What Uncle Sam Really Wants Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky
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For most of this century, the United States was far and away the world's dominant economic power, and that made economic warfare an appealing weapon, including measures ranging from illegal embargo to enforcement of IMF rules (for the weak). But in the last twenty years or so, the US has declined relative to Japan and German-led Europe (thanks in part to the economic mismanagement of the Reagan administration, which threw a party for the rich with costs paid by the majority of the population and future generations). At the same time, however, US military power has become absolutely preeminent.
As long as the Soviet Union was in the game, there was a limit to how much force the US could apply, particularly in more remote areas where we didn't have a big conventional force advantage. Because the USSR used to support governments and political movements the US was trying to destroy, there was a danger that US intervention in the Third World might explode into a nuclear war. With the Soviet deterrent gone, the US is much more free to use violence around the world, a fact that has been recognized with much satisfaction by US policy analysts in the past several years.
In any confrontation, each participant tries to shift the battle to a domain in which it's most likely to succeed. You want to lead with your strength, play your strong card. The strong card of the United States is force -- so if we can establish the principle that force rules the world, that's a victory for us. If, on the other hand, a conflict is settled through peaceful means, that benefits us less, because our rivals are just as good or better in that domain.
Diplomacy is a particularly unwelcome option, unless it's pursued under the gun. The US has very little popular support for its goals in the Third World. This isn't surprising, since it's trying to impose structures of domination and exploitation. A diplomatic settlement is bound to respond, at least to some degree, to the interests of the other participants in the negotiation, and that's a problem when your positions aren't very popular.
As a result, negotiations are something the US commonly tries to avoid. Contrary to much propaganda, that has been true in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Central America for many years.
Against this background, it's natural that the Bush administration should regard military force as a major policy instrument, preferring it to sanctions and diplomacy (as in the Gulf crisis). But since the US now lacks the economic base to impose "order and stability" in the Third World, it must rely on others to pay for the exercise -- a necessary one, it's widely assumed, since someone must ensure a proper respect for the masters. The flow of profits from Gulf oil production helps, but Japan and German-led continental Europe must also pay their share as the US adopts the "mercenary role," following the advice of the international business press.
The financial editor of the conservative Chicago Tribune has been stressing these themes with particular clarity. We must be "willing mercenaries," paid for our ample services by our rivals, using our "monopoly power" in the "security market" to maintain "our control over the world economic system." We should run a global protection racket, he advises, selling "protection" to other wealthy powers who will pay us a "war premium."
This is Chicago, where the words are understood: if someone bothers you, you call on the Mafia to break their bones. And if you fall behind in your premium, your health may suffer too.
To be sure, the use of force to control the Third World is only a last resort. The IMF is a more cost-effective instrument than the Marines and the CIA if it can do the job. But the "iron fist" must be poised in the background, available when needed.
Our rent-a-thug role also causes suffering at home. All of the successful industrial powers have relied on the state to protect and enhance powerful domestic economic interests, to direct public resources to the needs of investors, and so on -- one reason why they are successful. Since 1950, the US has pursued these ends largely through the Pentagon system (including NASA and the Department of Energy, which produces nuclear weapons). By now we are locked into these devices for maintaining electronics, computers and high-tech industry generally.
Reaganite military Keynesian excesses added further problems. The transfer of resources to wealthy minorities and other government policies led to a vast wave of financial manipulations and a consumption binge. But there was little in the way of productive investment, and the country was saddled with huge debts: government, corporate, household and the incalculable debt of unmet social needs as the society drifts towards a Third World pattern, with islands of great wealth and privilege in a sea of misery and suffering.
When a state is committed to such policies, it must somehow find a way to divert the population, to keep them from seeing what's happening around them. There are not many ways to do this. The standard ones are to inspire fear of terrible enemies about to overwhelm us, and awe for our grand leaders who rescue us from disaster in the nick of time.
That has been the pattern right through the 1980s, requiring no little ingenuity as the standard device, the Soviet threat, became harder to take seriously. So the threat to our existence has been Qaddafi and his hordes of international terrorists, Grenada and its ominous air base, Sandinistas marching on Texas, Hispanic narcotraffickers led by the arch-maniac Noriega, and crazed Arabs generally. Most recently it's Saddam Hussein, after he committed his sole crime -- the crime of disobedience -- in August 1990. It has become more necessary to recognize what has always been true: that the prime enemy is the Third World, which threatens to get "out of control."
These are not laws of nature. The processes, and the institutions that engender them, could be changed. But that will require cultural, social and institutional changes of no little moment, including democratic structures that go far beyond periodic selection of representatives of the business world to manage domestic and international affairs.
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