Major foreign policy events during his time in office included the normalization of relations with the People's Republic of China (and the severing of ties with the Republic of China on Taiwan); the signing of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II); the brokering of the Camp David Accords; the transition of Iran from an important U.S. ally to an anti-Western Islamic Republic led by Khomeini; the United States' encouragement of dissidents in Eastern Europe and championing of human rights in order to undermine the influence of the Soviet Union; the arming of the mujahideen in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and the signing of the Torrijos–Carter Treaties relinquishing U.S. control of the Panama Canal after 1999.
Brzezinski served as the Robert E. Osgood Professor of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a member of various boards and councils. He appeared frequently as an expert on the PBS program The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, ABC News' This Week with Christiane Amanpour, and on MSNBC's Morning Joe, where his daughter, Mika Brzezinski, is co-anchor. He was a supporter of the Prague Process. His eldest son, Ian, is a foreign policy expert, and his youngest son, Mark, was the United States Ambassador to Sweden from 2011 to 2015.
Zbigniew Brzezinski was born in Warsaw, Poland, on March 28, 1928. His family came from Brzeżany in Galicia in the Tarnopol Voivodeship (administrative region) of then eastern Poland (now in Ukraine). The town of Brzeżany is thought to be the source of the family name. Brzezinski's parents were Leonia (née Roman) Brzezińska and Tadeusz Brzeziński, a Polish diplomat who was posted to Germany from 1931 to 1935; Zbigniew Brzezinski thus spent some of his earliest years witnessing the rise of the Nazis. From 1936 to 1938, Tadeusz Brzeziński was posted to the Soviet Union during Joseph Stalin's Great Purge, and was later praised by Israel for his work helping Jews escape from the Nazis.
In 1938, Tadeusz Brzeziński was posted to Montreal as a consul general. In 1939, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was agreed to by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union; subsequently the two powers invaded Poland. The 1945 Yalta Conference among the Allies allotted Poland to the Soviet sphere of influence. The Second World War had a profound effect on Brzezinski, who stated in an interview: "The extraordinary violence that was perpetrated against Poland did affect my perception of the world, and made me much more sensitive to the fact that a great deal of world politics is a fundamental struggle."
After attending Loyola High School in Montreal, Brzezinski entered McGill University in 1945 to obtain both his Bachelor and Master of Arts degrees (received in 1949 and 1950 respectively). His Master's thesis focused on the various nationalities within the Soviet Union. Brzezinski's plan for pursuing further studies in the United Kingdom in preparation for a diplomatic career in Canada fell through, principally because he was ruled ineligible for a scholarship he had won that was open to British subjects. Brzezinski then attended Harvard University to work on a doctorate with Merle Fainsod, focusing on the Soviet Union and the relationship between the October Revolution, Vladimir Lenin's state, and the actions of Joseph Stalin. He received his Ph.D. in 1953; the same year, he traveled to Munich and met Jan Nowak-Jezioranski, head of the Polish desk of Radio Free Europe. He later collaborated with Carl J. Friedrich to develop the concept of totalitarianism as a way to more accurately and powerfully characterize and criticize the Soviets in 1956.