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The astonishing prescience of Zbiginiew Brzezinski

    In January 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost reforms were in their infancy. Yes, it was clear that the Soviet Union was changing; and that its satellites in Eastern Europe were restless. But that had happened before. Few thought then that all was about to change – utterly.

    That same month, however, Zbiginiew Brzezinski, former advisor to Presidents Carter and Reagan and at the time Professor of Government at Columbia, gave the Hugh Seton-Watson Memorial Lecture to the Centre for Policy Studies. 

    The prescience of this lecture is astonishing. He foresaw:

    • the imminent revolution in Eastern Europe
    • the forthcoming collapse of the Comecon economies
    • the growth of China so that it would become the second largest economy by 2010 (in 1988, China’s GDP was $404 billion, compared to Japan’s $3,015 billion. The figures for 2013 were $9,020 billion and $5,150 billion respectively).
    • the fear that Russia might revert to its habit of dealing with popular uprisings with military might.

    The imminent revolution in Eastern Europe

    “In effect, throughout the region, we are witnesses to the phenomenon of the organic rejection by the social system of an alien transplant. That is what has historically happened in Eastern Europe. The alien system, grafted on by force from outside, is being repudiated by the social organism. This process manifests itself on the economic and political planes, and the combination of the two is particularly destabilising. The region, as a whole, is experiencing today both political liberalisation and economic retrogression, a classic formula, as we know, for revolution.

    “In a strange statement, which must have been encouraging to the Czech dissidents, when Gorbachev visited Prague in April, his principal spokesman, Gennadi Gerasimov, was asked at an open press conference, attended by Communist and non-Communist journalists what in his view was the difference between Dubcek and Gorbachev. The amazing answer was confined to two words, 'nineteen years'. I take that to mean that Gerasimov was simply saying that Dubcek was premature. He was not saying that he was wrong, or that he was a revisionist or a traitor, which was what the Czech leaders had said.

    “How soon and in what form will the zone of economic stagnation and political unrest become the zone of revolution? Indeed, it is not inappropriate to pose the historically pregnant question of whether the year 1988 might not be about to see the new Spring of Nations in Europe, a parallel to 1848. It is not an exaggeration to affirm that there are five countries now in Eastern Europe all of which are ripe for revolutionary explosion. Nor is it an exaggeration to say that this could happen in more than one simultaneously. Nobody could predict this with any degree of certainty - it may not happen at all - but the preconditions, objective and subjective, are certainly there.

    On the forthcoming collapse of the Comecon economies

    “And the economic conditions are becoming ever more serious. They are deteriorating to such an extent that in a recent analysis in the New York Times it was stated: 'While the newly industrialised countries of the third world are building factories with the most advanced technology, Eastern Europe is increasingly a museum of the early industrial age. Eastern Europe is rapidly becoming part of the third world, and many third world countries are surpassing it economically.’

    “We should not forget how optimistic Khrushchev was in 1960, when he not only categorically predicted, but had his prediction explicitly inscribed in the official Communist Party programme, that by 1970 the Soviet Union would be the No. 1 industrial power in the world. That is a prediction, a laughable one perhaps, which has been excised from the newly revised Communist Party programme.“

    The growth of China

    “The Chinese programme of reform seems to me to be more ambitious, better designed, and grounded in more favourable social, economic, and cultural settings than the Soviet programme. There is in China a societal capacity to use the reforms for economic advantage. These conditions, in my opinion, are lacking in the Soviet Union. This is why, in a recent major report to the President of the United States a group of strategists, of whom I was one, concluded that by the year 2010 it is very likely that a profound transformation in the global economic hierarchy will take place. Instead of seeing Khruschev' s prediction come true, the United States will still be in first place but followed by China, which in turn will be only slightly ahead of Japan.

    “The ultimate weakness of the Soviet Union (and therefore of the perestroika programme) is rooted in the fact that it is a multinational empire. The decentralisation of a multinational empire leads to the dissolution of the empire itself, a condition which does not exist in the Chinese case. All of that, in any case, means that we are in the beginning phase of a protracted period of internal uncertainty so far as the Soviet Union is concerned. “

    The fear that Russia might revert to its habit of dealing with such popular uprisings with military might.

    “Our strategic and historical goal should not be the absorption of what was once called Eastern Europe into what is still called Western Europe. But the progressive emergence of a truly independent, culturally authentic, perhaps de facto neutral central Europe is a goal which I think is both obtainable and worthy. When I say de facto neutral, I mean mainly neutral in substance but not neutral in form. This would emerge in the context of the continued existence of the alliance systems that define the geo-political reality of contemporary Europe. If this is to take place, it has to be deliberately promoted by the encouragement of political change, by the sustaining of political resistance, and by the promotion of an ever-larger political dialogue within the East.

    “Last but not least, I hope that I have implied that it is time for our Governments to consult quietly in order to develop contingency plans for the possible crisis in Eastern Europe, to use that old geographical term. If there are indeed soon to be major eruptions or if there is indeed a new Spring of Nations in central Europe, let us not be caught by surprise. Let us be ready with proposals designed to diminish the Soviet temptation to repeat the Russian performance of 1848, 1956, or 1968, thereby shaping the new situation more in keeping with the realities and the dynamics that I have tried to sketch out.” 

    Read the full lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies webpage

    Tim Knox was Director of the CPS from 2011-2017. Before he was Director, Tim was the Editor at the CPS - a position in which he was responsible for publishing papers by every Conservative leader since Mrs Thatcher as well as by hundreds of leading academics and opinion formers.

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