Europe and America as Underwriters of the International Order

Noam Chomsky

Delivered at the Institute of European Affairs, January 19, 2006

Since time is very tight I won’t take my 20 minutes so we can have time to talk, which is more interesting. The idea that Europe – later the United States – is the guarantor of world order is very old as you know.

One can begin to discuss it with the classic essay on humanitarian intervention that’s studied in every law school and so on. That’s John Stuart Mill’s essay on humanitarian intervention [J.S. Mill, “A Few Words on Non-Intervention,” Fraser’s Magazine, December 1859.] – the first one specifically directed to this topic. Needless to say Mill was a person of unusual intelligence and moral integrity, so we’re discussing the peak of the justification for this. His essay asked the question of whether England should intervene in the ugly world, Europe and elsewhere, or whether it should keep to its own business and let the barbarians fight it out. His conclusion, nuanced and complex, was that balancing the various conditions, England should undertake to intervene. Although, as he said, by doing so, England will endure the obloquy and abuse of the Europeans, who will seek base motives in what England is doing because they cannot comprehend that England is what he called a “novelty in the world,” an angelic power that seeks nothing for itself and acts only for the benefits of others. Though it bears the cost of intervention, it shares the benefits of its labour with others equally. And since that’s so incomprehensible to Europeans they assign us base motives, and so on.

His immediate concern was India, and he was calling for the expansion of the occupation of India to several new provinces. The timing of the article is quite revealing. It appeared in 1859. That’s immediately after what was called in British history the ‘India mutiny’: the Sepoy rebellion [in 1857], which Britain put down with extreme savagery and brutality. This was very well known in England. There were parliamentary debates – huge controversy over it. There were people who opposed it: Richard Cobden, a real committed liberal, and a few others. Mill knew all about it. He was a corresponding secretary of the East India Company, and was following it all closely. The purpose of the expansion of British power over India, as he knew, was to try to obtain a monopoly over opium so that England could somehow break into the Chinese market. They couldn’t sell goods to China because, as they complained, Chinese goods were comparable and they didn’t want British goods. So the only way to break into the Chinese market was by gunboats and to force them to become a nation of opium addicts at the point of a gun and by obtaining a monopoly of the opium trade – didn’t quite make it, American merchants got a piece of it – they could compel Chinese to become opium addicts and gain access to Chinese markets. And in fact he was writing right at the time of the Second Opium War [from 1856 to 1860], which achieved that. Britain established the world’s most extensive narco-trafficking enterprise; there’s never been anything remotely like it. Not only were they able to break into China for the first time, but also the profits from opium supported the Raj, the costs of the British Navy, and provided very significant capital which fuelled the industrial revolution in England.

Mill was very aware of this. Had to be. But nevertheless his picture is that since England is an angelic power we should help the barbarians who can’t solve their own affairs. This is typical. I won’t go through the record. But the United States is the same. Germany was the same. Japan was the same. The Japanese records in Manchuria and China, they’re internal records that were seized after the war and translated in English by the RAND corporation. They’re just overflowing with the milk of human kindness: Japan’s going to create an “earthly paradise,” expending its own resources for the benefit of barbarians; its going to support the Manchukuo Government – which actually was headed by authentic Chinese nationalists – it was going to protect them from the bandits who were trying to prevent Japan’s noble efforts. This was probably very sincere. These are internal records. The Emperor Hirohito in his surrender declaration gave an eloquent statement with the same noble intentions. Hitler gave the same arguments when he took over Czechoslovakia. The goal was to eliminate ethnic conflicts, let everyone live in peace and harmony under the tutelage of civilised Germany. And so it continues to the present moment.

Oddly, the world never accepts this nobility. There was a big revival of this in the latter part of the twentieth century, which I think was one of the most disgraceful periods of intellectual history. The last few years of the end of the millennium, there was an outburst of self adulation on the part of leading western intellectuals across the spectrum describing particularly US foreign policy as having entered what was called a “noble phase” with a “saintly glow,” described by the New York Times and Washington Post as “the idealistic new world,” leading the way to an era of peace. Václav Havel made a speech about how a country for the first time in history is acting for “principles and values” with no self-interest. It went on and on like this. Leading journals ran articles about how the “enlightened states,” meaning us, had not only the right, but the responsibility, to carry out intervention for the benefit of suffering people in the world, and so on.

