Current Affairs

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Noam Chomsky on How To Prevent World War III

The eminent scholar on the worsening threat of nuclear warfare, how to end the war in Ukraine, the self-justifying myths propagated by imperial powers, why the Global South finds American moralizing laughable, and more.

Professor Noam Chomsky is one of the most influential public intellectuals in the world. He has written more than 100 books, including, most recently, Consequences of Capitalism: Manufacturing Discontent and Resistance, co-authored with Marv Waterstone, and, forthcoming, The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power with Vijay Prashad. He is currently the Laureate Professor at the University of Arizona and Professor Emeritus in the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. Professor Chomsky recently came on the Current Affairs podcast to talk to editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson about the threat of nuclear war, how American culture often promotes indifference to the suffering of people in other countries, and the history of U.S. foreign policy that brought us to this point. This interview has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity. The full exchange can be listened to here.

Robinson

You often discuss the fact that there are two twin existential threats to human civilization. There is the threat of climate catastrophe. And then there is the threat of nuclear weapons and global warfare. One of these gets discussed more than the other. We actually had another Professor Chomsky on last week to discuss the climate crisis—Professor Aviva Chomsky, who discussed her book Is Science Enough? Forty Critical Questions About Climate Justice. We talk a lot on this program about the climate crisis, but I want to talk about nuclear weapons and war. And I want to start in kind of an unusual way. I want to go back to 1945. I was reading Daniel Ellsberg recently. In his book The Doomsday Machine, he talks about how when he was in middle school, he was assigned a paper and his teacher told them that they were talking about the possibility of making a new kind of bomb that could destroy an entire city. He said his entire class wrote the paper about this bomb. And they all agreed that if such a thing came into existence, it would be so totally destructive for human civilization that it would need to be eliminated completely. And then, of course, a few years later, the bomb was in fact dropped. And so I want to start by taking you back to that time. You witnessed it—the beginning of the era of the nuclear threat. Do you remember what it was like when you realized what had been done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when you saw the opening of this terrible possibility, this change in the whole world?

Chomsky

I remember it very well. I was a junior counselor at a summer camp. In the morning, there was an announcement over the camp loudspeaker that an atom bomb had been used in Hiroshima and had destroyed the city. Everyone went on to their morning activity—baseball games, swimming, whatever it was. I was so appalled. I couldn’t believe it. First of all, nobody knew the details of what had happened but the general picture was clear. So, first of all, what had happened. Secondly, about the reaction. In fact, double terror.

I was so appalled by it, I just left the camp, walked off into the woods by myself, sat there for a couple hours thinking about it. It was pretty clear that human intelligence and its glory had reached the point where it would soon be able to destroy all life on Earth. Not yet. I mean, the atom bomb had limited capacity. The bombing of Hiroshima in many ways was not worse than the firebombing of Tokyo a couple months earlier, and in scale probably didn’t reach that level. But it was clear that the genie was out of the bottle, that modern technology and science would advance to the point where it would reach the capacity to destroy everything, so double terror. It did reach that point in 1953, with the explosion of thermonuclear weapons. My feeling at that time was, we’re lost. I mean, if human intelligence is that far ahead of human moral capacity, the chance of closing that gap is slight, particularly witnessing the reaction just increasing in following days. Basically, nobody cared.

Robinson

One of the deeply concerning features of American life is the disjunction between the reality of war on the ground and the way that Americans talk about it. When the news came out, the phrase “destroyed a city” doesn’t really convey what actually happened. But then the photos and testimonies start coming out, and we start to understand what it actually means. But for some reason, this knowledge—this real sense of what war is like for those who actually experience it—seems absent from the conversation. Today, for example, we can have these conversations in the abstract, and people think, for example, “Oh, yes, it’d be a good idea to engage Russia militarily, maybe there’s a bit of a nuclear risk,” without really understanding the human reality of the situation.

