I like to think of Noam Chomsky, the Brain, as the benevolent, human manifestation of the Eye of Sauron, the ethical conscience of the United States. “Who rules the world?” is a collection of the Brain’s essays. From the outset, he points out how American intellectuals get sucked into the prevailing orbit of power surrounding the United States, thus frequently making them afraid to honestly critique the oftentimes hypocritical and unnecessarily violent behaviour perpetrated in its name. His geopolitical comparisons are regularly unexpected, original, cogent and honest. One of the most rewarding things about reading the octogenarian antinomian is his scientific use of language and the exigency he writes with. I find it impossible to disagree with the Brain’s diagnosis of the world. What of his prognosis?
The hypocrisy of the United States:
He points out the United States’ refusal to sign up to the International Criminal Court whilst expecting other countries to adhere to it, thus underscoring the obvious fact that there is one rule for the Superpower in a unipolar world and one for everyone else. Put simply: do as we say, not as we do. The Brain cites George W. Bush’s ludicrous 2002 Netherlands Invasion Act, where the use of force could be authorised to take back any American citizen, military or otherwise, if they were brought before the ICC in The Hague. This would-be duplicity on a comical level if it did not have such grave consequences. How can the US expect any country to obey the ICC under such circumstances? Furthermore, the Netherlands Invasion Act is proof of the US’s intent to break International law during the Iraq war. It was a scare tactic to send a clear message: we will do whatever we want. There will be no consequences if we break International Law. We do not answer to anyone.
The Brain has an inimitable ability of creating hitherto unthought-of comparisons. He contrasts the US reaction to the Russian separatists in Ukraine’s downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to the US’s destruction of Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988. Obama (rightfully) condemned the barbaric act in the Ukraine. Rewind to Reagan’s earlier reaction: “I will not apologise for any American actions no matter the facts”. If we do it, it is acceptable. If they do it…
He also details the most obvious case: Israel’s despicable and barbaric treatment of Palestinian peoples. He identifies the international consensus for a two-state solution that virtually the entire world believes should happen and points out how it is only the US that is stopping this from becoming a reality. Chomsky details numerous war crimes committed by the Israeli’s, such as deliberately attacking civilians and their destruction of a water treatment plant in Gaza. He pokes fun at the United States’ depiction of itself as a bastion of upholding Human Rights whilst simultaneously supporting Israel’s systematic abuse of Palestinians on a daily basis. All of this is, one would think, blindingly obvious. Not so. You take a supposedly well respected intellectual like Sam Harris and listen to him speak about Israel and realise how deep rooted the double standard is in Western Culture.
In terms of international violence, the Brain denotes three general types of intentionality:
1) Murder with intent.
2) Accidental killing.
3) Murder with foreknowledge but without specific intent.
This is a significant distinction and I find it very helpful when assessing the actions of Western countries. Daniel Kahneman’s revelatory 2011 “Thinking fast and slow” could almost add an extra cognitive bias for analysing Western foreign policy: The Chomsky Bias. One in which countries must triple check any proposed military plan to ensure that they are choosing the correct moral course before acting. The world would be a significantly less violent place if this was the case.
This is not to say that violence is never justified. Chomsky himself is on record as not being a pacifist. Personally speaking, I believe any military action must only be used to reduce the suffering or loss of life of other human beings. It could be argued that the US did not intervene militarily when it was morally necessary and justified. Think of the number of people killed in Mao’s China, Stalin’s USSR and, more recently, during the genocides in Rwanda and Syria. Tens of millions of lives were needlessly slaughtered. One could further argue that the US intervenes when it is not necessary. Vietnam, Chile, Iraq etc. Then does not intervene when the most lives are at stake. Logically, this would prove that their logic for getting involved is not humanitarian. Thereby rendering these interventions illegitimate. The fact that they occasionally get it right has lead to the false conclusion that they only intervene for humanitarian reasons.
Take the current situation in Syria. The Brain is against military invention there. I think some of the half a million lives might have been saved by intervening earlier. The Brain questions whether any intervention can be genuinely humanitarian since virtually all of them use this name when they were anything but. This is where the “Chomsky cognitive bias” is so handy. It can be used as a triple check to ensure that reducing the number of potential deaths is the only answer.
The Brain’s assessment of the current democratic situation in the US is that it has been hijacked by neo-liberal economics, making it unfit for purpose.
He baulks at how some in the US view themselves as promoters of democracy around the world, easily refuting this self-assessment by specifying numerous examples of when the US installed and propped up many brutal dictatorships.
He analyses how corporate lobbying has corrupted the US’s domestic democracy, citing the disconnect between public opinion and policy in handling the number one issue facing the human species today: the destruction of our environment. He refers to how most polling clearly shows how the general population want the American government to act to reduce the US’s carbon footprint. Yet, the “Institutional structures that block change (create) a big gap between opinion and policy”. He highlights how the oil lobby stymied any responsible policies being enacted. Reading “Who rules the world?”, it becomes apparent that true representative democracy, in the literal sense, in the US has been hijacked by vested interests. As the US is the Superpower, this is a perturbing global trend. Any breakdown in trust between the electorate and the system of governance would leave the democratic institutions vulnerable to a takeover. It is not as if there are any other Superpowers in waiting that are more democratic. Are China or Russia better options? No, we need a healthy, open and transparent democracy in the US.
