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Chomsky on the new world order
February 19, 2012 4:42 PM   Subscribe

“Losing” the World (Part 1) & The Imperial Way (Part 2): American Decline in Perspective by N. Chomsky.

While the principles of imperial domination have undergone little change, the capacity to implement them has markedly declined as power has become more broadly distributed in a diversifying world. Consequences are many. It is, however, very important to bear in mind that -- unfortunately -- none lifts the two dark clouds that hover over all consideration of global order: nuclear war and environmental catastrophe, both literally threatening the decent survival of the species.

Quite the contrary. Both threats are ominous, and increasing.
Previously: Is the World Too Big to Fail? The Contours of Global Order (same author).
posted by knz (45 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Jan Brady: Chomsky, Chomsky, Chomsky!
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 4:57 PM on February 19, 2012




Yes, yes, quite. Noam needs his feet rubbed by something young and nubile, while nibbling on a fine cheddar.
posted by Noam Chomsky at 5:17 PM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


There are 7 billion people on this planet and without a stable supply of oil a large number of them will starve. Unfortunately there isn't a stable supply of oil. Thus the United States has built a massive ten trillion dollar death machine to preserve order for as long as possible. This far no viable alternative has emerged.
posted by humanfont at 5:18 PM on February 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


BOOYAKASHA
posted by docgonzo at 5:20 PM on February 19, 2012


There are 7 billion people on this planet and without a stable supply of oil a large number of them will starve.

Alright, ALRIGHT. I'll share some of the cheese, but you'll be required to procure your own cheese and hammock.
posted by Noam Chomsky at 5:22 PM on February 19, 2012 [10 favorites]


I wish the nuclear war and environmental catastrophe would just happen already. They've been trolling us with that fucking doomsday clock for over sixty years now.
posted by planet at 5:36 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


I really wish intellectuals like Chomsky would out forth a single, workable, "shovel-ready" idea. They're smart enough to know that wholesale change can't happen overnight. We're not all going to join hands and sing. They're smart enough to know that when change doesn't happen suddenly and/or violently (Libya, Egypt, etc), it happens in bits and pieces, here and there.

So, tomorrow morning, what you have us do, Noam?

They never seem to answer that question. Actually, I think not answering that question is Noam's business model.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:37 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]



Exhausted Noam Chomsky Just Going To Try And Enjoy The Day For Once
posted by phrontist at 5:13 PM on February 19 [6 favorites −] Favorite added! [!]


I understand that in real life he and his wife make a habit of taking a break to watch cop shows on TV, no joke
posted by Bwithh at 5:40 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


> I really wish intellectuals like Chomsky would out forth a single, workable, "shovel-ready" idea.

He's often stated that if people are disturbed by his writings then they should find something that they can do in their small corner of the world. There's no quick solution.
posted by Burhanistan at 5:40 PM on February 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


Or made, rather, hes a widower now
posted by Bwithh at 5:41 PM on February 19, 2012


So, tomorrow morning, what you have us do, Noam?

He generally advises people to get organised, make their voice heard, excercise what democratic rights they can to push for change, that kind of stuff. Slow, quite mainstream political stuff that has been shown to actually improve things over the long term.

But yeah, he hasn't got any quick solutions.
posted by memebake at 6:01 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


I understand that in real life he and his wife make a habit of taking a break to watch cop shows on TV, no joke

yeah, I read a New Yorker profile ages ago talking about him watching Law & Order.
posted by Snyder at 6:02 PM on February 19, 2012


I figured Chomsky more for an NWO Wolfpack guy anyway.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:07 PM on February 19, 2012


So, tomorrow morning, what you have us do, Noam?

They never seem to answer that question. Actually, I think not answering that question is Noam's business model.


Not the answer you're looking for, but as others have noted above, his answer is really just "Get to work on it." He also claims that he only encounters this question among privileged first-worlders--that people with far fewer resources in the developing world don't seem to have the blinders on that we do in this regard.

I don't presume to speak for the man, but from that I've read, it seems that for him, the solution is not in easy "shovel-ready" ideas a single person can carry out, but in a critical mass of people who come up with their own plans of action appropriate to their individual backgrounds, skills, and connections.

So yeah, I wish he would be more articulate about what he thinks should be done to change the world too, but I can see the logic in what he's saying here.
posted by Rykey at 7:11 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


a critical mass of people who come up with their own plans of action appropriate to their individual backgrounds, skills, and connections.

saying "you people really should do something about this" is not particularly helpful. especially when you are probably going to get criticized by Chomsky for what ever you end up doing
posted by Dr. Twist at 8:25 PM on February 19, 2012


Good piece.
I can't help hearing the theme from "Empire" but, y'know.

So, tomorrow morning, what you have us do, Noam?

Whatever you want to, gosh!

The Arab Spring, another development of historic importance, might portend at least a partial “loss” of MENA. The US and its allies have tried hard to prevent that outcome -- so far, with considerable success


He totally swiped this from me.
Seriously though, what's the name of his sockpuppet on here?