Chomsky

Well, let me recount one of the most horrible experiences of my life, in the early ‘50s, maybe around 1951-52, with my first wife who died years ago. My wife and I were graduate students. One evening, we decided to go to a film. So we looked through the movie ads, and surprisingly, we saw a film called Hiroshima. That was surprising. We lived in Boston, and the film was in an area called Scollay Square. It was the porn district. We never went there. But we figured we’d go see this film. It was being shown as a pornographic film. The audience was laughing hysterically. It was a graphic film. I don’t know where they got the live film. But it was a live film from Hiroshima: people running around with their skin peeling off—hideous scenes—and it was being shown as a pornographic film, while people were laughing. Can you even imagine that?

I mean, I can tell you from my own experience. When I was a kid, in the 1930s, my friends and I were running around in the woods, playing cowboys and Indians. We were the Cowboys, killing the Indians. Okay. I don’t know if that was still true when you were my age. That’s the history of the United States. The United States never gets attacked, not until 9/11. The last attack on American soil was the War of 1812. What we do is attack others.

Robinson

And of course, we still hear that attitude of being blasé or indifferent about war or being alright with the atrocities inflicted by our country on other countries.

Chomsky

It goes on right to the present. Right at this moment, you hear heroic statements by people in Congress or foreign policy specialists saying we should set up a no-fly zone, for example, to defend Ukraine. Fortunately, there’s one peacekeeping force in the government. It’s called the Pentagon. They are so far vetoing the heroic statements by congressmen showing off for their constituents about how brave they are, pointing out that a no-fly zone not only means shooting down Russian planes, but it means attacking Russian anti-aircraft installations inside Russia. Then what happens? Well, actually, the latest polls show about 35 percent of Americans are listening to the heroic speeches from Congress and advisors. Thirty-five percent say they think we should enter into the war in Ukraine, even if it threatens to lead to a nuclear war. The end of everything. The country that launches the first strike will be destroyed.

Robinson

People are agitating for escalation. But there’s also, of course, a very serious risk that any conflict between nuclear powers can escalate without either party consciously wanting it to, and that mistakes and errors can cause any kind of hot war between nuclear-armed powers to turn into a disaster.

Chomsky

We should also understand something that the Pentagon at least understands very well. The Russians have plenty of nuclear weapons. But they have a very limited warning system. They use old-fashioned, long obsolete, radar-based warning. That means up to the horizon. The U.S. uses a satellite warning system. So if anything happens anywhere, on the ground, in Russia, we have instant knowledge of it. And Russia doesn’t know anything until shortly before the attack hits, which means they’re very prone to mistaking an accidental warning as an actual missile launch. And they don’t have any time to prepare.

This has come very close in the past. In one famous case during the early Reagan years, the administration in its brilliance was simulating attacks on Russia to try to test Russian defenses, including simulating nuclear attacks. They assumed the Russians would understand that this is just for show. Well, it didn’t quite work like that. The Russians thought maybe this is real. It was at a moment of high tension in international affairs, when Pershing missiles were being debated about being installed in Western Europe, which have a five to 10 minute flight time to Moscow, so they were nervous. And we came pretty close to a terminal nuclear war. It was stopped by a Russian [named Stanislav Petrov]; he was the officer in charge of monitoring the warning systems. And there was an automated warning saying a missile attack was coming. According to protocol, he was supposed to send this on to the higher-ups and they’d have a couple of minutes to decide whether to launch a strike in time, but he decided not to. He just looked at it. And it seemed to him as though there was sufficient warning. So he didn’t do it. He was later censured and punished for this. But he saved the world from destruction.

That’s not the only time. We all know we’re toying with it. And as I say, over a third of Americans are reacting like the kids in my summer camp in 1945. Okay, who cares? Let’s be heroic and go on and do it. I don’t think there’s been a moment as dangerous as this actually, during the nuclear age.

Robinson

Now, with regards to the current conflict, do you think that the present U.S. attitude toward and policy toward Russia in Ukraine is increasing or decreasing the threat of escalation toward a wider and worse war?

