The World According To Noam Chomsky

With the instability in Iran and scoping the long-term horizon, do you see the potential for World War III, given the natural resources crunch ahead for humanity – with shortages of food, water and oil all looking likely?

"I don't think we are approaching an international resource war, but the problem of natural resources is serious. In terms of fossil fuels, it is not that we are running out – they are actually too easily available. The use of fossil fuels is having a very real impact on the chances of survival. The recent emissions reports from the International Energy Agency and the US Department of Energy indicate that the worst-case scenarios of the International Panel on Climate Change were too conservative. There may be only a few years until we reach the point where the window closes and you can't really do anymore. Now, that is serious. The new techniques on extending the use of fossil fuels, fracking and so on with shale gas and the tar sands in Canada, are extremely dangerous. Not only because they are extending the use of fossil fuels, but also because they have damaging local effects on the environment. They take a massive use of water, which is an increasingly scarce resource itself. They are not only using water, but poisoning local water through use of chemicals. These tendencies are quite ominous, I think.

"In terms of Iran, prediction is difficult but we can try to understand what is happening. So, for example, in what is called the international community – which means the United States and whoever happens to be going along with it (usually a small minority of the world) – Iran is described as the main threat to peace and world order. But most of the people in the world don't agree with this at all. So the non-aligned countries – which make up the majority of the world population – strongly supported Iran's right to enrich uranium and develop nuclear power as a signer of the non-proliferation treaty. An interesting question, then, to ask ourselves is – why do they regard Iran as a threat? There happens to be an authoritative answer to that – namely, the answer provided by the Pentagon and US intelligence agencies in their submissions to congress on global security. They make it very clear – they say Iran is not a military threat; it has low military spending and practically no capacity to deploy force outside its territory. Its military strategies, they say, are defensive and designed to deter invasion long enough for diplomacy to set in; and they say that if Iran is developing a nuclear strategy, it would be part of a deterrent. Nevertheless, they conclude that the country is the worst possible threat. To states that feel that they have a right to use force at will anywhere – then a deterrent is, of course, a threat. The analysis goes on to say that Iran is destabilising the region near its territory. What exactly does that mean? Are we destabilising Central America when we extend our influence there?"

But the reasons given by the international community are that a nuclear-armed Iran, which has already destabilised Iraq and Afghanistan without having the bomb, would be a major threat to Israel as well as destabilising the region further in that all nearby countries – including Saudi Arabia – would then want the bomb

"The assumption is that when we invade and destroy countries on Iran's border, that is stabilising them – and when Iran extends its influence on countries near its border, then that is destabilising them. That tells us a lot about ourselves. I doubt that Saudi Arabia would want a nuclear weapon unless it was for prestige, as it is already under a US nuclear umbrella anyway. The idea that Iran would ever use a nuclear weapon is so ludicrous that I don't think there is a military analyst in the world who believes it is even a conceivable possibility. If they so much as armed a missile, the country would probably be vapourised. The only case of an Iranian invasion in the last century was under the Shah, with US support, when it conquered a couple of Arab islands in the Gulf. That's it. On the other hand, Israel has invaded its northern neighbour Lebanon five times and it is carrying out illegal settlement activities in occupied territories – and it has hundreds of nuclear weapons. Now, who is threatening who here? It's not about perception; it's about the assumption that we own the world. If you withdraw that assumption, it looks ludicrous. Incidentally, it is not to say that Iran is not a threat. It's a terrible threat to its own population, for example, but it's hardly alone in that respect."

How many of these problems relating to natural resources shortages do you expect man's ingenuity and modern technology to solve – in other words, is a modern Utopia possible?

