Irrational panic is as American as apple pie. It is often caused by a failure on the part of the powers that be to control developments that could pose a threat to the interests of either the existing socioeconomic order, or the status quo in the geostrategic context. The era of the Cold War speaks volumes about this phenomenon, but it’s also evident in earlier periods — for example, the first Red Scare in the wake of World War I — and we can see clear parallels in the present-day situation with reactions to Ukraine and the rise of China as a global power.
In the interview that follows, world-renowned public intellectual Noam Chomsky delves into the phenomenon of irrational political panics in the U.S., with an emphasis on current developments on the foreign policy front — and the dangers of seeking to maintain global hegemony in a multipolar world.
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C.J. C.J. Polychroniou: The American political culture seems to be inclined to alarmism about political developments that aren’t in line with the economic, ideological, and strategic interests of the power-that-be. Indeed, from the anti-Spanish panic of the late 1890s to today’s rage about Russia’s security concerns over Ukraine, and China’s growing role in world affairs and everything in between, the political establishment and the media of this country tend to respond with full-blown alarm to developments that are not in alignment with U.S. interests, values and goals. Can you comment about this peculiar state of affairs, with particular emphasis on what’s happening today in connection with Ukraine and China?
Noam Chomsky It’s quite true. Sometimes it’s hard to believe. One of the most striking and telling examples is the rhetorical framework in the major internal planning document from the early Cold War years. NSC-68 of 1950, shortly after “the loss of China,” which set off a frenzy in the U.S. This document set the stage to a massive expansion of the military budget. It’s worth recalling today when strains of this madness are reverberating — not for the first time; it’s perennial.
While the NSC-68 policy recommendations have been extensively discussed in scholarship, they avoid the hysterical rhetoric. It reads like a fairytale. The ultimate evil is confronted with absolute purity and noble ideallism. On one side is the “slave state” with its “fundamental design” and inherent “compulsion” to gain “absolute authority over the rest of the world,” destroying all governments and the “structure of society” everywhere. Its ultimate evil contrasts with its absolute perfection. The “fundamental purpose” of the United States is to assure “the dignity and worth of the individual” everywhere. Its leaders are animated by “generous and constructive impulses, and the absence of covetousness in our international relations,” which is particularly evident in the traditional domains of U.S. influence, the Western hemisphere, long the beneficiary of Washington’s tender solicitude as its inhabitants can testify.
Anyone who knows history and the actual global power balance at the time would have responded with complete bewilderment to this performance. Its State Department authors couldn’t have believed what they were writing. Some of them gave evidence later. Secretary of State Dean Acheson explained in his memoirs that in order to ram through the huge planned military expansion, it was necessary to “bludgeon the mass mind of ‘top government’” in ways that were “clearer than truth.” The highly influential Sen. Arthur Vandenberg surely understood this as well when advising [in 1947] that the government must “scare the hell out of the American people” to rouse them from their pacifist backwardness.
There are many precedents, and the drums are beating right now with warnings about American complacency and naivete about the intentions of the “mad dog” Putin to destroy democracy everywhere and subdue the world to his will, now in alliance with the other “Great Satan,” Xi Jinping.
The world’s most important event was the February 4 Putin-Xi summit. This occurred at the same time as the opening of Olympic games. It was reviewed in a major article. The New York Times is headlined “A New Axis,” the allusion unconcealed. The review reported the intentions of the reincarnation of the Axis powers: “The message that China and Russia have sent to other countries is clear,” David Leonhardt writes. “They will not pressure other governments to respect human rights or hold elections.” And to Washington’s dismay, the Axis is attracting two countries from “the American camp,” Egypt and Saudi Arabia, stellar examples of how the U.S. respects human rights and elections in its camp — by providing a massive flow of weapons to these brutal dictatorships and directly participating in their crimes. The New Axis also maintains that “a powerful country should be able to impose its will within its declared sphere of influence. The country should even be able to topple a weaker nearby government without the world interfering” — an idea that the U.S. has always abhorred, as the historical record reveals.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Delphi Oracle issued a maxim: “Know Thyself.” Worth remembering, perhaps.