Chomsky

I don’t know if you saw it. But a couple of days ago, there was a very important interview by one of the most astute and respected figures in current U.S. diplomatic circles, Ambassador Chas Freeman. A very important interview. He pointed out that the current U.S. policy, which he bitterly criticized, is to “fight Russia to the last Ukrainian,” and he gave us an example: President Biden’s heroic statement about the war criminal Putin—[Biden’]s counterpart as a war criminal. And Freeman pointed out the obvious: the U.S. is setting things up so as to destroy Ukraine and to lead to a terminal war.

In this world, there are two options with regard to Ukraine. As we know, one option is a negotiated settlement, which will offer Putin an escape, an ugly settlement. Is it within reach? We don’t know; you can only find out by trying and we’re refusing to try. But that’s one option. The other option is to make it explicit and clear to Putin and the small circle of men around him that you have no escape, you’re going to go to a war crimes trial no matter what you do. Boris Johnson just reiterated this: sanctions will go on no matter what you do. What does that mean? It means go ahead and obliterate Ukraine and go on to lay the basis for a terminal war.

Those are the two options: and we’re picking the second and praising ourselves for heroism and doing it: fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian. Sometimes this becomes—I don’t know if the word is comical or grotesque. A couple days ago—I’m sure you saw this—Hillary Clinton suggested that we pull the Brzezinski trick. [In 1998], Brzezinski, who was Carter’s National Security Advisor, had an interview in France, in which he bragged about how they’d drawn Russia into the war in Afghanistan [starting the 1979-89 Soviet-Afghan war].1 Whether he was just boasting or whether it was true, nobody knows, but it doesn’t matter much. What he said is that as National Security Advisor before the Russian invasion, he had convinced Carter to send arms to an insurgency that was attacking the pro-Russian government in Afghanistan, figuring this would draw the Russians in.

And then, the Russians—in fact, as we now know definitively from released Russian archives—recognized pretty quickly that they’d made a mistake and wanted to get out. But the U.S., following Brzezinski in its brilliance—this is Reagan now—organized radical Islamist fanatics from all over the world, including Osama bin Laden, to carry out the fight to ensure that the Russians stayed in, killing maybe a million Afghans and wrecking the country.

Brzezinski was asked about that by the interviewer. He said, Do you think this was worth doing? He said, Look, what’s the fate of Afghans as compared with the importance of bringing down the global enemy? That’s us. That’s Hillary Clinton a couple of days ago, saying let’s do that. Let’s draw the Russians into Ukraine, fight a harsh guerrilla war, be really tough on them. It’ll exhaust them, destroy them, we’ll bring them down. Of course, on the side, Ukraine will be wiped out. Okay, that’s us now, at the liberal end of spectrum. I’m not talking about Josh Hawley, you know.

Robinson

How do you respond, though, when someone says, look, it’s an aggressive invasion? It’s a crime of war. Yes, the United States might be hypocritical, but it is a war crime. The President of Ukraine has been essentially begging for the imposition of a no-fly zone or saying in the absence of that, give us more weapons. This is a battle for the sovereignty of Ukraine. And any resolution to the conflict that does give Putin an off-ramp is a form of appeasement that encourages further aggressive warfare in the future. How does one respond to an argument like that?

Chomsky

Well, I would not criticize Zelensky. He’s acting with great courage, great integrity. You can understand and sympathize with his position from where he sits. However, the Pentagon has a wiser stand. Yes, we could enter the war. We could provide Zelensky with jet planes and advanced weapons. Pretty soon Putin would be radically escalating the attack on Ukraine, would wipe it out which he has the capacity to do. He would be attacking the supply chains that are providing advanced weapons. And we’d be in a war, which would be a nuclear war, which would wipe us all out.

So I’m not criticizing Zelensky; he’s an honorable person and has shown great courage. You can sympathize with his positions. But you can also pay attention to the reality of the world. And that’s what it implies. I’ll go back to what I said before: there are basically two options. One option is to pursue the policy we are now following, to quote Ambassador Freeman again, to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian. And yes, we can pursue that policy with the possibility of nuclear war. Or we can face the reality that the only alternative is a diplomatic settlement, which will be ugly—it will give Putin and his narrow circle an escape hatch. It will say, Here’s how you can get out without destroying Ukraine and going on to destroy the world.