"Nobody can predict that, but there certainly are theoretical possibilities. For example, if alternative sustainable energy can reach a sufficient scale – it is, in principle, possible to overcome the water shortage by desalination. But we are very far from achieving that. In the meantime, we have extremely serious problems. My morning newspaper today reports the very grim effects of what seems to be the worst drought in Mexico's history. The rapid fluctuation of climate, which is what has been predicted by the global change models, has been quite striking in recent years. We are not addressing it. In fact, the US congress recently barred any inquiry into whether the climate extremes of the past few years have anything to do with global warming. And they say why, they say 'if we allow an inquiry, there might be an opening to paying attention to the hoax that global warming is'. They don't want to acknowledge that global warming is taking place or that it has anything to do with human activity. If that is the case in the richest and most powerful country in the world, then we are just like lemmings going off the cliff."

And do you think there is a sense that certain parties like global warming because it could open up new territories for exploration in terms of fossil fuels and minerals – do you think that plays a part in the head-in-the-sand approach to climate change taken in some quarters?

"Well, extracting more fossil fuels is like pouring gasoline on a fire. It may open up more minerals that are needed, but the harmful effects of global warming could be devastating."

European Union member states like the United Kingdom are opening up public national health services to the market and actively seeking out American healthcare firms as potential service providers. Is this a good idea, in your view, when the system in the United States fails to care for some many millions of people without adequate medical insurance? And, more generally, are there any lessons that European welfare systems and public services can learn from the US?

"Well, they can learn what to avoid. The facts are pretty clear and not at all controversial. Healthcare expenses are about twice as much per capita as other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. The outcomes are not among the best. In fact, they are often quite low. And, as you said, there are millions without any health insurance. Indeed, there are many millions of deaths from lack of healthcare. There are parts of the US system that are as effective as Europe – the Veterans Administration, in particular, and the reason for that is because the VA is nationalised healthcare with preventative care and other measures. So, therefore, the government is permitted to negotiate drug prices. But it is barred from doing this in the privatised system, by law, with consequences that are obvious. The private system doesn't have that reduction in prices and boost in outcomes that a nationalised system does.

"So, if the question is – should Europe move towards a highly dysfunctional system and away from a system that is working pretty well? Then it is kind of hard to understand why that's a question in the first place. The real question has to be – should the US move to the sort of system that other industrialised countries have at half the per capita cost and, generally, better outcomes? There is a good reason why the US system is so inefficient, it's because it's the only privatised system. After all, private insurance companies are businesses. Their goal is to make money, not to make people healthier."

If we extend the discussion further – in the American higher education system, there is more of a focus on applied research rather than basic research. With Europe looking to move to a similar model – through marketisation of its universities – as a US academic, would you advise against this then?

"Firstly, there is extensive basic research in US universities. Patents, publications and Nobel prizes and so on in basic research areas have been heavily based in the US. Take my own university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is a good illustration of this – when I got here in the 1950s, it was an engineering school where students were taught the available technology to apply at the time. Over the years, it has shifted substantially to a university based on science. Students here, since the 1960s, don't take courses on a specific engineering speciality – say civil engineering or mechanical engineering. They just take basic science courses, for good reasons. Technology change has become much more rapid and you have to understand the basic science to keep up with what is going to happen next."

But America is much better at creating university spin-off companies and bringing products to market. The US seems be much more proactive in terms of getting venture capitalists involved with pump-prime funding and so on

"The way the system works here fundamentally is that the state sector, which is dynamic economically, produces funds and develops the core science and technology that's done through government labs and publicly-funded universities as well as through procurement, a major form of development. And once the basic work is done, largely within the public sector, then it is handed over to private capital for commercialisation and profit. At that stage, venture capital comes in. Take the information technology revolution – computers, the internet and satellites. For decades, it was in the state system. The first digital computers were produced in the 1950s and were not useable in the business world. Computers finally became commercially marketable in the late 1970s, it's a long time. The internet was in the public sector for almost 30 years before it became available for private profit. Much the same is true with pharmaceuticals. The spin-offs come much later after the basic research. It's a system that sort of works."

Here in Europe, we have just witnessed yet another EU summit achieve very little in terms of radical solutions to tackle the eurozone crisis. From an outsider's point of view – what is your impression of the European Union; how do you see its institutions and member states; and do you think the eurozone economic crisis helps to make the case for a United States of Europe?

