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A MADRE Interview with Noam Chomsky

MADRE's Communications Director, Yifat Susskind, interviews Noam Chomsky about the World Conference Against Racism, US policy in Colombia, Bush's militarization of outer space and more.

August 2001

MADRE: What do you see as the significance of the UN World Conference Against Racism in South Africa?

Noam Chomsky: I think that the most important issue that's being raised by this conference is the question of reparations namely, European reparations for the destruction of Africa. Africa's a wreck and it's not because it was hit by an asteroid. It's a wreck largely because it was hit by Europe. Is anybody responsible for this? The US played a role, but in this case it was a secondary role. There is a declassified State Department paper from 1948 that outlines what the US intended to do with various regions of the world after World War II. The US decided to take the Middle East and Asia. When it came to Africa, the document essentially says that we're not so interested in Africa, so we'll give it to the Europeans to "exploit"–that's the word used–for their reconstruction. Remember, Europe was a mess after the war. Now, given the history of European-African interaction, one can imagine another proposal, namely, that Europe be given to Africa for its reconstruction. I can imagine that. Of course, there is talk at the conference about debt relief. That's okay, but how about massive reparations for what happened?

The issue of these reparations is kind of an undercurrent at the conference. But unless the idea enters European and US consciousness, it won't matter, because what matters is what happens among the powerful. It's the citizens of the powerful countries that can make a difference in that respect. I think part of MADRE's contribution over the years has been to make the citizens of the richest and most powerful country take some responsibility for their own role in the world and for what their government does, whether it's causing a million people to face starvation in northern Nicaragua and Honduras, as they are today, or causing children to die in refugee camps, or for that matter, in US urban slums.

MADRE: There has been a move over the past 30 years of citizen groups, including MADRE, working to provide people in this country with the tools to decode and challenge unjust policies. What do you think has been the impact of this movement?

NC: This effort, of which MADRE has been part, has really changed consciousness enormously in the last 30 years. The 1980's was the first time in the history of imperialism that people from the imperial society went in substantial numbers to stay with the victims in the hope that their presence would offer some protection and some help. These were not the usual students from elite universities. These were people straight out of middle America. And today, for example, there are women (some men, too, but mostly women) who are going to the occupied Palestinian territories to stand with the victims of Israeli occupation. These are very courageous Israeli women and some British and American women. That's something quite new. And MADRE has certainly contributed to that change of consciousness.

MADRE: One of the places about which there is a growing awareness concerning the impact of US policy is Colombia. Tell us about Plan Colombia and why the US is escalating its involvement there.

NC: Remember, this is a Clinton plan that Bush is implementing and probably accelerating. During the 1990's, Colombia was the leading recipient of US military aid and training in the hemisphere. Approximately half of all US aid in the hemisphere went to Colombia. Colombia was also far and away the leading human rights violator in the hemisphere. In fact, there is a very close correlation between human rights violations and US aid, particularly in Latin America.

Colombia is potentially a very wealthy country. It has tremendous resources, but its wealth is highly concentrated. Most of the population lives in misery, which has led to violent confrontation throughout the century. In 1962, the Kennedy Administration got involved. Kennedy sent a Special Forces mission advising the Colombian military to use what the US called "paramilitary terror"–this was the phrase–against "communist proponents." Now in the Latin American context, "communists" meant priests and nuns, human rights activists, labor unionists and anybody else who was getting out of line. The Colombian military received resources and training to implement the US program. And Plan Colombia is an outgrowth of this involvement.

Today, aid to Colombia is given under the pretext of a drug war. That's pretty hard to take seriously. Ten years ago, Amnesty International flatly called it a myth. The actual consequences of Plan Colombia are to devastate peasant communities, which have been driven to drug production. These peasants have no particular desire to grow coca, but their other means of livelihood have been wiped out. For example, Colombia was a big wheat producer in the 1950's. That was eliminated by what sounds like a nice plan, called "Food for Peace. " It's a plan by which US taxpayers subsidized US agribusiness to send food to poor countries. This, of course, destroyed the domestic agricultural markets of these countries, opening these markets to US agribusiness. (Food for Peace also provided funds for counterinsurgency, which was in fact its main goal.)

