Zbigniew Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, discusses the author’s ambitious strategy for a Euro-Atlantic community which would encompass the Ukraine, Central Asia and the Caucasus independent republics. The following essay is a critical review of The Grand Chessboard.
According to the author, the thesis of The Grand Chessboard is that the…
ultimate objective of American policy should be benign and visionary: to shape a truly cooperative global community, in keeping with long-range trends and with the fundamental interests of humankind. But in the meantime, it is imperative that no Eurasian challenger emerges, capable of dominating Eurasia and thus also of challenging America. The formulation of a comprehensive and integrated Eurasian geostrategy is therefore the purpose of this book (intro).
While Brzezinski believes the US to be the only superpower, he feels that the United States’ inability to maintain hegemony requires it to have “geostrategic skill” (36). The author believes that “the fundamental interests of humankind” (xiv) rest in the opportunities found in Eurasia, the combination of both Europe and Asia.
Zbigniew Brzezinski was not the first to focus a geopolitical strategy in Eurasia. Many geostrategists have concentrated on Eurasia as the arena of international politics. Eurasia consists of nearly seventy-five percent of the world’s population (Khasanov 2005). The majority of the physical riches are in Eurasia as well. According to Khasanov, sixty percent of the world’s GNP is located in Eurasia and three quarters of the energy reserves are there as well.
Eurasia consists of the six biggest military spenders and the six largest economies, after the United States (Kashanov 2005). More importantly, “all of the potential political and/or economic challengers to American primacy are Eurasian”.
Geopolitical Strategists Compared
Brzezinski’s strategy has been built upon the theories of previous strategists. The author believes Eurasia to be the chessboard in which the battle for global primacy is played. In some aspects, this is similar to both Mackinder and Haushofer theories of geopolitics. Mackinder believed the chessboard was the heartland comprised of Eastern Europe, Russia, Siberia, Asia and Africa (Foster 2006). Mackinder was motivated by what he felt was Britain’s decline in economic hegemony.
Brzezinski states that, “ever since the continents started interacting politically, some five hundred years ago, Eurasia has been the center of world power (xiii)”. Brzezinski is not the first to believe this statement; both Mackinder and Haushofer were convinced of this idea.
The four areas of global power which the US has, according to Brzezinski, are military, economic, technology and cultural. The difference between Mackinder and Brzezinski theories is that Brzezinski focuses on all four areas of global power whereas Mackinder focuses on only the military (Praker 2008). One hundred years before Brzezinski, Mackinder believed land-based technological advances would improve military strategies. Brzezinski incorporates land, sea, air and military strategies. Had Mackinder lived in this century, it is quite likely he would have incorporated similar strategies, based on the similar strategies discussed.
Mackinder had a “takeover” mentality to his strategy, whereas Brzezinski believes the key to successful geopolitics is to utilize the four areas of global power to assist Eurasian territories and create economic prosperity; thus being beneficial for both lands.
Haushofer’s geopolitical theory is perhaps the most different theory among the three strategists. Haushofer’s theory centered around territorial expansion. Haushofer had five domains that defined his definition of geopolitics: Pan-regions, land versus sea power, frontiers, lebensraum and autarky. Unlike Haushofer, Brzezinski believed that the protection of US interests and influencing global affairs define US primacy and not territorial expansion (Owen, n.d.).
The theory behind The Grand Chessboard, is not a new one. Geopolitical strategists have considered Eurasia to be the grand prize in global supremacy for decades. Zbigniew Brzezinski has years of experience in the area of geostrategy. As a former National Security Advisor of the United States and scholar, Mr. Brzezinski’s geopolitical strategies, while not new, are well developed and surpass those of previous strategists.
The Grand Chessboard has received harsh criticism from some authors and scholars; particularly when compared to Mackinder and Haushofer. One brief review summarizes the negative view often expressed when discussing The Grand Chessboard. David Gordon (1998) discusses the inability to take Brzezinski’s claims too seriously because the author surpasses the views of Mackinder. While Mackinder felt America needed to control Eurasian land and sea, Brzezinski claims America must take all of Eurasia as means for global super power. Gordon discredits the former security advisor to President Jimmy Carter by pointing out Brzezinski’s error in spelling of Mackinder’s name; the author wrote Harold rather than Halford, which is the correct spelling. While this may seem to be a minor misprint, it does make Brzezinski appear unprofessional and therefore inept.
Hendrickson (1997) is critical of The Grand Chessboard; feeling Brzezinski’s ambitious strategy is misguided and problematic. The critic finds the author to make unjustified promises for the future. The growth of western institutions as Brzezinski suggests for example, may have an adverse effect and take power away from the nations. Hendrickson also believes what Brzezinski feels to be legitimate Russian interests, to be based on falsifications.