"The eurozone crisis is a self-generated one. Europe is attempting to impose austerity at a time of near, if not actual, recession. That's a recipe for disaster. I mean, every economist knows that. In fact, the International Monetary Fund just came out with a study of 150 cases of austerity under recession and they are all a disaster. You can see it in the UK right now; the economic decline has now lasted longer than it did during the Great Depression. Austerity just makes matters worse. What is required is economic stimulus and Europe has the resources for that, which would allow countries to grow their way out of the situation and overcome the decline.

"Admittedly, there is a lot of variation in Europe and Greece has very special problems. But take, say, Spain. Until the housing bubble crashed, the country had a budget surplus. It is not long-term government spending policies that are causing the problems. The Spanish housing bubble, of course, should never have been allowed to continue. But it was a rather local problem, not a fundamental problem of government spending and with stimulation to the economy – Spain should be able to overcome it."

If further and deeper integration is not what the future holds for Europe, then what is the alternative? And how can Europe resolve the current economic crisis?

"The right move would be economic stimulation and abandoning the rigid concern of the European Central Bank for a 2 per cent inflation rate. The only argument I can see for that is class war. It weakens labour and helps dismantle the welfare state, but it is not the way out of Europe's economic problems. The ECB is substantially German-controlled – although, I should say, that in the last couple of weeks it has been easing its policies slightly, but it has to do much more. Germany has been a hugely successful economy of late and a large part of its success relies on the fact that it has a European market. It now has a responsibility to carry the system forward towards growth and development; and not sink it deeper into a vicious cycle of austerity, decline of growth and inability to pay debt and so on – which is what is happening. As to this vacuum of leadership among European leaders – well, there doesn't seem to be much sign of change there at the moment I'm afraid."

What are you views on the so-called "war on terror" and the threat now to western nations from Islamic fundamentalists?

"The whole concept of the war on terror is quite an intriguing one. The war on terror was originally declared by Ronald Reagan in 1981. When his administration came into office, they declared that the focus would be on what they called state-directed international terrorism. They called it the plague of the modern age and a return of barbarism in our time and so on and so forth. A lot of Reaganite policy was actually driven by that principle. So, for example, as late as 1988 the Reagan administration designated the African National Congress as one of the most notorious terrorist groups in the world. That was the justification for supporting apartheid South Africa, not only for its crimes within but abroad – which killed probably more than a million people. In Central America, which was the main target of Reagan's war on terror, it led to horrifying atrocities. At Guatemala, something like 100,000 Mayans were slaughtered in what amounted to genocide. This was state terror. In El Salvador, approximately 75,000 were killed. There was also an assault against Nicaragua and the US was condemned for unlawful use of force, meaning terrorism. In fact, all over, the US just launched a major terrorist war under the rubric of the war on terror. That has been kind of wiped out of history because it's unattractive to think about, but it's a fact. And it continues, western state terror remains a major phenomenon. 

"Now, there also is Islamic terror. That much is true. And, of course, that's what we focus on because terror is what they do to us, not what we do to them. It's a very narrow and restricted definition. The problem of Islamic terror is consciously exacerbated by the US, Britain, France and others. Take the invasion of Iraq, it was predicted by the intelligence agencies – the CIA, MI6, all of them – that it would be likely to increase terror, which it did. Terror increased by about a factor of seven in the first year, according to US government statistics. A lot of this came out recently in the Chilcot Inquiry, in the UK, but it was known before. Taking actions that increase terrorism are plainly not the way to deal with terror. 

"After the 9/11 Al-Qaeda attacks, there was a choice. The attacks were pretty harshly condemned within the Jihadi movement, fatwas from British universities and so on. That has been well-studied in the academic literature. So there was a choice, either you try to isolate Al-Qaeda by separating it from the constituency it is trying to reach – the Jihadi movement, the Muslim populations and so on – and then go after it, if that makes sense. Or the other choice was essentially to follow Osama bin Laden's orders and carry out wars in the Muslim world, which would be perceived as wars against Islam and, therefore, mobilise more terrorists. This is not just my opinion, incidentally. I am virtually quoting leading US intelligence specialists. The US followed bin Laden's script; his best allies were in Washington. The threat of terrorism is not trivial and there are ways to deal with it, if you want to reduce the threat and there are other ways to react if you don't care about terrorism and are willing to extend the threat. Unfortunately, those are the ones we have been following.

