Noam Chomsky - 'Illegitimate Authority: Facing the Challenges of Our Time'

Noam Chomsky - 'Illegitimate Authority: Facing the Challenges of Our Time'


The cover for 'Illegitimate Authority: Facing the Challenges of Our Time'.

In this book, a collection of interviews conducted by C. J. Polychroniou and printed in Truthout, Noam Chomsky covers mainly four topics:

  • The USA after Joe Biden
  • The Ukraine-NATO/Russia war
  • The climate catastrophe
  • The threat of nuclear annihilation

Apart from those most important topics of discussion, Chomsky also speaks about Palestine/Israel, Latin America, Brazil (especially Bolsonaro’s politics), Turkey, Hungary (especially Orbán’s politics), and Roe/Wade in the U. S.

The start of this book is an interview that was finished in March, 2021. Chomsky punctures Biden’s then-recent refusal to cancel $50,000 in student loans and later goes on to lacerate Biden’s foreign policy, as was largely indistinguishable from Trump’s:

If we look at history, we find regular echoes of Sen. Arthur Vandenberg’s 1947 advice to the president that he should “scare hell out of the American people” if he wanted to whip them up to a frenzy of fear over the Russian threat to take over the world. It would be necessary to be “clearer than truth,” as explained by Dean Acheson, one of the creators of the postwar order. He was referring to NSC-68 of 1950, a founding document of the Cold War, declassified decades later. Its rhetoric continues to resound in one or another form, again today about China.

Chomsky is not an Oracle; his prediction that constant provocations by NATO (via the U. S.) could risk poking the Russian bear to war, turned out to be true.

In December, 2021, this was an exchange between Polychroniou and Chomsky:

Polychroniou: NATO was founded in response to the alleged threat posed to Western democracies by the Soviet Union. Yet, NATO not only did not disappear after the end of the Cold War, but continued its expansion eastward and, as a matter of fact, regards Ukraine today as a potential member. What is the relevance of NATO today, and to what extent is it responsible for escalating tensions on Russia’s borders and for potentially ushering in a new Cold War?

Chomsky: The expansion to the East, including regular military maneuvers and threatening weapons systems, is clearly a factor in escalating tensions, the offer to Ukraine to join NATO even more so, as just discussed.

In thinking about the acutely dangerous current situation, it’s useful to bear in mind the founding of NATO and the “alleged threat.”

There’s a good deal to say about that topic, specifically about how the Russian threat was actually perceived by planners. Inquiry shows that it was quite different from the fevered rhetoric employed “to scare the hell out of the country” in a manner “clearer than truth” (Sen. Arthur Vandenberg and Dean Acheson, respectively).

It is well known that the influential planner George Kennan considered the Russian threat to be political and ideological, not military. He was, in fact, sent out to pasture early on for failure to join in the largely manufactured panic. Still, it’s always instructive to see how the world is perceived at the dovish extreme.

As head of the State Department planning staff, Kennan was so concerned about the threat from postwar Russia in 1946 that he felt that partition of Germany might be necessary in violation of wartime agreements. The reason was the need to “rescue Western zones of Germany by walling them off against Eastern penetration,” not, of course, by military force, but by “political penetration,” where the Russians had the advantage. In 1948, Kennan advised that, “the problem of Indonesia [is] the most crucial issue of the moment in our struggle with the Kremlin,” even though the Kremlin was nowhere in sight.

The reason was that if Indonesia falls under “Communism” it could be an “infection [that] would sweep westward” through all of South Asia, even endangering US control of the Middle East.

The internal record is littered with similar illustrations of oblique, sometimes quite explicit, recognition of reality. In general, “The Kremlin” became a metaphor for anything that might fall out of US control-until 1949, when the “Sino-Soviet conspiracy” could sometimes fill the bill. Russia was indeed a threat, within its Eastern European domains, just as many around the world can attest to threats of the US and its Western allies. There should be no need to sample that awful history. NATO had little role in it. With the collapse of the USSR, the official justification for NATO was gone, and something new had to be devised. More generally, some new pretext had to be devised for violence and subversion.

One device, quickly seized upon, was “humanitarian intervention.” This was soon framed within the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). Two versions were formulated. The official version was adopted by the UN in 2005. It keeps to the strictures of the UN Charter banning the threat or use of force in international affairs apart from conditions irrelevant to R2P, proceeding beyond only in calling on states to observe humanitarian law.