Colombian peasant farmers simply couldn't compete with US agribusiness. A big producer can survive price fluctuations on the world market. A small farmer can't. You can't tell your children, "don't bother eating this year, maybe you'll have food next year." So peasant agriculture was destroyed and what was left was coca production. The drug war was set in motion ostensibly to wipe out coca, but very selectively. The program is aimed at the areas under guerilla control, not those under paramilitary control. The paramilitaries, by the way, concede that about 70% of their income is from drugs. These paramilitaries are closely linked to the state military, which the US funds, and the paramilitaries are responsible for most of the atrocities. Everyone agrees with that, including the US State Department.

The fumigation of coca plants is devastating the region's ecology and people's health. But there is a much more fundamental question, rarely asked: What right does the US have to do anything in Colombia? Does Colombia have the right to bomb North Carolina? There are more Colombians dying from tobacco than Americans dying from heroin. It's not in doubt that tobacco is far more lethal than hard drugs. The whole basis for the US intervention in Colombia is outrageously racist and arrogant.

MADRE: Given that the drug war is a pretext, what is the bottom line of the US interest in Colombia?

NC: It's to ensure what's called "stability" in the diplomatic literature. Stability means you do what we say, and what we say is that Colombia and the resources of the Andean region shall be freely available to the rich and powerful of the world, particularly US-based multinational corporations.

Take a look at the bombing of Serbia in 1999. The US was quite open about the reasons for the bombing. A main reason was to preserve stability and credibility. Serbia was interfering with stability, meaning that it was the one part of the Balkans that was not integrated into the Western-dominated (mostly US-dominated) system. Nicaragua is another good example. It was destabilizing Central America, meaning moving in a direction the US didn't like. So Nicaragua was crushed. The Andes region is not stable. So we can expect to see more US intervention. It could be under any kind of pretext. We can no longer use the Russians as an excuse, as we did in Central America in the 1980's, so drugs will have to do.

MADRE: In fact, most of the Central American countries were reintegrated into the US system in the 1990's. What's been the effect in those countries?

NC: Let's look at Nicaragua. The US reasserted control over Nicaragua in 1990. Since then, the country has experienced a steep decline. It's now the second poorest country in the hemisphere. Haiti, which has been the main target of US intervention throughout the 20th century, is the poorest. And Guatemala, which is maybe the third major target of US intervention, probably ranks third poorest. But no one is concerned with Central America anymore. If a million people are facing starvation in northern Nicaragua and Honduras, it's none of our business. Few people even recognize that this situation is in part an outgrowth of US policies going back to the 1980's. Nobody is concerned because Nicaragua is technically stable.

MADRE: It seems that even when the information is available, it's quite difficult for people in the US to comprehend the impact that US policies have on communities around the world. Why do you think that is?

NC: Well, there is a principle of human affairs that goes back millennia, which is that you don't look in the mirror. You can trace this principle back to the Bible. The designated intellectuals of that time are called prophets, which is a mistranslation of a Hebrew word, but they were basically intellectuals, giving geopolitical analysis, criticizing the moral practice of leadership, etc. Now, these people were not treated very nicely. There were other intellectuals who were treated nicely, namely those who centuries later came to be called false prophets. These were the flatterers of the court. But the dissident intellectuals were treated very harshly. And this principle goes throughout history to the present. You don't look in the mirror. I think that's one of MADRE's strengths: getting people to look in the mirror. There's nothing more important, whether it's in personal life, family life or international affairs, and there are few things more difficult.

It's fine to criticize somebody else's crimes and misdeeds, but you don't talk about your own. The only exception is a country that is defeated. And even that is rather nuanced. Take, for example, Germany and Japan, both defeated in the Second World War. Germany has acknowledged its monstrous crimes to a certain extent, has paid reparations and so on. Japan, in contrast, apologizes for nothing and has paid no reparations, with one exception: It pays reparations to the United States, but not to Asia.

