Contradictions in U.S. Foreign Policy

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Professor Emeritus of Linguistics

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Noam Chomsky is an institute professor and professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is an active critic of U.S. foreign policy and the author of numerous books on foreign policy and politics, including Hegemony Or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance and Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.

Brown Journal of World Affairs: Tell us a bit about yourself first. How did you, as a linguistics scholar, become an authority on international politics?

Noam Chomsky: Well, actually, my political interests long precede any awareness of the existence of linguistics. I grew up as kind of a young radical and political activist and only later learned about linguistics. But I didn't start writing and wasn't active in the general public sphere until the early 1960s. The 1950s were a pretty quiescent period; there was nothing much happening. But by the early 1960s-with the anti-nuclear movement, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, and especially the Vietnam War in 1962-I just became more active. I didn't really intend to write on politics. Actually, a lot of my articles were just written-up talks, including my first article, which was on the responsibility of intellectuals. It was, believe it or not, a talk for the Hillel Foundation at Harvard.

Journal: How have the theoretical approaches in linguistics influenced your views on international politics and vice versa? Do you ever play the two disciplines off one another?

Chomsky: Not really. I'll tell you the honest truth-I don't really think that international relations theory should be called a theory. A theory has some non-obvious principles, from which you can deduce some unexpected consequences, and a theory can be verified. I really don't think that's true of international relations theory. It's no criticism-human affairs are just too complicated for the kinds of theories we have in the sciences.

International relations theory has two major approaches: one is realism and the other is idealism, sometimes called Wilsonian idealism. I think there are several problems with both of these approaches. One problem is that they are substantially refuted by the facts, and that's even recognized by some of the leading exponents of the theories. For example, Hans Morgenthau, a prominent realist, has a book called The Purpose of American Politics. This is mysticism, of course, because countries don't have purposes. But Morgenthau states that the purpose of the United States is to bring freedom and justice and so on to the rest of the world. Morgenthau is a good scholar, and he recognizes that the historical record completely undermines this thesis. But he says that to deny that the United States has a purpose merely on the basis of the empirical facts would be like what he calls the error of atheism, which denies religious belief on the same grounds. So the existence of a purpose is a religious belief refuted by the facts.

If you look at idealism, on the other hand, it's almost a bad joke. One problem is that every great power toys with the rhetoric of benign intentions and sacrificing to help the world. If you look at the actual record of say, Woodrow Wilson, you'd notice he was one of the most brutal interventionists in modern U.S. history. He destroyed Haiti and the Dominican Republic, not to mention his interventions in Mexico and Nicaragua. His famous principle of self-determination did not really apply to the colonies. Where is the idealism?

Journal: What do you envision the broad framework of what U.S. policy should be?

Chomsky: On a broad scale, I'd probably subscribe to the same aphorisms and truisms: that we should be in favor of peace and justice, and economic growth, and ending poverty, and so one. But you can say that about any other country as well. …


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