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Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance

Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance

At the conclusion of his latest book, Noam Chomsky, quotes these lines from Bertrand Russell:

“After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it has generated Neros, Genghis Khans, and Hitlers. This, however, I believe, is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will become again incapable of supporting life, and peace will return.”

This is a fitting conclusion for a work that starts with another quotation- this time from the biologist Ernst Mayr.

Chomsky summarises Mayr’s view like this:

“The human form of intellectual organisation may not be favoured by selection. The history of life on Earth refutes the claim that it is better to be smart than stupid, at least judging by biological success: beetles and bacteria, for example, are vastly more successful than humans in terms of survival.”

Russell and Mayr, though trained scientists, belonged to what one might call the “romantic-tragic” tradition of political thought.

Chomsky, an eminent professor of linguistics, belongs to the same tradition.

If his latest book, “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance”, has any message is this: the United States today is the most concrete example of what humans could achieve in terms of economic and military power. And, yet, such is the flawed character of mankind, that all that power is monopolised by a small stratum of society that uses it to impose “total dominance” on the globe. And American “dominance”, for reasons that Chomsky does not explain, threatens the survival of mankind.

Before we examine Chomsky’s thesis, let us briefly analyse the two pillars of his system, i.e. the citations from Russell and Mayr.

The problem with Russell is twofold.

First, he compares trilobites and butterflies, which are species, with Neros, Genghis Khans and Hitlers that are individual types within the human species. He might have as well mentioned Homer, Hafez or Shakespeare, or Buddha, Mansur Hallaj, or Master Eckhardt. Or Marilyn Monroe, for that matter.

The second problem with Russell’s view, and the foundation of his pessimistic vision, is that he regards peace as a passive state of non- being rather than an active process of becoming. He dismisses the entire human experience as a “nightmare” that will be over when the earth, unable to sustain human life, will condemn our species to extinction.

Mayr’s vision also suffers from two flaws.

The first is that he believes that smartness, i.e. intelligence, and stupidity are uniform abstractions common to all species. He does not understand that what is intelligent for beetles, for example, may not be intelligent for buffalos or humans. The beetles have not survived because they are stupid in human terms. They have survived because they are intelligent as beetles.

Thus the recipe for human survival is not, as Mayr suggests, to become stupid, so as to win the favours of selection and ensure survival, but to expand the boundaries of human intelligence.

Paradoxically, the approach of both Russell, a self proclaimed atheist, and Mayr is essentially religious, and more specifically Christian. They both burden the human species with the “original sin” of either cruelty or intelligence.

After all, Adam, according to the Christian narrative, was expelled from paradise because he and his wife, Eve, tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

Chomsky’s method is also religious, more precisely theological, inasmuch as he tries to find a single all-encompassing cause for all of humankind’s real or imagined failings that could one day lead to the destruction of the human species, indeed of Earth itself. Monism, the theory of a single cause for everything, is the typical resort of religious minds: whatever happens is because God wanted it.

Chomsky’s position, as a self-styled Jeremiah, is underlined in his book’s blurb: “From the world’s foremost intellectual activist, an irrefutable analysis (sic) of America’s pursuit of total domination and the catastrophic consequences that are sure to follow.”

To be sure, Chomsky’s monism is not theistic. Nor does he adopt the monisms of Russell and Mayr, i.e. the wanton cruelty and/or diabolical intelligence of the human species.

Like Russell and Mayr, Chomsky is not concerned with the positive achievements of humanity. His focus is what he believes to be man’s evil deeds. Even then he is not concerned with the broader sweep of human history but limits himself to the past two centuries, with special emphasis on the past five or six decades. In that time-span, Chomsky believes that almost all the evil done in the world, and to humanity, was, directly or indirectly, caused by the United States. Even when others did evil, in Indonesia, Morocco, Turkey, or Iraq, to cite a few recent examples, they were “ordered” or at least aided, by the United States.

The US, he tells us, began its existence by massacring the peaceful natives of North America. George Washington and other American founding fathers were “terrorists” engaged in acts of genocide against the red Indians. (p.101)

The US then expanded southwards and westwards through a series of aggressions against Mexico, the Spanish and French Empires in Central America, and Canada. ( It is not clear why Chomsky thinks that French and Spanish imperialisms were better than that of the US in the New World.)The US then pillaged the New World’s natural resources with no regard for the environment, and thus created a powerful economy. Once that was achieved, the US started planning global “hegemony”, participating in two world wars and numerous smaller conflicts across the globe.