We know the basic framework is neutralization of Ukraine, some kind of accommodation for the Donbas region, with a high level of autonomy, maybe within some federal structure in Ukraine, and recognizing that, like it or not, Crimea is not on the table. You may not like it, you may not like the fact that there’s a hurricane coming tomorrow, but you can’t stop it by saying, “I don’t like hurricanes,” or “I don’t recognize hurricanes.” That doesn’t do any good. And the fact of the matter is, every rational analyst knows that Crimea is, for now, off the table. That’s the alternative to the destruction of Ukraine and nuclear war. You can make heroic statements, if you’d like, about not liking hurricanes, or not liking the solution. But that’s not doing anyone any good.

Robinson

The Biden administration has seemed disinclined to pursue the possible diplomatic solutions since before the invasion. The perspective that Americans get in the media is, essentially, that Putin has invaded Ukraine due to psychopathy, and it’s now our job to funnel arms to the Ukrainians. And the only real debate is, how much in arms should we give them? And should we simply give them arms? Or should we intervene militarily? And that is the debate. But a more rational way of looking at this, as you say, would be to think about how to prevent Ukrainians from dying in this horrible war. And that would very alter the range of perceived options.

Chomsky

I would agree except for the word “rational.” It’s the more humane way. Hitler was perfectly rational, you know; it’s not a matter of rationality. You can be rational for genocide and extermination. Henry Kissinger, who’s much lauded in the United States—I’m sure he was being quite rational when he issued an order to the U.S. Air Force transmitted from his half-drunk boss, Richard Nixon. The order was, I’m quoting it, massive bombing campaign in Cambodia, “anything that flies on anything that moves,” in other words, wipe out the place. It’s a call for mass genocide. I don’t think you can find a counterpart in the archival record; you might try. Well, that was perfectly rational. It was a way to get ahead in Washington. This was to move on to greater glory, nothing irrational about that. In fact, that worked very well. He’s now one of the most honored and respected people in the country. That’s, incidentally, only one part. If we dared to look at American history, we could learn a lot.

Robinson

So it’s not that the United States is acting in a way that doesn’t make sense. It’s that when you look at the history of U.S. policy, you see us doing things that are, as you say, perfectly rational, but just happen to be sociopathic. And that’s true in incident after incident.

Chomsky

So take another one of Kissinger’s achievements: overthrowing the parliamentary government in Chile, and installing the vicious and murderous Pinochet dictatorship. Right to this minute, Chileans are trying to liberate themselves from those consequences. Kissinger was very rational; he had reasons. And the reasons are worth listening to. He said, If reformist parliamentary democracy succeeds in Chile, it’ll have a very harmful effect. It’ll reach as far as Southern Europe, where Italy and Spain are toying with parliamentary left parties—what was called Euro communism, basically social democracy. We don’t want this virus to spread contagion all the way to Europe. So, therefore, we better wipe it out in Chile.

Is it rational? That’s standard politics. That’s why we went to war in Vietnam in the early ‘50s. You look back at the internal records—quite rational. After what’s called the fall of China, we have to make sure that the virus of successful independent nationalism doesn’t spread contagion—Kissinger’s phrase—to other countries in the region, ultimately leading Japan to accommodate to an independent East Asia, meaning we have lost the Pacific War, which was fought to prevent that.

Well, that’s not what you’re taught in school, or even what you’re reading in most scholarship, but that’s what happened. It’s case after case. The great European statesmen like Metternich, Kissinger’s models, were terrified by the American Revolution, which might spread the curse of republicanism, meaning parliamentary democracy, over much of the world and break down the European system of global domination. The U.S. didn’t invent it. And if we had a free country, where people learned about the reality of the world, I wouldn’t have to say this. Everybody would have learned it in high school.

