Noam Chomsky – Delivered at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, September 2012
When I was thinking about these remarks, I had two topics in mind, couldn’t decide between them — actually pretty obvious ones. One topic is, what are the most important issues that we face? The second topic is, what issues are not being treated seriously — or at all — in the quadrennial frenzy now underway called an election? But I realized that there’s no problem; it’s not a hard choice: they’re the same topic. And there are reasons for it, which are very significant in themselves. I’d like to return to that in a moment. But first a few words on the background, beginning with the announced title, “Who Owns the World?”
Actually, a good answer to this was given years ago by Adam Smith, someone we’re supposed to worship but not read. He was — a little subversive when you read him sometimes. He was referring to the most powerful country in the world in his day and, of course, the country that interested him, namely, England. And he pointed out that in England the principal architects of policy are those who own the country: the merchants and manufacturers in his day. And he said they make sure to design policy so that their own interests are most peculiarly attended to. Their interests are served by policy, however grievous the impact on others, including the people of England.
But he was an old-fashioned conservative with moral principles, so he added the victims of England, the victims of the — what he called the “savage injustice of the Europeans,” particularly in India. Well, he had no illusions about the owners, so, to quote him again, “All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.” It was true then; it’s true now.
Britain kept its position as the dominant world power well into the 20th century despite steady decline. By the end of World War II, dominance had shifted decisively into the hands of the upstart across the sea, the United States, by far the most powerful and wealthy society in world history. Britain could only aspire to be its junior partner as the British foreign office ruefully recognized. At that point, 1945, the United States had literally half the world’s wealth, incredible security, controlled the entire Western Hemisphere, both oceans, the opposite sides of both oceans. There’s nothing — there hasn’t ever been anything like that in history.
And planners understood it. Roosevelt’s planners were meeting right through the Second World War, designing the post-war world. They were quite sophisticated about it, and their plans were pretty much implemented. They wanted to make sure that the United States would control what they called a “grand area,” which would include, routinely, the entire Western Hemisphere, the entire Far East, the former British Empire, which the U.S. would be taking over, and as much of Eurasia as possible — crucially, its commercial and industrial centers in Western Europe. And within this region, they said, the United States should hold unquestioned power with military and economic supremacy, while ensuring the limitation of any exercise of sovereignty by states that might interfere with these global designs.
And those were pretty realistic plans at the time, given the enormous disparity of power. The U.S. had been by far the richest country in the world even before the Second World War, although it wasn’t — was not yet the major global actor. During the Second World War, the United States gained enormously. Industrial production almost quadrupled, got us out of depression. Meanwhile, industrial rivals were devastated or seriously weakened. So that was an unbelievable system of power.
Actually, the policies that were outlined then still hold. You can read them in government pronouncements. But the capacity to implement them has significantly declined. Actually there’s a major theme now in foreign policy discussion — you know, journals and so on. The theme is called “American decline.” So, for example, in the most prestigious establishment international relations journal, Foreign Affairs, a couple of months ago, there was an issue which had on the front cover in big bold letters, “Is America Over?” question mark. That’s announcing the theme of the issue. And there is a standard corollary to this: power is shifting to the west, to China and India, the rising world powers, which are going to be the hegemonic states of the future.
Actually, I think the decline — the decline is quite real, but some serious qualifications are in order. First of all, the corollary is highly unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future. China and India are very poor countries. Just take a look at, say, the human development index of the United Nations: they’re way down there. China is around 90th. I think India is around 120th or so, last time I looked. And they have tremendous internal problems — demographic problems, extreme poverty, hopeless inequality, ecological problems. China is a great manufacturing center, but it’s actually mostly an assembly plant. So it assembles parts and components, high technology that comes from the surrounding industrial — more advanced industrial centers — Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, the United States, Europe — and it basically assembles them. So, if, say, you buy one of these i-things — you know, an iPad from China — that’s called an export from China, but the parts and components and technology come from outside. And the value added in China is minuscule. It’s been calculated. They’ll move up the technology ladder, but it’s a hard climb, India even harder. Well, so I think one should be skeptical about the corollary.