NSC-68 is a good example of this. There is a way to get around the madness. China and Russia are real threats. They are not taken lightly by the global hegemon. There are several striking similarities in the way that U.S. policy and opinion react to these threats. These are worth considering.
The Atlantic Council describes the formation of the New Axis as a “tectonic shift in global relations” with plans that are truly “head spinning”: “The sides agreed to more closely link their economies through cooperation between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union. They will work together for the development of the Arctic. They’ll deepen coordination in multilateral institutions and to battle climate change.”
We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the Ukraine crisis. adds Damon WilsonPresident of the National Endowment for Democracy. “The stakes of today’s crisis are not about Ukraine alone, but about the future of freedom,” no less.
It is imperative to take immediate and strong measures. says Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: “President Biden should use every tool in his tool box and impose tough sanctions ahead of any invasion and not after it happens.” There is no time to dilly-dally with Macron-style appeals to the raging bear to temper his violence.
While the accepted doctrine states that we must confront China and defend Ukraine, Europe is hesitant and Ukraine asks us for diplomatic measures. For the world’s good, Washington is unflinchingly committed to what is right, even though it is almost alone in doing so. This is evident when Washington invades Iraq and strangles Cuba, defying virtually all international protest.
To be fair though, the doctrine is not always adhered to. There’s deviation, most forcefully on the far right: Tucker Carlson, probably the most influential TV voice. He’s said we shouldn’t be involved in defending Ukraine against Russia — because we should be devoting all our resources to confronting the far more awesome China threat. We must reassess our priorities when it comes to fighting the Axis.
Warnings about Russia’s mobilization to invade Ukraine have been an annual media event since the crises of 2014, with regular reports of tens or hundreds of thousands of Russian troops preparing to attack. Today, however the warnings are much more shrill with a mixture fear and ridicule for the so-called Mad Vlad. New York Times’s Thomas Friedman describes as a “one-man psychodrama, with a giant inferiority complex toward America that leaves him always stalking the world with a chip on his shoulder so big it’s amazing he can fit through any door,” or from another perspective, the Russian leader seeking in vain for some response to his repeated requests for some attention to Russia’s expressed concerns. An analysis by MintPressThis is what we found 90 percent of the opinion pieces in the three major national newspapers have adopted a hawkish militant stance, with a bare scattering of questioning — a familiar phenomenon, as in the days before the Iraq invasion and, in fact, routinely when the state has delivered the word.
As in the case of the Sino-Soviet conspiracy to gain “absolute authority over the rest of the world” in 1950, the word now is that the U.S. must act decisively to counter the threat of the New Axis to the “rule-based global order” that is hailed by U.S. commentators, an interesting concept to which I’ll return briefly.
The “tectonic shift” is not a myth, and it does pose a threat to the U.S. It threatens U.S. dominance in shaping the world order. That’s true of both of the crisis areas, on the borders of Russia and of China. Both cases are possible with regional settlements. If they are reached, the U.S. will have an ancillary role that it may not accept, even at the risk of inflaming dangerous confrontations.
In Ukraine, the basic outlines of a settlement are well-known on all sides; we’ve discussed them before. The best outcome for Ukraine’s security (and the world) is the Austrian/Nordic neutrality, which prevailed during the Cold War years. This allowed the U.S. to be part of Western Europe in any way they wanted, except that it provided them with military bases. Russia would have been threatened by this kind of neutrality. Minsk II provides a framework to deal with internal conflicts in Ukraine.
