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Careening Into the Next Century

Zbigniew Brzezinski discusses a world no longer ordered by the certainties of the cold war

HE thinks things may be falling apart. The world doesn't seem to have learned from past mistakes. Look at the West's reaction to events in Bosnia: "It's thoroughly immoral and shortsighted," Zbigniew Brzezinski says.

Western leaders have talked as tough as Winston Churchill to the Serbs who have overrun Bosnia's Muslims. Yet President Carter's national-security adviser thinks they have behaved as meekly as Neville Chamberlain, Churchill's predecessor, the man who made appeasement infamous.

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"The essence of being a Churchill is to take difficult choices up front," Mr. Brzezinski says. "The essence of Chamberlainism - or the so-called peace process in Bosnia - is to defer. To obscure. And to propitiate."

He spaces words carefully, as if they were blows. Bluntness defines a man whose fights during the Carter administration with then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance are legendary. (Mr. Vance, of course, has lately been a Bosnia peace-plan negotiator. Brzezinski is now associated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.)

Brzezinski's new book is blunt down to its title: "Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the 21st Century" (Scribner's Sons/ Robert Stewart, 240 pp., $21). One does not have to wonder about his attitude toward the dangers of the post-cold-war era.

Brzezinski says the phrase "out of control" refers to two aspects of modern geopolitics. The first is that the world is just not organized to deal with certain acute problems: nuclear proliferation, for example, or ethnic conflicts. The second is that history may be accelerating beyond humanity's ability to grasp it.

Technology - our ability to blow ourselves up, to alter the environment, to engineer genes - has been growing exponentially. At the same time the moral elements of human society that would allow us to use this technology wisely, such as our sense of right and wrong, and justice and injustice, have been eroding.

"If you don't have criteria based on some absolutes, either ethical, moral, or religious, you're not able to make choices," Brzezinski argues. "And if you're not able to make choices, then exponential growth in ability to do things becomes a dynamic that's out of control."

What caused this spiritual decay? The West's preoccupation with self-gratification is a major cause, he claims. As evidence of this, he cites the decline in family cohesion and religious emphasis, and especially the rise of TV. "Sit-com," in Brzezinski's lexicon, is a loathsome word. He is not a man who is likely to sing the "Gilligan's Island" theme song from memory.

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Does this sound surprisingly metaphysical for a foreign-policy professional? It is. He says his book is not a moralistic sermon, though at times it seems one. America's moral malaise, Brzezinski says, will keep it from converting its current position of preeminent world power into something more lasting.

The United States will likely overcome its current economic woes, he says - they are the sort of concrete problems Americans are good at dealing with. He is less sure the US will solve broader social and moral problems, such as the rising drug culture and declining civic consciousness.

And if the US doesn't pull itself together it will be weakened, both internally and as a role model for other nations. "America's difficulty in exercising effective global authority ... could produce a situation of intensifying global instability," he writes.

Quasi-fascism could well arise in Russia, which he says is suffering its own intense crisis of the spirit. China might assume the mantle of the active leader of developing states disenchanted by the West's vulgar materialism.

Communism may have fallen, but the democratic ideal has not triumphed. "I am not very convinced that liberal democracy is going to be a sweeping phenomenon," he says.

Brzezinski is obviously targeting the intellectual fad of a few years back - that history has ended, democracy has triumphed, and we can all now go home early and mow the lawn in peace. Proponents of this thesis exaggerated for the sake of argument - as Brzezinski himself probably does with his own themes.

Perhaps the preeminent realist of the Carter administration just thought the US was becoming a bit too self-congratulatory in the wake of the cold war and needed a stiff dose of pessimism to come to its senses. As to solutions for what he feels is the moral flabbiness of the US, he has few. Not for him the 10-point plan of amelioration.

Yet it might be instructive to hear what he really thinks can be done. Perhaps that will come in the next book. Things aren't hopeless. He says France, after World War II, was in a similar though not identical situation of demoralization and gridlock, and by the late 1950s was turning things around.

"If you begin to be aware of the problem, you begin in effect to deal with the problem," he says.

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