That’s the official version of R2P. A second version was formulated by the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty on Responsibility to Protect (2001), produced under the initiative of former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans. It departs from the official version in one crucial respect: a situation in which “the Security Council rejects a proposal or fails to deal with it in a reasonable time.” In that case, the report authorizes “action within area of jurisdiction by regional or sub-regional organizations under Chapter VIII of the Charter, subject to their seeking subsequent authorization from the Security Council.”

In practice, the right to intervene is reserved to the powerfulin today’s world, to the NATO powers, which are also unilaterally able to determine their own “area of jurisdiction.” They did in fact do so. NATO unilaterally determined that its “area of jurisdiction” includes the Balkans, then Afghanistan, and well beyond. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer instructed a NATO meeting in June 2007 that “NATO troops have to guard pipelines that transport oil and gas that is directed for the West,” and more generally have to protect sea routes used by tankers and other “crucial infrastructure of the energy system. NATO’s area of jurisdiction is therefore worldwide.

To be sure, some do not agree; in particular, the traditional victims of the kind tutelage of Europe and its offshoots. Their opinion, as always dismissed, was made explicit in the first meeting of the South Summit of 133 states (April 2000). Its declaration, surely with the recent bombing of Serbia in mind, rejected “the so-called ‘right’of humanitarian intervention, which has no legal basis in the United Nations Charter or in the general principles of international law.” The wording of the declaration reaffirms earlier UN declarations to the same effect, and is mirrored in the official version of R2P.

Standard practice since has been to refer to the official UN version as justification for whatever is done but to keep to the Evans Commission version for determination of choice of action.

The above was quickly followed by this exchange:

Polychroniou: There are indications that Russia is building capacity to attack Ukraine, with some military analysts claiming that this could happen in the first couple months of the new year. While it is not likely that NATO would intervene militarily in a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, a Russian invasion of Ukraine would surely bring about a dramatic transformation of the international landscape. What would be the most realistic solution to the Ukraine conflict?

Chomsky: The indications are real, and ominous. Most serious analysts doubt that Putin would launch an invasion. He would have a great deal to losemaybe everything if the US reacted with force, as we all might. At best from his perspective, Russia would be engaged in a bitter “endless war” and subjected to very severe sanctions and other harsh measures. I presume that Putin’s intention is to warn the West not to disregard what he takes to be Russian interests, with some justice. […]

Chomsky has, even before 2022, mentioned that he believes the best way to squash the war is through diplomacy, not by constantly trying to push Russia into a corner where they will be forced to act. Make no mistake, Chomsky has naturally rejected Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine; he’s onto what is actually viable to prevent a drawn-out war with many casualties (not to mention the threat of nuclear war and possible annihilation of humanity). On the matter:

There are, basically, two ways for this war to end: a negotiated diplomatic settlement or destruction of one or the other side, either quickly or in prolonged agony. It won’t be Russia that is destroyed.

Uncontroversially, Russia has the capacity to obliterate Ukraine, and if Putin and his cohort are driven to the wall, in desperation they might use this capacity. That surely should be the expectation of those who portray Putin as a “madman” immersed in delusions of romantic nationalism and wild global aspirations.

That’s clearly an experiment that no one wants to undertake-at least no one who has the slightest concern for Ukrainians.

The qualification is unfortunately necessary. There are respected voices in the mainstream who simultaneously hold two views: (1) Putin is indeed a “deranged madman” who is capable of anything and might lash out wildly in revenge if backed to the wall; (2) “Ukraine must win. That is the only acceptable outcome.” We can help Ukraine defeat Russia, they say, by providing advanced military equipment and training, and backing Putin to the wall.

Those two positions can only be simultaneously held by people who care so little about the fate of Ukrainians that they are willing to try an experiment to see whether the “deranged madman” will slink away in defeat or will use the overwhelming force at his command to obliterate Ukraine. Either way, the advocates of these two views win.

If Putin quietly accepts defeat, they win. If he obliterates Ukraine, they win: It will justify far harsher measures to punish Russia.

It is of no little interest that such willingness to play games with the lives and fate of Ukrainians receives high praise, and is even considered a noble and courageous stance. Perhaps other words might come to mind.

Putting aside the qualification-unfortunately necessary in this strange culture-the answer to the question posed seems clear enough: engage in serious diplomatic efforts to end the conflict. Of course, that’s not the response for those whose prime goal is to punish Russia-to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian, as Ambassador Chas Freeman describes current US policy, matters we have discussed.

The basic framework for a diplomatic settlement has long been understood and has been reiterated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. First, neutralization of Ukraine, providing it with a status rather like Mexico or Austria. Second, putting off the matter of Crimea.

Third, arrangements for a high level of autonomy for Donbas, perhaps within a federal arrangement, preferably to be settled in terms of an internationally run referendum.