Many analysts agree that Ukraine is unlikely to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. George W. Bush issued a rash invitation to join, but it immediately was vetoed in Germany and France. Although it is still possible to join, it is not an option due to U.S. Pressure. All sides are aware of this. Anatol Lilien, a highly educated and skilled Central Asia scholar comments that “the whole issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership is in fact purely theoretical, so that, in some respects, this whole argument is an argument about nothing — on both sides, it must be said, Russian as well as the West.”
His comment brought to mind [Argentinian writer Jorge Luis] Borges’s description of the Falkland/Malvinas war: two bald men fighting over a comb.
Russia raises security concerns. The U.S. considers it a matter of principle. We cannot infringe the sacred right to sovereignty of nations. This is why the United States is denying the right to join NATO. Washington is aware that this is unlikely.
On the Russian side, a formal pledge of non-alignment hardly increases Russian security, any more than Russian security was enhanced when Washington guaranteed to Gorbachev that “not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction,” soon abrogated by Clinton, then more radically by W. Bush. Nothing would have changed if the promise had risen from a gentlemen’s agreement to a signed document.
The U.S. plea does not rise to the level comedy. The U.S. has demonstrated a total disregard for the principle that it proudly proclaims. Recent history confirms this.
Washington has a deeper concern: A regional settlement would pose a serious threat the U.S. role in the global arena. This concern has been simmering since the Cold War years. Will Europe assume an independent role in world affairs, as it surely can, perhaps along Gaullist lines: Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, revived in Gorbachev’s 1989 advocacy of a “common European home,” a “vast economic space from the Atlantic to the Urals”? Even more unthinkable would be Gorbachev’s broader vision of a Eurasian security system from Lisbon to Vladivostok with no military blocs, shot down without discussion in the negotiations 30 years ago over a post-Cold War settlement.
The U.S. has committed to maintaining the Atlanticist order in Europe, where it reigns supreme, and this has had policy implications that extend beyond Europe. Chile in 1973 was a crucial example. The U.S. was trying to overthrow its parliamentary government and was finally successful with the installation the murderous Pinochet dictatorship. Henry Kissinger, Chile’s chief architect, was a key reason for the destruction of democracy. Henry Kissinger warned that the parliamentary social reforms in Chile could be a model for similar efforts to be made in Italy and Spain. This would allow Europe to take a separate path away from U.S. control and a harsher model of capitalism. The domino theory is often criticized but it is still an important tool of statecraft. This is the issue again in relation to a regional settlement for the Ukraine conflict.
The same applies to the confrontation with China. As we’ve discussed earlier, there are serious issues concerning China’s violation of international law in the neighboring seas — though as the one maritime country that refuses even to ratify the UN Law of the Sea, the U.S. is hardly in a strong position to object. These problems are not being solved by the U.S. sending a naval armada through the waters, or providing Australia with a fleet nuclear submarines to increase the military superiority of the U.S. offshore of China. The regional powers can and should address these issues.
However, the U.S. will not be in control, just like in Ukraine.
Also as in the case of Ukraine, the U.S. professes its commitment to high principle in taking the lead to confront the threat of China: its horror at China’s human rights abuses, which are doubtless severe. It is simple enough to determine the sincerity and credibility of this stand. U.S. military support is one of the most telling indicators. Israel and Egypt are the top two in this category. On the Israeli record on human rights, we can now refer to the detailed reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, reviewing the crimes of what they describe as the world’s second apartheid state. Egypt is under the worst dictatorship of its tortured past. A striking correlation has been observed over many years between U.S. Military Aid and torture, massacre and other severe human rights violations.
There is no more need to tarry on Washington’s concern for human rights than on its dedication to the sacred principle of sovereignty. These absurdities are even possible to discuss, illustrating how deeply the rhetorical fancies of NSC-68 permeate intellectual culture.
