Review: Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy

Failed-States-CoverAn urgent call by Noam Chomsky to abide by UN Treaties

By Curtis Cooper, International Committee

Noam Chomsky’s latest book covers a broad theme which is familiar from his previous works, focusing on the role of the United States as a violent global hegemon that threatens the security of both the world it seeks to dominate and its own citizens. What makes this latest work unusual is that Chomsky departs from merely laying out the evidence in support of his conclusions to offer a seven-point plan, reproduced below, for the United States to address the crises he describes.

Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Environment

The opening three chapters address the major threats to humanity: proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and environmental destabilization; that have escalated to alarming levels in recent times. Chomsky details how the United States exacerbates these crises through its disregard for the framework of international agreements such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Kyoto Protocols, and the UN Charter.

Chomsky, as usual, draws on a wide range of sources, frequently near the centers of imperial power, to make his points. As an example, he cites the January, 2005 article in the journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (UK) by former NATO official Michael MccGwire, who describes the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as “a wisdom tooth that is rotten at its root, and the abscess is poisoning the body politic” and predicts that under the current policies of the nuclear powers, “a nuclear exchange is ultimately inevitable.” Chomsky follows MccGwire’s analyses with the warning that former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn gave in the Financial Times the year before: “We are running an unnecessary risk of an Armageddon of our own making.”

Then there is Chomsky’s deft work juxtaposing and deflating the grand justifications offered by U.S. decisionmakers for their current policies. One gem comes from Henry Kissinger in 2005, when he dismissed Iran’s desire to develop a nuclear program because, “[f]or an oil producer … nuclear energy is a wasteful use of resources.” Of course when Kissinger was Secretary of State and Iran was under the rule of the Shah everything was different: then Kissinger went on record that the “introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran’s economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals.”

A Threat to Global and Domestic Security

From the accumulation of such details, a startling mosaic emerges: the United States’ selfish role in proliferating weapons of mass destruction, its responsibility for the spread of terrorism (even by the limited “Al Qaeda” definition that ignores the US’ violence), its reckless threats to the viability of the Earth’s ecosystems, its violation of international norms against the use of military force, and its persistent attempts to undermine the UN treaties that attempt to address these problems. The US has emerged not only as the sole hyperpower in the first decade of the twenty-first century, but as a dangerous, lawless force for chaos.

This sounds extremely depressing, but the book is gripping and liberating for those seeking to understand the role of our country in the world. It lifts the fog that surrounds so much of the discussion in the media about issues of vital international importance, such as Iran’s moves to develop a nuclear program and the occupation of Iraq, and makes a thoughtful bill of particulars for following and strengthening “The Fabric of Law on Which Survival Rests”—the term borrowed by the book to refer to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, though the phrase would apply nearly as well to the other international treaties it covers.

The last three chapters of the book and the afterword address historical aspects of US interference abroad, the US’ special relationship with Israel, the corrupt, antidemocratic political climate in the US, and the waning economic and political influence of the US in many important areas of the globe, particularly the western hemisphere and Asia. These chapters are similarly rich in detail and on-point analysis, though they do not relate as directly to the application of international law to the present day.

A Plan

At the end of his book, Noam Chomsky offers “a few simple suggestions” that would help the US in “dealing with crises that reach to the level of survival”:

(1) accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the World Court;

(2) sign and carry forward the Kyoto protocols;

(3) let the UN take the lead in international crises;

(4) rely on diplomatic and economic measures rather than military ones in confronting terror;

(5) keep to the traditional interpretation of the UN Charter;

(6) give up the Security Council veto;

(7) cut back sharply on military spending and sharply increase social spending.

As Chomsky notes, these suggestions “appear to be the opinions of the majority of the US population, in most cases the overwhelming majority.”

For those who find Chomsky’s suggestions compelling, take note: five out of seven explicitly mention UN bodies and UN treaties. Certainly, there are plenty of problems with the UN (many, but not all, related to US demands or intransigence), but its role in maintaining “the fabric of law on which survival rests” makes it the last, best hope for extricating our country from its fevered unilateralism. As legal workers, jailhouse lawyers, law students, and lawyers in the belly of the juggernaut, we have a special opportunity to use the UN and its treaties as guides for our nation’s actions. The health of the world at large, and of our own country, depends on our success.

(This review originally appeared in the Guild Practitioner, Vol. 63, No. 2, p. 111.)

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