Official US policy continues to reject all of this. High administration officials don’t just concede that “prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States made no effort to address one of Vladimir Putin’s most often stated top security concerns-the possibility of Ukraine’s membership into NATO.” They praise themselves for having taken this position, which may well have been a factor in impelling Putin to criminal aggression. And the US continues to maintain this position now, thus standing in the way of a negotiated settlement along the lines Zelenskyy outlined, whatever the cost to Ukrainians.

Can a settlement along those general lines still be achieved, as seemed likely before the Russian invasion? There is only one way to find out: to try. Ambassador Freeman is far from alone among informed Western analysts in chastising the US government for having “been absent [from diplomatic efforts] and, at worst, implicitly opposed” to them with its actions and rhetoric. That, he continues, is “the opposite of statecraft and diplomacy” and a bitter blow to Ukrainians by prolonging the conflict. Other respected analysts, such as Anatol Lieven, generally agree, recognizing that at the very least, “The US has done nothing to facilitate diplomacy.”

Regrettably, rational voices, however respected, are at the margins of discussion, leaving the floor to those who want to punish Russiato the last Ukrainian.

Chomsky’s mind is a wondrous place to taste. His near-unique way of connecting dots over hundreds of years, many different scientific and popular fields of experience, and an extreme amount of news sources paints a very clear picture of topics. Chomsky mentions sources and is not afraid of stating his ignorance in some areas.

However, those areas are few; I can’t mention another person like Chomsky in matters of international politics.

Chomsky has, in recent years, focused on the two biggest threats to human life on Earth: the climate catastrophe and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Together with the economist Robert Pollin, Chomsky has written the book Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal1, which shows how it’s possible to switch from fossil fuels to renewable and green energy in a fairly short period of time, and still manage to not kill off all life on Earth.

Polychroniou: Noam, when surveying reactions to whatever environmental gains have been made over the past fifty years, one observes a rather unsurprising pattern, which is, namely, that the right assigns virtually all credit to businessmen and to capitalism, while the left to environmental activists, and contends that the only hope for a greener tomorrow mandates the rejection of capitalist logic. Is capitalism saving or killing the planet?

Chomsky: It’s close to a truism that “capitalist logic will kill the planet.” That’s one of the many reasons why business has always rejected the suicidal doctrines that are piously preached. Rather, the business world demands that a powerful state, under its control, intervene constantly to protect private power from the ravages of an unconstrained market and to sustain the system of public subsidy, private profit that has been a cornerstone of the economy from the early days of industrial state capitalism…

The only way to answer the question posed is to look at examples.

Let’s pick a central one: a Green New Deal. In one or another form, such a program is essential for survival. A few years ago, the idea was ignored or ridiculed. Now it is at least on the legislative agenda. How did the transition occur? Overwhelmingly, thanks to wide-ranging activism taking many forms, culminating in the occupation of congressional offices by activists of Sunrise Movement. They receive support from representatives swept into office on the Sanders wave of popular activism, notably Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, joined by senior Sen. Ed Markey, who had long been concerned with environmental issues.

We also know that poor people and poor countries have already borne the greatest costs of the climate crisis, and that this pattern will continue as global average temperatures increase. As the economist James Boyce has written, poor people “are less able to invest in air conditioners, sea walls and other adaptations. They live closer to the edge… and the places that climate models show will be hit hardest by global warming including drought-prone regions of sub-Saharan Africa and typhoon-vulnerable South and South East Asia-are home to some of the world’s poorest people.”

Reading Chomsky often feels like a breath of fresh air in a very stuffy or, even, suffocating environment. An example of how he clears out bad weather in only paragraph:

Polychroniou: Noam, I want to start by asking you to put into context the Israeli attack against Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa Mosque amid eviction protests, and then the latest air raid attacks in Gaza. What’s new, what’s old, and to what extent is this latest round of neo-colonial Israeli violence related to Trump’s move of the US embassy to Jerusalem?

Chomsky: There are always new twists, but in essentials it is an old story, tracing back a century, taking new forms after Israel’s 1967 conquests and the decision fifty years ago, by both major political groupings, to choose expansion over security and diplomatic settlement-anticipating (and receiving) crucial US material and diplomatic support all the way. For what became the dominant tendency in the Zionist movement, there has been a fixed long-term goal. Put crudely, the goal is to rid the country of Palestinians and replace them with Jewish settlers cast as the “rightful owners of the land” returning home after millennia of exile.