Robinson

A theme that runs through every part of your work on American foreign policy is that beneath all of the highfalutin rhetoric about freedom and democracy, if we actually look closely at the facts, what we see is a continuous horrific record of human suffering. Whether it’s people being firebombed in Tokyo or in Dresden and Hamburg, or whether it’s people in villages in Vietnam or whether it’s Iraqis, we see a horrific record of human suffering that we turn away from. Despite what American political leaders might believe—they might believe that they’re idealists, they might believe that they are people who are sincerely concerned with combating authoritarianism—when we actually evaluate their actions, what we see is a real, ruthless self-interest consistently driving our actions in the world.

Chomsky

We’re no different from others. Take our predecessor in imperial domination, Britain. The hideous record of centuries of British imperialism is just barely beginning to come to light. Now, Caroline Elkins has a very important book [Legacy of Violence] just out on the history of British imperialism. Shashi Tharoor, who’s Indian, came out recently with a book on the history of British imperialism [Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India]. This is just beginning to lift the veil on the hideous crimes that Britain was committing for centuries.

Meanwhile, the British intellectuals were praising themselves as the most moral people in the world, even including the best of them, like say John Stuart Mill. It’s pretty hard to find an intellectual of higher moral standing. So what was he doing? Well, go back to 1857, one of the peaks of British criminal activity: vicious, murderous destruction of uprising in India. Mill knew all about it. He was an agent of the East India Company. Mill wrote a famous essay, which is taught in law schools in the United States, apparently without understanding what he said. It’s worth reading. It’s an article on intervention, and he said we should be opposed to intervention in the affairs of others, but he said there are exceptions. One exception is when a country like Britain carries out the intervention because Britain, he said, is an angelic country. It’s not like other countries. In fact, we’re so magnificent that other countries can’t understand it and the heap obloquy upon us because they can’t understand that the actions we take are for the benefit of mankind. When we slaughter Indians, and conquer more of India, to increase our control of the opium trade, so we can break into China by force, they just can’t understand how angelic we are, so they criticize us. But nevertheless, we have to put their criticism aside, recognize that they’re just not capable of understanding our magnificence and go ahead with our humane actions.

That’s John Stuart Mill. I don’t know of any American intellectual who is capable of shining his shoes. So are we surprised when they say the same?

Robinson

Similar stories of professed noble intent can be heard in Russia’s justifications for the invasion of Ukraine. As you point out, every powerful country tells itself noble and uplifting myths in order to justify its atrocities. But the United States, in particular, does have this kind of extreme lack of self-awareness and is extremely hypocritical in our condemnations of other countries without a willingness to perform similar acts of scrutiny on ourselves.

Chomsky

Biden just announced that Putin is a war criminal, that we have to take him to war crimes trials. Well, I do lots of interviews and talks all over the world, virtually, a lot in the Global South. You can read it in the newspapers. When asked, “What do you think about Biden’s statement?” they have an answer. Their answer is, “It takes one to know one.”

And yet there’s praise for the marvelous courage of someone who says Putin is a war criminal. You can read articles in the prestigious Atlantic Council expressing intense moral outrage about Russia’s hideous crimes in Ukraine. You take a look at the people who were writing those articles, go back a couple of years, they were issuing praise for the marvelous achievement of the invasion of Iraq, using rhetoric which would have embarrassed the most abject apparatchik in Russia praising the noble intentions, the effort to bring democracy to backward Iraq.

People in the Global South don’t have to be reminded. They’ve been at the receiving end of terror and torture. About an hour ago, I had an interview with Belgian state television. We were talking about this, and brought up some recent crimes like Belgium’s assassination of [Congolese independence leader] Patrice Lumumba, who was the hope for Africa. The major country of Africa, the Congo, suffered hideously under Belgian atrocities, even worse than most of the European atrocities, which is a pretty high bar to get over. Then they finally decolonized in 1960: the main country in Africa, enormous resources, could have been a rich country, it was leading Africa towards freedom and development. The U.S. and Belgium weren’t having that. Eisenhower issued a hit; CIA was supposed to murder Lumumba. They didn’t manage. Belgian intelligence got there first and turned Congo into a horror chamber ever since.

