Hopes And Prospects (Amnesty International Lecture)

Noam Chomsky

Text of lecture given in Belfast, Ireland, October 30, 2009

Hopes and Prospects, regrettably, are not well aligned, even closely. The task is to bring them to closer alignment. Presumably that was the intent of the Nobel Peace Prize committee a few weeks ago. Their choice elicited much surprise and sometimes scorn. In defense of the committee, we might say that the achievement of doing nothing to advance peace places Obama on a considerably higher moral plane than some of the earlier recipients, whose names I will omit out of politeness.

The New York Times reported, plausibly, that “The Nobel committee’s embrace of Mr. Obama was viewed as a rejection of the unpopular tenure, in Europe especially, of his predecessor, George W. Bush.” The prize “seemed a kind of prayer and encouragement by the Nobel committee for future endeavor and more consensual American leadership.”

The nature of the Bush-Obama transition is clearly an important question, which bears directly on the realism of the prayers and encouragement. Some light is cast on the matter by the record of the “special relationship” between the US and Britain, just reaffirmed by Hillary Clinton in London, where she came to deliver the message that, in her words, “it can’t be said often enough, we have a special relationship between our countries.” Repeatedly over the years, the special relationship has been put to the test, most dramatically during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. US leaders were making decisions that risked nuclear war, placing the very survival of Britain in peril. They refused to provide the British with any information, on the grounds that Europeans are not capable of the “rational and logical” approach of the bright lights of Camelot, so internal records reveal. President Kennedy warned privately that allies “must come along or stay behindÉwe cannot accept a veto from any other power.” As the crisis peaked, a senior Kennedy advisor defined the “special relationship” succinctly: Britain will “act as our lieutenant (the fashionable word is partner).” Europeans of course prefer the fashionable word.

The definition captures rather well a primary difference between the Bush and Obama approach to world affairs. Under Bush, primarily during his more extremist first term, Europe was told frankly that you will do what we say or you will be “irrelevant” — repeating openly what Kennedy said only in private, a useful insight into how much changed in 40 years with a shift from one extreme of the political spectrum to the other. The brazen arrogance of the Bush administration and its open contempt even for allies did not go over well in Europe. Obama, however, is taking his cues from JFK. In public, he approaches allies as “partners.” If released, the internal record may well reveal that in private the partners are expected to be lieutenants. The Nobel committee’s choice reflects the preference of European elites for the Kennedy-Obama posture.

We find much the same when we consider the reaction to public policy pronouncements. Donald Rumsfeld’s 2002 Nuclear Posture Review evoked concern and condemnation, but not the far more aggressive stance of Clinton’s Strategic Command, which controls nuclear weapons. It advised in 1995 that nuclear weapons must be the core of military strategy because “Unlike chemical or biological weapons, the extreme destruction from a nuclear explosion is immediate, with few if any palliatives to reduce its effect,” and even if not used, nuclear weapons “always cast a shadow over any crisis or conflict.” We should therefore reject a “no first use policy,” and make it clear that our use of nuclear weapons, even against non-nuclear states, may “either be response or preemptive.” Furthermore planners should not “portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed…. That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project.” It is “beneficial” for our strategic posture if “some elements may appear to be potentially `out of control’,” a version of the “madman theory” attributed to Nixon. I know of nothing comparable in the public record, but it passed unnoticed.

Much the same was true of the projections of Clinton’s Space Command and National Intelligence Council, which warned that “globalization” is likely to bring about a “widening economic divide” with “deepening economic stagnation, political instability, and cultural alienation” that will lead to unrest and violence among the “have-nots,” much of it directed against the United States. That provides a further rationale for expanding offensive military capacities into space, with the goal of “dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect U.S. interests and investment [with] space-based strike weapons [enabling] the application of precision force from, to, and through space.” That too passed unnoticed in the mainstream, unlike the fear, anger, and protest elicited by the brazen public posture of Bush administration figures.