This “classic security dilemma” makes sense, again, on the assumption that the U.S. has a right to control most of the world, and that U.S. security requires something approaching absolute global control.
&
Consequences are many. It is, however, very important to bear in mind that -- unfortunately -- none lifts the two dark clouds that hover over all consideration of global order: nuclear war and environmental catastrophe, both literally threatening the decent survival of the species.

Yeah, I think they're linked. It's unfortunate we've chosen to exert most of our force in another direction. But, and as much as I agree with him on nuclear free zones (hell, the world should be a nuclear free zone) if I'm going to think gloomy for a minnit - perhaps the best possible thing that could happen to the human race about now would be a limited nuclear exchange centered in the middle east.

Now, don't get any f'ing ideas because I'm just some guy talking out of my ass online here. But - it does kill two birds with one stone. We keep a lot of refining capacity so we don't lose petroleum entirely. We lose a great deal of access to oil which will force us to find alternative energy sources. We have less people to feed, clothe, etc which means less strain on our resources. Additionally, less people altogether, so more access to jobs, and new jobs (like radiological and hazmat recovery and subsistence farming).
Most of the world's political problems are gone (intractable ones that have been there thousands of years there Alexander) because places like the Holy Land(s) (TM) respectively are gone. Given the extend and horrific nature of the damage we'll probably have aversion to using nukes written into our DNA. I mean, we've only dropped the two on populations.

...of course, there's the whole horrific death and pain and suffering and terrifying unknowns there so it's a just a guy talking online here comment.

And too, I'm not so sure nukes wouldn't be used as a denial weapon there Mau'dib.
My worry would be not terroists with suitcase nukes taking out cities, but rather blowing up strategic reserves.
Plenty of oilfield bombing has gone on. Lots more going on now. Matter of time really.
Still, it happens that way, we're on #1 happy street, as a species, all things considered.
(except, yeah, the terrible deaths and horrific sloughing off radioactive skin boils and such. Oh, and starvation! There's another. So, yeah.)
posted by Smedleyman at 9:25 PM on February 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


saying "you people really should do something about this" is not particularly helpful. especially when you are probably going to get criticized by Chomsky for what ever you end up doing

Fortunately, he's not just saying "You people should really do something."

Chomsky is one of the few public figures vocally criticizing the accepted narrative of international relations. Very few other people have the ability to analyze politics in the way that Chomsky does and make it accessible to the general public; fewer still have been at it for as long as Chomsky has. In an intellectual environment where the status quo is so vigorously defended -- literally around the clock, 365 days a year -- by legions of PR hacks with millions (if not billions) of dollars at their disposal, Chomsky and people like him are doing a vital service by highlighting the inconsistencies and outright frauds of "acceptable" political discourse. If nothing else, Chomsky is doing the necessary work that journalism (at least in the United States) has largely abandoned. That's enough of a contribution.

And there is no magic formula: the problems created by the status quo are too complex and entangled, too entrenched at too many different levels of society, to warrant a simple PowerPoint presentation of solutions. It's up to everyone who takes an interest in the future of our society to gather as much information as possible -- not just from Chomsky, but from all available sources -- and start working on a collective solution. The work that Chomsky does is just one piece of the puzzle.
posted by Misunderestimated at 9:31 PM on February 19, 2012 [15 favorites]


As usual, because Chomsky is such a controversial figure, the discussion tends to focus on Chomsky himself rather than his ideas or arguments.

If the relative power of the US is in decline, how should it respond? Chomsky refers to an article advocating retrenchment in the November/December 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs: The Wisdom of Retrenchment, by Joseph M. Parent and Paul K. MacDonald. They're both assistant professors of political science, so they're relatively young, but they have an interesting list of publications.

From the article:
As other states rise in prominence, the United States' undisciplined spending habits and open-ended foreign policy commitments are catching up with the country. Spurred on by skyrocketing government debt and the emergence of the Tea Party movement, budget hawks are circling Washington. Before leaving office earlier this year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced cuts to the tune of $78 billion over the next five years, and the recent debt-ceiling deal could trigger another $350 billion in cuts from the defense budget over ten years. In addition to fiscal discipline, Washington appears to have rediscovered the virtues of multilateralism and a restrained foreign policy. It has narrowed its war aims in Afghanistan and Iraq, taken NATO expansion off its agenda, and let France and the United Kingdom lead the intervention in Libya.

... a policy of prudent retrenchment would not only reduce the costs of U.S. foreign policy but also result in a more coherent and sustainable strategy. In the past, great powers that scaled back their goals in the face of their diminishing means were able to navigate the shoals of power politics better than those that clung to expensive and overly ambitious commitments. Today, a reduction in U.S. forward deployments could mollify U.S. adversaries, eliminate potential flashpoints, and encourage U.S. allies to contribute more to collective defense -- all while easing the burden on the United States of maintaining geopolitical dominance. A policy of retrenchment need not invite international instability or fuel partisan rancor in Washington. If anything, it could help provide breathing room for reforms and recovery, increase strategic flexibility, and renew the legitimacy of U.S. leadership.

