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Maintaining hegemony: a Chomsky view of U.S. motivation internationally

I have always found Noam Chomsky’s arguments incisive and useful for clearing away the power of the conventional “freedom and democracy” explanation for U.S. behavior on the global stage.

Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky: "The challenge to U.S. hegemony posed by Russia and particularly China has been a major theme of foreign policy discourse for some time, with persistent agreement on the severity of the threat."
REUTERS/Majed Jaber

To call Noam Chomsky a “radical” is not even slightly controversial. 

Although his scholarly background was as a linguist, he has been taking controversial positions, notably about U.S. culture and politics and especially geopolitics, for decades (he’s now 92), and he might note that the linguistic origin of the word “radical” is a symbol for the square root of a number. He has been seeking the often unspoken “root” of issues, often harshly critical of U.S. foreign policy, for more than half a century.

In a recent interview with his frequent interlocutor C.J. Polychroniou, Chomsky updated his longstanding starting point, namely that U.S. conduct on the global stage has little to do with spreading freedom and democracy and almost everything to do with the permanent U.S. interest in its hegemony.

I suppose this argument is old hat, but Chomsky has a way of, at least for me, cutting through the freedom and democracy claims and portraying U.S. foreign policy as perpetual hegemony maintenance.

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I can’t summarize it any better than that, so I’ll just let him summarize in a few paragraphs below. In case you find it intriguing, I offer a link below to the full Chomskian explanation. Here’s the excerpt, from the Truthout piece: 

Chomsky: The challenge to U.S. hegemony posed by Russia and particularly China has been a major theme of foreign policy discourse for some time, with persistent agreement on the severity of the threat.

The matter is plainly complex. It’s a good rule of thumb to cast a skeptical eye when there is general agreement on some complex issue. This is no exception.

What we generally find, I think, is that Russia and China sometimes deter U.S. actions to enforce its global hegemony in regions on their periphery that are of particular concern to them. One can ask whether they are justified in seeking to limit overwhelming U.S. power in this way, but that is a long distance from the way the challenge is commonly understood: as an effort to displace the U.S. global role in sustaining a liberal rule-based international order by new centers of hegemonic power. 

Do Russia and China actually challenge U.S. hegemony in the ways commonly understood?

Russia is not a major actor in the world scene, apart from the military force that is a (very dangerous) residue of its earlier status as a second superpower. It does not begin to compare with the U.S. in outreach and influence.

China has undergone spectacular economic growth, but it is still far from approaching U.S. power in just about any dimension. It remains a relatively poor country, ranked 85th in the UN Human Development Index, between Brazil and Ecuador. The U.S., while not ranked near the top because of its poor social welfare record, is far above China. 

In military strength and global outreach (bases, forces in active combat), there is no comparison. U.S.-based multinationals have about half of world wealth and are first (sometimes second) in just about every category. China is far behind. China also faces serious internal problems (ecological, demographic, political). The U.S., in contrast, has internal and security advantages unmatched anywhere.

I presume there are many Americans still capable of being shocked by Chomsky’s basic critique, although some MinnPost readers, whether they agree or disagree, may find it old hat.

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I should warn liberals and Democrats that, based on the argument above, in Chomsky’s long view, in fundamental ways, U.S. foreign policy doesn’t ever change. 

Personally, although I haven’t interviewed him for decades, I have always found Chomsky’s arguments incisive and useful for clearing away the power of the conventional “freedom and democracy” explanation for U.S. behavior on the global stage. That conventional explanation, I suppose, exercises its own kind of hegemony or at least predominance in discussions of U.S. global behavior.

The full Chomsky interview, via Truthout, provocatively headlined: “Biden’s Foreign Policy Is Largely Indistinguishable from Trump’s” is accessible here.