‘Wielding the sledgehammer’: Noam Chomsky on US hegemony

Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs‘ was first published in the 1990s, turning his penetrating gaze on U.S. involvement in the Balkans Crisis, the embargo against Cuba, Middle East, the Caribbean and Latin America, Chomsky re-positions the United States and their allies as the ‘rogue state’, subverting their foreign policy discourse to demonstrate how Western powers too often fail to uphold their own standards of conduct. This extract is part of the new preface from the recently published edition of ‘Rogue States’. Chomsky reviews the book’s key themes and looks at some historical examples that shaped the ‘doctrinal andchomsky-t02980 rhetorical standard’ of U.S. hegemony. 

To celebrate the publication of two new additions to the series we have compiled a ‘Chomsky Perspectives’ reading list. In addition to that we also have an offer of £40 (RRP £62) to buy the four newest titles ‘The Fateful Triangle’‘Rogue States‘, ‘Powers and Prospects’ and ‘Pirates and Emperors to help you on your way to building the series. 

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States that have some degree of power and agency in the international arena face two related tasks: to portray the targets of their punitive actions as irremediably evil and their own acts as glorious and just. The task falls to agencies of propaganda, the information (media) system, and loyal intellectuals—the last category the great majority in just about every known society. Since its origins, the US has not been free from this necessity—or, we might say, immune from this affliction. The portrayals might conceivably be accurate in some cases, but in historical reality, such cases are not easy to find.

There is a fundamental guiding principle: the more that crimes can be charged to some enemy, and hence the less we can do about them, the greater the outrage and clamour for a strong reaction. The more we are responsible, and hence the more we can do about them, the less the concern. Our own transgressions can be ignored, denied, or dismissed as errors that we shall now overcome. Departures from the principle are rare.

One aspect of the principle was captured succinctly in a famous observation of Orwell’s about nationalism: ‘The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.’ The counterpart is the tremendous outrage about real or alleged atrocities committed by the other side, which we can do little or nothing to alleviate, though we can and sometimes do compound them by wielding the sledgehammer.

When this book was written, at the end of the millennium, the flavour of the month for enemies was ‘rogue state.’ Hence the title, posing the question of just what the concept means, why it emerged, and how it can be correctly applied, particularly if we are willing to question the powerful doctrine of self-immunisation and the Orwellian principle, expanded to include its natural counterpart.

george-w-bush-tony-blair-camp-davidFor the US, the standard task gained far greater salience after World War II, when it reached heights of power and wealth without historical precedent, and appropriated—or wrested—the mantle of world leadership from the hands of a fading Britain. The losers, not surprisingly, were not amused. The British Foreign Office recognised ruefully that Britain would henceforth be a ‘junior partner’ in world domination, though they could not have anticipated the enthusiasm with which Tony Blair assumed the role.

With the sophistication that comes from centuries of practice in the art, British diplomats had little difficulty in perceiving that Washington, guided by ‘the economic imperialism of American business interests [is] attempting to elbow us out . . . under the cloak of a benevolent and avuncular internationalism.’ They also recognised a posture that had been second nature during Britain’s day in the sun: 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.’


What the world needs and what it is going to take were spelled out clearly even before the war ended. In February 1945, the US called the Latin American countries to a hemispheric conference in Mexico, where it imposed an ‘Economic Charter for the Americas.’ The goal was to put an end to the heretical ‘philosophy of the New Nationalism,’ as the State Department called it, which ‘embraces policies designed to bring about a broader distribution of wealth and to raise the standard of living of the masses.’ It was necessary to remind straying Latin Americans that they are mistaken to be ‘convinced that the first beneficiaries of the development of a country’s resources should be the people of that country.’ The first beneficiaries are US investors, while Latin America fulfils its service function, refraining from ‘excessive industrial development’ that infringes on US interests.

The Charter was intended to eliminate economic nationalism ‘in all its forms’—with one unmentioned exception. In the United States, economic nationalism continued to reign. Extending wartime achievements, the dynamic state sector largely created the modern high-tech economy by the familiar system of public subsidy, private profit.

Similar lessons were dictated to the rest of the global South in detailed and sophisticated planning, often presented with engaging frankness in internal documents, as when George Kennan, one of the leading planners, explained in PPS 23 that Africa’s role is to be ‘exploited’ for the reconstruction of Europe. In Europe itself, even before the war ended harsh measures were undertaken to restore the traditional order, including fascist collaborators, but now incorporated into the US-dominated world system. A corollary was undermining the antifascist resistance and radical democratic tendencies generally. After a brief interlude, similar policies were undertaken in occupied Japan.

A major theme of the Cold War that followed was the need to crush or subvert governments that pursued ‘radical and nationalist policies [that gain] the support or acquiescence of almost all’ of the population, who then provide “mass support for the present regime,’ policies that even proceed ‘to mobilise the hitherto politically inert peasantry.’ The quotes in this case are from the CIA warning about reformist capitalist democracy in Guatemala, a heresy that made it necessary to overthrow Guatemala’s ten-year democratic interlude in 1954 and restore it to brutal military dictatorship and hell on earth, which it has yet to escape 60 years later. The problem has arisen over and over, exacerbated by fear that the Russians were lurking in the shadowsanti-soviet-propaganda.

Among the many crimes of the Russian enemy, one of the most serious was that they might have ‘flirted with the thought’ of associating themselves with ‘a rising tide all over the world wherein the common man aspires to higher and wider horizons.’ For such reasons, it was understood at once that we must surround the USSR with military bases and offensive weapons while barring any such action on its part. Discussing this problem in 1945, the War Department (transmuted later, in Orwellian nomenclature, to the Defence Department) recognised that this might seem ‘illogical.’ But that is a superficial error, the department explained: it is a ‘logical illogicality,’ as we can see in the light of the persistent threat.

