The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warned this week that there is a 50 percent chance that the world will experience a 1.5 degree increase in temperature over preindustrial levels within the next five year. Even those who view the glass as half full tend to agree that efforts undertaken so far by the world’s countries to combat the climate crisis, while significant in some respects, are not enough. The global economy still heavily depends on fossil fuels for about 80 percent of its energy supply.
Despite the war in Ukraine, soaring energy prices, and warnings of a possible climate catastrophe, the second and three segments of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) most recent review of climate science were ignored.
In the United States, the Biden administration’s response to soaring gas prices was to renew oil and gas drilling on federal lands and to announce “the largest-ever release of oil from the strategic petroleum reserves.” The rest of the world has also responded with short-term thinking to the consequences of the war in Ukraine.
Noam Chomsky, a world-renowned scholar-activist, discusses the consequences of short-term thinking in the context of increasing military tensions. Truthout. Chomsky is the father and founder of modern linguistics. He is also one of the most quoted scholars in modern history and has published more than 150 books. He is currently a professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona and an institute professor.
The following transcript was lightly edited for clarity and length.
C.J. C.J. Decarbonization efforts have been put on hold due to rising energy costs and concerns over energy security. In the U.S., the Biden administration has embraced the Republican slogan “drill, baby, drill,” Europe is set on building new gas pipelines and import facilities, and China plans to boost coal production capacity. Can you comment on these unfortunate developments and explain how short-term thinking continues among world leaders at a time where humanity may be facing an existential threat?
Noam ChomskyThis last question is not new. It has been asked in various forms throughout history.
One case has been extensively studied. Why did political leaders go to war 1914, utterly certain of their own righteousness? And why did the most prominent intellectuals in every warring country line up with passionate enthusiasm in support of their own state — apart from a handful of dissidents, the most prominent of whom were jailed (Bertrand Russell, Eugene Debs, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht)? It wasn’t a terminal crisis, but it was serious enough.
This pattern can be traced back to the beginning of human history. It continues unchanged after August 6, 1945, when it was discovered that human intelligence had reached a level where it would soon be able exterminate all.
Observing the pattern closely, over the years, a basic conclusion seems to me to emerge clearly: Whatever is driving policy, it is not security — at least, security of the population. This is at best a marginal concern. The same applies to existential threats. We need to look elsewhere.
A good starting point, I think, is what seems to me to be the best-established principle of international relations theory: Adam Smith’s observation that the “Masters of Mankind” — in his day the merchants and manufacturers of England — are the “principal architects of [state] policy.” They use their power to ensure that their own interests “are most peculiarly attended to” no matter how “grievous” the effects on others, including the people of England, but most brutally the victims of the “savage injustice of the Europeans.” His particular target was British savagery in India, then in its early stages, already horrifying enough.
When crises become serious, there is not much that can be done. The short-term interests are the most important. In competitive systems such as unregulated markets, the logic is clear. Those who don’t participate in the game are soon out. Competition among the “principal architects of policy” in the state system has somewhat similar properties, but we should bear in mind that security of the population is far from a guiding principle, as the record shows all too clearly.
You are absolutely correct about the terrible impact of the Russian criminal invasion of Ukraine. While the U.S. is focusing on the suffering in Ukraine, the European discussion lauds our policy of accelerating the misery. I’ll return to that.
The policy of escalating war in Ukraine instead of taking steps to end it has devastating consequences far beyond Ukraine. According to widely reported facts, Russia and Ukraine are major food exporters. The war has reduced food supplies to people in dire need, especially in Africa and Asia.
Take just one example, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis according to the UN: Yemen. The World Food Program reports that more than 2 million children are at risk of starvation. Almost 100 percent are cereals [is imported] “with Russia and Ukraine accounting for the largest share of wheat and wheat products (42%),” in addition to re-exported flour and processed wheat from the same region.
The crisis goes far beyond. Let’s try to be honest about it: Perpetuation of the war is, simply, a program of mass murder throughout much of the Global South.
That’s the least of it. There are many. discussions in purportedly serious journalsTalks about how the U.S. could win a nuclear war against Russia. These discussions are borderline insane. Unfortunately, US-NATO policies can lead to a rapid end of human society. Putin has so far resisted attacking the supply lines that send heavy weapons to Ukraine. It won’t be a great surprise if that restraint ends, bringing Russia and NATO close to direct conflict, with an easy path to tit-for-tat escalation that could well lead to a quick goodbye.
