Noam Chomsky: How Close the World Is to Nuclear War
The following is an excerpt from the new book Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe, by Noam Chomsky and Laray Polk, which takes the form of a series of interviews with MIT Professor Noam Chomsky (Seven Stories, 2013).
Laray Polk: What immediate tensions do you perceive that could lead to nuclear war? How close are we?
Noam Chomsky: Actually, nuclear war has come unpleasantly close many times since 1945. There are literally dozens of occasions in which there was a significant threat of nuclear war. There was one time in 1962 when it was very close, and furthermore, it’s not just the United States. India and Pakistan have come close to nuclear war several times, and the issues remain. Both India and Pakistan are expanding their nuclear arsenals with US support. There are serious possibilities involved with Iran—not Iranian nuclear weapons, but just attacking Iran—and other things can just go wrong. It’s a very tense system, always has been. There are plenty of times when automated systems in the United States— and in Russia,it’s probably worse—have warned of a nuclear attack which would set off an automatic response except that human intervention happened to take place in time, and sometimes in a matter of minutes. That’s playing with fire. That’s a low-probability event, but with low-probability events over a long period, the probability is not low.
There is another possibility that, I think, is not to be dismissed: nuclear terror. Like a dirty bomb in New York City, let’s say. It wouldn’t take tremendous facility to do that. I know US intelligence or people like Graham Allison at Harvard who works on this, they regard it as very likely in the coming years—and who knows what kind of reaction there would be to that. So, I think there are plenty of possibilities. I think it is getting worse. Just like the proliferation problem is getting worse. Take a couple of cases: In September 2009, the Security Council did pass a resolution, S/RES/1887, which was interpreted here as a resolution against Iran. In part it was, but it also called on all states to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That’s three states: India, Pakistan, and Israel. The Obama administration immediately informed India that this didn’t apply to them; it informed Israel that it doesn’t apply to them.
If India expands its nuclear capacity, Pakistan almost has to; it can’t compete with India with conventional forces. Not surprisingly, Pakistan developed its nuclear weapons with indirect US support. The Reagan administration pretended they didn’t know anything about it, which of course they did. India reacted to resolution 1887 by announcing that they could now produce nuclear weapons with the same yield as the superpowers. A year before, the United States had signed a deal with India, which broke the pre-existing regime and enabled the US to provide them with nuclear technology—though they hadn’t signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That’s in violation of congressional legislation going back to India’s first bomb, I suppose around 1974 or so. The United States kind of rammed it through the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and that opens a lot of doors. China reacted by sending nuclear technology to Pakistan. And though the claim is that the technology for India is for civilian use, that doesn’t mean much even if India doesn’t transfer that to nuclear weapons. It means they’re free to transfer what they would have spent on civilian use to nuclear weapons.
And then comes this announcement in 2009 that the International Atomic Energy Agency has been repeatedly trying to get Israel to open its facilities to inspection. The US along with Europe usually has been able to block it. And more significant is the effort in the international agencies to try to move toward a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, which would be quite significant.6 It wouldn’t solve all the problems, but whatever threat Iran may be assumed to pose—and that’s a very interesting question in itself, but let’s suppose for the moment that there is a threat—it would certainly be mitigated and might be ended by a nuclear-weapon-free zone, but the US is blocking it every step of the way.
Laray Polk: Now that Iran’s reactor at Bushehr is running, the current fear is that they’re going to use the plutonium produced from the fuel cycle to make weapons. The questions raised about Iran’s possible nuclear weapons program are similar to those asked of Israel--
Noam Chomsky: Since the 1960s. And in fact, the Nixon administration made an unwritten agreement with Israel that it wouldn’t do anything to compel Israel, or even induce them, to drop what they call their ambiguity policy—not saying whether or not they have them. That’s now very alive because there’s this regular five-year Non-Proliferation Review Conference.In 1995, under strong pressure from the Arab states, Egypt primarily, there was an agreement that they would move toward a nuclear-weapon-free zone and the Clinton administration signed on. It was reiterated in 2000. In 2005 the Bush administration just essentially undermined the whole meeting. They basically said, “Why do anything?”
