What Uncle Sam Really Wants: The world's rent-a-thug

1993 by Noam Chomsky

For most of this century, the United States was far and away the world's
dominant economic power, and that made economic warfare 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 preeminent.

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 narcotraffickers 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 affairs.