Chomsky Session 5: International Relations, Part One

Transcript of Chomsky Sessions 5: International Relations, a Z Video DVD with Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert (http://www.zcomm.org/zstore/products/114)


Switching to another area. International relations. What does colonialism mean?

Well, like any term of human affairs, it covers a vast range. There's all kinds of colonialism. I mean, the worst kind of colonialism is what's called settler colonialism. Like the United States or Australia or Israel now, to a lesser extent. Settler colonialism, means you exterminate the indigenous population. Maybe not a hundred percent but, you know, pretty close. So that's the absolute worst kind of colonialism. There's other kinds of colonialism which are less extreme. Take Wilson and Haiti and Clinton and Haiti. That's a form of colonialism in which you effectively take over the country for your own benefit, get as much as you can out of it — destroy the agricultural system, drive the population into cities — all for the most benign reasons, you know, all great economic progressive reasons. And you end up with, say, the earthquake that just happened. That's another kind of colonialism.

There's many other kinds. So, take the U.S. in the Philippines, which happened to be an innovation in imperial history. The U.S. invaded the Philippines about a century ago, it killed a couple hundred thousand people, there was vicious racism. Unbelievable racism. People here weren't even sure whether the Filipinos were humans or apes. They were exhibited in International Affairs and that sort of thing. I mean, it was just horrendous when you look back at it. Of course, all for the most noble reasons. We're uplifting them, Christianizing them, you know, giving them civilization, the usual stuff.

There were scattered opponents. People like like Mark Twain. He wrote very sardonic and cutting anti-imperialist essays. He wasn't hanged, he didn't have his brains blown out, but they were suppressed. In fact, I think they finally came out around twenty years ago, in some scholarly edition that nobody ever read, Syracuse University Press. But they were there.

Now, what happened after you conquered it? That was the innovation. Actually, this has just been studied in a really magisterial book, great book, by Alfred McCoy, who's a historian of the Philippines among other achievements. He's the first person to have studied in detail how they dealt with the population after they'd more or less — you know, they still haven't totally conquered them, it's still going on — sort of pacified the country. Well, it turns out there was a major. What was instituted was a very sophisticated, high tech control and surveillance system. Now, the technology of then wasn't the technology of now, but it existed. Telegraph, radio and other surveillance techniques. Every technique was used that was available to try to control, monitor, subdue the population.

There were also pretty sophisticated techniques of undermining resistance that were used. So, co-optation of elites, spreading rumors, you know, using every device you had to try to undermine the nationalists. It was done very well.

In the background, there's the Philippine Constabulary, something which happens in every colonial, imperial system. You have a kind of a paramilitary force of collaborators which do what you tell them — and they're usually trained killers. Let's say, you pick people from one tribe to kill another tribe or, you know, use the rural population to smash the urban population. It's done in various ways. In fact, we do it right now. That's the way the U.S. is hoping to run the Occupied Palestinian Territories. There's a U.S. run army that's supposed to subdue them — highly praised by Obama and Kerry and the liberals and so on. This array of techniques was worked out in quite impressive detail, and applied in a very sophisticated fashion.

The Philippines is still pretty much under this system. The Philippines, which remains kind of a quasi-colony is the only part of East and Southeast Asia that has not been part of the so-called economic miracle. You know, you take a look at Taiwan, South Korea, even Indonesia and so on, there's been a lot of economic development. Not the Philippines. It's the one part of the region that we still run.

Wilson and the British, during the WW I, used a lot of these techniques domestically. Now it's extreme. So you go to Britain, it's a surveillance society. Cameras on every street corner, you know, allegedly anti-terror devices. Here too, you know, the Patriot Act.

In any event, to get back to your question, there's no answer to what is colonialism. It's just one form in which powerful systems subdue others. And they subdue their own population. There's nothing new about that. I mean, that was pointed out by Adam Smith. Like, you know, not a fool, I mean, what he pointed out and what international affairs specialists don't seem to understand is that if you want to understand how a country works, you cannot ignore the domestic distribution of power. He pointed out in the Wealth of Nations, you want to understand England, which is his concern, you have to recognize that the architects of policy are merchants and manufacturers, and they set policy up so that their interests are very well dealt with, even though the impact on the people of England may be grievous. And, of course, elsewhere it's even worse. What he called the savage injustice of the Europeans is a horrible ill. That's basically an enduring truth about power systems.

At the other end of the spectrum, in the best sense of the word, what do you think internationalism means or implies or constitutes?