Brzezinski has been criticized for not only stretching beyond what most American’s find conceivable, but for speaking so boldly on issues such as the Cold War strategies. Benjamin Schwarz (1998) however, feels that Brzezinski does have some valid points; he writes;
This “leadership” role, as Brzezinski advocates it, means not only that the United States must dominate wealthy and technologically sophisticated states in Europe and East Asia–America’s “allies”–but also that it must deal with such nuisances as Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Kim Jong Il (or Kim Chong Il) (par. 4).
Borisova (2005) is supportive of Brzezinski’s strategy; she believes that Mackinder’s theory has shifted and Brzezinski’s strategy has built upon Mackinder’s strategy. Rather than focusing on one, or even a few territories of Eurasia, Borisova believes that author is correct in focusing his strategy around all of Eurasia.
Carl Teichrib (2009) discusses Brzezinski’s outlook for global primacy. In his view, Brzezinski is on the right track to global supremacy; in which case America would act as the manager of international relations. He supports Brzezinski’s opinion that America must combine efforts with Europe; specifically the European Union, in the globalization process. This partnership currently exists in the form of the Transatlantic Alliance; in which Brzezinski has significant involvement.
Brzezinski discusses his opinion that the US not influential enough in Eurasia. In order to become more influential, the author writes a step-by-step or chapter-by-chapter plan of how the US can create a global presence by concentrating the geostrategy on Eurasia.
Brzezinski’s strategy has both short and long-term goals. His short-term strategy concentrates on consolidating and perpetuating geopolitical pluralism in Eurasia (Kashanov 2005); in this way, America’s primacy will not be challenged by a hostile coalition.
Secondly, the US, according to Brzezinski, should concentrate on potential strategic partners to assist in the creation of a “trans-Eurasian security system”  Brzezinski’s goal for this strategy is to create a political responsibility that is shared among the nations. A balance of power among the nations must be achieved. It is important that no single power arises.
In chapter one, Brzezinski discusses America as a global power. The author briefly reviews the history of various empires such as Persia, Rome and Spain. The author compares the empires of the past; pointing out the events, cultural and political that led to their downfalls.
The author’s view of past empires and his comparison of what America’s global strategy should entail has been called by some a modern day imperialist perspective. Brzezinski considered his plan for Eurasia as a geopolitical strategy; although similar to imperialism. Brzezinski is not the first to discuss geopolitics first came to term during the Spanish-American war (Foster 2006). The reader, if familiar with geopolitical strategists, will find Brzezinski’s arguments to have built off of geostratigists, Halford Mackinder and Karl Haushofer.
Mackinder realized the world’s nations were closed in and would not flourish until each could contribute to the other, and rid the world of a single-world empire. To Mackinder, “the Geopolitical strategy was about the endgame of controlling the Heartland—or the enormous transcontinental land mass of Eurasia, encompassing Eastern Europe, Russia through Siberia, and Central Asia” (Foster, sect. 2, 2006).
Mackinder’s theory of geopolitics is not that different from Brzezinski’s theory, however, as mentioned previously, Mackinder’s theory focused on the sea as being the deterrent to the global-strategy. He felt that as communication and technologies increased, Eurasia would be less depended on the sea (Foster 2006). In Mackinder’s opinion, Eurasia would gain a competitive edge and thus whoever controlled Eurasia would control world power.
Both Mackinder and Brzezinski were involved in military strategizing and security of their homeland, which may account for their similar outlooks on geopolitics. Haushofer was influenced by the military however he was more of a political theorist that a strategist.
Mackinder’s strategy is similar to that of a chess game; which is the focal point of Brzezinski’s second chapter. Like a game of chess, Brzezinski strategizes a three-stage development of a global community; one which would unite Europe and China. The author asks a number of questions such as what kind of Europe should America promote? And what role should China play? The questions that Brzezinski introduces leads to topical discussions in the following chapters.
The German geopolitical thinker, Karl Haushofer, did not rely on the game of chess. Haushofer believed America to be the most successful at implementing geopolitics. The most practical form of geopolitics, in Haushofer’s opinion was the Monroe Doctrine. Haushofer’s main concern was Germany, and he felt the greatest threat to Germany was British imperialism (Foster 2006).
Similar to Brzezinski, Haushofer felt that the key geopolitical strategy included a “Eurasian intercontinental power bloc with Russia and Japan” (Foster, sect. 2, 2006), Germany of course, would be a strategic partner in this plan. Haushofer’s strategy was popular among the Nazis.
In chapter three, The Democratic Bridgehead, Brzezinski discusses NATO and its implications for Eurasia. The author discusses NATO from an American perspective. He also gives his opinion as to why European countries tended to go against the system and ignore or bypass American actions.