That’s not ancient history. People in the Global South know those things. They know about Iraq, Central America, and Vietnam. They know what we’ve done. So when they hear these pronouncements, they just either crack up in ridicule or can’t believe what’s going on in this uncivilized, barbaric area of the world that is Europe and the United States.

Robinson

I’d like to go back to the subject of nuclear weapons and the path away from civilization-ending war. We discussed Hiroshima. And obviously in the decades after the end of the Second World War, the U.S. and the USSR essentially developed elaborate plans for how to wipe each other off the face of the earth. They essentially planned a global genocide. It never actually happened. We made it through the Cold War. But this is what we’re talking about when we talk about these weapons: the possibility of genocide on a scale never seen before.

In Politico, there’s a headline: debate heating up on Capitol Hill on funding the military. Democrats are facing a dilemma of whether to back the historically high Pentagon budget or spend even more. There’s an article in Foreign Affairs: “America Must Spend More on Defense,” saying that it is necessary for the United States to modernize, update, and expand its nuclear weapons. A Democratic Representative from Virginia is quoted as saying that we need to get to 5% of GDP spent on our military, that’s what it’s going to take to “modernize” the nuclear enterprise and make a serious investment in deterring Chinese aggression against Taiwan.

So I want to ask you: how do we begin to pull back from this? When I extrapolate into the future and think about these ever-increasing military budgets and more and more nuclear weapons, it’s absolutely terrifying. What’s the alternate path for us away from this danger?

Chomsky

The U.S. strategic posture—the current one—was established by Jim Mattis of the 2018 Trump administration. [It’s as follows:] We have to shift from what was called the Global War on Terror. (I won’t talk about what it really was, but what was called the Global War on Terror.) We have to shift from that to confrontation with peer powers, to confrontation with China and Russia. We have to be powerful enough to be able to defeat both of them in a nuclear war. If there’s a better definition of lunacy, I’d be interested in hearing it.2

Actually, we did hear a better definition of lunacy. When the Democrats came in, Joe Biden updated the strategic posture by saying that—they don’t use the word contain anymore—we have to encircle China with a rim of sentinel states. And we have to advance their armament with precision weapons aimed at China. So we have to form a rim from South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India—which is a reluctant partner—to encircle China to deter their aggression. So we’re deterring Chinese aggression off the coast of China. Okay.

In other words, we own the world. We carry out aggression and violence anywhere we like because we own the world. But if China is doing things we don’t like, off its coast, we have to encircle them with sentinel states, armed to the teeth and aimed at China. That’s considered very liberal…forthcoming. Yay, Biden. We have to defend ourselves from Chinese aggression.

And there are things that China is doing that they shouldn’t be doing, like they’re violating international law in the South China Sea. The United States is not in a particularly strong position to make a fuss about that, since the United States is the only maritime power not even to have ratified the Law of the Sea. But that’s us. We own and run the world. So we don’t have to ratify anything. We establish what writers of foreign policy will call the “rule-based liberal order.” We do support that because we set the rules. So, therefore, we want the rule-based international order, not this old-fashioned, UN-based international order where we don’t set the rules. That’s no good; that goes out the window.

Now we have our rule-based order, and part of it is to encircle China with sentinel states with more advanced precision weapons. Meanwhile, we send Australia a fleet of nuclear submarines to combat China in the South China Sea, where China has maybe half a dozen old-fashioned diesel submarines, which you can easily detect. They don’t have what we have. We have to send a fleet of nuclear submarines, which are advertised publicly as able to enter a Chinese port and silently attack any Chinese target. We have to defend ourselves against the Chinese threat. We, of course, have a fleet of advanced nuclear submarines, but they’re not sophisticated enough. One Trident submarine now can destroy almost 200 cities anywhere in the world. But that’s not enough. So we have to get rid of them and upgrade them to more advanced ones, Virginia-class submarines. One Trident submarine destroying 200 cities anywhere in the world: We can’t get by with that. We’ve got to update it.