Guy Laron, Hebrew University lecturer, uses his expertise reminds us of another facet of the Ukraine crisis: the long struggle between the U.S. and Russia over control of Europe’s energy, again in the headlines today. The U.S. wanted to shift Europe (and Japan), to an oil-based economy. This would allow the U.S. to control the spigot. This is the purpose of a lot of Marshall Plan aid. From George Kennan to Zbigniew Brzezinski commenting on the invasion of Iraq (which he opposed, but felt might confer advantages to the U.S. with the anticipated control over major oil resources), planners have recognized that control over energy resources could provide “critical leverage” over allies. Later years saw many conflicts in the Cold War framework Laron outlines, which is now very prominent. These confrontations have had a large impact on Ukraine.
Policy makers have been concerned about the shaping of the global order throughout history. Only one form of world order is acceptable for Washington post-World War II: Under its leadership. And it must be a particular form of world order: the “rule-based international order,” which has displaced an earlier commitment to the “UN-based international order” established under U.S. lead after World War II. It’s not hard to discern the reasons for the transition in policy and accompanying commentary. The U.S. sets the rules in the rule-based order.
In the early years following World War II, the UN-based system was similar. The U.S. global dominance became so overwhelming that the UN was used almost as a tool of U.S. international policy and as a weapon against its enemies. It is not surprising that the UN was highly valued in the U.S. intellectual and popular culture along with the UN-based international system, which Washington led.
This was a temporary phase. The UN began to fall out of favor in U.S. elite opinion as it lurched out of control with the recovery of other industrial societies but particularly with decolonization, which brought discordant voices into the UN and also in independent structures such as the Non-Aligned Movement and many others — all very vocal and active, though effectively barred from the international information order dominated by the traditional imperial societies.
Within the UN there were calls for a “New International Economic Order” that would offer the Global South something better than a continuation of the large-scale robbery, violent intervention and subversion that the colonized world had enjoyed during the long reign of Western imperialism. There were other threats. One was a call for a New International Information Order to allow the voices of former colonies to be heard in the international info system, which is almost monopolized by the imperial power.
The mastersThis is the world undertook vigorous campaigns to beat back these efforts, a major though largely ignored chapter of modern history — though not completely; there is some fine work of exposure and analysis.
One effect of the Global South’s disruptive efforts was to turn U.S. practice and elite opinion against the UN, no longer a reliable agency of U.S. power as it had been in the early Cold War years. Furthermore, the foundations of modern international law in the few UN treaties that the U.S. ratified became completely unacceptable as the years passed, particularly the banning of “the threat or use of force” in international affairs, a practice in which the U.S. is far in the lead. It is conventional to say that the U.S. and Russia engaged in proxy wars during the Cold War years — omitting the fact that with rare exceptions, these were conflicts in which Russia provided some support to victims of U.S. attack. All subjects that should be more prominent.
In this context, the “rule-based international order” became the favored pillar of world order, and there is much annoyance when China calls instead for the UN-based international order as it did at the rancorous March 2021 China-U.S. summit in Alaska (putting aside the sincerity of these pronouncements).
It’s intriguing to see how the conflict with China plays out in U.S. policy and discourse in other domains. An important story in The New York TimesIs headlined: “House Passes Bill Adding Billions to Research to Compete With China; The vote sets up a fight with the Senate, which has different recommendations for how the United States should bolster its technology industry to take on China.” The official name of the bill is “The America Competes Act of 2022” — meaning “compete” with China.
The bill was approved. hailed in the left-liberal press: “The House gave President Joe Biden another reason to celebrate on Friday with the passage of a bill aimed at boosting competitiveness with China.”
Can Congress support research and develop because it would help American society as this bill clearly would? Apparently not; only because it would “take on China.” Republicans reflexively opposed the bill as usual, in this case because it “concedes too much to China.” Republicans also opposed what they called “far left” initiatives such as addressing climate change. The bill was derided by House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy as the “coral reefs bill.” How does saving humanity from self-destruction help to compete with China?
