, and in his second year as a student at the time of Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech. He did not take up US citizenship till 1958. With this background it is not surprising that he wrote a masters thesis at McGill on Soviet nationalities, and went on to do a PhD at Harvard on ‘how Leninism leads to Stalinism’ (already a yawnsville topic at that date).

In 1956 he published The permanent purge: politics in Soviet totalitarianism just in time for its core thesis that repeated purges were a necessary feature of the regime, to be falsified by Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’. With this background it is unsurprising that Harvard in 1959 gave tenure not to Brzezinski, but to Kissinger, whose first book - A world restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the problems of peace, 1812-1822 (1957) - remains a classic of international relations. Brzezinski went to Columbia (New York) instead, and became actively involved in the semi-academic, semi-business periphery of government policymaking - the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg group, and so on. In 1973 when David Rockefeller set up the Trilateral Commission as a ‘non-governmental’ Bilderberg, Brzezinski was its first director.

Brzezinski’s political judgment in his published work continued to be weak: he argued in the later 1950s, on the basis of the Polish and Hungarian events of 1956, for ‘engagement’ with eastern European regimes with a view to detaching them from the USSR (in this period, the Hungarian events had pretty much shut down any such aspirations for a while). In 1962 in Ideology and power in Soviet politics he denied the possibility of a Sino-Soviet split (two years after the split was already obvious to many observers).

With this track record, it is more or less inevitable to conclude that Brzezinski’s continued treatment as a serious academic, and continued employment in policy think-tanks of one sort or another, reflected his ‘hawkish’ ideological commitments, rather than any serious usefulness of his analysis of international affairs.


Then in 1976 Jimmy Carter became president, and appointed Brzezinski as NSA. This job is a curious one, and the high-profile role of Brzezinski reflected the previous high-profile role in the same post of Henry Kissinger - who, unlike Brzezinski, went on to become secretary of state.3 The National Security Council (NSC) was created as a coordinating committee as part of the reorganisation of the US state apparatus with the onset of the cold war in 1947. The NSA started out as, essentially, the secretary of this committee.4

The people in post were mostly - and appropriately, given the nature of the job - intelligence or military types. This was true even of McGeorge Bundy, NSA under John F Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson 1961-66, and Walt Rostow, NSA under Johnson 1966-69; though they had immediately come from the academy, Bundy had served in military intelligence and Rostow in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the predecessor of the CIA) during World War II. Nixon’s appointment of Kissinger was thus a novelty.

Kissinger had had some limited involvement with a subcommittee of NSC in the presidency of Dwight D Eisenhower, and some limited connections with the military-political quango RAND corporation, but he was not really a security apparat insider, and backed liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller’s unsuccessful campaigns for the presidential nomination in 1960, 1964 and 1968. It is possible that Nixon was genuinely looking for advice outside the intelligence/military establishment.

Alternatively, it might be speculated that Nixon was looking for an, as it were, ‘Doctor Strangelove figure’ to act as a lightning-conductor for criticism. Stanley Kubrick’s and Peter Sellers’ smash-hit movie, Doctor Strangelove, came out in 1964 and responded, as various books and movies of the time did, to the Cuban missile crisis - but in the form of humour. The actual villain of the piece is mad airforce general Jack D Ripper; but the film took its title from the president’s German ex-Nazi, mad-scientist advisor on nuclear war, Doctor Strangelove. The character was imagined as an amalgam of three figures: ex-Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun (as contemporaneously interpreted by Tom Lehrer in his song from the US version of That was the week that was); Herman Kahn, native-born New Jersey Jew, but think-the-unthinkable RAND game-theoretician of nuclear war; and Kahn’s RAND colleague, John von Neumann.5 Von Braun’s Germanness and ex-Nazism, and Kahn’s cold-blooded analysis of the strategies of megadeaths, seem to be the major elements of the character. The result of the movie’s success was to establish a trope of the middle-European mad-scientist, cold-blooded thinker of geopolitics and strategy.

In this context Kissinger, who grew up in Bavaria and never lost his south German accent, could play the role of Nixon’s ‘Dr Strangelove’ and thereby serve as a lightning-rod, drawing criticism away from the actual elite groups concerned in formulating policy, and the policy process itself. In contrast, McGeorge Bundy was a ‘Boston Brahmin’ - and his being more or less tagged with responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco and for escalation in Vietnam took the blame to the core of the US establishment.

Kissinger was certainly willing to play the role - there are some very striking ‘black humour’ quotes from him from the period. And it seems likely that the administration did succeed in offloading some of the opprobrium of its more objectionable policies onto Kissinger. In the grand scheme of things, this was marginalised by the Watergate affair; but Nixon has gone down in history as a small-time political crook (as author of the US’s ‘China turn’, however); while Kissinger has been and remains a hate figure for much of the left.