Well, we send nuclear submarines to Australia to counter the Chinese threat off their coast. Well, that’s liberal America. Okay. You go over to the Republican side: not enough. It’s what you quoted. We have to increase our military budget to defend ourselves from the Chinese and the Russians. Germany has to raise its defense budget because Russia might attack it. The Russian army—which can’t conquer cities 30 kilometers from the Russian border which are not defended by a modern army—is poised to attack Germany. So we’re supposed to believe. So Germany has to increase its military budget.

You can see why we’re so terrified. This goes way back in American history, back to the Declaration of Independence. We piously cite it every July 4: condemning King George the Third for unleashing against us the “merciless Indian savages,” whose known way of warfare was destruction and torture against the innocent Americans who are just coming with a peace pipe. We just have to defend ourselves. It’s terrible how we’re attacked all the time.

Robinson

So when you hear something like what’s in Foreign Affairs: “The United States must drop the excuses that have led it to so perilously underfund its defense. We urgently need to restore the reach and punch of our atrophied military.” That’s insanity, right?

Chomsky

They love it in the offices of Lockheed Martin, I’m sure. But what we ought to be doing in a humane world is working to, first of all, restore the arms control regime, which was torn to shreds by the Republican Party. First, George W. Bush, who dismantled the ABM treaty. That’s a serious threat to Russia. Then Donald Trump, whose wrecking ball destroyed whatever else he could find, including the Reagan-Gorbachev INF Treaty, which prevented short range nuclear missiles in Europe and greatly reduced the threat of war. So Trump got rid of that. And just to make sure that everyone understood he was serious, he arranged, along with Jim Mattis, that as soon as the treaty was dismantled immediately, within weeks, the U.S. carried out tests of weapons designed to violate the treaty. To make sure the Russians understand: We’re coming after you with missiles that can attack you, and you’ll never even know they’re coming. That was one of Trump’s major steps.

He also went after the Open Skies Treaty, which went back to Eisenhower. Remember, Eisenhower was the last conservative president in the United States. There have been no conservatives since Eisenhower, only radical extremist reactionaries who poison the honorable term conservative. Eisenhower was a legitimate conservative, who, like him or not, did a lot of rotten things, a lot of good things. But he initiated the Open Skies Treaty. Well, Trump went after that. He didn’t have time to destroy them all. But in his next term in power, they’ll get rid of the rest of them.

Meanwhile, it’s greatly enhancing the threat of war, doing wonders for the arms industry, improving electoral prospects if you can terrify the population enough. And that’s not very hard for a frightened population. Not very hard when you have people like me who as kids were playing cowboys and Indians. We were the Cowboys. When you can have a society with a culture like that, you can get by with enhancing the threat of nuclear war because we’re under attack.

Okay. That’s what we should be doing. I mean, one of the things that Ambassador Freeman pointed out in his very astute remarks a couple of days ago was that if you look at the history of Europe, which was the most savage place in the world for centuries, they finally reached the peace treaty, the Treaty of 1815, the Vienna treaty, and the way they reached peace was by accommodating all of the warring powers, including the defeated power, which had been the aggressor in recent years, namely the Napoleonic France, which had virtually conquered Europe. So they accommodated France within the peace treaty. And that led to a century of pretty much peace. There were some wars but minor ones by European standards. That lasted until 1914. A century.

What did we do after the First World War? We didn’t bring Germany in; we punished Germany instead. Not the wisdom of the Tsar and Metternich. The result? Nazi Germany. After the Second World War, there was a possibility of incorporating Russia within a general system of peace, accommodation, trade integration, commercial integration, cultural immigration, and so on, which was proposed by Charles de Gaulle, one of the few statesmen in the post-war period. It was what he called “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals,” with no military alliances. The German Prime Minister pushed in the same direction. Gorbachev, in 1991, when Russia was collapsing, proposed a vision of an independent Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok, with no military alliances.