Chomsky finds American fingerprints everywhere.

Hitler and Mussolini were helped in achieveing power with American, and in part, British, help. (p.67) And who helped Stalin beat back the Nazi onslaught and survive? The US, of course! (pp.47 and 147)

The Korean War was caused not because Kim Il-sung tried to conquer the whole of the peninsula but because the US wanted to impose its “dominance” on the Far East. (p.151)

The US is even blamed for the Algerian war of independence, presumably because France was a full member of The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) at that time.

And why do you think the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979? Chomsky tells us that this was the result of a plan worked out by President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Bzrezinski who wanted to bleed the Soviets to death. (Pp.110-111)

Contrary to what some Arabs imagine, Israel is a pawn in Washington’s hand. Chomsky writes: “{Israel} has no alternative but serving as a US base in the region and complying with US demands.” (p.158) The Bush administration even dictates Israel’s internal economic policies. (p. 180)

Chomsky claims that almost every evil character in the past century or so, anywhere in the world, was installed in power or supported by the US.

So why did the US wage war against Hitler, Mussolini, the Japanese militarists, Slobodan Milosevic, and most recently, the Taliban , and Saddam Hussein?

Chomsky’s answer is simple: they all initially worked for the US but had to be crushed when they tried to act independently. The US wants total obedience: anyone that shows any sign of independence is cut down.

In Chomsky’s Manichaean world anyone who is opposed to the United States is good and anyone who sympathises with it is evil.

That belief leads Chomsky into strange assertions.

He asserts that the resistance movements against the Nazis were terrorists. He writes: “The {French and Yugoslav} partisans were directed from London and did engage in terrorism.” (P.189) The Afghan Mujhahedin who fought against Soviet invaders were “saboteurs and terrorists” as were the Contras in Central America because they fought anti-American regimes.

Saddam gassed the Kurds in response to “Kurdish terrorism” which, in turn, had been prompted by the US. However, when the Kurds fight Turkey, an ally of the US, they become freedom fighters struggling against a terrorist state.

According to Chomsky, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was a just punishment for Kuwaiti “ingratitude” towards Iraq. Saddam had protected Kuwait against Iranian aggression and was angered by Kuwaiti moves that were designed to wreck Iraq’s oil-based economy. (P.46)

While Chomsky insists that Saddam was no threat to anyone and thus unfairly included in President George W Bush’s so-called “Axis of Evil”, he suggests his own alternative “Axis of Evil”. This consists of Turkey, Israel, and Morocco whom Chomsky blames for the worst cases of “state terrorism”. (P.198) Those three countries draw Chomsky’s ire because they are allies of the US.

Chomsky portrays the defunct Soviet Union as a victim of American aggression. He tells us that Communism was “never a military threat” to the United States. (P.66)

He praises Stalin, and even the sinister Lavrenti Beria, the KGB head subsequently executed for his crimes, as men of goodwill who proposed schemes that would have ensured peace in Europe. (Pp.223-224).

President Dwight Eisenhower rejected the Soviet peace proposals because that would have meant an end to American “dominance” in Europe. Washington wanted to draw Moscow into an arms race in order to destroy the USSR.

Chomsky ignores the fact that it was the USSR that almost always first to introduced new and deadlier weapons in Europe, starting with supersonic fighters and ending with the SS-20 missiles. Chomsky also forgets that what he calls “the arms race in the space” began with the USSR that sent the first manned mission into the space.

According to Chomsky, the Taliban, having come into being by “American design”, were evil when the US supported them, but became good when they turned against it.

Chomsky opposed the war that toppled the Taliban and claims that the US wanted to invade Afghanistan not to destroy Al Qaeda but to extend its “dominance” to Central Asia. (P.199) Once the Taliban had turned against the US, toppling their regime became “a war crime”. (P.200) (Chomsky had forecast that six million Afghans would die as a result of the US intervention. The figure six million, of course, was chosen to establish a parallel with the figure given for the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust.)

US help to the Colombian government’s programme of eradicating cocaine cultivation is described as “chemical warfare”, because, Chomsky insists, other countries do not have the same right to use fumigation to eliminate tobacco fields in the US state of North Carolina.