Side note: Pramila Jayapal (chair of the Progressive Caucus) introduced an amendment to the bill. It called for the release of nearly $10 billion of Afghan government funds in New York banks to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. It was defeated. Forty-four Democrats joinedRepublican brutality. It seems that the China-based Shanghai Cooperation Organization may be planning aid, more of a China threat.
China is a rising superpower facing the U.S. There is no doubt about it. Reporting a study of Harvard’s Belfer Center of International Affairs, Graham Allison argued further that the so-called Thucydides Traplikely to lead to a U.S. – China war.
This cannot happen. U.S.-China war means simply: game over. The U.S. must cooperate with China on critical global issues. They will either work together or fall apart, bringing down the world.
One of today’s most striking developments in international relations is that while the U.S. pulls away from the Mideast and other regions, China is moving in with a new strategic approach and overall agenda. Instead of bombs, missiles and coercive diplomacy, China is expanding its influence with the use of “soft power.” Indeed, U.S. overseas expansion was always overwhelmingly dependent on the use of hard power, and, as result, it would only leave black holes behind after its withdrawal. This could be argued that it is the result of a young nation with little knowledge of history and a lack of experience in global affairs. However, it would be difficult to find examples of benign imperialism.
I don’t think the U.S. has forged new paths in Western imperial brutality. Just look at its immediate predecessors in world power. British wealth and global power derived from piracy (such heroic figures as Sir Francis Drake), despoiling India by guile and violence, hideous slavery, the world’s greatest narcotrafficking enterprise, and other such gracious acts. France was no different. Belgium set records for its hideous crimes. Today’s China is hardly benign within its much more limited reach. It would be difficult to find exceptions.
These two cases are very instructive, even if they are not intended. Take a look at the article. The New York TimesThe growing China threat The headline reads: “As the U.S. Pulls Back from the Mideast, China Leans in; expanding its ties to Middle Eastern states with vast infrastructure investments and cooperation on technology and security.”
That’s accurate; it’s one example of what’s happening all over the world. The U.S. is pulling out military forces that have been ravaging the Mideast for decades in traditional imperial fashion. The evil Chinese are exploiting the retreat by expanding China’s influence with investment, loans, technology, development programs. What’s called “soft power.”
Not just in the Mideast. The largest Chinese project is currently the Belt and Road Initiative, (BRI). It is being built within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This organization includes Central Asia states, India Pakistan, Russia and Iran. It also aims to reach Turkey and keep its eye on Central Europe. It could include Afghanistan, if it can survive the current catastrophe. Chinese aid and development may be able to shift Afghanistan’s economy away from heroin production for Europe, which was the heart of the economy during U.S. occupation, and towards the exploitation its rich mineral resources.
There are many BRI offshoots, including in Israel and the Middle East. Over the objections of the USA, there are accompanying programs for Africa and Latin America. Recently, China announced that it’s taking over the manufacturing facilities in São PauloFord abandoned electric vehicles production and will begin large-scale electric vehicle production. China is already a leader in this area.
These efforts are not being countered by the U.S. Bombs, missiles, special forces raids in rural communities just don’t work.
It’s an old dilemma. Sixty years ago in Vietnam, U.S. counterinsurgency efforts were stymied by a problem that was despairingly recognized by U.S. intelligence and by Province Advisers: the Vietnamese resistance — the Viet Cong (VC), in U.S. discourse — were fighting a political war, a domain in which the U.S. was weak. The U.S. responded with a military war in the arena where it is strongest. But that couldn’t overcome the appeal of VC programs to the peasant population.
The only way the Kennedy administration could react to the VC political war was by U.S. Air Force bombing of rural areas, authorizing napalm, large-scale crop and livestock destruction and other programs to drive the peasants to virtual concentration camps where they could be “protected” from the guerillas who the U.S. knew they were supporting. We now know the consequences.
