How did Russia and the West slip back into what seems like the Cold War all over again? How dangerous is the current confrontation? Should the world be ready to face a nuclear war? We ask somebody who’s renowned for his insights. World-famous academic, linguist, philosopher and political commentator Noam Chomsky is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: World-renowned academic Noam Chomsky, Professor Noam Chomsky, welcome to the show, it’s a great pleasure to have you with us today. Now, today U.S.-Russia relations are at a Cold War low. Rhetoric resembles what we heard in the 80-s. What is the worst-case scenario we could see this turn into? Can the Cold War turn hot? Does U.S. want war?
Noam Chomsky: The worst-case scenario, of course, would be a nuclear war, which would be terrible. Both states that initiate it will be wiped out by the consequences. That’s the worst-case. And it’s come ominously close several times in the past, dramatically close. And it could happen again, but not planned, but just by the accidental interactions that take place – that has almost happened. It’s worth remembering that just one century ago, the First World War broke out through a series of such accidental interchanges. The First World War was horrifying enough, but the current reenactment of it means the end of the human race.
SS: President Obama came to power promising to work towards complete global nuclear disarmament. Well, now there are plans to spend one trillion dollars on nuclear arms in the next 30 years.With major powers only acquiring more nukes, it’s only obvious that others will want to as well, so could we see the nuclear non-proliferation regime crumble in the near future?
NC: We can think back as far as 1955, when Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein produced an appeal, a joint appeal to the people of the world, in which they said to all of us, you have a choice that is stark, unavoidable, the question is, will you eliminate war or will you eliminate human race? These are your choices. And we’ve come awfully close, several times since: the missile crisis in 1962 was described by Kennedy’s close associate, historian Arthur Schlesinger, as “the most dangerous moment in human history”, and he was quite right, we came very close to a nuclear war. There have been many cases, not that serious, but pretty close, where human intervention with a few-minutes choice has prevented a nuclear war. You can’t guarantee that’s going to continue. It may not be a high probability each time, but when you play a game like that, with low probability risks of disaster over and over again, you’re going to lose. And now, especially in the crisis over Ukraine, and so-called missile-defense systems near the borders of Russia, it’s a threatening situation.
SS: Professor, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the U.S. needs to deal with “Russia’s army on NATO’s doorstep”. But as you yourself put it: “America’s redlines are firmly placed at Russia’s borders”. What are American redlines doing on Russian borders?
NC: Well, this statement was interesting. Of course, it’s correct. But NATO’s borders have been expanded to reach Russia’s borders. This takes us back to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, there was an agreement between Gorbachev and President Bush, Bush number one, that NATO would not expand one inch to the east. That meant to East Germany, that was the agreement. As soon as the agreement was made, NATO was expanded to East Germany, Gorbachev was naturally infuriated, but he was informed by President Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, that this was only a verbal agreement, there was nothing on paper, which is true, there was nothing on paper. And Gorbachev had no choice, but to accept it. President Clinton came along, the next president, and in a couple of years they expanded NATO even further. In fact, one might ask why NATO even continued to exist. The official justification for NATO was that its purpose was to defend Western Europe from Russian hordes who might attack Western Europe. Can’t ask how plausible that explanation was, but that at least that was the official explanation. Well, 1990-1991 – no Russian hordes. Natural conclusion – ok, let’s disband NATO. The opposite happens – NATO expanded. Its mission changed. The official mission of NATO became to control the international, the global energy system, pipelines. That means, to control the world. Of course, its U.S.-run intervention force, as in Kosovo and Serbia in 1999 – it was a U.S.-run intervention force. That’s the new NATO and it did expand to Russian borders, so Hagel is correct, Russia is on NATO’s borders, but it’s as if the Warsaw Pact had expanded to Mexico and Canada, and then the Russian premier said, well, the United States is on the Warsaw Pact’s borders, which would have been true, but it would be misleading.
SS: You know, watching and reading the U.S. media, it’s hard not to be surprised at the calls for war in one form or another. I mean, there are wordings like “red lines”, “no options off the table”, “lethal aid”, “troops on the ground”, and all this is presented like it’s no big deal. And not only in press, but by the government officials as well. Now, you are a scientist of words, of mind, you are a political activist, what do you make of it? Why are the Americans apparently so ready to go to war?
