On Hegemony or Survival

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Tavis Smiley

NPR, November 19, 2003

Mr. Chomsky, nice to have you on the program, sir.

Professor NOAM CHOMSKY (Author, “Hegemony or Survival”): Glad to be with you.

SMILEY: Let me start by asking you why you chose to write this book.

Prof. CHOMSKY: Because I think that the title expresses the dilemma that Americans have to face now and a very serious one. The Bush administration policy is not entirely novel by any means. There’s plenty of precedents. But it is extreme. It is a brazen, acknowledged declaration that the US, under them at least, intends to dominate the world by force if necessary and to prevent any potential long-term challenge to it. And I think those policies, particularly as they are being executed, do really raise serious questions about human survival. So I think the choice is a real one.

SMILEY: You mentioned the title of this book. Let me go back to that, “Hegemony or Survival.” Is it really one or the other? I mean, is the choice really that stark as you see it?

Prof. CHOMSKY: Well, in a sense, maybe. If hegemony is pursued along the lines that the Bush administration is developing, then survival is at risk. Of course, we don’t have to accept those choices. That’s up to American citizens.

SMILEY: You’ve been long a critic of the conduct of US government policy abroad. Can you give me a brief history of the progression of policy from the Cold War to the pre-emptive strike doctrine of today that so troubles you?

Prof. CHOMSKY: Well, as I say, there are precedents to the national security strategy that the Bush administration announced in September 2002, but their particular declaration of it raised great concern and fear throughout the world, including the foreign policy elite at home, because of particular characteristics that it had. But if you look back, if you want to find precedents, they’re there.

So the Clinton administration, for example, did explain clearly that the US reserved the right to use force unilaterally in order to preserve access to markets and resources. I won’t run through a long history, but if you go back, say, to the early days of World War II, even before the United States entered the war, the State Department planners and the leading figures in the Council on Foreign Relations, and part of their basic thesis was that in the postwar world, the United States must maintain a position of dominance, including dominance in military force, and must prevent what they called the `exercise of sovereignty’ by any challenger to this dominance.

Now the most extreme example was in 1962, the Cuban missile crisis. That itself was a consequence of major terrorist operations that the Kennedy administration was carrying out against Cuba, which looked as though we–and Secretary McNamara concedes this–looked as though they were building up to an invasion. That led to the placement of missiles, that led to the confrontation.

We, in fact, only learned just last year at a summit meeting that the world was literally one word away from nuclear war then. Russian submarines were under attack by US destroyers. It was learned last year that they had nuclear-tipped torpedoes and two of the commanders authorized their use assuming a nuclear war was going on. A third one countermanded that order, and that’s why you and I are talking right now.

That’s the most dangerous moment, but there have been plenty of others, and more are coming, almost certainly, because of not only the nature of the policies, which are increasing the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and also increasing the threat of terror, as is openly acknowledged, but also the associated military planning is going in extremely dangerous directions, which if you look at it closely, is very likely to lead to massive destruction probably by accident.

SMILEY: Some might consider this a strange question. I don’t want to color it, so let me just ask it, Mr. Chomsky, rather directly. Do you think that race at all figures into the content and the context of President Bush’s foreign policy?

Prof. CHOMSKY: Well, you could say yes, but the point is it’s so deeply rooted in the whole culture that it’s hard to attribute it to Bush. So, for example, anti-Arab racism is just rampant in the United States. And it’s not just that. I mean, if you look back, racism with regard to blacks, we don’t even have to talk about it, it’s so obvious. But the same is true with regard to much of the rest of the world.

So if you look over the declassified records, the attitude toward Latin Americans is just outrageously racist. I mean, they’re naughty children who have to be disciplined, and they can’t be left to run their own affairs. We should pat them on the head every once in a while to make them feel good, as Secretary of State Dulles put it. And it just goes on and on like that.

Now this is not–it’s part and parcel of the whole American experience, but it grows out of European imperialism, which was no different and is no different.

SMILEY: Finally, given your background, I’d be remiss to not ask you your thoughts on the way the Bush administration and the media have assigned language to the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism, homeland security, etc.

Prof. CHOMSKY: For example, it was announced that the head of the Republican National Committee announced that they’ll enter the next election with their theme being the Bush strategy of pre-emptive war. And their effort will be to show that Democrats are unpatriotic and can’t defend us against terror, so they will defend us against terror by pre-emptive war. There’s nothing about pre-emptive war in their strategy. Pre-emptive war means something. It has a meaning in international law, and it’s on the borders of legality. Pre-emptive war means a use of the military force to counter an imminent, ongoing attack when there is no time for deliberation and no choice of means. That’s pre-emptive war. So if, you know, planes are flying across the Atlantic to bomb the United States and the US shoots them down, that’s pre-emptive war, generally considered legitimate under international law and the UN charter.

But there’s nothing like that in what they’re talking about. When they say pre-emptive war, they mean the supreme crime of Nuremberg, namely aggression. And to disguise outright aggression, unprovoked, without pretext, without authority, to disguise that as pre-emptive war is simply grotesque. And we can go on to give many other examples.

SMILEY: I wish we could. I could talk to Noam Chomsky for hours, as you can imagine. He is a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. His new book is entitled “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance.” He joined us today from his office.

Mr. Chomsky, a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you for your time, sir.

Prof. CHOMSKY: Thank you very much.