It is probable that Nixon actually got some useful advice on international relations from Kissinger, given that the man had thought seriously about Realpolitik. Certainly, in 1973 Kissinger moved from the theoretically backroom position of the NSA to the stage front of secretary of state, holding on to the NSA position as well until 1975, when he was replaced by the more ‘traditional’ air force staff officer, Brent Scowcroft.

In 1976 Jimmy Carter was elected president; and he evidently thought that having a middle-European Realpolitiker international relations academic to carry the can for morally unattractive decisions would work for him, too. In this case it did so more spectacularly. Carter is remembered as president primarily for promoting ‘human rights’. Post-presidency he has been able to make a career for himself as both human rights and peace campaigner, with his own charitable foundation for these purposes.6 Brzezinski, though also a ‘human rights’ promoter in 1976-78, is the hawk who carries the political can for the actual terrorist operations of the US state abroad in 1976-80.


There is a sense in which it is not unfair for Brzezinski to carry the can for this stuff. Unlike most of his predecessors, he did not do any active military service. But, on the other hand, he was a consistent ‘hawk’ - particularly against Russia. The two are perhaps related; those who have themselves done active service may be more willing to recognise the risks of military operations going wrong.

As I have said above, this came to a crunch in 1979-80 when a bunch of US diplomats in Tehran were taken hostage by students. Whether or not to attempt a military rescue was sharply debated between the diplomats and the generals; and between secretary of state Cyrus Vance and Brzezinski. Brzezinski won and Vance resigned. The military operation went ahead and was an ignominious failure.

The point was not that it was unthinkable to make deals with the new Iranian regime. In fact, the incoming Reagan administration did agree an arrangement with Tehran to get the hostages back. Indeed, the Reagan administration went on to make further deals with the regime in the Iran-Contra affair, to fund overseas terrorist operations which Congress refused to support.7

The point is rather that Brzezinski’s position should be characterised as szlachta politics, like those which led the Polish regime of the 1930s to refuse any sort of collective security arrangement that included Russia and to join Germany in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia - only to see Poland dismembered in its turn. It is characterised, on the one hand, by the aristocratic sense of entitlement and the inappropriate belief in the impossibility of military defeat - in 1930s Poland, the overemphasis on cavalry. It is also characterised, on the other hand, by the ressentiment of the dispossessed aristo - here aimed at Russia, but after 1980-81 to be aimed at Iran.

Brzezinski was still thinking in these terms in his later years. He opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 - because they should have been going after Iran. His 2016 article, ‘Towards a global realignment’, is marked by the sense of entitlement again, and by ressentiment against the European former colonial powers and Russia, setting up an imagined anti-colonial US, able to ensure Russia kept to its borders and bringing China on board as a junior partner without naval adventures.8 The argument is as ludicrous as his previous ‘analyses’. It is thinking in terms like these which renders US operations in the Middle East into nothing but the infliction of destruction, and makes the US lead Georgia and Ukraine into failed nationalist military adventures against Russia at the expense of their own citizens. Faciunt solitudinem et pacem appellant - they make an emptiness and call it peace.

Human rights

At the same time, the image of Carter’s human rights policy as the ‘bright side’ of the Carter presidency, and Brzezinski’s mujahedin, Iran hostage rescue and so on as the ‘dark side’, is completely misleading. This was, in fact, one policy. It was the abandonment of the old 1948-75 policy of protecting the ‘status quo ante’ and ‘containing’ communism, in favour of the defence of ‘human rights’ and most prominently the rights of property, of free trade, and of freedom of religion. It was the first step on the road to ‘colour revolutions’ and it was already a policy of ‘humanitarian intervention’. The imagination of an important part of the left that the discourse of ‘human rights’ can be somehow forced to our purposes by using ‘social rights’ or, in a third version, ‘green rights’ of animals and the ecology,9 is completely delusive. The point of ‘human rights’ talk was to create the sovereignty of judges; and, in world affairs, of the US as judge among the peoples.

Hopefully, the death of Brzezinski, by exposing to more public view the fact that he was a human rights advocate too, can help us to begin to escape from this mental trap.


1. The brief obituary in the New York Times on May 26 reflects the point.

2. E Wasson Born to rule: aristocracy in the modern world London 2006, chapter 9 (passage on Poland); L Jakubowska Patrons of history: nobility, capital and political transitions in Poland London 2012, chapter 2 (section titled ‘Independent once more’).

3. So did Colin Powell, NSA 1987-89 and secretary of state 2001-05, and Condoleeza Rice, NSA 2001-05 and secretary of state 2005-09.

4. Wikipedia ‘National Security Advisor’ has a convenient summary referencing deeper treatments.

5. Wikipedia ‘Dr Strangelove’ has references.


7. Wikipedia’s ‘Iran-Contra affair’ has a narrative and references.

8. The American interest Vol 11, No6:

9. Eg, the section on ‘Human rights’ in P Clayton and J Heinzekehr Organic Marxism New York 2014, chapter 7 (a long way from being the best example of this approach, but I happen to have just read it).