Chomsky goes deeply into statements about modern Israel as framed by Netanyahu (Israel), Bolsonaro (Brazil), Modi (India), Orbán (Hungary), al-Sisi (Egypt). Chomsky also extrapolates by briefly and importantly going into international actions, for example, how the U. S. used the Abraham Accords to formalise tacit relations between some dictatorships, and how those affect other countries, for example, Yemen (described by the UN describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis), with more than 370,000 dead in one year (which is the official number; nobody knows the actual number). All of this is vastly accelerated by Trump, who not only recognised Israel’s illegal annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights and a vastly expanded Greater Jerusalem, but also showed how certain hyper-wealthy schools work, for example, Harvard, where law professor Alan Dershowitz nominated Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Chomsky’s work on propaganda2, together with Edward Herman, is world-renowned and shows a clear propaganda model that’s been used over decades by governments and advertisement agencies alike, all keen to not only shift perception but behaviour. Here’s Chomsky on propaganda in war:

Polychroniou: Wartime propaganda has become in the modern world a powerful weapon in garnering public support for war and providing a moral justification for it, usually by highlighting the “evil” nature of the enemy. It’s also used in order to break down the will of the enemy forces to fight. In the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kremlin propaganda seems so far to be working inside Russia and dominating Chinese social media, but it looks like Ukraine is winning the information war in the global arena, especially in the West. Do you agree with this assessment? Any significant lies or war myths around the Russia-Ukraine conflict worth pointing out?

Chomsky: Wartime propaganda has been a powerful weapon for a long time, I suspect as far back as we can trace the historical record.

And often a weapon with long-term consequences, which merit attention and thought.

Just to keep to modern times, in 1898, the US battleship Maine sank in Havana harbor, probably from an internal explosion. The Hearst press succeeded in arousing a wave of popular hysteria about the evil nature of Spain. That provided the needed background for an invasion of Cuba that is called here “the liberation of Cuba.” Or, as it should be called, the prevention of Cuba’s self-liberation from Spain, turning Cuba into a virtual US colony. So it remained until 1959, when Cuba was indeed liberated, and the US, almost at once, undertook a vicious campaign of terror and sanctions to end Cuba’s “successful defiance” of the 150-year-old US policy of dominating the hemisphere, as the State Department explained fifty years ago.

Whipping up war myths can have long-term consequences.

A few years later, in 1916, Woodrow Wilson was elected president with the slogan “Peace without Victory.” That was quickly transmuted to Victory without Peace. A flood of war myths quickly turned a pacifist population to one consumed with hatred for all things German.

The propaganda at first emanated from the British Ministry of Information; we know what that means. American intellectuals of the liberal Dewey circle lapped it up enthusiastically, declaring themselves to be the leaders of the campaign to liberate the world. For the first time in history, they soberly explained, war was not initiated by military or political elites, but by the thoughtful intellectuals-themwho had carefully studied the situation and, after careful deliberation, rationally determined the right course of action: to enter the war, to bring liberty and freedom to the world, and to end the Hun atrocities concocted by the British Ministry of Information.

One consequence of the very effective Hate Germany campaigns was imposition of a victor’s peace, with harsh treatment of defeated Germany. Some strongly objected, notably John Maynard Keynes.

They were ignored. That gave us Hitler.

This shows one of Chomsky’s fortés: to clearly and succinctly explain a concept in a way that most people can understand.

The end of the book adds a bit of humanism to the book as a whole: in 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that people may carry a concealed weapon for ‘self-defense’, with no further justification. In a country ravaged by gun violence where rapacious amounts of money go to owners of gun and ammunition-making companies, the decision is just one of many stones that show the Republican party for what they are, further letting the truth weaken the Icarus myth.

The same year, the Supreme Court also overturned Roe v. Wade, which means they overturned the constitutional right to abortion; this is a major setback for women’s rights. All of the justices who overturned Roe v. Wade were nominated by Republican presidents.

In summary

This is another Q&A interview book where Chomsky plainly and humanly lays out his thoughts and isn’t afraid to say when he’s not expert nor lacks knowledge. As previously stated, Chomsky’s knowledge of humanity is both vast and fierce. There are no stones unturned in this tome, and Polychroniou provides Chomsky with much air, just as David Barsamian usually does.

I’ll end this review with a Chomsky quote from one of the interviews in this book:

It is hard to think of a more elementary moral principle than the Golden Rule-in the Jewish tradition, the rule that “what is hateful to you, do not do to others.”

Illegitimate Authority: Facing the Challenges of Our Time is published by Haymarket Books on 2023-05-09.

  1. Chomsky, Noam, and Robert Pollin. The Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet. First edition paperback, Verso Books, 2020. 

  2. Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Pantheon Books, 2002.