On Hegemony

NOAM CHOMSKY – The West has its own agenda for the Arab Spring and the region. 

During the Vietnam War, you wrote your now famous essay, The Responsibility of Intellectuals, noting that Intellectuals “are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.” During a conflict in the Middle East, which many have compared to the fighting in Vietnam, have intellectuals realized and acted according to this philosophy?

 A few have. Let us take a look at the United States, or any country for that matter, there is typically a fringe of educated people — intellectuals — that does follow the principles I outlined in my essay. But overwhelmingly, members of the educated sector do stay within the parameters of the system that supports those in power. This situation is dramatically true in many different periods of modern history. One good example of the intellectual sector’s adherence to the opinions of those in government was during the First World War. On the eve of war, there were essentially no arguments on any side against involvement in the conflict. In every country involved, the intellectuals were overwhelmingly lined up in support of their own state, passionately so. There were dissidents — Bertrand Russell or Eugene Debs for example — but these critics found themselves in jail or suppressed aggressively. That is typical of the situation with regards to intellectuals. The same is true now of the modern Middle East.

In your essay, you wrote that “In the Western world, at least, [intellectuals] have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression.” Given the democratic movements that are sweeping across the Middle East today, what role do you envision intellectuals in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, or even Syria playing in the March towards egalitarian government?

In Syria and Libya, the situation is pretty terrible; people try to speak out against those in power, but there is not much that they can do. In Syria they will most likely be killed, so the intellectuals flee. Libya is breaking up into a collection of militia-controlled subunits of territory, an atmosphere that is not conducive to the debate necessary for a healthy democratic discourse. In Tunisia and Egypt, there have been significant steps towards freedom and democracy: western-backed dictators have been overthrown, the political systems have been opened to provide much more opportunity to the people in these countries for positive representation and, most importantly, the creation of viable labor organizations. The core of the Egyptian and Tunisian uprising was driven by strong labor movements, which had been suppressed under the dictatorships, and which are now much freer to organize.

On the other hand, there are limits to how effective these movements will prove. Western governments, particularly the US, fear democracy and regard it as a dire threat, and will continue to do what they can to prevent it. In a democracy, public opinion influences policy – the last thing the West wants, clearly.

It is possible to see evidence of this anxiety if one looks at polls of public opinion in the Arab World. These polls show that people in the Arab World overwhelmingly consider the threat they face to be far greater from Israel and the US than from nations like Iran. Arabs, based on a long history of conflict with the Persians, are not friendly towards the Iranians; yet, they do not see Iran as a threat. The opposition to US policy is so extreme that the majority of people think the region would be more secure if Iran had nuclear weapons.

That is not the kind of policy the United States would want to see implemented, of course. A society is only democratic to the extent that popular opinion influences policy. The West is strongly opposed to the type of democratization that the Arab people want, and that is why there is a deep divide between what American leaders want and what the leaders in the newly-emerging democracies desire for their countries.

Nevertheless, in certain countries — especially Tunisia and Egypt — there has been notable progress towards democratic reform; much more than anywhere else in the region. In the oil dictatorships — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, for example — where the governments have suppressed any dissent.

Are the movements in Egypt and Tunisia one that can be spearheaded by intellectuals, is it a labor movement, or are the two inseparable? 

The core in many ways was a labor movement. Among the activists, the leaders were often young, tech-savvy intellectuals. But as the political system opened in these countries, the effect was to transfer power to Islamists, since that is what the population wants. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has considerable outreach in Egypt, where it was able to organize effectively during and immediately after the Mubarak regime. They are organizing in the slums, providing social service programs. The Salafists — the most radical group — has done very well in the slums and poorer areas of Egypt as well. Just how this situation will work itself out is unclear. The United States and its allies can accommodate the Muslim Brotherhood, who are Islamists but what some analysts label as neoliberal. The Muslim Brotherhood candidate in Egypt is a very wealthy businessman who gets along quite well with his western counterparts. What these parties need to confront is the shocking and horrifying economic and social differences in the country; yet if the government tried to solve these iniquities — high concentrations of wealth, widespread poverty — the West would not appreciate that at all.