Further on in the book, the author discusses chapter three; stating…
The historical timetable for Europe, outlined in chapter 3, will be met only if Europe’s aspirations for unity are both encouraged and even prodded by the United States (196).
Brzezinski considers Europe to be incomplete; stating that there is “a zone of insecurity between Europe and Russia” which causes insecurity, rivalry and suspicion (81). The author feels that Europe is not living up to its full potential; that numerous European nations have the ability to unite, specifically through NATO, in order to prosper.
Brzezinski feels that Russia could be a threat should it feel unwelcome as a European alliance and suggests that Russia be continuously reassured that the doors to Europe are open (85).
Russia’s political turmoil is discussed further in chapter 4, where Brzezinski dissects what he finds to be Russia’s main problem areas. The author believes Russia’s disintegration is the primary reason that Europe is not united. According to Brzezinski, Russia disintegrated due to “socio-economic and political failure of the Soviet system” (88). The author suggests that the US push Russia to combine efforts with Europe, and give up on its lost territory, thus maintaining hegemony.
Brzezinski feels the disintegration of Russia created a black-hole effect in the heart of Eruasia, causing “a massive systemic crisis” (89).
An interesting assessment of the Russia question was addressed by Re?at Arim; who questioned how Russia feels about Brzezinski’s strategy for Russian geopolitics. According to Arim, “Eurasianism” is a concept often focused on by “ultra-left and ultra-right politicians” in Russia.
The author describes the Eurasian Balkans as “a power vacuum” (123). In his view, the Eurasian Balkans are power hungry and tempt outside nations to challenge their power. The Eurasian Balkan states are surrounded by Russia, Turkey, and Iran; more powerful neighbors and according to Brzezinski, China is interested in the area politically.
Brzezinski considers the Eurasian Balkans to be an economic prize due to its wealth of natural gas and oil reserves; as well as its natural minerals. His prediction of increased oil consumption fueled his opinion that the Central Asian region and the Caspian Sea basin are hot spots for rivalry from outside nations, corporations and adversaries; especially since these areas are known for their instability. The author includes Turkey and Iran as unstable additions to the problem area. These areas all suffer from ethnic, cultural and religious challenges that lead to political turmoil and internal conflict.
Brzezinski explains his vision for American policy in chapter six; where he explains the importance of the three major powers, America, Japan and China. The author believes China to be of great power and potential; perhaps not so much in the military area but in political and GDP.
The author also discusses the possibility of a united Korea; in most American minds this would be a positive achievement and potentially beneficial to the US. Brzezinski however, does not believe this to be so; he feels that the American-Japanese and American-Chinese relations would be negatively effected. Brzezinski feels that the US would remove itself from Japan, thus giving Japan more military power and lead to more rivalry among nearby states (Schwarz 1998).
In the final chapter, Brzezinski gives the reader hope for America’s future as the global superpower. The author writes…
The time has come for the United States to formulate and prosecute an integrated, comprehensive, and long-term geostrategy for all of Eurasia. This need arises out of the interaction between two fundamental realities: America is now the only global superpower, and Eurasia is the globe’s central arena. Hence, what happens to the distribution of power on the Eurasian continent will be of decisive importance to America’s global primacy and to America’s historical legacy (194).
How Relevant Are Brzezinski’s Strategies Today?
Today’s technology has increased communication abilities and changed the geostrategic playing field. Michael Evans (2004) reports that many political theorists believe the strategies of Brzezinski and past strategists to be obsolete. He discusses that information technology has made many individuals find geography irrelevant. Evans does believe however that there is still a role to be played by territory which is it is used as an organizing principle that defines social relations among people. The goestrategy of today has a global outlook rather than a regional one.
Technology provides geostrategists an opportunity to communicate faster and more efficiently on an international level; leveling the playing field.
Zbigniew Brzezinski successfully discusses the global strategy for creating American primacy. While his focus on Eurasia is not a new one; Brzezinski has built his strategies upon the ideas of experts such as Mackinder and Haushofer.
The Grand Chessboard is an older publication however it is still relevant today. Technological advances have not made Brzezinski’s strategies obsolete; on the contrary, it made his strategies more possible due open communication among the nations.
It is obvious from the present research in geopolitical strategies that Russia is, and has been, the most unpredictable and difficult area to gain. It is for this reason that Brzezinski has focused much of his strategy and discussion on Russia.
Eurasia will continue to be the focal point of geopolitical strategy. The advancement of information technology will likely push Eurasian collaboration with the United States. Brzezinski’s strategies are well supported through both written documentation and action; making his argument for geopolitical strategy successful.
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 Based on an article by Financial Times Kiev Bureau Chief Charles Clover.