It came up again in May 2010. Egypt is now speaking for the Non-Aligned Movement, 118 countries, they’re this year’s representative, and they pressed pretty hard for a move in that direction. The pressure was so strong that the United States accepted it in principle and claims to be committed to it, but Hillary Clinton said the time’s “not ripe for establishing the zone.” And the administration just endorsed Israel’s position, essentially saying, “Yes, but only after a comprehensive peace agreement in the region,” which the US and Israel can delay indefinitely. So, that’s basically saying, “it’s fine, but it’s never going to happen.” And this is barely ever reported, so nobody knowsabout it. Just as almost nobody knows about Obama informing India and Israel that the resolutions don’t apply to them. All of this just increases the risk of nuclear war.
It’s more than that actually. You know, the threats against Iran are nontrivial and that, of course, induce them to move toward nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Obama in particular has strongly increased the offensive capacity that the US has on the island of Diego Garcia, which is a major military base they use for bombing the Middle East and Central Asia. In December 2009, the navy dispatched a submarine tender for nuclear submarines in Diego Garcia. Presumably they were already there, but this is going to expand their capacity, and they certainly have the capacity to attack Iran with nuclear weapons. And he also sharply increased the development of deep-penetration bombs, a program that mostly languished under the Bush administration. As soon as Obama came in, he accelerated it, and it was quietly announced—but I think not reported here—that they put a couple of hundred of them in Diego Garcia. That’s all aimed at Iran. Those are all pretty serious threats.
Actually, the question of the Iranian threat is quite interesting. It’s discussed as if that’s the major issue of the current era. And not just in the United States, Britain too. This is “the year of Iran,” Iran is the major threat, the major policy issue. It does raise the question: What’s the Iranian threat? That’s never seriously discussed, but there is an authoritative answer, which isn’t reported. The authoritative answer was given by the Pentagon and intelligence in April 2010; they have an annual submission to Congress on the global security system, and of course discussed Iran. They made it very clear that the threat is not military. They said Iran has very low military spending even by the standards of the region; their strategic doctrine is completely defensive, it’s designed to deter an invasion long enough to allow diplomacy to begin to operate; they have very little capacity to deploy force abroad. They say if Iran were developing nuclear capability, which is not the same as weapons, it would be part of the deterrent strategy,which is what most strategic analysts take for granted, so there’s no military threat. Nevertheless, they say it’s the most significant threat in the world. What is it? Well, that’s interesting. They’re trying to extend their influence in neighboring countries; that’s what’s called destabilizing. So if we invade their neighbors and occupy them, that’s stabilizing. Which is a standard assumption. It basically says, “Look, we own the world.” And if anybody doesn’t follow orders, they’re aggressive.
In fact, that’s going on with China right now. It’s been a kind of a hassle, also hasn’t been discussed much in the United States—but is discussed quite a lot in China, about control of the seas in China’s vicinity. Their navy is expanding, and that’s discussed here and described as a major threat. What they’re trying to do is to be able to control the waters nearby China—the South China Sea,Yellow Sea, and so on—and that’s described here as aggressive intent. The Pentagon just released a report on the dangers of China. Their military budget is increasing; it’s now one-fifth what the US spends in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is of course a fraction of the military budget. Not long ago, the US was conducting naval exercises in the waters off China. China was protesting particularly over the plans to send an advanced nuclear- powered aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, into those waters,which, according to China, has the capacity to hit Beijing with nuclear weapons—and they didn’t like it. And the US formally responded by saying that China is being aggressive because they’re interfering with freedom of the seas. Then, if you look at the strategic analysis literature, they describe it as a classic security dilemma where two sides are in a confrontation. Each regards what it’s doing as essential to its security and regards the other side as threatening its security, and we’re supposed to take the threat seriously. So if China is trying to control waters off its coast, that’s aggression and it’s harming our security. That’s a classic security dilemma. You could just imagine if China were carrying out naval exercises in the Caribbean—in fact, in the mid-Pacific—it would be considered intolerable. That’s very much like Iran. The basic assumption is “We own the world,” and any exercise of sovereignty within our domains, which is most of the world, is aggression.