... To implement a retrenchment policy, the United States would have to take three main steps: reduce its global military footprint, change the size and composition of the U.S. military, and use the resulting "retrenchment dividend" to foster economic recovery at home.
My take is that it perhaps focuses too much on material factors (economic and military), failing to consider less tangible factors (like not torturing people), but it's still sensible and worth reading.

George F. Kennan made a similar suggestion in Around the Cragged Hill (1993), after the end of the Cold War:
We saw, in the preceding chapters, some examples of the failures and unsolved problems of our society. There are others that could have been mentioned. Until these inadequacies are overcome, the task of overcoming them will have to have first claim on our resources. Comprehensive programs of reform in several areas of our life will have to be devised, put in motion, and carried through. Until this is done, we will not know what resources we can spare for foreign policy; and those we find it imperative to continue to devote to that purpose will have to be cut to the bone. What we should want, in these circumstances, is the minimum, not the maximum, of external involvement.

All of this seems to me to call for a very modest and restrained foreign policy, directed to the curtailment of external undertakings and involvements wherever this is in any way possible, and to the avoidance of any assumption of new ones. This means a policy far less pretentious in word and deed than the ones we have been following in recent years.
Parent and MacDonald have a paper on past examples of Great Power retrenchment: Graceful Decline? The Surprising Success of Great Power Retrenchment (PDF).

James Fallows, in a long article on Obama's first term (highly recommended), discusses current US diplomacy towards China:
... even as Obama was politely listening to lectures about China’s new superiority [while visiting Shanghai and Beijing in November 2009], members of his administration were executing an elaborate pincer movement to reestablish American influence, real and perceived, among the growing economies of Asia. In practically every formal statement by U.S. officials, from President Obama to Secretaries Clinton, Geithner, and Gates, U.S. representatives hammered home a single message. The message was that America welcomed rather than feared China’s continued rise. This was directed at a widespread Chinese suspicion: that America would try to thwart China’s continued development because it viewed any increase in Chinese influence as a flat-out loss for the United States.

Many Chinese officials remained skeptical, but the reassurances set the stage for the next phase of the administration’s message: we welcome your rise, but we disagree on the following things—censorship, currency, and pollution, all matters that could be presented as containable items for discussion rather than as inherently threatening aspects of China’s ascent.

In the few months after Obama’s visit to China, some Chinese military and diplomatic officials began believing their own adulatory press clips. China entered its period of what was broadly described as overreach: challenging the Japanese, South Korean, Vietnamese, and Philippine navies with expanded claims of coming supremacy in the South China Sea and the broader Pacific; antagonizing trading partners from Russia to Burma to Australia with more-aggressive practices and claims. Through this period, the U.S. government was stitching up relations with every one of these countries. Part of the message was that with its inevitable extraction from the mire of Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States could reassert its presence in the fastest-growing economic region of the world; the other part was that, for all its excesses, the United States was an easier regional power to live with than the Chinese would be.

Two years after Obama’s “humiliating” visit to Shanghai and Beijing, U.S. relations with China were a mix of cooperation and tension, as they had been through the post-Nixon years. But American relations with most other nations in the region were better than since before the Iraq War. In a visit to Australia late in 2011, Obama startled the Chinese leadership but won compliments elsewhere with the announcement of a new permanent U.S. Marine presence in Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast.

The strategy was Sun Tzu–like in its patient pursuit of an objective: reestablishing American hard and soft power while presenting a smiling “We welcome your rise!” face to the Chinese.
Fallows also notes the dramatic recovery in the international standing of the US:
The daily reports about American problems around the world, the crises in U.S. relations with Pakistan and a few other countries, the ongoing worldwide bull session about whether the U.S. is “in decline”—all of these things mask the broad and dramatic improvement in America’s “soft power” and international standing during Obama’s time. For instance: according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, in 2008 the positive view of the United States in Germany was 31 percent, in France it was 42 percent, and in Japan it was 50 percent. Last year, it was 62 percent in Germany, 75 percent in France, and 85 percent in Japan (the dramatic improvement in Japan was partly in response to U.S. aid after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident early in the year). These changes can make a real difference for American ideals and interests.
On Iran, Fallows' assessment is less optimistic. He quotes an anonymous source who worked in the State Department in 2009:
The language that Republicans on the Hill used about Iran was absolutely stunning to someone new to D.C.. Every time they held a hearing on how to ratchet up sanctions, most of the politicians and "experts" compared Iran to the next Nazi Germany and invoked clear, but not perfectly explicit imagery of a nuclear bomb being dropped on the United States and a second Holocaust.

While I was at State, it seemed to be policy that it would be preferable to keep Congress out of foreign relations with Iran because our European allies were irritated at our attempts to force sanctions on their business and political institutions. But the administration never really came out and did anything to push back on the rhetoric. And despite multiple national intelligence estimates that publicly stated that it was unknown whether Iran was developing a nuclear weapons program, Hillary Clinton was going around claiming that Iran was building a weapons program. By the time I finished my stint there, it became clear to me that the administration was going to give in to any type of war mongering from Republicans because the fight wasn't politically worth it.
posted by russilwvong at 11:00 PM on February 19, 2012 [11 favorites]


What is the difference between "you people should really do something" and "start working on a collective solution"?
posted by LogicalDash at 5:47 AM on February 20, 2012


So, tomorrow morning, what you have us do, Noam?