Similarly, Bush’s September 2002 National Security Strategy was harshly condemned for its aggressive militancy and brazen declaration of global dominance. Within weeks, in the leading establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, a prominent political analyst warned that the Bush administration is courting danger by declaring a “new imperial grand strategy [that] presents the United States [as] a revisionist state seeking to parlay its momentary advantages into a world order in which it runs the show.” There was no such reaction, at home or abroad, to the Clinton doctrine, which was in fact more extreme. Under Clinton, the US officially reserved the right to act “unilaterally when necessary,” including “unilateral use of military power,” to defend such vital interests as “ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources,” without even the pretexts of self-defense on which the Bush neocons insisted. But the Clinton doctrine was presented quietly, without crudely instructing the world that you are our lieutenants. And it was accepted with polite applause.

The acceptance of the Clinton doctrine is in fact quite natural. Much the same doctrines have been in force since the Roosevelt administration. From the outbreak of war in 1939, high-level US planners met to consider the postwar era. They recognized that whatever the outcome of the war, the US would become a global power, displacing Britain. Accordingly, they developed plans for the US to exercise control over a “Grand Area,” as they called it, which was to comprise at least the Western hemisphere, the former British empire, the Far East, and of course Western Asia’s energy resources. In this Grand Area the US would hold “unquestioned power” with “military and economic supremacy,” and would act to ensure the “limitation of any exercise of sovereignty” by states that might interfere with its global designs. At first, planners thought that Germany might prevail in Europe, but as Russia began to grind down the Wehrmacht, the vision became more expansive, and the Grand Area was to incorporate as much of Eurasia as possible, at least Western Europe, its economic heartland.

The British understood that they were to be lieutenants. Foreign Office officials ruefully observed that guided by “the economic imperialism of American business interests, [Washington is] attempting to elbow us outÉunder the cloak of a benevolent and avuncular internationalism.” The Minister of State at the Foreign Office commented to his cabinet colleagues that Americans believe “that the United States stands for something in the world — something of which the world has need, something which the world is going to like, something, in the final analysis, which the world is going to take, whether it likes it or not.” He was articulating the real-world version of what is called “Wilsonian idealism” in the international affairs literature, the version that conforms to the historical and internal record.

Over the years policy has been adapted to changes in circumstances, but the basic thinking has not changed very much, though there are variations, at least in style and rhetoric, sometimes in action. The stability is not surprising. Policy flows largely from the distribution of domestic power, and its institutional structure had remained rather stable — though there have been significant changes since the 1970s, as state-corporate planners during the neoliberal period have steadily shifted the economy from production to managerial coordination and finance, with far-reaching domestic effects, including the current financial crisis and more to come, and with some impact on foreign policy.

However one evaluates the decision of the Nobel peace committee, its concerns were surely valid. The committee particularly singled out Obama’s rhetoric on reducing the threats of environmental catastrophe and nuclear weapons, literally matters of species survival.

There are ways to reduce these threats. As you know, there will soon be a conference in Copenhagen that was expected to address the impending environmental disaster, but as we hear every day, it is becoming steadily more unlikely that decisions will be reached that are at all commensurate with the severity of the crisis. One reason is the unwillingness of the rich countries to provide adequate assistance to the developing world, and to control their own destructive reliance on fossil fuels — in part the result of huge state-corporate social engineering programs designed over many years to magnify that reliance, and with it the profits of energy and manufacturing industries. The estimated costs seem huge, but placing them in context reveals them to be a tiny fraction of GDP. The stakes are enormous, and the prospects dim, unless an aroused public compels the political leadership to take urgent action.

Similarly, there are immediate actions that can be undertaken to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons. One important step is the establishment of nuclear-free weapons zones (NFWZs). There are now six such zones. The most recent, which entered into force in July, covers Africa and the associated islands. It still faces challenges. The most severe is that the US has not ratified it, because of a dispute over the island of Diego Garcia, from which the population was brutally and illegally expelled by Britain so that the island could be used by the US and UK as a base for their military operations in Western and Central Asia and as a storage site for nuclear weapons. The African Union regards the territory as “an integral part of Mauritius,” an AU member, but Britain and the US insist that that it is excluded from the jurisdiction of the NWFZ.