In other words even the drug barons are transformed into choir boys when they are attacked by the US.

Chomsky tells us that the war in Kosovo was not about Serbs massacring ethnic Albanians but the other way round. It was the ethnic Albanians, recruited, trained and organised by the CIA, who were massacring the Serbs in Kosovo.

The US, and NATO, intervened to prevent Slobodan Milosevic from rushing to rescue his fellow Serbs from massacre by “US-controlled terrorists”. On Bosnia, too, Chomsky finds himself on the side of the ethnic Serbs because the Muslims were supported by the United States and its “terrorist allies”.

Faithful to the classical methods of religious propaganda, Chomsky does not allow the slightest shade of grey in his black-and-white picture of existence.

He goes further than fellow-travellers like Russell who tried to establish a moral equivalence between the Free World and its enemies, especially the USSR, during the Cold War. (Note that in the quotation from Russell, cited above, there is no mention of Lenin, Stalin and Mao.) But Chomsky is not satisfied with moral equivalence. He believes that, in any conflict involving the United States, it is the American side that is evil.

He claims that the US and all its leaders, starting with Washington, as already noted, were evil from the very beginning.

President James Monroe was evil because he declared a doctrine designed to prevent the European colonial powers from returning to Latin America. President Theodore Roosevelt was evil because he insisted that the US must carry a big stick.

Even the idealistic President Woodrow Wilson does not escape Chomsky’s censure. Wilson is portrayed as an arrogant racist who saw the US as a vanguard for human progress. (P.43)

President John F. Kennedy is presented as almost a lunatic who, through the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, pushed the world towards thermonuclear war. The world was saved by Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, who proved to be a statesman. (Pp.74-75) Every US president since Kennedy is also portrayed as an evil-doer of one kind or another, with Ronald Reagan and George W Bush getting the sharpest lashes.

Even John Stuart Mill, the leading philosopher of Western liberalism, does not escape Chomsky’s ire, and is presented as a champion of colonialism. (Pp.44-45)

Chomsky makes too many factual errors to be enumerated here. His knowledge of the Middle East and the Muslim countries is especially patchy, if not downright wrong.

But Chomsky’s book, written in haste, suffers from more serious problems.

The first is his habit of arranging facts to suit his often contradictory claims. Discussing many of the major issues of international life in the past century or so, Chomsky relies on some 30 writers, most of them Americans. More than half of his current affair sources are traced to just two newspapers: The New York Times and The Washington Post. Few people with opinions at variance with Chomsky’s certainties get a chance. Where he does not find any sources that he can name, Chomsky uses a device dear to second-rate hacks. He mentions ” respected commentators”, ” impartial observers”, “very well-informed sources”, “internal sources”,” most experts”, and ” noted analysts” without telling us who they are.

A professional linguist, Chomsky knows how to use words to suit his purpose, whatever it happens to be. For example, he avoids the term Cold War which would set the context for the US-USSR rivalry. Nor does he describe the Communist Parties that existed all over the world by their name, preferring to call them “mass-based parties of the poor”.

Whatever the US does, even in self defence, is a “crime” or “an act of terrorism”. Whatever it foes to do, is “a patriotic movement” or “popular resistance.”

The US committed “a war crime” when it took military action against Canada in 1814. But Chomsky does not remember that that was in response to the British attack on Washington, the capital of the newly created United States, during which the White House was burned down.

Chomsky’s use of the word “dominance” instead of domination is problematic, especially when he uses it as a synonym for hegemony. (It is possible that his publishers suggested the word “dominance” instead of hegemony because the general public might not understand the latter.)

Hegemony or survival does not represent the choice of an alternative. For there can be no hegemony without survival, although there can be survival without hegemony. The domination of the international space by one major power- ancient Persia, Rome , Britain , etc- at different times in history, was in no way threatened the survival of mankind.

The second problem is that Chomsky thinks the US has been, and is, able to do whatever it pleases, ignoring the dialectics of bilateral and multilateral relationships.

For example he writes: Kennedy decided that Latin American armies be transformed into anti-guerrilla forces.(P.192) It means that the governments, armies, and peoples of dozens of Latin American states had no absolutely no will of their own.

Chomsky is unable to conceive of a situation in which both the US and its adversary of the time could be wrong. He cannot accept that the Taliban and Saddam Hussein do not become good simply because they are attacked by the US.