They never seem to answer that question. Actually, I think not answering that question is Noam's business model.


I read this article last week. It is a study, or a statement of his perception of the status quo. It is a statement of 'fact' (or interpretation of facts) Not advice or a prescription. So why the hell does it even need to answer your questions of "what should we do?"

To me this is a key misunderstanding of this kind of philosophy / commentary by the general public. It is not necessarily advice / or a prescription but merely a diagnosis.

If a doctor tells you; unfortunately you have an inoperable brain cancer and will die in 2 months - do you then require that he also tells you how you should live those remaining two months?

Chomsky does not need to provide a solution for the analysis to be worthwhile or meaningful
posted by mary8nne at 5:56 AM on February 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


for all its excesses, the United States was an easier regional power to live with than the Chinese would be.

"regional power" is one of those catch-phrases which drives people like me, and probably Chomsky, nuts. The US is as much a regional power in East Asia as Russia is a regional power in the Carribbean: the Pacific is a big big lake.

Without the global military footprint/empire (and diplomatic/military allegiances that go with it), the US is a distant land with significant trade relations wrt Asia.

But, as Chomsky notes, this sort of doublethink goes back to the colonial era in China and the fall of Europe and consonant rise of the US.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:37 AM on February 20, 2012


Cool Papa Bell: I really wish intellectuals like Chomsky would out forth a single, workable, "shovel-ready" idea.

I disagree strongly with Chomsky's analysis and worldview, but I'd suggest that his recommendations would be pretty obvious:

1. Support the Occupy Wall Street movement.

2. In the 2012 election, choose the lesser of two evils: if you live in a swing state, vote for the Democrats to keep the Republicans out. See his comments on the 2008 election (he made similar comments prior to the 2004 election). Chomsky's not a fan of Chernyshevsky's "the worse the better" strategy.
posted by russilwvong at 7:32 AM on February 20, 2012


Continuing the discussion of retrenchment: if the US were to accept the reality of its decline in relative power, what would this look like?

Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1988):
... the only answer to the question increasingly debated by the public of whether the United States can preserve its existing position is 'no'--for it simply has not been given to any one society to remain permanently ahead of all the others, because that would imply a freezing of the differentiated pattern of growth rates, technological advance, and military developments which has existed since time immemorial.

On the other hand, this reference to historical precedents does not imply that the United States is destined to shrink to the relative obscurity of former leading powers such as Spain or the Netherlands, or to disintegrate like the Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires; it is simply too large to do the former, and presumably too homogenous to do the latter. Even the British analogy, much favoured in the current political-science literature, is not a good one if it ignores the differences in scale.

This can be put another way: the geographical size, population, and natural resources of the British Isles would suggest that it ought to possess roughly 3 or 4 per cent of the world's wealth and power, all other things being equal; but it is precisely because all other things are never equal that a peculiar set of historical and technological circumstances permitted the British Isles to expand to possess, say, 25 per cent of the world's wealth and power in its prime; and since those favourable circumstances have disappeared, all that it has been doing is returning down to its more 'natural' size.

In the same way, it may be argued that the geographical extent, population, and natural resources of the United States suggest that it ought to possess perhaps 16 or 18 per cent of the world's wealth and power, but because of historical and technical circumstances favourable to it, that share rose to 40 per cent or more by 1945; and what we are witnessing at the moment is the early decades of the ebbing away from that extraordinarily high figure to a more 'natural' share. That decline is being masked by the country's enormous military capabilities at present, and also by its success in 'internationalizing' American capitalism and culture. Yet even when it declines to occupy its 'natural' share of the world's wealth and power, a long time in the future, the United States will still be a very significant power in a multipolar world, simply because of its size.
And what would be the foreign policy objectives of a less powerful United States? I've quoted Kennan on this subject so many times that I should probably put it in my profile. From American Diplomacy 1900-1950:
Today, standing at the end rather than the beginning of this half-century, some of us see certain fundamental elements on which we suspect that American security has rested. We can see that our security has been dependent throughout much of our history on the position of Britain; that Canada, in particular, has been a useful and indispensable hostage to good relations between our country and British Empire; and that Britain's position, in turn, has depended on the maintenance of a balance of power on the European Continent. Thus it was essential to us, as it was to Britain, that no single Continental land power should come to dominate the entire Eurasian land mass. Our interest has lain rather in the maintenance of some sort of stable balance among the powers of the interior, in order that none of them should effect the subjugation of the others, conquer the seafaring fringes of the land mass, become a great sea power as well as land power, shatter the position of England, and enter—as in these circumstances it certainly would—on an overseas expansion hostile to ourselves and supported by the immense resources of the interior of Europe and Asia.
Hence the enduring US alliances with NATO (especially Britain) and Japan.
posted by russilwvong at 7:45 AM on February 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


What is the difference between "you people should really do something" and "start working on a collective solution"?

You're oversimplifying.

