THE WORLD'S RENT-A-THUG
For most of this century, the United States was far and away the
world's dominant economic power, and that made economic war fare
an appealing weapon, including measures ranging from illegal embargo
to enforcement of IMF rules (for the weak) . But in the last twenty
years or so, the US has declined relative to Japan and German-led
Europe (thanks in part to the economic mismanagement of the Reagan
administration, which threw a party for the rich with costs paid
by the majority of the population and future generations). At
the same time, however, US military power has become absolutely
As long as the Soviet Union was in the game, there was a limit
to how much force the US could apply, particularly in more remote
areas where we didn't have a big conventional force advantage.
Because the USSR used to support governments and political movements
the US was trying to destroy, there was a danger that US intervention
in the Third World might explode into a nuclear war. With the
Soviet deterrent gone, the US is much more free to use violence
around the world, a fact that has been recognized with much satisfaction
by US policy analysts in the past several years. In any confrontation,
each participant tries to shift the battle to a domain in which
it's most likely to succeed. You want to lead with your strength,
play your strong card. The strong card of the United States is
force-so if we can establish the principle that force rules the
world, that's a victory for us. If, on the other hand, a conflict
is settled through peaceful means, that benefits us less, because
our rivals are just as good or better in that domain.
Diplomacy is a particularly unwelcome option, unless it's pursued
under the gun. The US has very little popular support for its
goals in the Third World. This isn't surprising, since it's trying
to impose structures of domination and exploitation. A diplomatic
settlement is bound to respond, at least to some degree, to the
interests of the other participants in the negotiation, and that's
a problem when your positions aren't very popular.
As a result, negotiations are something the US commonly tries
to avoid. Contrary to much propaganda, that has been true in Southeast
Asia, the Middle East and Central America for many years.
Against this background, it's natural that the Bush administration
should regard military force as a major policy instrument, preferring
it to sanctions and diplomacy (as in the Gulf crisis). But since
the US now lacks the economic base to impose "order and stability"
in the Third World, it must rely on others to pay for the exercise-a
necessary one, it's widely assumed, since someone must ensure
a proper respect for the masters. The flow of profits from Gulf
oil production helps, but Japan and German-led continental Europe
must also pay their share as the US adopts the "mercenary
role," following the advice of the international business
The financial editor of the conservative Chicago Tribune has been
stressing these themes with particular clarity. We must be "willing
mercenaries," paid for our ample services by our rivals,
using our "monopoly power" in the "security market"
to maintain "our control over the world economic system."
We should run a global protection racket, he advises, selling
"protection" to other wealthy powers who will pay us
a "war premium."
This is Chicago, where the words are understood: if someone bothers
you, you call on the Mafia to break their bones. And if you fall
behind in your premium, your health may suffer too.
To be sure, the use of force to control the Third World is only
a last resort. The IMF is a more cost-effective instrument than
the Marines and the CIA if it can do the job. But the "iron
fist" must be poised in the background, available when needed.
Our rent-a-thug role also causes suffering at home. All of the
successful industrial powers have relied on the state to protect
and enhance powerful domestic economic interests, to direct public
resources to the needs of investors, and so on-one reason why
they are successful. Since 1950, the US has pursued these ends
largely through the Pentagon system (including NASA and the Department
of Energy, which produces nuclear weapons). By now we are locked
into these devices for maintaining electronics, computers and
high-tech industry generally.
Reaganite military Keynesian excesses added further problems.
The transfer of resources to wealthy minorities and other government
policies led to a vast wave of financial manipulations and a consumption
binge. But there was little in the way of productive investment,
and the country was saddled with huge debts: government, corporate,
household and the incalculable debt of unmet social needs as the
society drifts towards a Third World pattern, with islands of
great wealth and privilege in a sea of misery and suffering.
When a state is committed to such policies, it must somehow find
a way to divert the population, to keep them from seeing what
's happening around them. There are not many ways to do this.
The standard ones are to inspire fear of terrible enemies about
to overwhelm us, and awe for our grand leaders who rescue us from
disaster in the nick of time.
That has been the pattern right through the 1980s, requiring no
little ingenuity as the standard device, the Soviet threat, became
harder to take seriously. So the threat to our existence has been
Qaddafi and his hordes of international terrorists, Grenada and
its ominous air base, Sandinistas marching on Texas, Hispanic
narco-traffickers led by the arch-maniac Noriega, and crazed Arabs
generally. Most recently it's Saddam Hussein, after he committed
his sole crime-the crime of disobedience-in August 1990. It has
become more necessary to recognize what has always been true:
that the prime enemy is the Third World, which threatens to get
"out of control."
These are not laws of nature. The processes, and the institutions
that engender them, could be changed. But that will require cultural,
social and institutional changes of no little moment, including
democratic structures that go far beyond periodic selection of
representatives of the business world to manage domestic and international
from the book What Uncle Sam Really Wants, published in 1993
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other Noam Chomsky books published by Odonian Press
Secrets, Lies, and Democracy
The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many
Uncle Sam Really Wants