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Deterring Democracy


By Noam Chomsky

...the government of the world must be entrusted to satisfied nations, who wished nothing more for themselves than what they had. If the world-government were in the hands of hungry nations, there would always be danger. But none of us had any reason to seek for anything more. The peace would be kept by peoples who lived in their own way and were not ambitious. Our power placed us above the rest. We were like rich men dwelling at peace within their habitations.

WINSTON CHURCHILL


INTRODUCTION

 

History does not come neatly packaged into distinct periods, but by imposing such a structure upon it, we can sometimes gain clarity without doing too much violence to the facts. One such period was initiated with the Second World War, a new phase in world affairs in which "the United States was the hegemonic power in a system of world order" (Samuel Huntington). This phase was visibly drawing to a close in the 1970s, as the state capitalist world moved towards a tripolar structure with economic power centered in the United States, Japan, and the German-based European Community. As for the Soviet Union, the military build-up initiated after Soviet weakness was dramatically revealed during the Cuban missile crisis was beginning to level off, and Moscow's capacity to influence and coerce, always far inferior to that of the hegemonic power, was continuing to decline from its late 1950s peak. Furthermore, internal pressures were mounting as the economy stagnated, unable to enter a new phase of "post-industrial" modernization, and broader sectors of the population demonstrated their unwillingness to submit to totalitarian constraints. Plainly, Europe and Japan posed a greater potential threat to U.S. dominance than the fading Soviet Union.

These developments were reasonably clear by the late 1970s, but a different conception was needed as a rationale for the policies then being implemented to maintain U.S. global dominance and to provide a needed shot in the arm to high technology industry: the picture of a fearsome Soviet Union marching from strength to strength and posing an awesome challenge to Western Civilization. These illusions lacked credibility at the time, and became completely unsustainable through the next decade. Meanwhile the observations of the preceding paragraph have become virtual truisms. 1

This pattern has been standard through the postwar era -- and, in fact, it illustrates far more general regularities of statecraft and the ideological structures that accompany it. As if by reflex, state managers plead "security" to justify their programs. The plea rarely survives scrutiny. We regularly find that security threats are contrived -- and once contrived for other purposes, sometimes believed -- to induce a reluctant public to accept overseas adventures or costly intervention in the domestic economy. The factors that have typically driven policy in the postwar period are the need to impose or maintain a global system that will serve state power and the closely-linked interests of the masters of the private economy, and to ensure its viability by means of public subsidy and a state-guaranteed market. The highly ramified Pentagon system has been the major instrument for achieving these goals at home and abroad, always on the pretext of defense against the Soviet menace. To a significant extent, the threat of the Soviet Union and other enemies has risen or declined as these ends require. 2

Strategic theory and the policy sciences are supple instruments, rarely at a loss to provide the required argument and analysis to buttress the conclusion of the moment.

We can, then, identify a period from World War II, continuing into the 1970s, in which the U.S. dominated much of the world, confronting a rival superpower of considerably more limited reach. We may adopt conventional usage and refer to this as the Cold War era, as long as we are careful not to carry along, without reflection, the ideological baggage devised to shape understanding in the interests of domestic power.

One of the themes of the essays that follow is the significance and implications of these changes in the world order, but with a particular focus: with regard to U.S. policies and those most affected by them.

There is a striking imbalance in the "post-Cold War" international system: the economic order is tripolar, but the military order is not. The United States remains the only power with the will and the capacity to exercise force on a global scale, even more freely than before, with the fading of the Soviet deterrent. But the U.S. no longer enjoys the preponderance of economic power that enabled it to maintain an aggressive and interventionist military posture since World War II. Military power not backed by a comparable economic base has its limits as a means of coercion and domination. It may well inspire adventurism, a tendency to lead with one's strength, possibly with catastrophic consequences.

These features of the international system have been manifest in the varying reactions of the industrial powers to the collapse of the Soviet empire, and in the early post-Cold War U.S. military operations, the invasion of Panama and the response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. In the latter case, just unfolding as these words are written, the tension between economic tripolarity and military unipolarity is particularly evident. Despite the very hazardous possible consequences of military conflict, the virtually instinctive U.S. government reaction was to direct the confrontation to the arena of force, undercutting possible diplomatic opportunities and even expressing deep concern that others might be tempted to seek to "defuse the crisis" by diplomatic means, achieving the goals sought generally by the international community but without a decisive demonstration of the effectiveness of U.S. military power and resolve. 3

In the evolving world order, the comparative advantage of the United States lies in military force, in which it ranks supreme. Diplomacy and international law have always been regarded as an annoying encumbrance, unless they can be used to advantage against an enemy. Every active player in world affairs professes to seek only peace and to prefer negotiations to violence and coercion -- even Hitler; but when the veil is lifted, we commonly see that diplomacy is understood as a disguise for the rule of force. With the current configuration of U.S. strengths and weaknesses, the temptation to transfer problems quickly to the arena of forceful confrontation is likely to be strong. Furthermore, though the United States cannot regain the economic supremacy of an earlier period, it is committed to maintaining its status as the sole military superpower, with no likely contestant for that role. One consequence will be exacerbation of domestic economic difficulties; another, a renewed temptation to "go it alone" in relying on the threat of force rather than diplomacy.