Internationalism should be what it has always been, at least in the terminology of the left. I mean, unions are called internationals, not because they are internationals but because they ought to be. And their initial formulaic creation was motivated, in part, by the idea that we ought to be concerned with working people and peasants and other oppressed people around the world. Solidarity, international solidarity, was the core ideology of unions. The internationals that were formed are called internationals because that's what they were supposed to be committed to.

If we weren't so totally caught up in crazed ideology, we'd call the World Social Forum the one pro-globalization group in the world. I mean, it's not Davos, where you get a bunch of rich people talking about how to enrich yourselves, which is called globalization. The World Social Forum, with all of its defects, brings together people from all over the world, all walks of life, mutually interacting, new people giving seeds to each other, supportive ideas about how to improve the global world for the vast majority. That's internationalism. That's what we should be doing. Anti-imperialism is a form of internationalism.

When do you think it's okay for an individual in the United States to denounce human rights violations in another country as compared to: when do you think it's either hypocrisy or interference? Now I'm talking about an individual, not the government.

If there are human rights violations somewhere it makes sense to criticize them. It makes sense to criticize them if you can do something about them. If you can't do anything about them it's just posturing. But if you can help human rights activists or oppressed people or whatever, somewhere else, sure, you should do it. The question is always priorities. Time and energy are finite. You can't get around that. And the question is: How do we compare, how do we decide how to distribute our energies when there are human rights violations? And there are very clear criteria for that. They are almost 100 percent violated, but they're extremely clear. What you prioritize is what any moral human being does: the predictable consequences of your own actions. That's what should be prioritized. I mean somebody else's actions, yeah I can criticize them, but there's no particular moral value to it, unless I can somehow improve things. The one thing you can improve is what you are doing. So, overwhelmingly, our priority ought to be our own engagement in human rights violations which we can change.

Incidentally, that's kind of independent of scale. Even if the ones we're carrying out are not so terrible, and the ones that somebody else is carrying out are awful, but we can't do anything about it, then elementary morality says: let's focus on ourselves. The practice is almost the reverse. Almost 100 percent the reverse. I mean, there's great pleasure taken in the crimes of others. Especially if we can't do anything about them. Particularly if it's an enemy.

If some enemy commits horrible crimes and we can't do a thing about it, it's just irresistible to posture heroically about their crimes. For one thing, it's costless, because you can't do anything about it. For another thing it shows how noble you are. And you can lie like a trooper, you can say anything you want, and if anybody says: well, maybe, that's not quite accurate, you can come back and say: oh, you're a genocide supporter, you know, you're in favor of holocausts. I mean, there's a whole stream of techniques that's available.

Intellectuals just love it. There's even a new literary genre that developed in the last 10 or 15 years, which is very highly respected. And that is castigating ourselves for not criticizing strongly enough the crimes of others. That's just marvelous. For one thing, you're criticizing ourselves, so, look how moral you are. And you're criticizing ourselves for not doing enough about the crimes of enemies, which we can't do anything about. And, in fact, if you look at the literature on this, it's astonishing. I mean, it's carried out, like almost to a tee, it's like a caricature of itself. And the people are nice people. Actually, I know some of them. You know, perfectly nice people, perfectly decent, they think we ought to really sacrifice ourselves, you know, and castigate ourselves for not doing enough about, say, Pol Pot's genocide, which there was no suggestion about what to do about. But, meanwhile, totally ignore everything we're doing.

Self-determination. What does it mean, what sort of right of self-determination and under what circumstances are people to exercise, entitled to exercise the right, and, conversely, when are people not entitled to exercise it?

Again, like most things, I don't think you can give a blanket answer. It depends on circumstances.

What are the…

I mean, from one point of view, everybody has a right of self-determination. Like, you have a right to control your own life. Just like individuals do. On the other hand, self-determination is not done in isolation. It has consequences for others. So you have to take that into account. Then you have to start balancing things. So, take, say secession in the South in the United States. Should Southerners have the right of self-determination? Well, who was asking for self-determination? White Southerners. Not black slaves. So, it wasn't that the South was asking for self-determination. On the contrary, a large part of the population, which didn't have a voice, was opposed to self-determination for the white masters. But I do not see how there can be formulas about this, because self-determination, while a value, is only one of many values. And, as in human affairs generally, values often conflict.