But there’s another qualification that’s more serious. The decline is real, but it’s not new. It’s been going on since 1945. In fact, it happened very quickly. In the late 1940s, there’s an event that’s known here as “the loss of China.” China became independent. That’s a loss of a huge piece of the grand area of Asia. And it became a major issue in American domestic policy. Who’s responsible for the loss of China? A lot of recriminations and so on. Actually, the phrase is kind of interesting. Like, I can’t lose your computer, right? Because I don’t own it. I can lose my computer. Well, the phrase “loss of China” kind of presupposes a deeply held principle of kind of American elite consciousness: we own the world, and if some piece of it becomes independent, we’ve lost it. And that’s a terrible loss; we’ve got to do something about it. It’s never questioned, which is interesting in itself.
Well, right about the same time, around 1950, concerns developed about the loss of Southeast Asia. That’s what led the United States into the Indochina wars, the worst atrocities of the post-war period — partly lost, partly not. A very significant event in modern history was in 1965, when in Indonesia, which was the main concern — that’s the country of Southeast Asia with most of the wealth and resources — there was a military coup in Indonesia, Suharto coup. It led to an extraordinary massacre, what the New York Times called a “staggering mass slaughter.” It killed hundreds of thousands of people, mostly landless peasants; destroyed the only mass political party; and opened the country up to Western exploitation. Euphoria in the West was so enormous that it couldn’t be contained. So, in the New York Times, describing the “staggering mass slaughter,” it called it a “gleam of light in Asia.” That was the column written by James Reston, the leading liberal thinker in the Times. And the same elsewhere — Europe, Australia. It was a fantastic event.
Years later, McGeorge Bundy, who was the national security adviser for Kennedy and Johnson, in retrospect, he pointed out that it probably would have been a good idea to end the Vietnam War at that point, to pull out. Contrary to a lot of illusions, the Vietnam War was fought primarily to ensure that an independent Vietnam would not develop successfully and become a model for other countries in the region. It would not — to borrow Henry Kissinger’s terminology speaking about Chile, we have to prevent what they called the — what he called the “virus” of independent development from spreading contagion elsewhere. That’s a critical part of American foreign policy since the Second World War — Britain, France, others to a lesser degree. And by 1965, that was over. Vietnam was — South Vietnam was virtually destroyed. Word spread to the rest of Indochina it wasn’t going to be a model for anyone, and the contagion was contained. There were — the Suharto regime made sure that Indonesia wouldn’t be infected. And pretty soon the U.S. had dictatorships in every country of the region — Marcos on the Philippines, a dictatorship in Thailand, Chun in South — Park in South Korea. It was no problem about the infection. So that would have been a good time to end the Vietnam War, he felt. Well, that’s Southeast Asia.
But the decline continues. In the last 10 years, there’s been a very important event: the loss of South America. For the first time in 500 years, the South — since the conquistadors, the South American countries have begun to move towards independence and a degree of integration. The typical structure of one of the South American countries was a tiny, very rich, Westernized elite, often white, or mostly white, and a huge mass of horrible poverty, countries separated from one another, oriented to — each oriented towards its — you know, either Europe or, more recently, the United States. Last 10 years, that’s been overcome, significantly — beginning to integrate, the prerequisite for independence, even beginning to face some of their horrendous internal problems. Now that’s the loss of South America. One sign is that the United States has been driven out of every single military base in South America. We’re trying to restore a few, but right now there are none.
Well, moving on to just last year, the Arab Spring is another such threat. It threatens to take that big region out of the grand area. That’s a lot more significant than Southeast Asia or South America. You go back to the 1940s, the State Department recognized that the energy resources of the Middle East are what they called “one of the greatest material prizes in world history,” a spectacular source of strategic power; if we can control Middle East energy, we can control the world.
Take a look at the U.S-British coup in Iran in 1953. Very important event. Its shadows cast over the world until today. Now that was — it was a pretense that it was a part of the Cold War; it had nothing to do with the Cold War. What it had to do with was the usual fear: independent nationalism. And it wasn’t even concerned with access to oil or profits. It was concerned with control, control of the oil resources of Iran and, in fact, of the region. And that’s a theme that runs right through policy decisions. It’s not discussed much, but it’s very important to have control, exactly as State Department pointed out — advisers pointed out in the ’40s. If you can control the oil, you can control most of the world. And that goes on.