There were two incidents cited in retrospect as having justified the self-adulation. One of them was the bombing of Serbia in 1999. We now know a tremendous amount about it. There are two major collections of State Department documents to justify the bombing. The British Parliament carried out a lengthy parliamentary inquiry into those events. The OSCE produced extensive detailed accounts almost daily up to the bombings. The KVM monitors were producing reports. They all say the same thing – almost uniform: it was an unpleasant place. There were about 2,000 people killed the year before the bombing. The British Government, which was the most hawkish element, draws an utterly astonishing conclusion. I didn’t believe it when I first read it but now it’s backed up by the parliamentary inquiry. Their judgement was that the majority of killings up to January 1999 (and from the OSCE records we know that nothing substantial changed afterwards) was by the KLA guerrillas who were coming from across the border to try to elicit a harsh Serbian response, they were supported by the CIA in early 1999, which could be used to provide justification for bombing. And so it continued until March 1999, at which point Blair and Clinton decided to bomb, with the anticipation, as we now know, that it would lead to significant atrocities, as indeed it did. As soon as the bombing began, the anticipated reaction began, the ethnic cleansings, atrocities, and so on. There were diplomatic options on the table, we know that. That’s the jewel in the crowd. How it’s dealt with in the intellectual scholarship is to reverse the chronology and to suppress the documentation. Take a look, go through it, it’s a quite interesting incident of intellectual history.

That’s one case. The other case that’s brought is far more grotesque. East Timor. In the case of East Timor, that’s probably the example that’s closest to genocide in the post Second World War period, the US and Britain strongly supported the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Britain was the major supplier of arms, France came in, other Europeans, even Sweden joined in to get a bit of the loot. The killings went on from 1975 to 1999. In early 1999, the atrocities picked up the same time as Kosovo. It was much worse than anything described in Kosovo. Britain and the US continued to support it. It led finally to a referendum in August 1999, in which, to everyone’s amazement the Timorese voted for independence – they were under terrific threat. At that point the Indonesian Army just went wild and practically wiped the place out and Blair and Clinton continued to support them. Eight days after the Indonesian Army had practically destroyed Dili, and driven out the population, Clinton said it’s the responsibility of the Indonesians, we can’t do anything about it. The British Government literally continued to provide arms to Indonesia after the EU had declared a boycott, in fact after the Australian peacekeeping forces entered. Couldn’t stop supplying it. There was never any intervention. What happened was that on September 11 1999 at an international conference in New Zealand, Clinton came under terrific pressure internationally, and by then domestically (it was coming from powerful right wing sources and from a popular movement). He was under tremendous international diplomatic pressure. And what he did was inform the Indonesian generals that it was finished. And they withdrew as soon as the got the order from the master. That tells you exactly how it could have been stopped for 25 years: just stop participating and it’s over. They left though they swore they never would. After the Indonesians withdrew, the UN peacekeeping mission entered, headed by Australia, which was a very good thing, and they dampened down the remaining militia conflict. That’s the second proof of humanitarian intervention.

The issue has come up internationally, repeatedly. Last, about a year ago, December 2004, the United Nations had a high level panel to reconsider the Charter, to ask if the UN Charter needed some revision particularly with regard to what’s called ‘responsibility to protect’, humanitarian intervention. The panel included people like Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor for Bush the first, long experience in the security system, Gareth Evans of Australia, other distinguished figures. Their conclusion was that the crucial issue is Article 51. Everyone agreed that Chapter 7 interventions are legitimate: the Security Council calls for intervention, that’s not in question. The issue was Article 51, which states that the one exception to the use of force that says that states are entitled to the use of force when they’re under direct attack or that’s usually interpreted as under imminent threat of direct attack, using Daniel Webster’s famous formulation, the Carolina case. Their conclusion was that Article 51 needs no revision or emendation. The restriction on the use of force should remain as it was in the original Charter formulation with no revision. Last September there was a world summit which again reviewed the issue and came to the exact same conclusion. The former non-aligned countries, around 80% of the world population, have taken a very strong position on this. Immediately after the bombing of Serbia – which was extremely unpopular around the world, it was even condemned in countries like Israel, India and so on, contrary to the European perception – they had their highest ever meeting of the South Summit, the first meeting ever at the level of heads of state. They had a long declaration which was an interesting one, a long critique of neo-liberal globalisation, which was derided or dismissed in the West – virtually no commentary – and in it they said they condemned the so-called ‘right’ of humanitarian intervention, which is just another expression of traditional imperialism. The World Court has issued the same judgement, that goes back to the Corfu case in 1949, again in the Nicaragua case and elsewhere. In fact there’s essential unanimity on this apart from the powers that prefer to intervene unilaterally: primarily now the United States, and what the journal of the royal institute in Britain calls the ‘spear-carrier of pax Americana’ [Michael MccGwire, International Affairs, journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1 January 2005], referring to Tony Blair’s England. Apart from those two, there’s no call for a right of humanitarian intervention. And that’s the issue. Has some miracle happened that has somehow changed things since maybe five minutes ago? If it has, that’s something that is unknown to the third world, the usual victims, or to western high level panels that have reiterated it. As far as I know, we’re back in the days of John Stuart Mill on this issue: nothing has changed.