Slower death by poisoning the planet is more likely than it is. The latest IPCC report clearly stated that if we want a sustainable world, we must immediately stop using fossil fuels and continue to reduce their use until they are eliminated. As you have pointed out, the current war has the effect to end the limited initiatives already in place, reverse them, and accelerate the race to death.
Executives of corporations dedicated to the destruction of human life on Earth have a lot of joy. They are no longer restricted by the whining of environmentalists and are praised for saving the civilization they are now encouraged destroy even faster. The euphoria of the ongoing conflict is shared by arms producers. They are now encouraged by the government to waste scarce resources that they desperately need for humane and productive purposes. They are also making a lot of taxpayer money, just like their partners in mass destruction, fossil fuel corporations.
What could be better or more insane? We would do well to recall President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s words in his “Cross of Iron” speech in 1953:
Every gun manufactured, every warship launched or rocket fired represents, in the final meaning, a theft from people who don’t have enough food, who aren’t fed, and who aren’t warm and dry. This world in arms doesn’t just spend money. It spends sweat, the genius of scientists, and the hopes of children. It is the. cost One modern heavy bomber is this: A modern brick school in over 30 cities. It is made up of two electric power plants that each serve a town with 60,000 inhabitants. It has two hospitals that are fully equipped. It covers fifty miles of concrete pavement. One fighter is paid for with half a million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people…. This is not a way to live in any real sense. It is humanity hanging by a cross of iron under the threat of war.
These words could not be more appropriate for today.
Let’s return to why “world leaders” pursue this mad course. First, let’s see if we can find any who deserve the appellation, except in irony.
If there were any, they’d be devoted to bringing about a peaceful resolution to the conflict using diplomacy and statecraft. The basic principles of a political settlement are well-known. These issues have been discussed before. We also documented the U.S. commitment (with NATO in tow), to destroying any chance of a diplomatic settlement. It is unnecessary to reexamine the dismal record.
A common refrain is that “Mad Vlad” is so insane, and so immersed in wild dreams of reconstructing an empire and maybe conquering the world, that there’s no point even listening to what Russians are saying — that is, if you can evade U.S. censorship and find some snippets on Indian state TV or Middle East media. It is not necessary to consider diplomatic engagement with such a creature. Therefore, let’s not even explore the only possibility for ending the horror and just continue to escalate it, no matter what the consequences for Ukrainians and the world.
Two major ideas are driving the attention of Western leaders and much of the political elite: First, that Russia’s military might soon seek to control Western Europe or beyond. Thus, we have to “fight Russia over there” (with Ukrainian bodies) so that “we don’t have to fight Russia here” in Washington, D.C., or so we are warned by House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff, a Democrat.
The second is that Russian military force has been shown to be a paper tiger, so incompetent and frail, and so poorly led, that it can’t conquer cities a few kilometers from its border defended largely by a citizens’ army.
The latter thought is the object for much gloating. The former is a source of terror in our hearts.
Orwell defined “doublethink” as the capacity to hold two contradictory ideas in mind and to believe them both, a malady only imaginable in ultra-totalitarian states.
Adopting the first idea, we must arm ourselves to the teeth to protect ourselves from the demonic plans of the paper tiger, even though Russian military spending is a fraction of NATO’s, even excluding the U.S. Those suffering memory loss will be delighted that Germany has finally gotten the word, and may soon surpassRussia increases its military spending. Putin will need to think twice before conquering west Europe.
The war in Ukraine can be ended with a diplomatic settlement or with the defeat or reversal of one side. Diplomacy, by definition is a give and take affair. Both sides must accept it. In order to reach a diplomatic agreement, Putin must be given an escape hatch.
We can either accept the first option or reject it. This is at most not controversial. If we reject it we choose the second option. Since that is the near-universal preference in Western discourse, and continues to be U.S. policy, let’s consider what it entails.
The answer is simple: We will reject diplomacy and engage in an experiment to determine if the irrational mad canine will retreat in total defeat or if he will use all the means he has to destroy Ukraine, setting the stage for a final war.
While we are conducting this horrendous experiment with the lives and health of Ukrainians, millions will starve. We will also play with the possibility nuclear war and race on to destroy the environment that sustains life.
It is of course conceivable that Putin will just surrender, and that he’ll refrain from using the forces at his command. Perhaps we can just laugh at the prospect of resorting nuclear weapons. Although it is possible, what kind of person would take that risk?
Answer: Yes, the Western leaders are explicitly mentioned along with the political classes. This has been evident for many years. It was even officially stated. And to make sure that all understand, the position was forcefully reiterated in April at the first monthly meeting of the “Contact Group,” which includes NATO and partner countries. The meeting was not held in Brussels, Belgium at NATO headquarters. Instead, all pretenses were dropped and the meeting was held at the U.S. Ramstein Air Base, Germany; technically German territory but in the real world that belongs to the U.S.