So far, the threat of the Arab Spring has been pretty well contained. In the oil dictatorships, which are the most important ones for the West, every effort to join the Arab Spring has just been crushed by force. Saudi Arabia was so extreme that when there was an effort to go out into the streets, the security presence was so enormous that people were even afraid to go out. There’s a little discussion of what goes on in Bahrain, where it’s been crushed, but eastern Saudi Arabia was much worse. The emirates totally control. So that’s OK. We managed to ensure that the threat of democracy would be smashed in the most important places.
Egypt is an interesting case. It’s an important country, not an oil producer — it is a small one. But in Egypt, the United States followed a standard operating procedure. If any of you are going into the diplomatic service, you might as well learn it. There’s a standard procedure when one of your favorite dictators gets into trouble. First, you support him as long as possible. But if it becomes really impossible — say, the army turns against him — then you send him out to pasture and get the intellectual class to issue ringing declarations about your love of democracy, and then try to restore the old system as much as possible. There’s case after case of that — Somoza in Nicaragua, Duvalier in Haiti, Marcos in the Philippines, Chun in South Korea, Mobutu in the Congo, over and over. I mean, it takes genius not to see it. And it’s exactly what was done in Egypt and what France tried to do, not quite with as much success, in Tunisia.
Well, the future is uncertain, but the threat of democracy so far is contained. And it’s a real threat. I’ll return to that. It’s also to — important to recognize that the decline over the past 50 years is, to a significant extent, self-inflicted, particularly since the ’70s. I’ll go back to that, too. But first let me say a couple of things about the issues that are most important today and that are being ignored or not dealt seriously — dealt with seriously in the electoral campaigns, for good reasons. So let me start with the most important issues. Now there are two of these. They’re of overwhelming significance, because the fate of the species depends on them. One is environmental disaster, and the other is nuclear war.
I’m not going to take much time reviewing the threats of environmental disaster. Actually, they’re on the front pages almost daily. So, for example, last week the New York Times had a front-page story with the headline, “Ending Its Summer Melt, Arctic Sea Ice Sets a New Low That Leads to Warnings.” The melting this summer was far faster than was predicted by the sophisticated computer models and the most recent United Nations report. It’s now predicted that the summer ice might be gone by 2020. It was assumed before that it may be 2050. They quoted scientists who said this is “a prime example of the built-in conservatism of [our] climate forecasts. As dire [the warnings are] about the long-term consequences of heat-trapping emissions … many of [us] fear [that] they may still be underestimating the speed and severity of the impending changes.” Actually, there’s a climate change study program at MIT, where I am. They’ve been warning about this for years, and repeatedly have been proven right.
The Times report discusses, briefly, the severe attack — the severe impact of all of this on the global climate, and it adds, “But governments have not responded to the change with any greater urgency about limiting greenhouse emissions. To the contrary, their main response has been to plan for exploitation of newly accessible minerals in the Arctic, including drilling for more oil.” That is, to accelerate the catastrophe. It’s quite interesting. It demonstrates an extraordinary willingness to sacrifice the lives of our children and grandchildren for short-term gain, or perhaps an equally remarkable willingness to shut our eyes so as not to see impending peril — these things you sometimes find with young infants: something looks dangerous, close my eyes and won’t look at it.
Well, there is another possibility. I mean, maybe humans are somehow trying to fulfill a prediction of great American biologist who died recently, Ernst Mayr. He argued years ago that intelligence seems to be a lethal mutation. He — and he had some pretty good evidence. There’s a notion of biological success, which is how many of you are there around. You know, that’s biological success. And he pointed out that if you look at the tens of billions of species in human — in world history, the ones that are very successful are the ones that mutate very quickly, like bacteria, or the ones that have a fixed ecological niche, like beetles. They seem to make out fine. But as you move up the scale of what we call intelligence, success declines steadily. When you get up to mammals, it’s very low. There are very few of them around. I mean, there’s a lot of cows; it’s only because we domesticate them. When you get to humans, it’s the same. ‘Til very recently, much too recent a time to show up in any evolutionary accounting, humans were very scattered. There were plenty of other hominids, but they disappeared, probably because humans exterminated them, but nobody knows for sure. Anyhow, maybe we’re trying to show that humans just fit into the general pattern. We can exterminate ourselves, too, the rest of the world with us, and we’re hell bent on it right now.
