Corrected by Ms G, many thanks to her. I couldn’t have made it without her.
Dismantling Empire, Building Democracy
(Introduction by Diane Wittner )
(1:35)Diane: This week marks the third anniversary of the misguided and tragic US-led occupation of Iraq. With a burgeoning anti-war and progressive movement here at home, and exponentially growing hatred of the United States outside our border, there is a clear and urgent need for a new national security strategy and safeguards for democracy. We have asked Professor Chomsky to discuss with us how to definitively shut down the centuries-old project of empire-building in this country and instead help us create, to imagine creating a United States democratic republic for the 21st century. So, Professor Noam Chomsky, welcome to conversation for the cabinet.
Chomsky: Pleased to be with you.
Q: Now, speaking of dismantling empire, not too long ago, it seemed that the British Empire and the Soviet Empire were—the both empires were invincible. Ant yet, the both have declined, neither exists any more. What lessons are there in your view from the forces that brought them down, such as in the case of the Soviet Union, the Polish Solidarity Movement, and in the case of the former Czechoslovakia, the Velvet Revolution, partly in the case of Britain, centuries of rebellion and more than 50 years of former colonies breaking away?
Chomsky: Well, the lessons are pretty clear. It’s a combination of a resistance abroad and increase in the level of civilization and dedication at home. In the case of the Soviet Empire, a crucial part was played by dissident forces for whom Gorbachev became a kind of symbol and a spokesperson, which gradually eroded the power of the horrendous system from within. And a resistance within the satellites which are ...of the kind mentioned, which made it harder to sustain the domination abroad, and there was something pretty similar within. The British Empire was… there were different factors there including two world wars which reduced Britain to the level of what the British foreign office ruefully described as a Jr. partner to US power by the end of the Second World War.
But here, we don’t have any right to wait for others to dismantle the Empire, that’s our task from within. We can certainly do it. In fact, there are quite conservative ways proceeding. One way would be to pay some attention to public opinion. We happen to know a fair amount about it. It’s a very well studied society, so a considerable majority, a large majority of the public believe that the United States should respect the basic principles of international law which require that use of force is barred except in very specific circumstances, when authorized by the Security Council or in the case of defense against imminent attack: sudden, no time for deliberation until the Security Council has a chance to act. That happens to the position of the overwhelming majority of the population, which also believes and has believed for a long time that the United Nations, not the United States, should take the lead in international crises. In fact a small majority of the population even believes that the United States should give up the veto to the Security Council and follow who are-- they have “a decent respect for the Opinion of Mankind” as the Declaration of Independence put it, even if the political leaders don’t agree.
All those are conservative positions, they’d help make it a saner and safer world. And the US should proceed and we should, it’s our duty, too, compel the government to proceed to abandon the status of what’s sometimes called “an outlaw state” that would regard international law and treaty, obligation as irrelevant to itself, imposes them externally on others. And those are simple guidelines. They don’t answer every question, but they are quite a good beginning.
Q: Thank you very much. Now, you have just been chosen, Professor Chomsky, to be Secretary of State in a government whose elected officials have made a pledge to immediately dismantle the American Empire and we’re interested in an imaginative exercises here. What international treaties and resolutions would you have the United States support and what new international agreements would you then set up?
Chomsky: Well, there are quite sensible international treaties already in effect, to which the US irradically adheres. The basic one is the United Nations Charter, which just briefly outlines its basic principles that have to do with banning of use of force in international affairs except under the very narrow conditions that are mentioned. The US government simply rejects that flat out. In fact the National Security Strategy explicitly rejects it, calls for …grants the United States the right to use force at will in what is called “anticipatory self-defense” against imagined potential threats, that’s a direct rejection of the basic principles of UN Charter, as I mentioned the population is overwhelmingly opposed to that. That happens to be the official policy. Another treaty which is very much, it’s right on the front page today correctly, is the Non Proliferation Treaty signed in 1970, that has two core principles in it. One, Article 6, calls on the nuclear states to undertake good faith efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons. That is critical for the survival of the species.
50 years ago, Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein issued a dramatic call pleading with the people of the world to make a choice that they described as “stark and inescapable” either we will destroy the human species or we will renounce war. They had a good reason to say that. And the threat of nuclear war is now very high and increasing. One of the reasons is that none of the nuclear states have abided by their commitment under the Non Proliferation Treaty but the US is far in the lead in rejecting it. It is alone in fact in explicitly formally announcing that it is not subject to Aticle 6, doesn’t have to abide by it. That incidentally is a binding legal commitment that was determined authoritatively by the World Court ten years ago. If that’s not accepted by the world, and chances of survival of the species are not very great.