Laray Polk: Is there any type of nuclear racism involved in these issues?
Noam Chomsky: I think it would be the same if there were no nuclear weapons. I mean, it goes back to long-term planning assumptions, and I don’t really think it’s racism. Let’s take a concrete case. We have a lot of internal documents now, some interesting ones from the Nixon years. Nixon and Kissinger, when they were planning to overthrow the government of Chile in 1973, their position was that this government’s intolerable, it’s exercising its sovereignty, it’s a threat to us, so it has to go.14 It’s what Kissinger called a virus that might spread contagion elsewhere, maybe into southern Europe—not that Chile would attack southern Europe—but that a successful, social democratic parliamentary system would send the wrong message to Spain and Italy. They might be inclined to try the same, it would mean its contagion would spread and the system falls apart. And they understood that, in fact stated that, if we can’t control Latin America, how are we going to control the rest of the world? We at least have to control Latin America. There was some concern—which was mostly meaningless, but it was there—about a Soviet penetration into Latin America, and they recognized that if Europe gets more involved in Latin America, that would tend to deter any Soviet penetration, but they concluded the US couldn’t allow that because it would interfere with US dominance of the region. So, it’s not racist. It’s a matter of dominance.
In fact, the same is happening with NATO. Why didn’t NATO disappear after the Soviet Union collapsed? If anybody read the propaganda, they’d say, “Well, it should have disappeared, it was supposed to protect Europe from the Russian hordes.” Okay, no more Russian hordes, so it should disappear. It expanded in violation of verbal promises to Gorbachev. And it expanded, I think, largely in order to keep Europe under control. One of the purposes of NATO all along was to prevent Europe from moving in an independent path, maybe a kind of Gaullist path, and they had to expand NATO to make sure that Europe stays a vassal. If you look back to the planning record during the Second World War, it’s very instructive. It’s almost never discussed, but there were high-level meetings from 1939 to 1945 under the Roosevelt administration, which sort of planned for the postwar years. They knew the United States would emerge from the war at least very well off and maybe completely triumphant. They didn’t know how much at first. The principles that were established were very interesting and explicit, and later implemented. They devised the concept of what they called the Grand Area, which the US must dominate. And within the Grand Area, there can be no exercise of sovereignty that interferes with US plans—explicit, almost those words. What’s the Grand Area? Well, at a minimum, it was to include the entire Western Hemisphere, the entire Far East, and the whole British Empire—former British Empire—which, of course, includes the Middle East energy resources. As one high-level advisor later put it: “If we can control Middle East energy, we can control the world.” Well, that’s the Grand Area.
As the Russians began to grind down the German armies after Stalingrad, they recognized that Germany was weakened—at first, they thought that Germany would emerge from the war as a major power. So the Grand Area planning was extended to as much of Eurasia as possible, including at least Western Europe, which is the industrial-commercial center of the region. That’s the Grand Area, and within that area, there can be no exercise of sovereignty. Of course, they can’t carry it off.
For example, China is too big to push around and they’re exercising their sovereignty. Iran is trying, it’s small enough so you can push them around—they think so. Even Latin America is getting out of control. Brazil was not following orders. And, in fact, a lot of South America isn’t, and the whole thing is causing a lot of desperation in Washington. You can see it if you look at the official pronouncements. China is not paying attention to US sanctions on Iran. US sanctions on Iran have absolutely no legitimacy. It’s just that people are afraid of the United States. And Europe more or less goes along with them, but China doesn’t. They disregard them. They observe the UN sanctions, which have formal legitimacy but are toothless, so they’re happy to observe them. The major effect of the UN sanctions is to keep Western competitors out of Iran, so they can move in and do what they feel like. The US is pretty upset about it. In fact, the State Department issued some very interesting statements, interesting because of their desperate tone. They warned China that, this is almost a quote, “if you want to be accepted into the international community, you have to meet your international responsibilities, and the international responsibilities are to follow our orders.” You can see both the desperation in US planning circles and you can kind of imagine the reaction of the Chinese foreign office, they’re probably laughing, you know, why should they follow US orders? They’ll do what they like.