Well, let’s turn to the elections. Both political parties demand that we make the problem worse. In 2008, both party platforms devoted some space to how the government should address climate change. Today, the — in the Republican platform, the issue has essentially disappeared. But the platform does demand that Congress take quick action to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. So let’s make sure to make it worse. And it also demands that we open the Alaska’s Arctic Refuge to drilling — I’m quoting now — in order to take “advantage of all of our American God-given resources.” You can’t disobey God, after all. On environmental policy, the program says, “We must restore scientific integrity to our public research institutions and remove political incentives from publicly funded research.” All that’s a code word for climate science: stop funding climate science. Romney himself says there’s no scientific consensus, so we should support more debate and investigation within the scientific community, but no action, except to act to make the problems worse.
Well, what about the Democrats? They concede that there’s a problem and advocate that we should work toward an agreement to set emissions limits in unison with other emerging powers. But that’s it. No action. And, in fact, as Obama has emphasized, we have to work hard to gain what he calls a hundred years of energy independence by exploiting domestic or Canadian resources by fracking or other elaborate technologies. Doesn’t ask what the world would look like in a hundred years. So, there are differences. The differences are basically about how enthusiastically the lemmings should march towards the cliff.
Let’s turn to the second major issue: nuclear war. That’s also on the front pages daily, but in a way that would seem outlandish to some independent observer viewing what’s going on on earth, and in fact does seem outlandish to a considerable majority of the countries of the world. Now, the current threat, not for the first time, is in the Middle East, focusing on Iran. The general picture in the West is very clear: it’s far too dangerous to allow Iran to reach what’s called “nuclear capability.” That is, the capability enjoyed by many powers, dozens of them, to produce nuclear weapons if they decide to do so. As to whether they’ve decided, U.S. intelligence says it doesn’t know. The International Atomic Energy Agency just produced its most recent report a couple weeks ago, and it concludes — I’ll quote it: it cannot demonstrate “the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.” Now, that is, it can’t demonstrate something which cannot — a condition that can’t be satisfied. There’s no way to demonstrate the absence of the work — that’s convenient — therefore Iran must be denied the right to enrich uranium, that’s guaranteed to every power that signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Well, that’s the picture in the West. That’s not the picture in the rest of the world. As you know, I’m sure, there was just a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement — that’s large majority of the countries in the world and representing most of the world’s population — a meeting in Tehran. And once again, not for the first time, they issued a ringing declaration of support for Iran’s right to enrich uranium, right that every country has that signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Pretty much the same is true in the Arab world. It’s interesting. I’ll return to that in a moment.
There is a basic reason for the concern. It was expressed succinctly by General Lee Butler. He’s the former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, which controls nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy. He wrote that “It is dangerous in the extreme that in the cauldron of animosities that we call the Middle East,” one nation should arm itself with nuclear weapons, which may inspire other nations to do so. General Butler, however, was not referring to Iran; he was referring to Israel, the country that ranks highest in European polls as the most dangerous country in the world — right above Iran — and, not incidentally, in the Arab world, where the public regard the United States as the second most dangerous country, right after Israel. In the Arab world, Iran, though disliked, ranks far lower as a threat — among the populations, that is, not the dictatorships.
With regard to Iranian nuclear weapons, nobody wants them to have them, but in many polls, majorities, sometimes considerable majorities, have said that the region would be more secure if Iran had nuclear weapons, to balance those of their major threats. Now, there’s a lot of commentary in the Western media, in journals, about Arab attitudes towards Iran. And what you read, commonly, is that the Arabs want decisive action against Iran, which is true of the dictators. It’s not true of the populations. But who cares about the populations, what are called, disparagingly, the Arab street? We don’t care about them. Now that’s a reflection of the extremely deep contempt for democracy among Western elites — I mean, so deep that it can’t be perceived. You know, it’s just kind of like reflexive. The study of popular attitudes in the Arab world — and there is very extensive study by Western polling agencies — it reveals very quickly why the U.S. and its allies are so concerned about the threat of democracy and are doing what they can to prevent it. Just take — they certainly don’t want attitudes like those I just indicated to become policy, while of course issuing rousing statements about our passionate dedication to democracy. Those are relayed obediently by reporters and commentators.