Since the Second World War, the U.S. position was that Europe should fall within what’s called the Atlanticist framework, the native framework, which the U.S. runs. Europe should be subordinate to the United States. That’s one option. The other option is a European Common home, independent force in world affairs, no military alliances—that’s been a struggle all the way through since the Second World War, very much alive today. Macron and his limited initiatives towards Putin were pushing in the same direction. Putin in his criminal stupidity lost the opportunity. If there had been a single statesman in the Kremlin, what they would have done is grasp that opportunity. Europe had many reasons to want to have better relations with Russia. Trade complementarity, which is perfectly obvious, lots of reasons. Would have been an inducement; could have worked. We don’t know. They didn’t try it.

Instead, Putin did what every man of violence does: reach for the violent option, attack Ukraine with criminal aggression, and hand the United States on a silver platter its most fervent wish: Europe deep in its pocket. More than ever before. The greatest gift that the Kremlin could have given Washington, while it stabs itself in the back. That’s called statesmanship. Okay. Quite apart from the criminal aggression.

That happens to be the current state of the world. And Europe is falling for it. Like Germany, we have to arm ourselves to defend ourselves from a military force that can’t conquer a city a couple of miles from its border.

Robinson

It seems as if there is a path to a peaceful world. One of the things that’s so frustrating is that you would think that war and nuclear annihilation would be easily avoidable, considering how many people in the world want to live peaceful and happy and prosperous lives, how many do not want to destroy everything they love. But while I can see how the policy decisions—how arms control agreements, how the various turning points in history where decisions could have been made differently, like NATO expansion, that sort of thing—could be done differently… all of that gives me some hope that there are possible paths to lasting peace.

But what I don’t know is how we’re ever going get past having a country with a culture where people can hear that a city has been destroyed and go back to playing baseball. The more I read about the Second World War, and the more I read about Vietnam—that’s the thing that really chills me. And the thing that I appreciate about your work is that you are someone who can’t get these things off your mind: the colossal human suffering that our country’s decisions inflict upon people. It’s hard to know how to end it. People can look at it, and then immediately look away.

Chomsky

It’s not easy. Let’s put aside Ukraine for a moment. It’s not the only crisis in the world. Right now, for example, literally, millions of Afghans are facing starvation. There is food in the markets, but Afghans, who have a little money, have to watch their children starve, because they can’t go to the bank to get their own money to buy some food in the market. Why? Because the Biden administration stole their money. Okay, simple as that. Their money was in U.S. banks. Banks are supposed to have a fiduciary responsibility. When a bank takes your money, it’s because you trust them to let you get the money back when you want it. Not U.S. banks. The U.S. government wants to steal some other country’s money. Just do it. So right now, we decided to steal Afghanistan’s money, which is in U.S. banks.

And there’s even a pretext given, which makes it worse. The pretext is Americans might want compensation for the harm of 9/11 for which Afghans had zero responsibility. None. You may recall that the Taliban offered to surrender, handing over the Al Qaeda suspect. The U.S. response was: We do not negotiate surrenders. We’re gonna smash you up properly. Okay. We don’t care about Al Qaeda. We don’t care about 9/11. We got other things on our mind. Okay. Then comes 20 years of destruction of Afghanistan. And now, let’s steal their money so they can starve. Can we do anything about that? With the flick of a wrist? Do we discuss it? Try to find it. Okay. That’s not the only case. We could go on.

Robinson

Well, thank you so much, Professor Chomsky. Really appreciate it.

Chomsky

Thank you.


Listen to the interview with Noam Chomsky on the Current Affairs podcast.


  1. Brzezinski said: “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would […] Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.” Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war that was unsustainable for the regime, a conflict that bought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.” The war killed an estimated 1 million Afghan civilians

  2. In 2018, Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee: “In our new defense strategy, great power competition—not terrorism—is now the primary focus of U.S. national security… The Department’s principal priorities are long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia. Given the magnitude of the threats they pose to U.S. security and prosperity today, Congress must commit to both an increased and sustained investment in our capabilities… Our first line of effort emphasizes that everything we do must contribute to the lethality of our military… If deterrence fails, we must win.” 

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