My point was that Chomsky's work doesn't amount to a simple imperative. All the pages he's written aren't just background material to the central point of "you people should really do something." He's informing people, and while he has an obvious opinion about what should be done to make things better, that isn't the important part of his work. The important part is making that information available so people are better able to make well-informed decisions about how to tackle the problems he highlights.
posted by Misunderestimated at 7:56 AM on February 20, 2012


a peculiar set of historical and technological circumstances permitted the British Isles to expand to possess, say, 25 per cent of the world's wealth and power in its prime; and since those favourable circumstances have disappeared, all that it has been doing is returning down to its more 'natural' size.

that and WWI and WWII. it's cute when neo-liberal historians like Kennedy resort to 'objective' claims about the progress of history without the searing religousity of material-dialecticism. I know he has some books and a long career, but when you boil it down, he's just returning to this curious idea that free markets balance things out in the end... eliding a lot of conflict and very different ideologies (while at the same time less than self-aware about the ideology he inhabits.) Kennedy and Chomsky live in entirely different ideological universes; I doubt Kennedy is really all that aware of where Chomsky lives.

And what would be the foreign policy objectives of a less powerful United States? I've quoted Kennan on this subject so many times that I should probably put it in my profile. From American Diplomacy 1900-1950: "...Thus it was essential to us, as it was to Britain, that no single Continental land power should come to dominate the entire Eurasian land mass."

And on this slender foundation, the entire history of the US as a great imperial power stands, after Great Britain bankrupted herself in WWI. It's amusing to read Kennan trying use it to walk back from the inevitable consequences of imperialism.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:04 AM on February 20, 2012


(and by inevitable I mean, look at the history of empires... unless you desire greatness above all things is there anything there you would wish on anybody?)
posted by ennui.bz at 8:06 AM on February 20, 2012


ennui.bz: I have to say that you're illustrating one of the aspects of Chomskyite analysis that I find most irritating, the Pose of Moral and Intellectual Superiority. How cute and amusing these fellows are!

Moving on: what are some of the factors opposing retrenchment in US foreign policy? In the short term, the most obvious ones are events (foreign policy is largely about how you react to events) and inertia (it's difficult to disengage from past commitments, even when the situation has radically changed). But what about long-term factors?

Hans Morgenthau describes the role of ideology in power politics as that of a mask:
It is a characteristic aspect of all politics, domestic as well as international, that frequently its basic manifestations do not appear as what they actually are--manifestations of a struggle for power. Rather, the element of power as the immediate goal of the policy pursued is explained and justified in ethical, legal, or biological terms. That is to say: the true nature of the policy is concealed by ideological justifications and rationalizations.
In particular, a policy aimed at expansion (as opposed to a policy of maintaining the status quo) always requires such a mask.
A policy of imperialism [Morgenthau's term for expansionist policy] is always in need of an ideology; for, in contrast to a policy of the status quo, imperialism always has the burden of proof. It must prove that the status quo it seeks to overthrow deserves to be overthrown and that the moral legitimacy which in the minds of many attaches to things as they are ought to yield to a higher principle of morality calling for a new distribution of power. Thus, in the words of Gibbon: "For every war a motive of safety or revenge, of honor or zeal, of right or convenience, may be readily found in the jurisprudence of conquerors."
What are the ideologies opposed to retrenchment?

1. US nationalism.

Nationalism is the emotional identification with a nation or national community. In any individual, this identification may be partial or total. In its total form, it's a way of submerging one's vulnerable and mortal self into a superhuman entity, one that's not subject to the limits of individual power and human mortality. It serves as an emotional escape from the turmoil of everyday life. Societies undergoing rapid social change (technological, economic, or political) are especially prone to nationalism, which is one reason why nationalism is such a powerful force in modern politics. Orwell described the total form of nationalism as being disconnected from reality, which makes it extremely dangerous.

Consider the neo-conservative manifesto Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy, by William Kristol and Donald Kagan, published in Foreign Affairs, July/August 1996:
Conservatives will not be able to govern America over the long term if they fail to offer a more elevated vision of America's international role.

What should that role be? Benevolent global hegemony. Having defeated the "evil empire," the United States enjoys strategic and ideological predominance. The first objective of U.S. foreign policy should be to preserve and enhance that predominance by strengthening America's security, supporting its friends, advancing its interests, and standing up for its principles around the world.

... In a world in which peace and American security depend on American power and the will to use it, the main threat the United States faces now and in the future is its own weakness. American hegemony is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order. The appropriate goal of American foreign policy, therefore, is to preserve that hegemony as far into the future as possible. To achieve this goal, the United States needs a neo-Reaganite foreign policy of military supremacy and moral confidence.
To this mindset, any suggestion that the US ought to adopt a more modest role will be regarded as weakness or treason. Be prepared for a lot of shouting over the coming decades.

2. The Spiderman doctrine.

[For some reason popular thinking about US foreign policy seems to be largely derived from superhero movies.]

The Spiderman doctrine, of course, is, "With great power comes great responsibility." The doctrine of humanitarian intervention is one that retains its popularity on the left as well as the right. When there's a humanitarian crisis, shouldn't the US intervene?