Well, unlike Iran, Israel refuses to allow inspections at all, refuses to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty, has hundreds of nuclear weapons, has advanced delivery systems. Also, it has a long record of violence and repression. It has annexed and settled conquered territories illegally, in violation of Security Council orders, and many acts of aggression — five times against Lebanon alone, no credible pretext. In the New York Times yesterday, you can read that the Golan Heights are disputed territory, the Syrian Golan Heights. There is a U.N. Security Council resolution, 497, which is unanimous, declaring Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights illegal and demanding that it be rescinded. And in fact, it’s disputed only in Israel and in the New York Times, which in fact is reflecting actual U.S. policy, not formal U.S. policy.
Iran has a record of aggression. too. In the last several hundred years, it has invaded and conquered a couple of Arab islands. Now that was under the Shah, U.S.-imposed dictator with U.S. support. That’s actually the only case in several hundred years.
Meanwhile, the severe threats of attack continue — you’ve just been hearing them at the U.N. — from the United States, but particularly Israel. Now there is a reaction to this at the highest level in the United States. Leon Panetta, secretary of defense, he said that we don’t want to attack Iran, we hope that Israel won’t attack Iran, but Israel is a sovereign country, and they have to make their own decisions about what they’ll do. You might ask what the reaction would be if you reverse the cast of characters. And those of you who have antiquarian interests might remember that there’s a document called the United Nations Charter, the foundation of modern international law, which bars the threat or use of force in international affairs. Now, there are two rogue states — United States and Israel — for whom — which regard the Charter and international law as just a boring irrelevance, so, do what they like. And that’s accepted.
Well, these are not just words; there is an ongoing war, includes terrorism, assassination of nuclear scientists, includes economic war. U.S. threats — not international ones — U.S. threats have cut Iran out of the international financial system. Western military analysts identify what they call “weapons of finance” as acts of war that justify violent response — when they’re directed against us, that is. Cutting Iran out of global financial markets is different.
The United States is openly carrying out extensive cyber war against Iran. That’s praised. The Pentagon regards cyber war as an equivalent to an armed attack, which justifies military response, but that’s of course when it’s directed against us. The leading liberal figure in the State Department, Harold Koh — he’s the top State Department legal adviser — he says that cyber war is an act of war if it results in significant destruction — like the attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities. And such acts, he says, justify force in self-defense. But, of course, he means only attacks against the United States or its clients.
Well, Israel’s lethal armory, which is enormous, includes advanced submarines, recently provided by Germany. These are capable of carrying Israel’s nuclear-tipped missiles, and these are sure to be deployed in the Persian Gulf or nearby if Israel proceeds with its plans to bomb Iran or, more likely, I suspect, to try to set up conditions in which the United States will do so. And the United States, of course, has a vast array of nuclear weapons all over the world, but surrounding the region, from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, including enough firepower in the Persian Gulf to destroy most of the world.
Another story that’s in the news right now is the Israeli bombing of the Iraqi reactor in Osirak, which is suggested as a model for Israeli bombing of Iran. It’s rarely mentioned, however, that the bombing of the Osirak reactor didn’t end Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program. It initiated it. There was no program before it. And the Osirak reactor was not capable of producing uranium for nuclear weapons. But, of course, after the bombings, Saddam immediately turned to developing a nuclear weapons program. And if Iran is bombed, it’s almost certain to proceed just as Saddam Hussein did after the Osirak bombing.
In a few weeks, we’ll be commemorating the 50th anniversary of “the most dangerous moment in human history.” Now, those are the words of historian, Kennedy adviser, Arthur Schlesinger. He was referring, of course, to the October 1962 missile crisis, “the most dangerous moment in human history.” Others agree. Now, at that time, Kennedy raised the nuclear alert to the second-highest level, just short of launching weapons. He authorized NATO aircraft, with Turkish or other pilots, to take off, fly to Moscow and drop bombs, setting off a likely nuclear conflagration.