The West is mainly concerned that the new governments could resist the subordination to western power. The Salafists in Egypt, for example, are calling for abrogation of the main treaties with Israel and the US.

American leaders view these treaties as the foundations of what they call stability in the Middle East. But for the populations of the region, these treaties — the Egyptian treaty with Israel is the prime example — represent instability. That is the treaty that makes it possible for Israel to freely carry aggression against its Northern neighbor, Lebanon, to expand its activities in the Palestinian territories. The popular sentiment in newly-democratic countries is against these treaties; nobody wants to go to war, of course, but there is a great deal of opposition to the arrangements that remove any deterrent to US-backed Israeli actions.

It is often noted that nations with global reach construct for themselves a paradise of power that obscures their view of reality. Has the United States fogged its vision in this way, that is, has its power prevented it from seeing the reality of the situation in the Middle East, for example?

It is a good idea to look at the Middle East in particular. An article in The New Republic discussing the possibility of launching an attack against Iran concluded by noting that if Israel bombs Iran, the Arab States will rejoice. Yet the reality on the ground is very different. Only five percent of Arabs think Iran is a threat; the majority see the US and Israel as the main threat to regional stability, not Iran. So why would these people be rejoicing? The author of this article — a well-known intellectual — is reflexively identifying the Arab states with the dictators of those nations, and disregarding the larger population. In this scenario, if the dictators rejoice, that means the states are rejoicing and the West will be happy.

That perception reflects two things. The first is a deep contempt for democracy among western leaders. The second is ignorance: the author probably does not even know of the statistics I mentioned regarding Arab opinion on this matter. The Brookings Institute released these results from a series of polls, yet in major media outlets, what is discussed is what the dictators in the Middle East think: nobody seems to care much about what the people want. And I think that is a very conceited reflection of our own mentality and commitments.

How should we understand and quantify American power and hegemony on the international stage? 

One of the most common themes in contemporary political discourse is the discussion surrounding America’s decline. The front cover of the December 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs, a major establishment foreign policy journal, splashed across its cover in big, bold, capital letters the question: “Is America Over?” That is, has this country’s decline proceeded so far that America is gone from the international stage. This idea has a corollary to it, that China is taking over the dominant position in international politics, that power is shifting from the United States to China. This view is mostly paranoia, but it has an element of reality to it. China’s economic growth has been stupendous, but it remains a very poor country. American policies have remained fundamentally unchanged since the Second World War, but the capacity to implement these policies has declined significantly.

Take, say, just the Western Hemisphere, which has for a long time been regarded as under US control. During the last ten years, South America has broken free, it is not subordinate to American will. Countries there have moved towards economic and political independence, and are addressing their internal problems.

International organizations have brought together the Latin American states almost to the exclusion of the United States. That is a huge change to the political matrix. The US does not have a single military base in South America, and that lack of heavy US presence does illustrate a significant shift in global power. Similar things are happening elsewhere. The concern among American leadership is that the Arab Spring will take the Middle East in much the same direction as Latin America; that would be extremely serious if such a shift happened, as the major US energy resources are centered in the Gulf States.

US power can be both a blessing and a curse in the sense that it can be used in the international political arena, leading some analysts to describe the decline of US influence abroad. It sometimes seems that this country feels less inhibited at using force because it has so much to spare. Yet, could it be the case that US power is declining for this reason: because we have too much of it?

If you ask people living in Iraq, Guatemala, or Vietnam — targets of US aggression and violence — they would certainly say that America has too much power. If you ask people in Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the 1970s whether Russia had too much power, they would have answered in much the same way. I suspect that is not what the analysts making this claim had in mind, although that is what they should have had in mind.

The same is true in the Middle East. The United States desperately wants to undermine Iran, but the US is fairly isolated in this desire. American leaders have said that the international community supports the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but that community is really only limited to Europe. China, Russia, India, Turkey, the Arab World — they do not agree with this mission at all. This lack of international unity is reflective of the American incapacity to carry out long-standing goals with international support.


NOAM CHOMSKY is the Institute Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also an internationally-recognized commentator and thinker about issues of American hegemony.

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