The third problem is that Chomsky never explains why the US might want to impose its “dominance” or hegemony, or whatever you like, on the world.

Some causes are hinted at, often like faint echoes of the old Leninist analysis of “Imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism.”

For example, Chomsky claims that the US abolished slavery not because it was an ethical goal, but because New England capitalists wanted it. The Marshall Plan, which helped war-shattered Western Europe rebuilt its economy, was designed to facilitate the penetration of US capital into the old continent.

Chomsky also claims that the US is in search of military bases which, once secured, it will never abandon. (He forgets that in 1966 the US immediately closed all its French bases when President Charles De Gaulle demanded it. And in 1969, the US wound up its Wheelus air base in Libya, without the slightest hesitation at the behest of the new government in Tripoli.)

Chomsky’s claim that the US is a “rogue state” determined to destroy “international law” is too crude to merit lengthy rebuttal. He forgets that what is known as “international law” is itself an American creation, along with a few allies such as Great Britain.

The United Nations, and the League of Nations before it, were fruits of American diplomacy. The same is true of almost all other institutions of the “international system” that Chomsky believes the US is out to destroy.

He also forgets that almost all of the thousands of international treaties, that impose limitations to the sovereignty of individual states, came into being either on direct American initiative or with active US participation.

The average American might be surprised to learn how much of the powers of its government have been transferred to international authorities in the context of numerous treaties. And that in a global system in which the most brutal regimes enjoy the same rights and privileges as the most democratic states.

As expected, Chomsky claims that the US built up its military power not to defend legitimate interests, or even its national security, but to dominate the world.

But he forgets that the US has for years been pressing its European allies to increase their defence expenditure in the context of the famous “burden sharing”. As a percentage of GDP, American expenditure on defence steadily declined between 1990 and 2000. The European allies, and Japan, reduced their defence expenditure at an even faster rate because they knew they could continue to rely on the American security “umbrella”.

Chomsky ends up by shooting himself in the foot.

He shows that the US today enjoys less of an economic “dominance” in the world than it did in 1945. He also reminds us that even before the Second World War the US had been “by far the largest economic power anywhere in the world.”

In 1945 the US accounted for almost 50 per cent of the global gross domestic product (GDP). By 1975 that share had fallen to 25 per cent. In 2000 it was down to 18 per cent, slightly lower than the European Union. Even in terms of foreign investment per head of the population the relative share of the US has declined. That figure for the Dutch is almost twice that of the US while Britain and Japan, Taiwan and South Koreas are also catching up.

All the new economic powers of the post-war world were helped by the US in the crucial phases of their economic take-off, and emerged as its trading partners: Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and today China. Even the current “economic miracle” in India is, to some measure, due to massive investments of American capital and technology.

But the biggest problem with Chomsky’s book is that he offers no alternative to “evil” America. He vaguely speaks of “world public opinion”, by which he means the peace-marchers and the Porto Allegre crowd, as “the second superpower”, and says that a majority of mankind believe that US “dominance” is the main threat to the world. Even if that were the case, we have to note that it is not enough for something to be believed by large numbers of people, or, indeed by the entire humanity, for it to be true.

It is Chomsky’s final bouquet that is most surprising.

Having vilified George W Bush as the arch-villain of the modern world, Chomsky ends up by adopting W’s analysis almost word by word.

Like W, Chomsky tells us that the status quo, especially in the Middle East, is untenable, and that the wave of democratisation must spread to the whole world. (P.215) which is precisely what George W Bush asserts.

Also like Bush, Chomsky tells us that the spread of nuclear, and other weapons of mass destruction, is a threat to mankind and must be stopped. (P.221) The difference is that Bush is trying to do something about it while Chomsky seems to want those weapons to be denied only to the US and its allies.

Finally, and perhaps, unwittingly, he echoes President Bush’s claim that the US remains part of the solution, often the main part, to all of the problems that the world faces. The difference is that Chomsky seems to favour the disappearance of the US, or at least its withdrawal from the international arena, while Bush proposes an active, some might say aggressive, American foreign policy in pursuit of such goals as democratisation, trade liberalisation, and the inclusion of isolated dictatorial states into the global system.

One thing is sure: mankind is not, as Russell and Mayr predicted, to disappear and leave the earth to beetles and bacteria.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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