They’re trying to recover their position as a major world power. For a long time they were the major world power before what they call the “century of humiliation.” They are now coming back to a three-thousand-year tradition of being the center of the world and dismissing the barbarians. So, okay, “we’ll just go back to that and the US can’t do anything about it,” which is causing enormous frustration. That’s why they get terribly upset when China doesn’t observe US sanctions on Iran. By now it’s not China and Iran that are isolated on Iran sanctions; it’s the United States that’s isolated. The nonaligned countries—118 countries, most of the world—have always supported Iran’s right to enrich uranium, still do. Turkey recently constructed a pipeline to Iran, so has Pakistan. Turkey’s trade with Iran has been going way up, they’re planning to triple it the next few years. In the Arab world, public opinion is so outraged at the United States that a real majority now favors Iran developing nuclear weapons, not just nuclear energy. The US doesn’t take that too seriously, they figure that dictatorships can control the populations. But when Turkey’s involved or, certainly, when China’s involved, it becomes a threat. That’s why you get these desperate tones. Apart from Europe, almost nobody’s accepting US orders on this. Brazil’s probably the most important country in the South. Not long ago, Brazil and Turkey made a deal with Iran for enriching a large part of the uranium; the US quickly shot that down. They don’t want it, but the world is just hard to control. The Grand Area planning was okay at the end of the Second World War when the US was overwhelmingly dominant, but it has been kind of fractured ever since—and during the last few years, considerably. And I think this is related to the proliferation issues. The US is strongly supporting India and Israel, and the reason is they’ve now turned India into a close strategic ally—Israel always was. India, on the other hand, is playing it pretty cool. They’re also improving their relations with China.
Laray Polk: President Obama recently secured military basing rights in Australia and formed a new free-trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which excludes China. Is this move related to the South China Sea?
Noam Chomsky: Yes, in particular that, but it’s more general. It has to do with the “classic security dilemma” that I mentioned before, referring to the strategic analysis literature. China’s efforts to gain some measure of control over nearby seas and its major trade routes are inconsistent with what the US calls “freedom of the seas”—a term that doesn’t extend to Chinese military maneuvers in the Caribbean or even most of the world’s oceans, but does include the US right to carry out military maneuvers and establish naval bases everywhere.For different reasons, China’s neighbors are none too happy about its actions, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, which have competing claims to these waters, but others as well. The focus of US policy is slowly shifting from the Middle East—though that remains—to the Pacific, as openly announced. That includes new bases from Australia to South Korea (and a continuing and very significant conflict over Okinawa), and also economic agreements, called “free-trade agreements,” though the phrase is more propaganda than reality, as in other such cases. Much of it is a system to “contain China.”
Laray Polk: To what degree are current maritime sovereignty disputes related to oil and gas reserves?
In part. There are underseas fossil-fuel resources, and a good deal of contention among regional states about rights to them. But it's more than that. The new US base on Jeju Island in South Korea, bitterly protested by islanders, is not primarily concerned with energy sources. Other issues have to do with Malacca Straits, China's main trade route, which does involve oil and gas but also much else.
In the background is the more general concern over parts of the world escaping from US control and influence, the contemporary variant of Grand Area policies. Much of this extends the practice of earlier hegemonic powers, though the scale of US post-World War II planning and implementation has been in a class by itself because of its unique wealth and power.
Reprinted with permission from Seven Stories Press. Copyright 2013 -- All Rights Reserved