Lloyd Austin, Defense Secretary, opened the meeting. declaring that “Ukraine clearly believes it can win and so does everyone here.” Therefore, the assembled dignitaries should have no hesitation in pouring advanced weapons into Ukraine and persisting in the other programs, proudly announced, to bring Ukraine effectively within the NATO system. Their wisdom and that of their leader, the dignitaries guarantee that Putin won’t react in ways he knows he can.
The record of military planning for many years, in fact centuries, indicates that “everyone here” may indeed hold these remarkable beliefs. They are willing to do the experiment with the lives and future of Ukrainians, regardless if they do.
Since we are assured on this high authority that Russia will passively observe all of this with no reaction, we can take further steps to “integrate Ukraine into NATO de facto,” in accord with the goals of the Ukrainian defense ministry, establishing “full compatibility of the Ukrainian army with the armies of NATO countries” — thereby also guaranteeing that no diplomatic settlement can be reached with any Russian government, unless Russia is somehow turned into a U.S. satellite.
Current U.S. policy calls for a long war to “weaken Russia” and ensure its total defeat. This policy is very similar in concept to the 1980s Afghan model, which is now explicitly supported by high-ranking officials. by former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonTake, for instance.
Since that is close to current U.S. policy, even a working model, it is worthwhile to look at what actually happened in Afghanistan in the ‘80s when Russia invaded. Thankfully, we now have a detailed and authoritative accountDiego Cordovez, who supervised the UN programs that ended war and the distinguished journalist and scholar Selig Harrison, who have extensive experience in the area.
The Cordovez/Harrison analysis completely discredits the accepted version. They show that the war was ended through UN-run diplomacy and not military force. The Soviet military forces were fully capable to continue the war. The U.S. policy of mobilizing and funding the most extremist radical Islamists to fight the Russians amounted to “fighting to the last Afghan,” they conclude, in a proxy war to weaken the Soviet Union. “The United States did its best to prevent the emergence of a U.N. role,” that is, the careful diplomatic efforts that ended the war.
U.S. policy apparently delayed the Russian withdrawal that had been contemplated from shortly after the invasion — which, they show, had limited objectives, with no resemblance to the awesome goals of world conquest that were conjured up in U.S. propaganda. “The Soviet invasion was clearly not the first step in an expansionist master plan of a united leadership,” Harrison writes, confirming the conclusions of historian David GibbsBased on Soviet archive releases
The chief CIA officer in Islamabad, who ran the operations directly, put the main point simply: The goal was to kill Russian soldiers — to give Russia their Vietnam, as proclaimed by high U.S. officials, revealing the colossal inability to understand anything about Indochina that was the hallmark of U.S. policy for decades of slaughter and destruction.
Cordovez-Harrison wrote that the U.S. government “was divided from the start between ‘bleeders,’ who wanted to keep Soviet forces pinned down in Afghanistan and thus to avenge Vietnam, and ‘dealers’, who wanted to compel their withdrawal through a combination of diplomacy and military pressure.” It’s a distinction that shows up very often. The bleeders win almost always, causing enormous damage. For “the decider,” to borrow W. Bush’s self-description, it is safer to look tough than to appear to be too soft.
Afghanistan is a good example. The Carter administration’s Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was a dealer. He suggested far-reaching compromises which would have almost certainly stopped, or at the very least severely curtailed, what was meant to be a limited intervention. Zbigniew Brzezinski (National Security Adviser) was the bleeder. He was determined on vengeing Vietnam, whatever it meant in his confused world view. And he loved killing Russians.
Brzezinski prevailed. Carter agreed to send arms to opposition seeking to overthrow pro-Russian government. He feared that the Russians would be drawn in a Vietnam-style quagmire. He could not contain his excitement when it happened. He dismissed the question later, saying he didn’t regret it. His success in drawing Russia into the Afghan trap, he claimed, was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet empire and ending the Cold War — mostly nonsense. And who cares if it harmed “some agitated Muslims,” like the million cadavers, putting aside such incidentals as the devastation of Afghanistan, and the rise of radical Islam.
Today, the Afghan analogy is being advocated publicly, but more importantly, it is being implemented in policy.
Foreign policy circles have long been familiar with the dealer-bleeder distinction. The famous Cold War conflict between George Kennan (a dealer), Paul Nitze (a bleeding man), was won by Nitze. It laid the foundation for many decades of brutality, near destruction, and many more. Cordovez-Harrison explicitly endorse Kennan’s approach, with ample evidence.