Hans Morgenthau observes that power is the ability to override someone else's will, to destroy or at least impair their freedom. Thus evil is inherent in the exercise of power:
There is no escape from the evil of power, regardless of what one does. Whenever we act with reference to our fellow men, we must sin, and we must still sin when we refuse to act; for the refusal to be involved in the evil of action carries with it the breach of the obligation to do one’s duty. No ivory tower is remote enough to offer protection against the guilt in which the actor and the bystander, the oppressor and the oppressed, the murderer and his victim are inextricably enmeshed. Political ethics is indeed the ethics of doing evil. While it condemns politics as the domain of evil par excellence, it must reconcile itself to the enduring presence of evil in all political action. Its last resort, then, is the endeavor to choose, since evil there must be, among several possible actions the one that is least evil.
War is an extremely blunt instrument. When you go to war, no matter what your intentions, you're going to end up killing people.

To reverse the Spiderman doctrine: in the real world, as opposed to the movie world, claiming grandiose responsibilities can be a way of justifying great evils. The US government is not responsible for the well-being of everyone everywhere in the world. It cannot and should not be going to war with China over Tibet, or with Russia over Georgia.

There's a tendency to think that in foreign policy, self-interest is immoral, and moral universalism is superior. This is not true. It's not immoral for the United States to pursue its national interest--it's not like anyone else is going to do it for them. What is immoral is pursuing its national interest with no regard for others' interests, and with no concern for proportionality between the end and the means.

John Quincy Adams, writing in 1821, on America's foreign policy:
Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.... She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit....
I would argue that the US ought to pursue a conscious policy of limited self-interest (in particular, maintaining its alliances with Europe and Japan), using limited means. Kennan, Foreign Policy and Christian Conscience, The Atlantic, May 1959:
most foreign peoples do not believe that governments do things for selfless and altruistic motives; and if we do not reveal to them a good solid motive of self-interest for anything we do with regard to them, they are apt to invent one. This can be a more sinister one than we ever dreamed of, and their belief in it can cause serious confusion in our mutual relations.
Regarding the importance of limited means:
The government cannot fully know what it is doing, but it can always know how it is doing it; and it can be as sure that good methods will be in some way useful as that bad ones will be in some way pernicious. A government can pursue its purpose in a patient and conciliatory and understanding way, respecting the interests of others and infusing its behavior with a high standard of decency and honesty and humanity, or it can show itself petty, exacting, devious, and self-righteous. If it behaves badly, even the most worthy of purposes will be apt to be polluted; whereas sheer good manners will bring some measure of redemption to even the most disastrous undertaking. The Christian citizen will be on sound ground, therefore, in looking sharply to the methods of his government's diplomacy, even when he is uncertain about its purposes.
In particular, given the destructiveness of modern warfare, war should be a last resort. Instead, the US should use the instruments of diplomacy: persuasion, compromise, and--when necessary--threats.

This isn't to say that US can't support humanitarian and global initiatives, but the driving force should be the United Nations (or even non-governmental organizations), not the US government.
posted by russilwvong at 9:25 AM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


The US government is not responsible for the well-being of everyone everywhere in the world.

tldr: The US is not Superman.
posted by russilwvong at 9:30 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


If a doctor tells you; unfortunately you have an inoperable brain cancer and will die in 2 months - do you then require that he also tells you how you should live those remaining two months?

Your metaphor belies the problem I raised with Chomsky and similar intellectuals. Everyone wants to be the doctor making the diagnosis, but no one wants to be the doctor doing the hard work of seeking a prevention, treatment or cure.

It's easier and more profitable to be the guy looking at the X-ray going, "Yep, you're fucked" than to be the guy that says, "And here's what we should do about it."

Someone mentioned Occupy Wall Street. There's a classic example of what happens when the diagnosis guy leads the charge -- a lot of sound and fury that signified nothing, because the movement had no prescriptive, workable, shovel-ready policy ideas beyond, "Rich people suck and something should be done."

Well, what? Tell us exactly, and to how many decimal places.

But no answer comes. Why? I think because it's simply more fun to be the boy who cried wolf than to be the boy actually out in the forest hunting wolves.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:51 AM on February 20, 2012


Because there is no magic bullet, CPB. Theres no daddy who can come and tell everyone what to do. Anytime someone sells you a magic bullet it's because thy have motives of their own. Look at all these people disappointed with Obama.

That's one fundamental difference between chomskys philosophy and Marxism, for example. The Marxists have simple answers to complex questions, and an idea of a final struggle that will lead to a perfect society. Chomsky says that there is no end to the process.
posted by moorooka at 11:33 AM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Russilwvong

ennui.bz: I have to say that you're illustrating one of the aspects of Chomskyite analysis that I find most irritating, the Pose of Moral and Intellectual Superiority. How cute and amusing these fellows are!

what are you talking about? True, some people get irritated when they're called out for talking shit, but there's no "pose".
posted by moorooka at 11:45 AM on February 20, 2012


Someone mentioned Occupy Wall Street. There's a classic example of what happens when the diagnosis guy leads the charge -- a lot of sound and fury that signified nothing, because the movement had no prescriptive, workable, shovel-ready policy ideas beyond, "Rich people suck and something should be done."