Do you have views about international structures, new international structures, that might better protect, you know, the weak and poor, people who are subject to violations, starvation imposed upon, etc. Actual institutional structures that could, you know…

That's interesting, but I'm pretty much in the mainstream of American public opinion on this. Totally different from elite opinion or anything that's articulated. But if you look at American public opinion, which I've written about it, and you kind of review the polls, they're pretty standard and consistent and nobody really doubts them. A considerable majority of the public, quite a large majority, think that the United Nations, not the United States, ought to take the lead on international crises. A majority of the population think we ought to give up the veto at the Security Council, everybody ought to, and just follow the will of the majority, even if we don't like it. I haven't seen a poll recently after the huge propaganda offensives of the last couple of years, but two years ago, take say, Iran, the big issue. A considerable majority of the population agreed with almost the entire world that Iran has the right to enrich uranium, as does any signer of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. I mean, what we read here is Iran is defying the world, by some interesting definition of the world. The world means…


Not just us, the government. It means the U.S. government and whoever happens to agree with it. That's the world. It excludes a large majority of the population of the United States, it excludes the nonaligned countries, which is most of the world, who vigorously support it, and so on. But, yeah, I think they are right.

Keeping to the top issue in international affairs, a huge percentage, again, I don't remember the numbers, but it was quite large, thought that we should establish a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. Now, that's the right answer to the problems such as they are, that are arising. Technically, the United States says, yeah, sure, but, of course nothing's being done about it. A nuclear weapons free zone, it's a very interesting concept, if you're really interesting in non-proliferation, which Obama claims he is, the one thing you'd support is nuclear weapons free zones. Those are, you know, they're small steps but steps toward reducing the threat of nuclear weapons and proliferation. The facts are extremely revealing. With regard to the Middle East, there's overwhelming popular support. Around the whole world. Of course, what that would mean is no nuclear weapons in Iran or Israel or U.S. forces deployed there. That would be a nuclear weapons free zone. That's why it's not even on the agenda, except for the population. Well, that would be an important step, it's feasible, you know, with inspection procedures, of course, and so on, but it's technically feasible and it would mitigate, perhaps eliminate, whatever dangers there are. But it's not on the agenda.

Also not mentionable is that the U.S. and Britain have a very strong commitment to this. The reason is because of something that is unutterable. When the U.S. and Britain went to war with Iraq, they tried to provide a very thin legal cover for it. What they appealed to is a Security Council resolution, 687, from 1991, which called on Iraq to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction. And the story was, they hadn't done it, so we had the right to invade. If you read that resolution, it calls for the establishment of a nuclear free weapons zone in the Middle East. So, therefore, the U.S. and Britain, way more than any other country, are committed to this. Well, you can't talk about it, because it's like, you know, pornography or something or worse.

It gets much more interesting than this. There are nuclear free weapons zones in the world. One was just finally achieved in Africa after a lot of negotiations. It's being blocked by the United States. The reason is that the African Union, all of it, regards the island of Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean, as part of Africa. Because it's a part of Mauritius, which is part of the African Union. Well, Britain, under U.S. orders, kicked out the whole population some years ago, illegally of course, in order to build a big U.S. military base. So, Britain didn't accept the African Union agreement, because the master says you can't do it, they're very loyal. The U.S. refuses to accept it. So, the U.S. is blocking the African Union Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, because we insist on keeping a base, a military base, after having kicked out the population, for storage of nuclear weapons and, crucially, for bombing. That's one of the main bases for carrying out aggression in Central Asia and the Middle East — you know, you bomb Iraq, it comes from there. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, the Navy announced that they're sending a big submarine tender to Diego Garcia, to service nuclear submarines and so on and so forth. So, we're blocking the African Union nuclear weapons free zone, we're refusing to even talk about the Middle East one, which is critical, and there's more.

(laughs) There's always more…

There's always more. There's a South Pacific nuclear weapons free zone. It was held up for a long time by the French because they wanted to use the French islands for nuclear weapons testing. Alright, they finally did their nuclear weapons testing, now it's being held up by the United States. Because the Pacific Islands, like Palau and so on, they're used for nuclear weapons storage and for nuclear submarines. So, OK, we're blocking the South Pacific zone. And, meanwhile, Obama is giving highly praised speeches about how awful nuclear weapons are, we've got to do something about it. And there's massive, at least pretended, concern, maybe actual concern about the possibility that maybe Iran's developing nuclear weapons and we don't know. If anybody from Mars was watching this they'd be amazed that the species can even go on, you know. How can you do all this without collapsing in ridicule about yourself? Well, it's easy in a well-disciplined society.

Transcribed by Anton G.


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