There’s another Article paired with that. Article 4, which says that non-nuclear states, in return for their willingness not to develop nuclear weapon, will be granted access to fissile materials, to enrich uranium for the purpose of nuclear energy. Those are the core articles. That’s a significant treaty. Its failure to---it has a regular 5-year-review procedure. Last May was the last 5-year review ended in total catastrophe. The primary reason was that the US simply flatly rejected a whole series of binding commitments from earlier reviews and announced its exemption from Article 6, that is now proceeding to develop new kinds of nuclear weapons, just recently the Pentagon announced a plan for the next fiscal budget for development of weapons in space, including offensive military weapons which can be used to not only attack satellites but attack any spot on earth with almost instant destruction, thanks to sophisticated global surveillance. About 95% of military space expenditures are from the United States, other countries will sooner or later join in if US insists on pursuing this, they’ll utterly do it. Arms race in space remains a thin thread on which survival hangs, will become even more frayed than it is today. These are just two examples, there are others, of binding treaties, which we should adhere to, should others, are essential, in this case, literally for survival.
Q: This is Bill Moyer from Progressive Government.org on Backbone Campaign. Professor Chomsky, to what extent is the American exceptionalism rooted in puritan and reform-based Christianity of the American people? And to what extent does that make it difficult for us to find a new operative myth to put ourselves into a more balanced relationship with the rest of the planet?
Chomsky: Well, I think your word myth is quite appropriate . If you look over the history of great powers, you’ll find that virtually without exception, they claim the same exceptionalism. So Britain in its day in the sun was described by its leading intellectuals like a very … people with great integrity like John Stuart Mill, described that is an angelic nation, something new in history of the world, which is totally dedicated to the benefit of others, suffers condemnation because others can’t understand how magnificent it is, intervenes abroad only to bring benefits to the barbarians that pays the costs and shares the benefits with everyone and so on. The French, when they were violent and brutal empire as they still to some extent are, were pursuing a civilizing mission to uplift the barbarians.
Emperor Hirohito, Japan, in his surrender speech, assured the Japanese nation that Japan had never had any aggressive intention, its only great calls were peace and security and benefits for everyone. If you look at Japanese documents from 1930s when they were carrying out the Nanjing Massacre, all sorts of atrocities and they talked about how they bring the earthly paradise to the people of China, they have to protect them from the Chinese bandits who were interfering with Japan’s noble efforts and so on. It’s very hard to find exceptions to this. In fact I never found one. I suspect if we had records from Genghis Khan, we’d find the same thing. It’s true Hitler, Stalin, that the worst monsters, they all plead exceptionalism. So is the United States without about just as much as justice.
Q: Now, you’ve spoken to us in your writings about being part of a frightened country, and to what extent is American exceptionalism a defense against that fear?
Chomsky: Fear is an interesting phenomenon. It’s been pretty well studied, there is an undercurrent of fear that runs through American popular culture, mass popular culture, from the colonial days. Actually, it’s very well studied and a book by Bruce Franklin, a very good critic and an analyst. When he points out, there’s this constant theme that runs through it: The United States is just about to be destroyed by some ferocious enemy when at the last minute we’re saved by a super hero or super weapon or something like that. And typically, the enemy that’s going to destroy us turns out to be someone that we’re crushing under our boots: a native population, Chinese immigrants and so on. And that fear is cynically stimulated by political leaders to attain their goals. When the Bush administration decided, announced publicly pretty much that it was going to invade Iraq-- that was in September 2002, a virtual announcement-- that was accompanied by a massive government media propaganda campaign. Ah, recall Condoleezza Rice saying the next time we hear from Saddam Hussein, there’d be mushroom cloud over New York and so on. And within a month or so, that drove the American population just off the international spectrum.
Saddam was bitterly hated almost everywhere, but he was feared only in the United States. And that’s reiterating the constant theme. This current administration happens to be continuingly Reagan years essentially. During the Reagan years, every couple of years there was in a new hysteria stimulated. There was a National Emergency Call. Reagan called a National Emergency in 1985 declared it, because we were under threat of attack by Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan Army was only 2 days from Harlingen, Texas. Reagan made speeches about recalling Churchill. He was not going to be frightened by this, he was not going to give up in the face of this tremendous threat, he’s going to stand tall and so on. It is a way of mobilizing the population. It’s not pleasant to think about the president that exists is familiar with them. And it works to some extent, in a society that does have a lingering underlining level of fear. Domestic as well, the fear of blacks, of crime, of drugs, all of these are problems. Drugs and crimes are certainly problems, the same problems that exist in Europe to about the same extent. But it’s just here, that is tremendous fear, stimulated by propaganda, by cynical political figures for their own ends. But there’s a groundwork, we should…it’s a serious problem, it has to be overcome within the United States.
Q: Do you think there’s an ultimate methodology besides exceptionalism that we could, as movement, propose to the American people as a replacement for fear and isolation?
Chomsky: Yeah. We can turn to the ideals that are professed, that are actually believed correctly by most of the population. I don’t think you have to… it seems to me if you look at the public attitudes, they’re pretty sane. I think they’re progressive. So I mentioned a few examples of the public, by overwhelming majority, is in favor of following and allowing the United Nations to take the lead in international crises, of keeping to a very conservative interpretation of the UN Charter, the right to use force. It says public's strongly in favor of sharp decreases in military expenditures and sharp increases in social expenditures, almost the mirror image of what budget is and so on, a host of issues. The idea of serving as a deacon of democracy and freedom throughout the world, that’s a fine ideal. We should uphold that it’s traditional rhetoric and among the public, it is properly taken seriously. And those are the things that the progressive movement should also take seriously. It’s a pretty sharp opposition to state practice, but it’s state practice that is off the spectrum. Not the ideals.
