Going Global: Zbigniew Brzezinski and China’s Rise

Carter’s National Security Advisor recognized that the US and China ought to be bound by more than just a shared antagonism toward the Soviet Union

“The United States has made up its mind,” Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski famously said to Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping during a trip to the People’s Republic of China in May 1978.

The United States, Brzezinski explained, was eager to move forward with the full normalization of relations with Beijing. An agreement to do so was officially announced on December 15th later that year. This stands as one of Brzezinski’s most enduring contributions to US foreign policy.

Brzezinski attached great strategic importance to China, in large measure due to the two countries’ shared preoccupation with Moscow’s aggressiveness. Indeed, the acceleration of US-China relations occurred predominantly during the 18 months ranging from Brzezinski’s spring 1978 trip to Beijing to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979—an aggression that led to a de facto military alliance between China and the US that would last solidly throughout much of the 1980s.

During that period, the two governments collaborated together as they would never do so again. In a context in which détente was unravelling and the “Second Cold War” was in full swing, the “hawkish” Brzezinski was fighting Soviet communism with a forceful hand. China was an important piece in his geo-strategic puzzle. 

This is an oft recited narrative, but it fundamentally misreads Brzezinski’s most profound contribution to US-China relations. His rationales and strategies for strengthening ties with Beijing reflected a more nuanced reading of international affairs. They were not just Cold War considerations based on “triangular diplomacy”.  

In Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technocratic Era, a book he published in 1970 while a Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, Brzezinski contextualized and laid down a new approach for US foreign policy. He envisioned the emergence of a globalized society in which cultural values, knowledge, and economic interdependence would be tightly interlinked. He also forecasted a world in which state power would soon be undermined.

To cope with the challenges such a system would pose, Brzezinski argued that US foreign policy could no longer be based solely on government-to-government relations. Interstate relations were becoming defined by a broad range of issues—agriculture, economics, finance, public health, and so on—among which he saw no clear hierarchy.

In Brzezinski’s mind, the management of this complex interdependence was one of the most pressing challenges that governments had to deal with at the present moment.

These views shaped how Brzezinski saw China. The inevitability of a post-Cold War international system meant that the United States had to build a relationship with Beijing that could transcend their shared but ultimately fleeting antagonism toward the Soviet Union.

In January 1979, a few days before Deng’s famous visit to the United States, Brzezinski wrote to Carter:  

Our long-term objective is to include China in the international framework of cooperation which we are attempting to build among the key nations of the world. The global dispersal of power precludes the possibility of either a Pax Americana or a world ordered through a Soviet-American condominium. But we believe we can attain national security in a world of diversity in part by cultivating good relations with the newly emerging countries, none of which is more important than China.

Brzezinski understood that normalization with China—a starting point, not an end goal—would help to enhance economic cooperation between the two countries and foster China’s reintegration into an increasingly globalizing world.

Here, Brzezinski was laying the foundations for the mutual economic interdependence that still characterizes contemporary American-Chinese relations.

Indeed, after the exchange of ambassadors occurred, the two countries cut their first important economic deals, including the first trade agreement and the granting of “most favorite nation status.” Non-governmental organizations, firms, companies, banks, and cultural delegations travelled to China in order to widen ties in ways that they could not have accomplished without the umbrella of normalized political relations.

Brzezinski managed this trade-off successfully, and subsequently Chinese exports to the US began to soar, favored by a stronger dollar that increasingly attracted foreign capital to the US after the “Volcker’s Shock” in October 1979 (a prolonged rise in interests rates which aimed to end inflation). Along with global financial de-regulation and the increasing flow of capital, China was also launching its market-driven economic reforms and was looking West for economic ideas, technological assistance, and reserves of hard currency.

Simultaneously, the US economy, to sustain domestic consumption, became dependent on foreign savings and on cheap exports. Slowly but steadily, Chinese exports grew, providing American consumers with cheap goods and helping to keep inflation low. The long-standing myth of the China market for American producers was soon ironically reversed. By the early 1980s, the relationship was already so intertwined that it would have been impossible to turn the clock back. 

The Cold War did not end in the late 1970s, but America’s encouragement of China’s resurgence confirmed the arrival of a distinctive post-Cold War era, an era in which China would soon become the main player alongside the US. The foundations for contemporary US-Chinese relations were laid during the Carter Administration thanks to Brzezinski’s vision.

This stands as Zbigniew Brzezinski’s greatest contribution to the United States’ China policy, and one his greatest foreign policy contributions over all. 

Federico Pachetti is a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of Hong Kong. His dissertation analyses America’s role in re-integrating China into the post-Bretton Woods international system from the late 1970s throughout the 1980s. 
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