"Meanwhile, we are carrying out plenty of terror ourselves. It is not talked about much, but take say the western hemisphere. The worst human rights violator in the western hemisphere by a long shot is Colombia. Just in the last few years, according to the Colombian government, about 140,000 people have been killed by paramilitary terror – closely linked to the military, which receives extensive US funding. In fact, the US funding for Colombia far exceeds that of other western hemisphere countries and there is a longstanding correlation – which has been demonstrated in the scholarly literature – that US aid correlates quite closely with human rights violations. That is state terror and other types of repression. And there are plenty of other examples. In the 1990s, some of the worst terror in the European region was in south eastern Turkey; that is part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation." 

And we regularly see reports that this sort of thing is still going on in Turkey today

"Yes, it is picking up again now, but in the 1990s it was really horrifying. Thousands of towns and villages were destroyed, tens of thousands of people were killed, and millions of refugees were driven out. And that was right within NATO, 80 per cent of the arms were coming from the US and the European countries were participating too. Well, they didn't care about that. What they cared about was things being done by others – Serbs, for example – but not what we were doing ourselves. It is not even double standards. In a way, it is a single standard – what we do to them is fine, what they do to us is intolerable."

Looking to the United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood last year, were you disappointed or surprised by the lack of support for Palestine from Europe and the US?

"From the US, it was predictable and no surprise. But Europe, I thought, was surprisingly cowardly. Europe just bowed to US pressure and it didn't have to. I thought there was a chance that Europe might have the courage and integrity to take an independent stance. But, it didn't, it collapsed." 

Finally, what are the main new areas of research you are working on at the moment?

"I have been writing, working and speaking on longer-term issues. For instance – there has been a major change in the US and, indeed, across global economies. Since the 1970s in the US, there has been a sharp reversal of hundreds of years of American history – that saw ups and downs in not very pretty ways, but a general trajectory towards development, economic growth, industrialisation and progress and human rights and so on. There were unpleasant variations along the way, but that was the general tendency. That started to reverse in the 1970s. The economy shifted towards financialisation, a huge increase in the role of financial capital and offshoring of production. So production continues and you have the same owners and managers, but manufacturing in China instead of Ohio. These have been big changes and it extends, to an extent, beyond America. 

"Germany has maintained a strong manufacturing and export economy, but there have been changes elsewhere in Europe in many respects. It has been extremely harmful socially, politically and in other ways. Some commentators have described the financial institutions as like a larva eating away at the economy from the inside. And I think that is correct. These changes set in motion a vicious cycle in which there is rapid concentration of wealth – mostly in the financial sector and a tiny part of the society – that leads to a concentration of political power and legislation, which carries the cycle forward with fiscal policies and deregulation. Then you have the state being called upon to step in regularly to salvage the economic crises and the immediate consequences of these processes that have been happening since the Reagan and Thatcher years. It is privatising the profit and socialising the debt. 

"Meanwhile, the political system has been shredded. The cost of elections has skyrocketed and that drives the political parties deeper into corporate profits to the extent that to gain a position of some authority in congress, you now have to buy it. It used to be seniority and service that got you to the position of committee chairman. All of this is leading to things like the farce that you are observing right now in the Republican primaries and it is dangerous. There is, finally, some popular reaction to these processes though and that may be meaningful."

And, given that, what is your prediction for which way the US presidential race is likely to go?
"If you just take a look at the financing, which usually determines electoral outcomes, it is pretty clear that the Republican establishment is backing Mitt Romney and will beat back any opposition. After that, it is hard to predict, we can only look at the polls. It really will depend on the way forces are mobilised as well as the economy." 

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