Both Germany and Japan were defeated, so what's the difference? The difference is rooted in the San Francisco Treaty, hailed as a major contribution to peace in Asia. The terms of the Treaty absolved Japan of from any responsibility or reparations for its massive crimes in Asia and limited "atrocities" to the period after December 7th, 1941. That is of course, the day of Japan's attack on the US at Pearl Harbor. The US designed the treaty in this way in order to reconstitute Japan's empire, but this time under US control, and to use Japan as a base for US actions in Asia. So the general principle is that the victors don't look at themselves or concede anything. The defeated typically have to, except when it's beneficial to the powerful for them not to.

MADRE: What do you see as some differences, both in style and substance, between Clinton and Bush regarding foreign policy?

NC: There are a lot of differences in style, attributable mostly to the public relations industry. Clinton's style is partly a reflection of his own personality, whereas Bush is mostly manufactured. There are also some differences of substance, which I attribute less to the individual men than to the people around them, who represent somewhat different interests. One major difference under Bush is an in increase in unilateralism, meaning, "America first and to hell with anybody that gets in our way."

Take what's called the Missile Defense Program, which I think is mislabeled. It's actually a "militarization of space" program. The missile defense component is a minor feature that nobody takes very seriously. Nobody really believes that the US is trying to protect itself from North Korea. That's not serious. But the militarization of space is quite serious. Like a lot of Bush's policies, this one goes back to the Clinton period, but it's being enhanced. We are looking at the extension of military force from armies, to navies, to the air and now to outer space. You know, the development of space technology, including space warfare today, is similar in its technological-industrial significance to the development of navies a hundred years ago. If you look at say, England and Germany a century ago, which had the most advanced navies then, they were dealing with extremely tricky technological problems. Putting a huge gun on a moving platform and ensuring that it could hit another moving target was one of the hardest technical problems of the early twentieth century.

In fact, Clinton-era publications of the US Space Command describe control over space as a parallel to control over the oceans a century ago. Then, countries built navies to protect and enhance their power in commercial and strategic interests. Today, the militarization of space is intended to protect US investments and commercial interest and US hegemony around the world.

MADRE: It's well known that the militarization of space is both extremely hazardous and easily avoidable. It would be possible to terminate it right now, before it even begins. Why isn't this happening?

NC: We're looking at the dawn of a new arms race. For example, Germany technically opposes the US space militarization program, but is bound to get involved. Otherwise it will be left behind in the development of advanced technology. Germany understands that very well. The US understands it too, and they fully expect that Germany and other countries that they want on board will go along with the program. The Bush Administration recognizes that US power is so overwhelming that it can't really be opposed, even if countries object to US actions.

In fact, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 bans militarization. Potential adversaries of the US, and even its allies, are so far behind that these countries are very interested in maintaining the treaty. Europe and the rest of the world want a strong reaffirmation of the Treaty and the US is unilaterally trying to derail it. Termination of the treaty would mean that the US could develop satellite weapons, put offensive weapons in space. It would probably mean using nuclear power in space. All of this leads to some very dangerous scenarios, including destruction of the species.

MADRE: The Outer Space Treaty is one of many international agreements that the Bush Administration has violated or terminated. What's the logic behind this trend?

NC: It's actually quite rational. Take the Kyoto Protocol. Destruction of the environment is not only rational; it's exactly what you're taught to do in college. If you take an economics or a political science course, you're taught that humans are supposed to be rational wealth accumulators, each acting as an individual to maximize his own wealth in the market. The market is regarded as democratic because everybody has a vote. Of course, some have more votes than others because your votes depend on the number of dollars you have, but everybody participates and therefore it's called democratic.

Well, suppose that we believe what we are taught. It follows that if there are dollars to be made, you destroy the environment. The reason is elementary. The people who are going to be harmed by this are your grandchildren and they don't have any votes in the market. Their interests are worth zero. Anybody that pays attention to their grandchildren's interests is being irrational. Because what you're supposed to do is maximize your own interests, measured by wealth, right now. Nothing else matters. So destroying the environment and militarizing outer space are rational policies, but within a framework of institutional lunacy. If you accept the institutional lunacy, then the policies are rational.