NC: Well, I don’t think they are ready to go to war, but the commitment to sort of control the world is very strong. And pretty natural. After all, this is one global super-power. And this all goes a way back. So, the peak of American power in history was around 1945. In 1945 the United States literally had half the world’s wealth. And very naturally American leaders wanted to design and organize a world system, which would benefit primarily domestic centers of power that essentially means U.S. corporate system. The origins of multi-national corporations began to develop at that time… And there were detailed plans for assigning to every part of the world, what was called, a function within the global system. That began to collapse very quickly. There is a lot of talk these days about American decline, which is correct, but it’s rarely recognized that the decline began at once. In 1949 there was a serious blow to the U.S. global hegemony – China’s independence. There’s a name for that in U.S. history and Western history. It is called “the loss of China”. Just think about this phrase for a minute. “Loss of China”. I mean, I can lose my computer, I can’t lose your computer, right? I can only lose what I own. And the assumption, the tacit assumption is – we own China, we own the world.So, if any part of it becomes independent, there’s the loss of China, or the loss of Indo-China, the loss of the Middle East, and so on. However it is worth recognizing, going back to your comment, that there is criticism of this in very prestigious places. So, the leading establishing journal in the United States is “Foreign Affairs”, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, that’s as central to the ruling establishment as you can get. In their last issue, the lead article advertised on the front page, was an article by a well-known international relations specialist, John Mearsheimer, with the headline, something like “The West is Responsible for the Crisis in Ukraine”. And it’s a critic of U.S. and Western policy that has driven things to the point where there is a serious crisis in Ukraine, the crisis that, as Mearsheimer points out, has serious effects on Russian geostrategic concerns and would do so, no matter who was in charge in Russia, just because of the geostrategic nature of the circumstances. That’s right in the main establishing journal, the lead article so it’s not like this is going on without critical discussion. There’s some. Not enough I think. But some.
SS: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin says the West can’t isolate Russia through confrontation and sanctions. What do you think, is he right?
NC: It can’t isolate Russia, but it could cause serious harm to Russia, but what it’s likely to do and is beginning to do – I’m not the only one to point this out, it’s obvious – what it’s doing, it’s driving Russia towards the East, towards closer relations with China. There’s plenty of hostility way back between China and Russia, but there are also some common interests, and the sanctions and other pressure against Russia are almost compelling Russia to move towards closer relations with China. China is the center of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a very substantial international system based on China, which includes India, includes Russia, includes Pakistan, includes the Central Asian States – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and others – it’s a big international system. Current Western policies are driving Russia towards closer interaction with this Chinese-based system. In this interaction Russia is actually the weaker partner, so it’s making concessions, but the U.S. is openly creating a system of power, which could significantly diminish U.S. domination in the world. This a confrontation, it’s part of Obama’s pivot to Asia.There is a Trans-Pacific Partnership, so-called, a huge commercial treaty, designed to incorporate the Asian countries, not China, but the other Asian countries, crucially not China, including Japan, Australia, India, the southern hemisphere, Chile, Brazil and so on. An enormous trade pact, exactly, what it is we don’t know, it is kept secret. These things are negotiated in secret, then given to the Parliaments to sign – yes or no, meaning yes. No discussion, no choices. So it’s not a sure thing by any means. But that’s the plan and it’s the kind of economic counterpart to the military pivot to Asia, and the sanctions on Russia are helping to create a counter-course based on Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or an extension of it, which would include Russia, and may begin to move across Eurasia, the whole Eurasian region, first to Turkey, then to parts of Western Europe, which have their own close relations with Russia and the East, Germany in particular. Those are the things that are developing recently, and the sanctions are part of it.
SS: Professor, I want to talk about crisis around ISIS a little bit. You’ve said that the appearance of ISIS and the spread of extremism is a natural consequence of U.S. actions in Iraq. But the emergence of ISIS seemed a surprise to all, how did U.S. intelligence miss it?