Well, what? Tell us exactly, and to how many decimal places.


What are you talking about? The Occupy protest actually did have quite a clear objective: take the money and rich people out of politics but certain wealthy folk who seem to have undue influence on the media also seem quite intent on misrepresenting occupy as entirely directionless.

This criticism of Chomsky for not being presenting alternatives is just absurd.
posted by mary8nne at 12:53 PM on February 20, 2012


Noam Chomsky : Global Hegemony: the Facts, the Images, April 20, 2011.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:55 PM on February 20, 2012


I have to say that you're illustrating one of the aspects of Chomskyite analysis that I find most irritating, the Pose of Moral and Intellectual Superiority. How cute and amusing these fellows are!

The problem is that your bon mot from Kennedy is at best completely banal. Empires rise and fall and maybe in the long term, Mongolia, say, will always be a bunch of nomadic herding people wandering the steppe instead of continent sprawling conquerors. But in the short term there are really real reasons why Brittania no longer rules the waves, specific reasons that have little to due with objective forces of history (which is where the non-banal part of the comment drives towards.) While irrepressible "market forces" may due as a phrase to stand in for (debatable) mathematical models of economics, as a mode of history it's rank ideology, on par with dialectical- materialism and just as full of hooey and "capitalist democracy" is neither, once you take off your ideological blinders.

I'm not a huge fan of Chomsky for many reasons but I think if he contributes anything it's exactly this quote:
There are also experts about football, but these people don't defer to them. The people who call in talk with complete confidence. They don't care if they disagree with the coach or whoever the local expert is. They have their own opinion and they conduct intelligent discussions. Now I don't think that international or domestic affairs are much more complicated. And what passes for serious intellectual discourse on these matters does not reflect any deeper level of understanding or knowledge.
russilwvong: You set up so many straw men in your essay it's hard to know where to start and frankly I'm the wrong person to give a critique. Agree or disagree with Chomsky, the biggest problem is that you don't really understand the "anarchist" context he is writing in and it's relation with marxisms: doctrinaire, communist or other. It really starts with your reading list: reading just Orwell doesn't cut it. Anyway, my point is that, what I think Chomsky has to contribute is the firm opinion "foreign policy" is really made by an elite group of people, with little responsibility to the demos as commonly understood. Whether they act strictly in their own economic self-interest is a total straw man.

All of the subtle analysis is just window dressing for raw power politics among a very small and insular group of people. You, me, practically everyone on the internet is on the outside looking in, like watching Monday Night Football (tm). I think it's akin also to people who get very worked up and feel involved with whatever Apple or Google is doing. Their ideas and opinions are completely irrelevant and their analysis, such as it is, only contributes to their total alienation from the processes by which Google or Apple make decisions. Unfortunately, the consequences of this alienation in foreign policy in a nominal democracy are severe, as the history of US military adventures since WWII makes perfectly clear. And, getting back to Kennedy, it was precisely WWI and WWII that dealth the coup de grace to the British empire and it's not like they didn't keep on trying. Once you take away the "hard power" how long can any empire last... there's a reason why US diplomatic envoys are increasingly military officers.

As to "retrenchment," close down the air bases, the naval depots, the prepositioned military equipment and then talk about retrenchment. It's pretty simple.
posted by ennui.bz at 1:16 PM on February 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell: I really wish intellectuals like Chomsky would out forth a single, workable, "shovel-ready" idea.

Can I paraphrase that slightly? Say, substitute 'reasonably intelligent person who has thought about the situation a fair bit' for 'intellectual'? (Surely its fair to credit intellectuals with 'reasonable intelligence' even if we think they're all a bit full of themselves?)
And lets substitute 'I really wish X' with 'Why is it that X doesn't happen?', because I think thats what you want to know.
And I'll swap 'simple' for 'single' because I think you're trying to get a simple and workable course of action out of them.

So that would give us:

"Cool Papa Bell: Why is it that reasonably intelligent people who have thought about the situation a fair bit dont put forth a simple, workable, 'shovel-ready' idea?"

Indeed.

Anyway, here's Chomsky talking about a similar question 17 years ago
Looking for the Magic Answer? 1995
The question that comes up over and over again, and I don't really have an answer still -- really, I don't know any other people who have answers to them -- is, "It's terrible, awful, getting worse. What do we do? Tell me the answer." The trouble is, there has not in history ever been any answer other than, "Get to work on it."

There are a thousand different ways to get to work on it. For one thing, there's no "it." There's lots of different things. You can think of long-term goals and visions you have in mind, but even if that's what you're focused on, you're going to have to take steps towards them. The steps can be in all kinds of directions, from caring about starving children in Central America or Africa, to working on the rights of working people here, to worrying about the fact that the environment's in serious danger. There's no one thing that's the right thing to do. It depends on what your interests are and what's going on and what the problems are, and so on. And you have to deal with them. There's very little that anybody can do about these things alone. Occasionally somebody can, but it's marginal. Mainly you work with other people to try to develop ideas and learn more about it and figure out appropriate tactics for the situation in question and deal with them and try to develop more support. That's the way everything happens, whether it's small changes or huge changes.

