Who rules the world? Noam Chomsky’s answer in his book of the same title is not surprising: America. Still. Even with its relative decline. The key word here is relative. After WWII, the United States had literally half of the world’s wealth. Policy leaders at the time, such as George Kennan knew that this position would inspire envy in the have-nots, and policies were designed to maintain this global dominance at any cost. By the 1970s this number had declined to 25% – still hegemonic for a country that represents only 5% of the global population, but accounts for 50% of its military spending.
What is surprising are the details. America’s war for control of “its hemisphere,” its “backyard” – Latin America – was really a war with the Catholic Church. I had not realized how powerful and active liberation theology was prior to reading this book. This is very likely what we’re seeing with the radicalism of Pope Francis today – a carry over from the days when he church practiced what it preached: advocacy for the poor and the disenfranchised, often at the cost of the lives of priests and Bishops.
Another revelation was the army of secret forces controlled by the Obama administration, the size of the Canadian military. Seal Team Six, which killed Osama Bin Laden was part of this private army of the President, which has conducted operations in 145 countries. So while it’s conclusions are unsurprising, his mastery of detail continues to amaze. The depths to which he scour military reports and policy statements give him a grasp of world affairs that eludes even the so-called experts.
Chomsky is the founder of modern linguistics. It’s Einstein. And the linguist uses his field’s most powerful weapon: sarcasm. Politically, Chomsky is an Anarcho-syndicalist, or as he has confusingly put it: a “Libertarian Socialist” (most who know these terms would call that an oxymoron). Over time, I, like many others, have grudgingly come to respect Chomsky as perhaps the legitimate “world’s leading intellectual” – certainly he is the last of a great generation. He also may be the worldʻs most important ignored intellectual. While researching a piece I wrote for Summit magazine on Gore Vidal, I found a clip in which Vidal said that he and Chomsky tried to speak in Harvard Yard, put up flyers, and found them all torn down half an hour later – somehow, 3000 people still showed up. And there is the enigma of his celebrity – the love/hate relationship he has with his supporters and detractors may be precisely the sign of his greatness, or perhaps simply his breadth of thought.
Chomsky shows clearly how the United States controls a “grand area” consisting in part of the entire former British Empire. It does so through proxy leaders, mainly dictators. Ferdinand Marcos’s residence in Hawaiʻi (on Tantalus no less), after his ouster with his wife and her 2000 shoes, is only the most local example of how the United States supports democracy “when, and only when, it is in their strategic interest.”
So with all this erudition, what are Chomsky’s weaknesses? Some would say he’s not realistic about US hegemony for one thing. It’s simply the reality of global affairs. The New York Review of Books’ Kenneth Roth was less taken by Chomsky than was this blogger:
Chomsky’s book is not an objective account of the past. It is a polemic designed to awaken Americans from complacency. America, in his view, must be reined in, and he makes the case with verve and self-confident assertion, even if factual details are sometimes selective or scarce.
Yet Who Rules the World? is also an infuriating book because it is so partisan that it leaves the reader convinced not of his insights but of the need to hear the other side. It doesn’t help that the book is a collection of previously published essays with no effort to trim the repetitive points that pop up in chapter after chapter. Nor was much attempt made to update earlier chapters in light of later events. The Iranian nuclear accord and the Paris climate deal are mentioned only toward the end of the book, even though the issues of Iran’s nuclear program and climate change appear in earlier chapters.
Chomsky’s preoccupation with American power seems out of date because the limits of American power have become so apparent. When we ask “Who rules the world?” and take account of Syrian atrocities, the emergence of the Islamic State, or the mass displacement of refugees, the answer is less likely to be the American superpower than no one.
But in other ways Chomsky is more realistic even than the realists. For example, Chomsky asserts, in contrast to hard power hardliners, that China (and certainly not India) does not pose any threat to US hegemony even in the medium term – they are simply too poor to threaten US dominance.
Roth, in the end, concludes:
Still, it is useful to read Chomsky because he does undermine the facile if comforting myths that are often used to justify US action abroad—the distinction between, as Chomsky puts it, “what we stand for” and “what we do.”
What Chomsky ends up showing is not only that there could be a better world, but that what we have is nearly the worst of all possible worlds and that there are literally layers of improvements that could be made often he argues for the bare minimum as a start.