At the peak of the missile crisis, Kennedy estimated the probability of nuclear war at perhaps 50 percent. It’s a war that would destroy the Northern Hemisphere, President Eisenhower had warned. And facing that risk, Kennedy refused to agree publicly to an offer by Kruschev to end the crisis by simultaneous withdrawal of Russian missiles from Cuba and U.S. missiles from Turkey. These were obsolete missiles. They were already being replaced by invulnerable Polaris submarines. But it was felt necessary to firmly establish the principle that Russia has no right to have any offensive weapons anywhere beyond the borders of the U.S.S.R., even to defend an ally against U.S. attack. That’s now recognized to be the prime reason for deploying missiles there, and actually a plausible one. Meanwhile, the United States must retain the right to have them all over the world, targeting Russia or China or any other enemy. In fact, in 1962, the United — we just recently learned, the United States had just secretly deployed nuclear missiles to Okinawa aimed at China. That was a moment of elevated regional tensions. All of that is very consistent with grand area conceptions, the ones I mentioned that were developed by Roosevelt’s planners.
Well, fortunately, in 1962, Kruschev backed down. But the world can’t be assured of such sanity forever. And particularly threatening, in my view, is that intellectual opinion, and even scholarship, hail Kennedy’s behavior as his finest hour. My own view is it’s one of the worst moments in history. Inability to face the truth about ourselves is all too common a feature of the intellectual culture, also personal life, has ominous implications.
Well, 10 years later, in 1973, during the Israel-Arab War, Henry Kissinger called a high-level nuclear alert. The purpose was to warn the Russians to keep hands off while he was — so we’ve recently learned — he was secretly informing Israel that they were authorized to violate the ceasefire that had been imposed jointly by the U.S. and Russia. When Reagan came into office a couple of years later, the United States launched operations probing Russian defenses, flying in to Russia to probe defenses, and simulating air and naval attacks, meanwhile placing Pershing missiles in Germany that had a five-minute flight time to Russian targets. They were providing what the CIA called a “super-sudden first strike” capability. The Russians, not surprisingly, were deeply concerned. Actually, that led to a major war scare in 1983. There have been hundreds of cases when human intervention aborted a first-strike launch just minutes before launch. Now, that’s after automated systems gave false alarms. We don’t have Russian records, but there’s no doubt that their systems are far more accident-prone. Actually, it’s a near miracle that nuclear war has been avoided so far.
Meanwhile, India and Pakistan have come close to nuclear war several times, and the crises that led to that, especially Kashmir, remain. Both India and Pakistan have refused to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, along with Israel, and both of them have received U.S. support for development of their nuclear weapons programs, actually, until today, in the case of India, which is now a U.S. ally.
War threats in the Middle East, which could become reality very soon, once again escalate the dangers. Well, fortunately, there’s a way out of this, a simple way. There’s a way to mitigate, maybe end, whatever threat Iran is alleged to pose. Very simple: move towards establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Now, the opportunity is coming again this December. There’s an international conference scheduled to deal with this proposal. It has overwhelming international support, including, incidentally, a majority of the population in Israel. That’s fortunately. Unfortunately, it’s blocked by the United States and Israel. A couple of days ago, Israel announced that it’s not going to participate, and it won’t consider the matter until there’s a general regional peace. Obama takes the same stand. He also insists that any agreement must exclude Israel and even must exclude calls for other nations — meaning the U.S. — to provide information about Israeli nuclear activities.
The United States and Israel can delay regional peace indefinitely. They’ve been doing that for 35 years on Israel-Palestine, virtual international isolation. It’s a long, important story that I don’t have time to go into here. So, therefore, there’s no hope for an easy way to end what the West regards as the most severe current crisis — no way unless there’s large-scale public pressure. But there can’t be large-scale public pressure unless people at least know about it. And the media have done a stellar job in averting that danger: nothing reported about the conference or about any of the background, no discussion, apart from specialist arms control journals where you can read about it. So, that blocks the easy way to end the worst existing crisis, unless people somehow find a way to break through this.