He quotes Thomas Carothers: “The US supports democracy when and only when it suits its economic interests”. As previously mentioned, they do not promote democracy because it is the right thing to do, they do it when it matches their vested interests. I would be a loose adherent to the democratic peace theory so, in a sense, any time the US helps or influences a country to transition to democracy, this can be seen to be a positive. However, it is impossible to ignore the plethora of examples where they overthrew democracies and installed violent autocrats. The Brain highlights the necessity to see past the “We only do good things” mentality and view the US in its totality.
The Brain writes of another truly preposterous incident which shows up the double standards of the US’s supposed democracy promotion when Turkey refused to participate in the Iraq war after 95% of their population voted against intervening. Cue, neo-conservative Paul Wolfowitz demanding an apology from their fellow NATO ally for refusing to respect the will of their people. A truly democratic opinion. Farcical.
Iran and North Korea:
These countries are of particular relevance in 2017 given the current US administration’s aggressive rhetoric towards them. Take North Korea. On the surface, when you listen to the antagonistic orotundity regularly expressed by the North Korean regime towards the United States and their repeated testing of medium range ballistic missiles, in violation of UN resolutions, it is easy to see why a military response is being increasingly discussed. The Brain references the 1950 obliteration of 75% of Pyongyang during the US bombing campaign as playing a critical part in their current mind-set. They are afraid of another attack. This is a factor that needs to be considered when dealing with Kim Jong-un and his regime. One that is being lost in the current debate.
Iran is completely different. When the US “put Iran on notice” in early 2017, it was an unnecessarily aggressive statement. The alleged reason for the threat was for destabilising the region. Yet as the Brain points out, the US consider themselves a stabilising force despite invading their neighbours Iraq, leading to the deaths of approximately 1 million people and throwing the region into complete chaos.! The US being concerned about some Iranian militias filling the void in Syria and Iraq after their devastation of the Middle East is laughable.
The Brain also points out that Iran spends less on their military than most of the other countries in the Middle East, making their view of them as a destabilising threat more ludicrous. He also mentions numerous global surveys asking which country is the biggest global threat. Iran never scores highest. Yet, the US keeps denoting them as such. The US view of Iran as a destabilising threat is false and absurd.
The Brain unearths some true linguistic insight into global politics. Why, for example, does the US name its weapons after Native Indians? The Apache helicopter. The Tomahawk missile. Why did they name the mission to kill Osama bin Laden as “Operation Geronimo”?
He writes of how Israeli’s call Palestinians “grasshoppers”, “two-legged beasts” and “drugged roaches”. In both cases, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the two regimes are deeply racist and view other people as sub human.
Solving the problem:
His diagnosis of the flaws in the United States system is accurate. What of his solution, which seems to be somewhere on the spectrum of anarchic-socialism? I am not sure increased State ownership is the solution to the issues that he highlights. However, it is key to realise that the Brain is writing in an American context. In “Who rules the World?”, he points out how the US has shifted further to the right in the last twenty years, describing the current Republican party as “completely off the spectrum”. He viewed Bill Clinton’s 1992 election as an important milestone in this trend when he “outflanked Bush from the right” during that election campaign. In that framework, any move to the left would be welcome and sane!
In a European context, I am not sure the analysis holds up. His recent support of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK is revealing. This is a leader who has campaigned for the abolition of NATO and vapidly campaigned for “Remain” as the UK voted itself out of the EU. During the campaign, Corbyn said he was a lukewarm “seven out of ten” on whether it was a force for good. He has shown that he is unable to communicate his vision with the population at large. In short, he is not a leader. Yet the Brain believes that he is the answer to the problem? I am not sure. He has some excellent policies, but if he cannot take his own party with him, how can he take the country with him?
The Brain sees the two biggest issues facing the species as our continued destruction of the environment and a potential nuclear apocalypse. Any sane person would have to agree. Therefore, I am surprised that he never advocates for voting for any “Green” political parties. For example, why not vote Green in the UK election instead of for the hapless Corbyn? If you truly believe that those are the most critical issues facing us, surely voting for a party that pushes for a safer, greener, cleaner, nuclear free world would be beneficial? Personally, that is how I would vote given the choice. Given the Brain’s chief concerns, he does not mention them. Apparently, he replies to emails. I must ask him* why he did not recommend voting for them.
Consider too the Brain’s support of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. It does not appear that socialism was the answer there either. Again, I cannot disagree with his diagnosis. The prognosis, I am not so sure…
The Brain is the best political mind of his generation, a modern-day Plato. His political insight may well last longer than his linguistic one. “Who rules the world?” is not always chronological or logically put together as the essays hop back and forward, the same idea re-surfacing two or three times. Yet, these are mere trivialities. The Brain highlights the hypocrisy of the ruling Superpower and how their interest in democracy is purely selfish. He sets out a structure for how we should think about violence in the world. He is truly enlightened and an inspirational sage. I found myself researching the writers and thinkers he cited throughout. Many of their work is available for free online. For example, I have signed up to the weekly email from the bulletin of Atomic scientists. In short, the Brain makes me want to improve my one.
* Postcript June 2017. I did email the Brain. He agreed with my logical conclusion about voting green, but said voting for Labour was important to tactically defeat the ruling Tory party.