Q: What do you think then it’s holding people out of the street at this moment when the blatant disregard for that methodology that most of us grew up with, that many of us associated with what values are differentiated us from the Soviet Union, now we’re adopting many of the tactics we saw in old Soviet Union? What do you think is keeping people on their couches watching TV and not in streets?
Chomsky: First of all, we’re not just copying the old Soviet Union. These are unfortunately a large part of the American history as well and history of other great powers too, we’re not unusual in that respect. What’s keeping people off the street, I think, is a combination of factors: one of them is a sense of helplessness and atomization. It’s very important to bear in mind that there has been a serious decline in the United States in recent decades, a decline in the functioning of substantive democracy. We have democratic forms, they were won and through centuries of struggle, they were significant but they are being eroded, there’re still there but they’re not functioning. Take the last election, for example. November, 2004 election. By international standard there was barely an election. Most of …maybe 10% of the voters weren’t even aware of the stands of the candidates on issues. Just to give one illustration, you read constantly that the United States led-- was the leading power opposing the Kyoto Protocols, that’s another issue, which has to do with survival, it’s not trivial. That’s only true if you exclude the population. The population was very strongly in favor of signing them, so strongly in favor, in fact that the majority of Bush voters, Bush voters, the majority of them thought he was in favor of it. This extends over a whole array of issues that the population was simply unaware of the stands of the candidates, not because people are mentally retarded or lack interest, but because elections are designed that way. They are run by the public relations industry, the same people who …in their regular lives sell tooth paste and life-style drugs on TV, and when they sell candidates, they sell them the same way. Not by giving information. You don’t expect to get information when you look at TV ad, what you’re exposed to is deceit, delusion, imagery and so on, we all know that. That’s exactly the way that campaign was run. They ended up being pretty much the statistical tie with most of the population unaware of what the issues were.
Well, people understand that at some level, there’s a sense of helplessness, inability to do things. People are very separated from one another. It’s been…you should remember that it’s been a very unusual period of American economic history. We’re supposed to laud saint Allen Greenspan for the magnificent economies presided over. Yeah, it has been magnificent for people in the upper end in the income distribution. But not for most of the population. We’ve been through about 25 years, in which real wages for the majority have pretty much stagnated. 25 years ago, the US had the highest wages and the lowest work hours as close to it in the industrial world as you’d except in the richest country in the world. Now it’s reversed, as close to the lowest wages and the highest work hours. Benefits which were never very great by standard industrial powers have significantly declined. People are deeply in debt, particularly towards the lower end of the income distribution.
Those are…those have disciplinary effects. That means that people are frightened and rightly. Furthermore, the future looks dangerous to them and rightly. Now trade deficits and budget deficits are costs imposed on future generations and not very far in the future. There is a fiscal train wreck developing, from the exploding medical costs, based on the fact that the privatized medical system is the most inefficient in the industrial world, about twice of per capita cost of other comparable countries and some of the lowest, poorest outcomes in the industrial world. That’s going way up. Well, that’s a serious burden on people, a large percentage of the population simply defer, even if they are insured, they defer medical treatment. They can’t pay for that. All of these conditions make people not apathetic but feeling incapable of doing anything. Those that means that the country really ought to be sort of an organizer’s paradise. People are ready, they have to be mobilized, already morally sanctioned but we call it progressive principle, mobilize and do something about it.
Q: Professor, this is Dal LaMagna. I’m the founder of the Progressive Government. We’re very frustrated by this trap ( ) being by Republican versus Democrat. I’m contemplating establishing a third political party, with sole intention of taking over the operation, taking the administration to federal government. We wouldn’t want any candidates to congress and local offices but we’ll do recruit the top 100 people or so who would agree and they’d advance that they’d serve in this administration and work to campaign. They’d pick candidates for the president and the vice president, we think internet makes it possible to recruit and organize to get some of the ballot of the State but feel daunting task is organizing people who would agree to actually serve. And my question, do you think this is a naïve idea, and if this is not, would you yourself serve as a secretary of state, or some other high level position in such a party?
Chomsky: Well, I don’t frankly have much confidence in my own tactical judgment. It’s an interesting idea but my own personal feeling is that it’s of greater importance to develop local organizations to, maybe a third political party is appropriate, maybe the Democrats would be turned into an offending political party but you could debate, but in either way, I think you should involve everything from local party, caucuses, town meetings, state representatives, Congressional representatives, governors. And functioning on-going organizations, which don’t just show up every couple of years to push levers, but are working all the time to try to advance the kinds of programs that the population really needs and mostly supports. That’s not a job for quadrennial extravaganzas.
Q: Professor Chomsky, thank you very much for your time. We promised we’d only hold you for half an hour. We are going to continue our discussions but we thank for making time for us today.
Chomsky: Thank you for giving me an opportunity to talk with you.