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Who Owns the World? Noam Chomsky on US-Fueled Dangers from Climate Change to Nuclear War

Amy Goodman
Democracy Now! / Video Report
Published: Friday 26 October 2012
“The U.S. had been by far the richest country in the world even before the Second World War, although it wasn’t—was not yet the major global actor.”

In the week when President Obama and Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney debated issues of foreign policy and the economy, we turn to world-renowned political dissident, linguist, author and MIT Professor, Noam Chomsky. In a recent speech, Chomsky examined topics largely ignored or glossed over during the campaign: China, the Arab Spring, global warming, nuclear proliferation, and the military threat posed by Israel and the U.S. versus Iran. He reflects on the Cuban missile crisis, which took place 50 years ago this week, and is still referred to as "the most dangerous moment in human history." He delivered this talk last month at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, at an event sponsored by the Center for Popular Economics. Chomsky's talk was entitled, "Who Owns the World?"


AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Portland, Oregon. We are here as part of our 100-city Silenced Majority tour. On this week when President Obama and Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney debated issues of foreign policy and the economy, we turn to world-renowned political dissident, linguist, author, MITProfessor Noam Chomsky. In a recent speech, Professor Chomsky examined topics largely ignored or glossed over during the campaign, from China to the Arab Spring, to global warming and the nuclear threat posed by Israel versus Iran. He spoke last month at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst at any event sponsored by the Center for Popular Economics. His talk was entitled "Who Owns the World?"

NOAM CHOMSKY: When I was thinking about these remarks, I had two topics in mind, couldn’t decide between them—actually pretty obvious ones. One topic is, what are the most important issues that we face? The second topic is, what issues are not being treated seriously—or at all—in the quadrennial frenzy now underway called an election? But I realized that there’s no problem; it’s not a hard choice: they’re the same topic. And there are reasons for it, which are very significant in themselves. I’d like to return to that in a moment. But first a few words on the background, beginning with the announced title, "Who Owns the World?"

Actually, a good answer to this was given years ago by Adam Smith, someone we’re supposed to worship but not read. He was—a little subversive when you read him sometimes. He was referring to the most powerful country in the world in his day and, of course, the country that interested him, namely, England. And he pointed out that in England the principal architects of policy are those who own the country: the merchants and manufacturers in his day. And he said they make sure to design policy so that their own interests are most peculiarly attended to. Their interests are served by policy, however grievous the impact on others, including the people of England.

But he was an old-fashioned conservative with moral principles, so he added the victims of England, the victims of the—what he called the "savage injustice of the Europeans," particularly in India. Well, he had no illusions about the owners, so, to quote him again, "All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind." It was true then; it’s true now.

Britain kept its position as the dominant world power well into the 20th century despite steady decline. By the end of World War II, dominance had shifted decisively into the hands of the upstart across the sea, the United States, by far the most powerful and wealthy society in world history. Britain could only aspire to be its junior partner as the British foreign office ruefully recognized. At that point, 1945, the United States had literally half the world’s wealth, incredible security, controlled the entire Western Hemisphere, both oceans, the opposite sides of both oceans. There’s nothing—there hasn’t ever been anything like that in history.

And planners understood it. Roosevelt’s planners were meeting right through the Second World War, designing the post-war world. They were quite sophisticated about it, and their plans were pretty much implemented. They wanted to make sure that the United States would control what they called a "grand area," which would include, routinely, the entire Western Hemisphere, the entire Far East, the former British Empire, which the U.S. would be taking over, and as much of Eurasia as possible—crucially, its commercial and industrial centers in Western Europe. And within this region, they said, the United States should hold unquestioned power with military and economic supremacy, while ensuring the limitation of any exercise of sovereignty by states that might interfere with these global designs.

And those were pretty realistic plans at the time, given the enormous disparity of power. The U.S. had been by far the richest country in the world even before the Second World War, although it wasn’t—was not yet the major global actor. During the Second World War, the United States gained enormously. Industrial production almost quadrupled, got us out of depression. Meanwhile, industrial rivals were devastated or seriously weakened. So that was an unbelievable system of power.

Actually, the policies that were outlined then still hold. You can read them in government pronouncements. But the capacity to implement them has significantly declined. Actually there’s a major theme now in foreign policy discussion—you know, journals and so on. The theme is called "American decline." So, for example, in the most prestigious establishment international relations journal, Foreign Affairs, a couple of months ago, there was an issue which had on the front cover in big bold letters, "Is America Over?" question mark. That’s announcing the theme of the issue. And there is a standard corollary to this: power is shifting to the west, to China and India, the rising world powers, which are going to be the hegemonic states of the future.