Just as today with Obama’s global terrorist campaign, then too it was necessary to respond to threats that might arise some- day, which is only reasonable, after all. For us.

The doctrinal and rhetorical standard for the post-war era of US hegemony was set by NSC 68, the most famous of the founding documents of the Cold War. This report, written by the prominent statesman Paul Nitze with the assistance of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, called for rapid militarisation of American society to protect free people from the Kremlin onslaught that threatens our very survival. The document reads like a fairy tale, contrasting their ultimate evil with our utter perfection, flawed only by our ‘excess of tolerance’ and ‘permanently open mind.’ The ‘fundamental design’ and ‘implacable purpose’ of the Kremlin-run ‘slave state,’ the report instructs us, is to gain ‘absolute authority over the rest of the world,’ destroying ‘the structure of society’ everywhere. In contrast, our ‘fundamental purpose is to assure the dignity and worth of the individual’ everywhere under the guidance of leaders who are animated solely by ‘generous and constructive impulses, and the absence of covetousness in our international relations.’

One may recall an observation of historian of imperialism V.G. Kiernan: ‘Administrations at Washington have frequently paid themselves the fulsome tributes that in Europe are left to poet laureates or journalists to pay’—though willing journalists are hardly lacking on this side of the Atlantic. Though it is one of the most cited documents, the rhetorical framework of NSC 68 is commonly avoided, perhaps out of embarrassment.

Meanwhile the CIA had been supporting armed rebellions within Russia in an effort, soon formulated as an official policy objective in NSC 68, to destroy the slave state from within. The opposite can hardly be contemplated. Another example of logical illogicality.

Throughout the Cold War it was possible to portray terrible crimes as courageous defence of freedom against the slave state, JFK’s ‘monolithic and ruthless conspiracy’ dedicated to our destruction along with freedom everywhere. As the reality of the Vietnam War began to be appreciated, far too late, that technique became harder to deploy. What happened next is of considerable interest. One of the best descriptions is by a highly respected historian of human rights, Samuel Moyn. Writing from the left-liberal and critical end of the spectrum, his review and analysis is of particular interest for understanding how the intellectual culture functions.

The contemporary human rights era, Moyn observes, began with America’s new ‘politics of liberal internationalism, which rose after the horrors of the Vietnam War in tandem with the search for a new geopolitical role vietnam-war-casualty-07-may-2016for the country. Invented just before the end of the Cold War, liberal internationalism surged in the decade after, with immense consequences for history.’ As one indication, ‘In 1977 the New York Times featured the phrase ‘human rights’ five times more frequently than in any prior year. The moral world had changed.’

Human rights ‘experienced their first global breakthrough’ when the cause began to be championed by the United States in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It was only then, ‘beginning in a moment of guilt and introspection and continuing in a post- Cold War mood of optimism and power—that liberal internationalism assumed its current form, stressing rules and rights.’ Moyn recognises, of course, that Great Britain had ‘its own version of liberal internationalism,’ which, he observes, served as ‘high-minded excuses for violent rulership.’ But the US is different. These are dangers that ‘the less self-interested and more authentically humane American hegemony will avoid.’ Although ‘there is no absolute way to distinguish between [Britain’s] maleficent empire and our benevolent hegemony,’ still we should be cognizant of the differences. In general, ‘There is little interest in unmasking liberal internationalism as an imperialism that dare not speak its name,’ surely not when considering the ‘specifically American vision of liberal internationalism that the end of the Cold War seemed to anoint.’

Moyn points out correctly that it was Eastern European dissidents who ‘made it possible for ‘human rights’ to be reclaimed by liberals and the anti-Communist left in the 1970s,’ leading to ‘the global radiance of human rights in our time.’ Particularly radiant was ‘the idealism so powerful during Bill Clinton’s presidency,’ when ‘for a moment in the 1990s, it looked as if the American school of thought known as ‘liberal internationalism’ was close to realising its fondest dreams,’ though regrettably the dreams did not outlast the Bush II era.

Moyn selects the basic facts. We might, however, consider a slightly different way of interpreting them.

The ‘horrors of the Vietnam War’ were the hideous crimes of American imperial aggression and occupation, which belatedly came to be appreciated, at least by many people worldwide. In 1967, the highly respected military historian and Vietnam specialist Bernard Fall warned that ‘Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity . . . is threatened with extinction [as] the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever un- leashed on an area of this size.’ By then a mass popular movement opposing the war was just beginning to take shape, after a bitter struggle, and by the time the US finally withdrew in 1975, domes- tic and international outrage had become a very powerful force.

To fulfil the joint tasks of a powerful state, discussed at the outset, something new was plainly needed. What could better serve the needs than ‘human rights’ and ‘liberal internationalism,’ which indeed became a mantra in the late 1970s, as Moyn describes? And he is also quite right to credit the Eastern European dissidents who provided intellectuals with the means to construct ‘the global radiance of human rights in our time.’

Why Eastern European dissidents rather than, say, their counterparts in Latin America—who are incidentally not called ‘dissidents’: that honourable term is reserved for dissidents in enemy domains? After all, it is beyond debate that violence and state terror in Washington’s Latin American domains were far more horrendous than what happened in Eastern Europe during that period, and the punishment of those who sought to resist and oppose state crimes was incomparably more severe than the ugly repression of East European dissidents. There is no need to tarry on the question: the guiding Orwellian principle provides the answer.


Noam Chomsky is a world renowned linguist and one of our foremost social critics. He is Institute Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT and the author of numerous books for Pluto Press.


Rogues States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs  is available to buy from Pluto here and from readmorechomsky.co.uk


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