A book review by editor Andrew Ng, ’22.
Chomsky’s best-selling Hegemony or Survival is a masterful dissection of US foreign policy from the 2nd World War up to the US invasion of Iraq. While his acerbic tone may not be for everyone, I personally enjoyed Chomsky’s heavy dose of sarcasm and biting criticism of the US government, a welcome relief after my traversal of Piketty’s incredibly dry Capital and Ideology (review here). Chomsky frequently points out the blatant hypocrisy of government statements and policy, emphasizing the “logical illogicalities” to great effect. For example, one of my favorite lines from the book is “surely this establishes the case and justifies the praise for the altruistic leaders opening a new era of enlightenment. And so it might, if the claims had any relation to the facts.” As we will see, Chomsky’s criticism also reaches across the aisle, ensnaring both Democrats and Republicans in the complicated and pernicious web of US imperialism.
A large part of Hegemony or Survival discusses US policies in Latin America, and for obvious reasons – ever since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, the United States government has implemented a clear policy of maintaining US hegemony in Latin America to the detriment of the Latin American people. Whether it be in Guatemala, Nicaragua, or Chile, the US has consistently and hypocritically opposed the establishment of true democracies; the US government has seen any “successful defiance” of US imperialism as a direct challenge to its hegemony in Latin America and the power of the US as a whole. Take Nicaragua, the Latin American state Chomsky focuses on most. Throughout the 1980s, Nicaragua was praised by international observers as “laying a solid foundation for long-term socio-economic development”. Logically, then, the US must attack the Nicaraguan government to prevent any other Latin American countries from freeing themselves from the shackles of US economic hegemony. For what sounds better for democracy: a prolonged terrorist campaign against a democratically elected government, or supporting the expansion of peace and freedom in Nicaragua? Obviously, it is a “war on terror”. Thus commenced the Reagan regime’s violent and economically debilitating terrorist attacks on Nicaraguan civilians. Chomsky’s criticism of this US state-sponsored terrorism is incisive and doesn’t pull punches, pointing out the hypocrisy of US politicians who felt the US was militarily threatened by unsubstantiated rumors of the Nicaraguan regime obtaining 1950’s Soviet MiGs. Yes, the US, with the largest military in the world was “threatened” by a few vintage Soviet fighter jets. But Chomsky asks, did Nicaragua have the right to defend itself or even feel “threatened” by the US? The question was never even asked at the time – the hypocrisy of the US is laughable.
Furthermore, some of the best parts of the book are the sections that challenge US policies which have not been as traditionally critiqued (as opposed to more frequently criticized interventions such as the Vietnam War, the Invasion of Iraq, or even Nicaragua). For example, Chomsky attacks NATO intervention in Kosovo, a policy often viewed as a justified response to atrocities committed by the Serbians. While Chomsky recognizes that numerous terrible atrocities were committed against the Kosovo Albanians, he points out the majority of these actually occurred after the commencement of NATO’s intervention; the bombing only worsened atrocities, contrary to the common narrative that the bombing was in response to said atrocities. This is an important distinction, emphasizing the immense hypocrisy of the US government and that their “humanitarian” intervention was not truly motivated by any true sense of altruism or care for persecuted peoples, it was about establishing US/NATO hegemony.
Additionally, Chomsky attacks the policies of the Kennedy regime in relation to Cuba. While we collectively remember the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, many Americans fail to realize this was not an isolated incident of poor US policy, but rather part of a larger US initiative to topple Castro’s regime while terrorizing the Cuban people. With Kennedy’s approval, the CIA aimed to stage an “internal revolt”. US-backed terrorists, for example, blew up a large Cuban factory, killing 400 workers, and aimed to destroy many other facilities essential for the functioning of the Cuban economy. Chomsky points out that the US government largely ignored any concerns for Cuban civilians when planning these covert operations, worrying only about preserving US hegemony in the region. Further, Chomsky explains that while Kennedy’s successful diplomacy to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis is often praised, Americans usually ignore the role of the Kennedy regime in causing the crisis in the first place (the US government had stationed numerous ballistic missiles in Turkey). The US relationship with Cuba is more than complicated, but it is clear that US policy towards the country has not been motivated by any real higher ideal of justice or freedom. In fact, Chomsky points out that “Cuba was added to the official list of terrorist states in 1982, replacing Iraq, which was removed so as to make Saddam Hussein eligible for US aid”. Yes, the same Saddam Hussein the US attacked in the 2003 invasion of Iraq for supporting terrorism and allegedly having weapons of mass destruction. The hypocrisy is as clear as day.
Just like with NATO intervention in Kosovo, Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban situation is rarely criticized in the same way Vietnam or Iraq often are. But Chomsky points out that it should be. We should never restrict our criticisms to only historically unpopular conflicts, and we should never restrict our criticisms to only one party. Just because it was Kennedy and Clinton and not Reagan and Bush practicing imperialism doesn’t make it any better, for the universality of bad foreign policy transcends party lines. The foreign policy “establishment” is real and must be critiqued if we are serious about reforming the role of the US in the world today.
Take a look at the new Biden administration, and see the obvious influence of this establishment. When discussing terrorism, Chomsky notes that:
An enthusiastic welcome has also been extended to Algeria, which had already been singled out for praise by Clinton’s State Department for its achievements in combating terror – meaning, its horrendous record of state terrorist atrocities. Bush carried support for terror and torture to new extremes, offering military aid and other assistance to the Algerian government. Washington has “much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism,” we learn from William Burns, US assistant secretary of state for the Middle East.
Guess whom Biden nominated to be CIA director? If you guessed William Burns – the same William Burns who hypocritically supported the terrorism of the Algerian government while serving in the Bush II regime (the same regime that waged a “war on terror”) – then you’re correct. Biden is making my point for me!
Don’t expect the new Biden regime to be any different than its predecessors on foreign policy. I know it’s not as popular of an issue compared to Medicare for All or defunding the police, but the ending of US imperialism is important as well. And if the Left wants to stop Biden from continuing support of state-sponsored terrorism (Israel, cough, cough – Chomsky discusses this as well but I don’t have time to go over it in this review – suffice to say his analysis of the Israel/Palestine conflict is insightful and important) then we must pressure the new regime as much as possible. For if we do not, we can expect a continuation of “logical illogicalities”, US imperialism, and the universality of bad foreign policy.
At the end of the book, Chomsky emphasizes the dangers of this bad foreign policy with a quote by Bertrand Russell (I may have to review some of Russell’s work here in the future): “After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it has generated Neros, Genghis Khans, and Hitlers. This, however, I believe to be a passing nightmare; in time the earth will become again incapable of supporting life, and peace will return.” Chomsky then asks “whether we can awaken ourselves from the nightmare before it becomes all consuming, and bring a measure of peace and justice and hope to the world that is, right now, within the reach of our opportunity and our will.” Chomsky and Russell leave no doubt as to the importance of pressuring Biden into a sane foreign policy, and ending this nightmare, for the future of humanity is at stake.
With that in mind, I cannot recommend Hegemony or Survival enough. Whether you agree with every point it makes or not (I certainly don’t agree with everything), Chomsky’s book is a must-read counterbalance to the traditional narrative we often receive. Its relevance today is clear. I cannot overstate how important Chomsky’s work is.