The Gulf conflict brought these issues to the fore. Aside from England, which has its own interests in Kuwait, the other major industrial powers showed little interest in military confrontation. The reaction in Washington was ambivalent. War is dangerous; defusing the crisis without a demonstration of the efficacy of force is also an unwanted outcome. As for the costs, plainly it would be advantageous for them to be shared, but not at the price of sacrificing the role of lone enforcer. These conflicting concerns led to a sharp elite split over the tactical choice between preparation for war and reliance on sanctions, with the Administration holding to the former course.

In the past, the United States and its clients have often found themselves "politically weak" (that is, lacking popular support in some region targeted for intervention) though militarily and economically strong, a formula commonly used on all sides. Under such conditions, it is natural to prefer military force, terror, and economic warfare to the peaceful means dictated by international law. With lagging economic strength, the temptation to resort to force is only heightened.

It is fitting that the first two occasions for the use of force in this (partially) new era should have been in Central America and the Gulf. Political analysts and advisers often draw a distinction between "our needs" and "our wants," the former exemplified by the Middle East, with its incomparable energy resources; the latter by Central America, of no major strategic or economic significance, but a domain in which the U.S. rules by tradition. In the case of mere "wants," tactical preferences may vary. Our "needs" in the Middle East, it is regularly argued, legitimate extreme measures to preserve U.S. dominance and to ensure that no independent indigenous force (or foreign power, had this been a serious possibility in the postwar era) might gain substantial influence over the production and distribution of the region's petroleum resources. To the extent feasible, these are to be dominated by the United States, its allies and regional clients, and its oil corporations -- a doctrine that might virtually be regarded as "Axiom One of international affairs," I suggested in writing about this matter in the mid-1970s, at the time of the first oil crisis. 4

These features of the international system also have their conventional expression (the United States must bear the burden of enforcing good behavior worldwide, etc.). But such ideological fetters must be removed if there is to be any hope of gaining a realistic understanding of what lies ahead.

There is, indeed, a "New World Order" taking shape, marked by the diffusion of power in U.S. domains and the collapse of the Russian empire and the tyranny at its heart. These developments leave the U.S. as the overwhelmingly dominant military force and offer the three economic power centers the attractive prospect of incorporating the former Soviet system into their Third World domains. These must still be controlled, sometimes by force. This has been the responsibility of the United States, but with its relative economic decline, the task becomes a harder one to shoulder.

One reaction is that the U.S. must persist in its historic task, while turning to others to pay the bills. Testifying before Congress, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger explained that the emerging New World Order will be based on "a kind of new invention in the practice of diplomacy": others will pay the costs of U.S. intervention to keep order. A respected commentator on international economic affairs describes the Gulf crisis as a "watershed event in US international relations," which will be seen in history as having "turned the US military into an internationally financed public good," "an internationally-financed police force." While "some Americans will question the morality of the US military assuming a more explicitly mercenary role than it has played in the past, ...in the 1990s there is no realistic alternative...." The tacit assumption is that the public welfare is to be identified with the welfare of the Western industrial powers, and particularly their domestic elites. 5

The financial editor of a leading conservative daily puts the essential point less delicately: we must exploit our "virtual monopoly in the security market...as a lever to gain funds and economic concessions" from German-led Europe and Japan. The U.S. has "cornered the West's security market" and others lack the "political will...to challenge the U.S." in this "market." We will therefore be "the world's rent-a-cops" and will be "able to charge handsomely" for the service; the term "rent-a-thug" would be less flattering but more appropriate. Some will call us "Hessians," the author continues, but "that's a terribly demeaning phrase for a proud, well-trained, well-financed and well-respected military"; and whatever anyone may say, "we should be able to pound our fists on a few desks" in Japan and Europe, and "extract a fair price for our considerable services," demanding that our rivals "buy our bonds at cheap rates, or keep the dollar propped up, or better yet, pay cash directly into our Treasury." "We could change this role" of enforcer, he concludes, "but with it would go much of our control over the world economic system." 6

This conception, while rarely put so bluntly, is widely held in one or another form, and captures an essential element of the Administration reaction to the Gulf crisis. It implies that the U.S. should continue to take on the grim task of imposing order and stability (meaning, proper respect for the masters) with the acquiescence and support of the other industrial powers along with riches funnelled to the U.S. via the dependent oil-producing monarchies.

Parallel domestic developments add another dimension to the picture. Studies by the U.S. Labor Department and others predict serious shortages of skilled labor (everything from scientists and managers to technicians and typists) as the educational system deteriorates, part of the collapse of infrastructure accelerated by Reaganite social and economic policies. The tendency may be mitigated by modification of immigration laws to encourage a brain drain, but that is not likely to prove adequate. The predicted result is that the cost of skilled labor will rise and transnational corporations will transfer research, product development and design, marketing, and other such operations elsewhere. For the growing underclass, opportunities will still be available as Hessians. It takes little imagination to picture the consequences if such expectations -- not inevitable, but also not unrealistic -- are indeed realized. 7

All of these questions arise, in various ways, in the essays that follow.