Earlier, the dilemma had been explained by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, addressing the National Security Council about U.S. problems with Brazil, where elites, he said, are “like children, with no capacity for self-government.” Worse still, in his words, the U.S. is “hopelessly far behind the Soviets in developing controls over the minds and emotions of unsophisticated peoples” of the Global South, even educated elites. Dulles lamented to the president about the Communist “ability to get control of mass movements, … something we have no capacity to duplicate. The poor people are the ones they appeal to and they have always wanted to plunder the rich.”
Dulles left unsaid the obvious: The poor people somehow don’t respond well to our appeal of the rich to plunder the poor, so with great reluctance we have to turn to the arena of violence, where we dominate.
That’s not unlike the dilemma posed when China “leans in” to the Global South by “expanding its ties with vast infrastructure investments and cooperation on technology and security.” That is one central element of the China threat that is eliciting such fears and anguish.
The U.S. is responding in the strongest arena to China’s growing threat. The U.S. has a strong military presence worldwide, even off the coast China. But it’s being enhanced. Michael Klare, a military analyst, was interviewed last December. reportsThe National Defense Authorization Act was signed by President Biden. It calls for “an unbroken chain of U.S.-armed sentinel states — stretching from Japan and South Korea in the northern Pacific to Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore in the south and India on China’s eastern flank” — meant to encircle China.
Klare adds that, “Ominously enough Taiwan too is included in the chain of armed sentinel states.” The word “ominously” is well chosen. China regards Taiwan as part China. Informally, the U.S. does the same. The U.S. officially recognizes Taiwan as a part of China in its one-China policy. There is a tacit agreement that Taiwan will not be forced to change its status. This formula was broken by Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It’s now being driven to the brink. China has the option of resisting or succumbing. It is not going succumb.
This is only one part of the program to protect the U.S. against the China threat. A complementary element is to undermine China’s economy by means too well-known to review. In particular [in the U.S.’s eyes], China must be prevented from advancing in the technology of the future — actually extending its lead in some areas, such as electrification and renewable energy, the technologies that might save us from our race to destroy the environment that sustains life.
One aspect of these efforts to undermine China’s progress is to pressure other countries to reject superior Chinese technology. China has found a way out of these restrictions. They are planning to establish technical schools in countries of the Global South to teach advanced technology — Chinese technology, which graduates will then use. It is a difficult kind of aggression to face.
U.S. influence is clearly declining across the international system, but one would not easily reach this conclusion by looking at the current U.S. National Security Strategy, which is still designed around the principle of the “two-war” doctrine even without expressly saying so. In this context, it could be argued that the U.S. imperial power is waning in the 21st-century, and that the U.S. end of its empire might not be peaceful.
Since many years, it has been widely expected that China will surpass the U.S. in international policy circles. If the U.S. does not continue on its current path of self-destruction, which is likely to be accelerated by a predicted victory of the denialist party at the November congressional elections, this would be a doubtful prospect.
As we have discussed before, for some years the former Republican Party has been more accurately described as a “radical insurgency” that has abandoned normal parliamentary politics, to borrow the terms of political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute a decade ago — when Trump’s takeover of the insurgency was not yet a nightmare.
Trump’s administration has established a two war doctrine. A war between two nuclear power can quickly spiral out of control, which could lead to the end.
A step towards utter irrationality was taken last December 27, perhaps in celebration of Christmas, when President Biden signed the National Defense Authorization Act, discussed earlier, enhancing the policy of “encirclement” of China, “containment” being out of date. That includes formation of the Quad: U.S.-India-Japan-Australia, supplementing the AUKUS alliance (Australia, U.K., U.S.) and the Anglosphere’s Five Eyes, all of them strategic-military alliances confronting China. China’s only problem is its hinterland. As we have discussed, provocative acts are increasing the U.S. military advantage. This poses a great risk. We cannot allow ourselves to be complacent with the Axis forces on the march again.
It’s all too easy to sketch a likely trajectory that is far from a pleasant prospect. We must remember the usual caution. We do not have the right to be passive and contribute to disaster.