A similar challenge faces the South Pacific NWFZ, which went into effect formally in 1986 but was delayed by France’s insistence on nuclear weapons testing in the region. By now only the US has not ratified it, because it would inhibit passage of US nuclear-powered vessels or naval vessels carrying nuclear weapons, and probably their storage on the US island dependencies, which are also bases for US nuclear submarines.

Despite the obstructionism of the US and its British lieutenant, establishment of NWFZs can be a valuable step, nowhere more than in the Middle East. In April 1991, the UN Security Council affirmed “the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their deliveryÉ” (Resolution 687, Article 14). That is a particularly firm commitment for the US and UK, which appealed to Resolution 687 in an effort to provide a thin legal cover for their invasion of Iraq, claiming that Iraq had not lived up to its commitment to abolish WMDs. The goal of a Middle East NWFZ has been widely endorsed formally, and is supported by a large majority of Americans and Iranians. It is also noteworthy that a large majority of Americans and Iranians, along with the developing countries (G-77, now over 130), agree that Iran has the “inalienable rights” of all parties to the Non-proliferation treaty “to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” When Washington and the media assert, as they regularly do, that Iran is defying the world by enriching uranium, they are defining “the world” to be Washington and whoever happens to agree with it at the moment.

A Middle East NWFZ would cover Israel, Iran, and any US forces operating in the region. With adequate verification, which is not impossible, it would mitigate and perhaps eliminate current tensions over Iran, which threaten to explode into a major war. But it is not on the agenda. It is dismissed by the US government and both political parties, and is barely mentioned in mainstream discussion. In the West, Israel’s nuclear weapons are not considered a threat, just as our own are not. That is not, however, the view of the US Strategic Command. Its former commander under Clinton, General Lee Butler, holds that “it is dangerous in the extreme that in the cauldron of animosities that we call the Middle East, one nation has armed itself, ostensibly, with stockpiles of nuclear weapons, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, and that inspires other nations to do so.” It should be added that General Butler now extends his concerns far beyond. He writes that throughout his long professional military career he was “among the most avid of these keepers of the faith in nuclear weapons,” but it is now his “burden to declare with all of the conviction I can muster that in my judgment they served us extremely ill,” for reasons he outlines. He then raises a haunting question: “By what authority do succeeding generations of leaders in the nuclear-weapons states usurp the power to dictate the odds of continued life on our planet? Most urgently, why does such breathtaking audacity persist at a moment when we should stand trembling in the face of our folly and united in our commitment to abolish its most deadly manifestations?”

The answer to his question lies in our hands. Only an aroused public can end this folly before it ends us.

The Nobel Peace Prize, of course, is not concerned solely with reducing the threat of terminal nuclear war, but rather with war generally, and preparation for war. In this regard, the selection of Obama raised more than a few eyebrows, not least in Iran, surrounded by US occupying armies.

US military expenditures almost match the rest of the world combined, and the US military is far more advanced technologically. Nonpartisan budget and security monitors report that the Obama “administration’s request for $538 billion for the Defense Department in fiscal 2010 and its stated intention to maintain a high level of funding in the coming years put the president on track to spend more on defense, in real dollars, than any other president has in one term of office since World War II. And that’s not counting the additional $130 billion the administration is requesting to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan next year, with even more war spending slated for future years.” Hundreds of US military bases blanket the world, and there has been no move to abandon the plan to move from control of space for military purposes, Clinton’s stand, to “ownership of space” for these purposes, the Bush escalation. There has been near unanimous global opposition to these plans since they were made explicit in the Clinton years, matters that receive virtually no notice in the US outside of arms control and activist circles.