The successes of the popular movements of Eastern and Central Europe are a historic achievement in the unending struggle for freedom and democracy throughout the world. Throughout history, such successes have elicited efforts to institute order and docility and thus to contain and deter the threat to privilege. The modalities range from large-scale violence to more subtle devices of control, particularly in more democratic societies. These include the structuring of values and operative choices, 8 and measures to control thought and opinion -- what we call "propaganda" in the case of enemy states.

The concept of thought control in democratic societies -- or, for that matter, the structuring of options in a democratic society by hierarchic and coercive private institutions -- seems contradictory on its face. A society is democratic to the extent that its citizens play a meaningful role in managing public affairs. If their thought is controlled, or their options narrowly restricted, then evidently they are not playing a meaningful role: only the controllers, and those they serve, are doing so. The rest is a sham, formal motions without meaning. So, a contradiction. Nevertheless, there has been a major current of intellectual opinion to the contrary, holding that thought control is essential precisely in societies that are more free and democratic, even when institutional means effectively restrict the options available in practice. Such ideas and their implementation are perhaps more advanced in the United States than anywhere else, a reflection of the fact that it is in important respects the most free society in the world.

The interplay of freedom and control is a second theme of the essays that follow, addressed from several perspectives.

The opening and concluding chapters contain some general observations on the themes just sketched. Chapters 2 through 7 survey the range of prospects and problems facing the U.S. leadership, and active and engaged segments of the public, under the partially new conditions now taking shape. The remaining essays consider the operative concept of democracy, and the attitude towards popular movements and independence, as revealed in concrete situations and background thinking; examples are drawn primarily from Central America and early post-war Europe, but could easily be extended to other regions, the policies being quite general, with stable institutional roots.

I have discussed these topics in a number of books, to which I would like to refer as general background where specific details and documentation are not provided below. 9 The material here is based in part on articles in Zeta (Z) Magazine from 1988, generally excerpted from longer unpublished manuscripts; or from talks through the same period, some appearing in a different form in conference proceedings. These have been edited and revised to reduce overlap, with considerable new material added. The primary source of each chapter, where there is one, is indicated with an asterisk.

 

1 For discussion at the time, see my Towards a New Cold War (Pantheon, 1982), particularly the introduction and chapter 7. This is generally presupposed in what follows, along with further comment on these matters in my Turning the Tide (South End, 1985), On Power and Ideology (South End, 1987). The quoted phrase is from a report to the Trilateral Commission in M.J. Crozier, S.P. Huntington, and J. Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy (New York University, 1975).

2 See references of note 1; also William A. Schwartz and Charles Derber, et al., The Nuclear Seduction (U. of California, 1990).

3 Thomas Friedman, "Behind Bush's Hard Line," NYT, Aug. 22, 1990. See chapter 6 for further discussion, and chapter 1, section 5, for background.  

4 "The Interim Agreement," New Politics, no. 3, 1976; see Towards a New Cold War, chapters 11, 8. See the latter, and chapter 8 below, for several examples from the foreign affairs literature making the distinction between "needs" and "wants" in essentially these terms.

5 Mary Curtius, "US asks allies to help pay for its continued leadership," Boston Globe, Sept. 20; David Hale, chief economist of Kemper Financial Services, Chicago, "How to pay for the global policeman," Financial Times (London), Nov. 21, 1990.

6 William Neikirk, "We are the world's guardian angels," Chicago Tribune business section, Sept. 9, 1990.  

7 AP, reporting a study of the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Sept. 9, 1990.

8 For a lucid and penetrating discussion of these modalities within capitalist democracy, see Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, On Democracy (Penguin, 1982).

9 Among them, those cited in note 1. Also, Political Economy of Human Rights (with Edward S. Herman, 2 volumes) (South End, 1979), Fateful Triangle (South End, 1983), Pirates and Emperors (Claremont, Black Rose, 1986), Culture of Terrorism (South End, 1987), Manufacturing Consent (with E.S. Herman) (Pantheon, 1988), Necessary Illusions (South End, 1989).  


Table of Contents ] [ Introduction ] I. Cold War: Fact and Fancy ] II. The Home Front ] III. The Global System ] IV. Problems of Population Control ] V. The Post-Cold War Era ] VI. Nefarious Aggression ] VII. The Victors ] VIII. The Agenda of the Doves: 1988 ] IX. The Mortal Sin of Self-Defense ] X. The Decline of the Democratic Ideal ] XI. Democracy in the Industrial Societies ] XII. Force and Opinion ] Afterword ]


 ] Deterring Democracy ] Necessary Illusions ] The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many ] Keeping the Rabble in Line ] Rethinking Camelot ] Powers and Prospects ] Year 501 ] Secrets, Lies and Democracy ] What Uncle Sam Really Wants ] Interviews, Debates and Talks ] About Noam Chomsky ]


 
 
 

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