If there is a magic answer, I don't know it. But it sounds to me as if the tone of the questions and part of the disparity between listening and acting suggests -- I'm sure this is unfair -- "Tell me something that's going to work pretty soon or else I'm not going to bother, because I've got other things to do." Nothing is going to work pretty soon, at least if it's worth doing, nor has that ever been the case.
posted by memebake at 2:13 PM on February 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


There are, by the way, lots of people who will tell you what to do about each individual policy issue. They're really specialized, though. You'll need to break down your problem (eg. "too many rich people in politics") into something that can be studied on its own in some capacity (eg. SuperPACs) before you can even ask for a problem description. At that point you can get started on solution design. And then plan a project to implement the solution. At that point, asking for "shovel-ready" instructions becomes a sensible thing to do.

Basically, you should study project planning. It's a field. There are textbooks.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:02 PM on February 20, 2012


Thanks for that, memebake. I should get it printed on a card to hand out to people.

My professional work as a writer on climate, energy and sustainability issues has led to a sort of sideline as a public speaker on these topics. And even though I write and talk almost exclusively about solutions - case study stuff showing as clearly as possible how this country and that business and this community made change happen - I still wind up all too often facing the despairing question at the end of the Q&A: Well, fine, that all looks great, but what can we do here? Tell us the secret formula! And lurking underneath it always is this subtext: If you can't tell us how to do it here and now and fast, then we may as well just ignore all that other stuff you said.

Anyway, by way of reciprocity for that great Chomsky quote, I give you the ultimate Chomsky painting: Signifier and Signified.
posted by gompa at 4:09 PM on February 20, 2012


Chomsky's role is to be a critic not a policy maker nor a politician. If Roger Ebbert doesn't like a film he doesn't have to remake it. He doesn't even have to suggest which cuts might improve it.

Focus on your disagreement with the content of his critique not his lack of solutions.
posted by humanfont at 4:26 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why is it that reasonably intelligent people who have thought about the situation a fair bit dont put forth a simple, workable, 'shovel-ready' idea?

...But all we have at our disposal are university educations, disposable incomes, sophisticated networking tools, guaranteed political freedoms, and free access to massive amounts of information. WHAT CAN BE DONE??!!
posted by Rykey at 4:15 AM on February 21, 2012


Chomsky is an IWW member, and meets with libertarian socialist and other grassroots groups wherever he goes.

He talks constantly about the sorts of actions he thinks individuals would take. Most of them are variations on: dismantle structures that give people unjustified authority, replace them with democratic alternatives.

He doesn't give "policy" prescriptions because he is against policy. As David Graeber says:
The notion of “policy” presumes a state or governing apparatus which imposes its will on others. “Policy” is the negation of politics; policy is by definition something concocted by some form of elite, which presumes it knows better than others how their affairs are to be conducted. By participating in policy debates the very best one can achieve is to limit the damage, since the very premise is inimical to the idea of people managing their own affairs.
Every expression of the anarchist tradition in our culture is continually met with willful incomprehension. People hear "dismantle authoritarian structures" and refuse to even acknowledge it, instead demanding the critique be transmuted into policy prescriptions for the status quo that they can criticize as being "impractical". It's a form of ideological boundary enforcement.
posted by phrontist at 1:58 PM on February 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


> People hear "dismantle authoritarian structures" and refuse to even acknowledge it, instead demanding the critique be transmuted into policy prescriptions for the status quo that they can criticize as being "impractical".

This is great description of the reaction we've seen upthread to Chomsky not having some glib piece of advice for First Worlders to latch on to.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:00 PM on February 21, 2012


Just to clarify a bit: I'm not saying Chomsky doesn't voice ever weigh the merits of some policies over other. It's just that he doesn't focus on coming up with better policies.
One can, of course, take the position that we don't care about the problems people face today, and want to think about a possible tomorrow. OK, but then don't pretend to have any interest in human beings and their fate, and stay in the seminar room and intellectual coffee house with other privileged people. Or one can take a much more humane position: I want to work, today, to build a better society for tomorrow -- the classical anarchist position, quite different from the slogans in the question. That's exactly right, and it leads directly to support for the people facing problems today: for enforcement of health and safety regulation, provision of national health insurance, support systems for people who need them, etc. That is not a sufficient condition for organizing for a different and better future, but it is a necessary condition. Anything else will receive the well-merited contempt of people who do not have the luxury to disregard the circumstances in which they live, and try to survive. - wiki
posted by phrontist at 2:26 PM on February 21, 2012


ugh, that should read: I'm not saying Chomsky doesn't ever weigh the merits of some policies over others.
posted by phrontist at 2:31 PM on February 21, 2012


ennui.bz: sorry, I was being unnecessarily snarky. Still, the point of the Paul Kennedy quote is pretty simple: The US is much larger than Britain. Even if the US is overstretched and its power declines in the future, its relative power will be greater than that of Britain's today. (Assuming it doesn't break apart.)

as a mode of history it's rank ideology, on par with dialectical-materialism and just as full of hooey--

(shrug) I suppose we'll have to disagree.
posted by russilwvong at 10:30 PM on February 21, 2012


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