On a brighter note, South America is moving towards integration and authentic independence for the first time since the arrival of the European explorers. One consequence is that the US has been expelled from its military bases, most recently from the Manta base in Ecuador. But Washington is reacting. It has recently arranged to use seven new military bases in Colombia, as well as two naval bases in Panama, and presumably intends to maintain the Palmerola base in Honduras, which played a central role in Reagan’s terrorist wars. The US Fourth Fleet, which was disbanded in 1950, was reactivated in 2008, shortly after Colombia’s invasion of Ecuador. Its responsibility covers the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the surrounding waters. The reactivation of the Fleet understandably elicited protest and concern from the governments of Brazil, Venezuela, and others.

South American concerns were aroused further by an April 2009 document of the US Air Mobility Command, which proposes that the Palanquero base in Colombia could become a “cooperative security location” from which “mobility operations could be executed” covering half the continent, and potentially linking up with the new Africa commands to form part of the global system of surveillance, control, and intervention. There is much more to say about all of these programs of militarization, but I will have to put the matter aside here.

Under Bush, the US became by far the world’s largest supplier of arms and military training, more than double its nearest competitor, Russia, mostly to the Middle East. These US programs played a role in 20 of the world’s 27 major wars in 2007, the last year for which figures are available. In its annual session a year ago, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for regulation of the arms trade. The US voted against it, but was not alone: it was joined by Zimbabwe. Amnesty International welcomed the vote, stating that it “moves the world closer to an arms trade treaty with respect for human rights at its heart, the only way such a treaty can really stop the carnage.” The AI spokesperson added that it was “shameful that the U.S. and Zimbabwe governments have taken an unprincipled stand today against a treaty that would save so many lives and livelihoods.” Also shameful, and dangerous, is that the facts are scarcely reported or discussed.

One consequence of this “unprincipled stand” is the worst single human rights catastrophe in the world in recent years, in Eastern Congo. It is also rarely discussed. A cynic, or perhaps a realist, might suspect that silence in this case has something to do with the fact that the atrocities are substantially attributed to US ally Rwanda; and that Western multinationals are reaping enormous profits from the robbery of the region’s rich mineral resources, with the help of the militias that are terrorizing the population — an outcome appreciated, unsuspectingly, by the users of cell phones.

Some are in a position to pierce the prevailing silence and to discover something about what is happening in the world. But that is a privilege denied to most people in highly atomized and fragmented societies, lacking popular organizations or even political parties except as mechanisms to ratify candidates who pass through the filters established by concentrated power — as is the case, dramatically so in the US though other rich industrial societies are not very different.

But an organized public can achieve a great deal, as we see right now in many places. Perhaps the most exciting part of the world today is South America, where, as I mentioned, for the first time since the European conquests the countries are moving towards integration, a prerequisite for independence, and are beginning to address the profound internal problems of societies traditionally dominated by a small wealthy Europeanized elite, isolated from the sea of human misery around them. They are at least beginning to address what Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Kahn calls “the unheard truth”: that “poverty is the world’s worst human rights crisis,É this generation’s greatest struggle.” AI called on world leaders and policy makers to bring this truth to consciousness and act to confront it on World Poverty Day, October 17, which much like World Food Day two days earlier, passed with little notice — in the major US media, nothing. UN agencies announced that the number of people facing hunger passed 1 billion, and is rapidly increasing, while the rich countries sharply reduce their contributions for food aid because of the need to support the big banks. More than 16,000 children die every day from hunger-related causes, Oxfam reports, eliciting little interest from those who solemnly contemplate the “responsibility to protect.”

Even the richest country in the world is suffering from these plagues. In the US, a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences reveals, one of six people live in poverty, almost 20% of those 65 or older. Food stamp assistance is currently at an all-time high of about 36 million.