Actually, I think the decline—the decline is quite real, but some serious qualifications are in order. First of all, the corollary is highly unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future. China and India are very poor countries. Just take a look at, say, the human development index of the United Nations: they’re way down there. China is around 90th. I think India is around 120th or so, last time I looked. And they have tremendous internal problems—demographic problems, extreme poverty, hopeless inequality, ecological problems. China is a great manufacturing center, but it’s actually mostly an assembly plant. So it assembles parts and components, high technology that comes from the surrounding industrial—more advanced industrial centers—Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, the United States, Europe—and it basically assembles them. So, if, say, you buy one of these i-things—you know, an iPad from China—that’s called an export from China, but the parts and components and technology come from outside. And the value added in China is minuscule. It’s been calculated. They’ll move up the technology ladder, but it’s a hard climb, India even harder. Well, so I think one should be skeptical about the corollary.

But there’s another qualification that’s more serious. The decline is real, but it’s not new. It’s been going on since 1945. In fact, it happened very quickly. In the late 1940s, there’s an event that’s known here as "the loss of China." China became independent. That’s a loss of a huge piece of the grand area of Asia. And it became a major issue in American domestic policy. Who’s responsible for the loss of China? A lot of recriminations and so on. Actually, the phrase is kind of interesting. Like, I can’t lose your computer, right? Because I don’t own it. I can lose my computer. Well, the phrase "loss of China" kind of presupposes a deeply held principle of kind of American elite consciousness: we own the world, and if some piece of it becomes independent, we’ve lost it. And that’s a terrible loss; we’ve got to do something about it. It’s never questioned, which is interesting in itself.

Well, right about the same time, around 1950, concerns developed about the loss of Southeast Asia. That’s what led the United States into the Indochina wars, the worst atrocities of the post-war period—partly lost, partly not. A very significant event in modern history was in 1965, when in Indonesia, which was the main concern—that’s the country of Southeast Asia with most of the wealth and resources—there was a military coup in Indonesia, Suharto coup. It led to an extraordinary massacre, what the New York Times called a "staggering mass slaughter." It killed hundreds of thousands of people, mostly landless peasants; destroyed the only mass political party; and opened the country up to Western exploitation. Euphoria in the West was so enormous that it couldn’t be contained. So, in the New York Times, describing the "staggering mass slaughter," it called it a "gleam of light in Asia." That was the column written by James Reston, the leading liberal thinker in the Times. And the same elsewhere—Europe, Australia. It was a fantastic event.

Years later, McGeorge Bundy, who was the national security adviser for Kennedy and Johnson, in retrospect, he pointed out that it probably would have been a good idea to end the Vietnam War at that point, to pull out. Contrary to a lot of illusions, the Vietnam War was fought primarily to ensure that an independent Vietnam would not develop successfully and become a model for other countries in the region. It would not—to borrow Henry Kissinger’s terminology speaking about Chile, we have to prevent what they called the—what he called the "virus" of independent development from spreading contagion elsewhere. That’s a critical part of American foreign policy since the Second World War—Britain, France, others to a lesser degree. And by 1965, that was over. Vietnam was—South Vietnam was virtually destroyed. Word spread to the rest of Indochina it wasn’t going to be a model for anyone, and the contagion was contained. There were—the Suharto regime made sure that Indonesia wouldn’t be infected. And pretty soon the U.S. had dictatorships in every country of the region—Marcos on the Philippines, a dictatorship in Thailand, Chun in South—Park in South Korea. It was no problem about the infection. So that would have been a good time to end the Vietnam War, he felt. Well, that’s Southeast Asia.

But the decline continues. In the last 10 years, there’s been a very important event: the loss of South America. For the first time in 500 years, the South—since the conquistadors, the South American countries have begun to move towards independence and a degree of integration. The typical structure of one of the South American countries was a tiny, very rich, Westernized elite, often white, or mostly white, and a huge mass of horrible poverty, countries separated from one another, oriented to—each oriented towards its—you know, either Europe or, more recently, the United States. Last 10 years, that’s been overcome, significantly—beginning to integrate, the prerequisite for independence, even beginning to face some of their horrendous internal problems. Now that’s the loss of South America. One sign is that the United States has been driven out of every single military base in South America. We’re trying to restore a few, but right now there are none.

AMY GOODMAN: MIT Professor Noam Chomsky. Coming up, he discusses global warming, nuclear war and the Arab Spring, in a minute.

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ABOUT Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 900 stations in North America. She is the author of "Breaking the Sound Barrier," recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.

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