NC: I suggest that you look up on the Internet a recent article by Graham Fuller. He is a very highly regarded commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, coming straight out of the U.S. establishment with a long background in the CIA, a highly respected, very knowledgeable commentator. What he says is and I’m quoting him: “The United States created ISIS”. And then he goes on to say: “The U.S. didn’t plan ISIS of course”. These conspiracy tales have no basis. But the U.S. actions in region, including the invasion, have created the circumstances, under which ISIS emerged, and I think he is correct. What happened is the U.S. basically hit Iraq with a kind of sledgehammer. U.S. forces instantly instituted a governmental structure, which was sectarian in nature, they designed a system with particular participation by Shiites and Sunnis in various proportions, but they had to be divided that way. That, along with the counter-insurgency operations – there was of course resistance to the invasion – counter-insurgency operations are always very brutal and destructive. All of this came together to create sectarian conflicts, which had not existed before. If you look back at Bagdad in 2000, Shiites and Sunnis were intermarried, living in the same areas, they often didn’t even know who’s a Sunni and who’s Shia, it’s kind of like knowing which Protestant sect your neighbor belongs to, you may not know and you may not care. If you look at Bagdad ten years later, five years later, it’s broken up into separate regions, walled off from one another, brutal military conflicts, much of the population expelled. That has since expanded, and now it’s tearing the whole region apart. Syria is one element of it. Iran-Saudi confrontation is another aspect. And out of this emerged ISIS. Graham Fuller is quite correct.
SS: You just quoted a man that you respect a lot, who said, it’s the United States who involuntarily actually created ISIS, so if it’s the United States actions that brought about ISIS, isn’t it only fair that the United States should lead the fight against it today? I mean, it’s only obvious that political and diplomatic means to solve this mess aren’t there. So, do you support the U.S.-led bombing campaign?
NC: There are ways to respond diplomatically, one conceivable possibility, conceivable, is to act in accordance with the law. There is a reign of international law, that’s in principal. It debars the use of force or the threat of force in international affairs, except under authorization by the UN Security Council. A law-abiding state would go to the Security Council, ask for a declaration by the Security Council of a threat to peace, and request the Security Council to organize direct response to it. And that could be done. The U.S. could then participate in it, but so could Iran. Remember, look at the Iraqi Foreign Office, what they want is for Iran to become involved. It’s a major military force. If it did enter it would probably wipe out ISIS in no time. But the U.S. won’t permit that. The U.S.-run coalition, which is in violation of basic international law, excludes Iran, excludes the PKK and its affiliates, which apparently are doing the ground-fighting – according to the U.S., they are terrorist group. Turkey, which is closest U.S. ally, is opposed to them. The central U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia – that’s been the source of funding, the main source of the funding of ISIS, but also it’s the ideological source. It’s the Wahabi-Salafi extremists, that’s radical Islamic doctrines, which are kind of a fringe of Islam in Saudi Arabia, a fringe of that radical doctrine is ISIS. So, this coalition is kind of a meaningless coalition, apart from being illegal. There would be ways of handling, at least approaching the problem legally, which could work.
SS: And just my final question, on a different topic. The FBI is now looking into an apparent second Edward Snowden, but previous whistleblower revelations have failed to make any real dent in the system. Why would this be any different? Talking about NSA spying isn’t stopping NSA spying.
NC: It’s not stopping NSA spying, it’s not stopping the spying being done by Britain, the spying being done by France, the spying being done by other countries, I’m sure Russia’s doing it. States are very resistant to interference with their powers. Of course, the NSA system, U.S. is far and away the technologically most advanced country in the world, so it’s more extensive in the United States, but it’s duplicated in China, Britain, Russia, no doubt, other countries. And, yes, you’re right, it hasn’t stopped, now in fact it’s expanding. It’s a real major attack on human rights. And the major threat is if it becomes sort of passively accepted, because of the fact that it’s not stopped, this is just going to go on, go on to the point where there are literally tiny drones, fly-size drones, that can be on the ceiling of your living room, listening to what you’re saying and sending it back to the central government office. There are no limits to this. Already, if you have a cellphone, even if it’s off, you can be tracked by NSA and other technologies. So this is a really dangerous development. Snowden made a major contribution by exposing it, but there’s a long way to go. There has to be a citizen reaction, which would put an end to this practice.
SS: Professor Chomsky, thank you so much for this interview. We were talking to world-renowned academic, American linguist, thinker, activist Noam Chomsky.We were talking about what’s in store for Russia-U.S. relations, also the crisis around ISIS, and if the next whistleblower scandal is going to be any different from the one around Edward Snowden. Thanks a lot for this interview. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, see you next time.