In South America, there are at last serious steps to confront “this generation’s greatest struggle.” And other severe human rights abuses. In large measure the driving force is mass popular movements, most dramatically in the poorest country of South America, Bolivia, where the indigenous majority, the most oppressed population of the hemisphere, entered the political arena and elected someone from their own ranks, a poor peasant, Evo Morales. Still more significantly, the election was not a day on which people pull a lever and go home, but a stage in an ongoing struggle over critically important issues: control over resources, cultural rights in a complex multiethnic society, justice, and development in terms that are humanly meaningful. The contrast with the elections at the same time in the richest country of the world could hardly have been more striking. Traditional elites and their superpower sponsor are not sitting by quietly, but their capacity for intervention has significantly declined in the face of popular organization and activism.

There are many similar lessons from Western history, even in recent years. I did not happen to like the candidates in the 2008 elections in the United States, but nevertheless, forty years ago, or even ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for the Democratic Party to field two candidates, a woman and an African-American. And whatever one thinks of the Obama administration, it is no small thing for a Black family to be in the White House. Thanks to the activism of the ’60s and its aftermath, the country has become more civilized in many dimensions: rights of minorities and of women, concern for rights of future generations (the environmental movement), and much else. That includes opposition to aggression: contrary to many illusions, the opposition to the Iraq war has been far greater than at comparable stages of the Vietnam war, and more effective in constraining imperial violence. One important example is the solidarity movements that arose in mainstream America in the 1980s, many of them church-based, including evangelical churches. This was the first time in the history of imperialism that large numbers of people in the imperial society went to live with the victims, to help them, even to give them some protection with a white face. The solidarity movement then focused on the victims of Reagan’s terrorist wars in Central America, but has since spread well beyond. If the Nobel Peace Prize committee had wished to make an appropriate award, it had many options. It could have awarded the prize to the courageous Palestinians engaged in daily protests against the disgraceful and illegal separation wall cutting through their lands and destroying their hopes for a decent future, joined by some Israelis and by international solidarity activists — among them Ireland’s Nobel laureate Mairead Maguire, one of those attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets by Israeli forces at demonstrations at the village of Bil’in, which has become the symbol of this impressive movement of non-violent resistance. Or to the Norwegian doctors Mads Gilbert and Erik Fosse, who worked at the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza through the nightmare of the US-backed Israeli assault last December-January, to mention just a few.

The Committee might well have made other worthy choices, prominent among them the remarkable Afghan activist Malalai Joya. This incredibly brave woman survived the Russians, the onslaught of Reagan’s vicious favorites whose brutality was so extreme that the population welcomed the Taliban, then the brutal Taliban, and now the return of the warlords under the Karzai government. And throughout, she continued to work effectively for human rights, particularly for women, was then elected with substantial popular support to Parliament, then expelled when she continued to denounce warlord atrocities, and now lives underground under heavy protection. But she continues the struggle, in word and deed.

Returning to the US, the civilizing impact of the activism of the ’60s naturally elicited efforts to restore order and discipline. One component has been the state-corporate economic programs, which, particularly since the Reagan years, have broken the link between economic growth and social and economic health. Under these programs of financialization of the economy, real wages for the majority have stagnated while the limited benefits system declined, and inequality has soared to unprecedented heights. That has given rise to a mass of people with real grievances, who want answers to explain their plight, but are not receiving them, apart from far-right radical nationalists, answers with a certain internal coherence though completely crazy: death panels, rich liberals who own the corporations and are giving your hard-earned money away to illegal immigrants and the shiftless poor, and all the rest that one hears on talk radio and at raucous demonstrations. A common reaction in elite educated circles and much of the left is to ridicule the protestors, but that is a serious error. True, there is a great deal of nonsense, but the correct reaction is to examine our own failures. The grievances are quite real and should be taken seriously. If the protestors are getting crazy answers from the hardline right-wing extreme, the proper reaction is to provide the right answers, and do something about them. There are real dangers in letting these calls go unanswered, as recent history shows all too bitterly.

And there are also real prospects, if we follow today’s variant of the famous advice of the anarchist labor organizer Joe Hill before his execution: don’t ridicule, organize.