Vance-Brzezinski’s example is the conflict between Secretary William Rogers (a dealer), and Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser, over Middle East Policy during the Richard Nixon years. Rogers suggested diplomatic solutions to the Israel/Arab conflict. Kissinger, whose complete ignorance of the region was staggering, insisted on confrontation leading to the 1973 warThis was a close call for Israel, with a serious threat to nuclear war.
These conflicts are almost always ongoing. Today, there are only bleeders at high places. They have even gone as far as to enact a huge Lend Lease ActThe vote for Ukraine was almost unanimous. The terminology is meant to invoke the memory of the huge Lend-Lease program which brought the U.S. in the European war (as intended), and linked the European-Asian conflicts into a World War. “Lend Lease tied together the separate struggles in Europe and Asia to create by the end of 1941 what we properly call World War II,” writes historian Adam Tooze. Is that what we want in today’s quite different circumstances?
Let’s at least think about what it means if that is what we want. This is something that we should all be able to repeat.
It requires us to reject the diplomatic initiatives that in fact ended the Russian invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. This is despite U.S. efforts. We therefore undertake an experiment to see whether integration of Ukraine into NATO, total defeat of Russia in Ukraine, and further moves to “weaken Russia,” will be observed passively by the Russian leadership, or whether they will resort to the means of violence they unquestionably possess to devastate Ukraine and set the stage for possible general war.
Meanwhile, by extending the conflict instead of seeking to end it, we impose severe costs on Ukrainians, drive millions of people to death by starvation, hurtle the burning planet even more rapidly to the sixth mass extinction, and — if we are lucky — escape terminal war.
The government and the political class assure us that there is no problem. This experiment is safe because the Russian leadership will be able to accept it with equanimity. They will then quietly disappear into the history ash heap. As for the “collateral damage,” they can join the ranks of Brzezinski’s “agitated Muslims.” To borrow the phrase made famous by Madeleine Albright: “This is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”
Let’s at least have the honesty to recognize what we are doing, eyes open.
Global emissions rose to record high in 2021, so the world went back to a “business-as-usual” approach once the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic subsided — for now. How hardwired is our behavior? Are we capable of assuming moral responsibilities toward future generations?
It is a deep and important question. The answer is still unknown. It might be helpful to consider it in a wider context.
Consider Enrico Fermi’s famous paradox: In simple words, where are they? Fermi was a distinguished astrophysicist who knew that there are many planets within reach that could support life and higher intelligence. We have not been able to find any evidence of their existence, even with the most diligent search. So where are they?
One answer that has been seriously considered and cannot be dismissed is that higher intelligence has created innumerable times but has proven to have lethal: It discovered the ability to self-annihilation, but not the moral capacity to stop it. Perhaps that is even an inherent feature of what we call “higher intelligence.”
Now, we are engaged in an experiment to see if this dark principle holds true for modern humans, who arrived on Earth some 200,000-300,000. Years ago, in evolutionary time. There is not much time to find the answer — or more precisely, to determine the answer, as we will do, one way or the other. It is inevitable. Either we will show that our moral ability can be controlled by our technical capacity to devastate, or we won’t.
Extraterrestrial observers, if they were available, would conclude that the gap was too great to prevent species suicide and, with it, the sixth mass extermination. It could be mistaken. This is our decision.
The Doomsday Clock of Bulletin of Atomic Scientists gives an indication of the gap between the death wish and the destruction capacity. The distance between midnight and midnight can be used to indicate the gap. In 1953, when both the U.S.A and Soviet Union had exploded thermonuclear arms, the minute-hand was set for two minutes to midnight. It did not reach that point again until Donald Trump’s term in office. In Trump’s last year, analysts shifted to seconds. 100 seconds until midnight is where the clock now stands. Next January, it will be reset. It’s not hard to make a case that the second-hand should move closer to midnight.
The grim question emerged with amazing clarity on August 6, 1945. This day taught us two important lessons. Human intelligence in its glory was nearing the capability to destroy everything, a feat achieved in 1953; 2. Human moral ability was far behind. Few cared, as many people my age will recall well. It is difficult to see any improvement when you look at the horrible experiment we are currently committed to, and the results it entails.
That doesn’t answer the question. We don’t know enough to answer the question. We can only observe closely the one case of “higher intelligence” that we know of, and ask what it suggests about the answer.
We can also take action to find the answer. We have the power to achieve the answers we seek, but we don’t have time to waste.