British Association for American Studies


Book Review: ‘Who Rules the World?’, by Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky, Who Rules the World? (Penguin, 2017), £9.99

Many current American studies graduates were born around the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks and have grown up during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, two of the most controversial and polarising global events of the twenty-first century. The popularity of US foreign policy courses in American studies departments across the UK is therefore unsurprising. After all, students (and young people generally) tend to want to understand how the world around them works, and learning about the international behaviour of the most influential global player is in this respect a good place to start. Students’ motivations for enrolling often entail a desire to engage critically with US foreign policy in a deeper and more meaningful way than how it is often presented in the mainstream media and in political discourse.

One might contemplate the different approaches to US foreign policy in the field of American studies while reading Who Rules the World?, the recent collection of essays by the veteran academic and political activist Noam Chomsky. Through his frequent public speeches and media appearances, Chomsky continues to influence debate about the ethical implications of American hard power and the US’s role in spreading global economic injustice—two areas that are inseparable from the study of American foreign policy. Meanwhile, his support for Occupy and other student-led protest movements—not to mention his views on student debt—has meant Chomsky’s voice has had an enduring presence on campuses on both sides of the Atlantic.[i] And yet despite Chomsky’s academic credentials and international reputation, it is rare for the author’s written work to appear in foreign policy syllabuses. One might therefore wonder whether space could or should be made for Chomsky’s unashamedly radical perspective in American studies courses that address the United States’ political, economic and military influence in the world.

In Who Rules the World?, Chomsky’s target audience and methods differ somewhat from traditional academic treatments of US foreign policy. His analyses are concise but brief vignettes on a relatively broad range of issues relating to American power, including the Israel-Palestine conflict, the threat of nuclear war and relations with Iran. Nonetheless, a handful of common themes thread the essays together, providing answers to the question posed by the title of the book.

Perhaps the most provocative theme is Chomsky’s view on the motives behind the exertion of state power at home and abroad. It is often argued that the behaviour of democratic state actors is strongly informed—if not determined—by security considerations; in other words, states’ first priority is to guarantee the protection of the nation and its citizens from external or domestic threats. This, it is assumed, gives state behaviour an aspect of democratic accountability, since citizens have the ability to withdraw their consent for being ruled by a government that cannot make those guarantees. But Chomsky notes that this is unlikely to be the primary motive behind state behaviour, not least because in the American context as well as elsewhere it has been so unsuccessful. For example, since the beginning of the global “war on terror” there has been a sharp increase in the number of terrorist attacks in both the West and the Middle East, thereby making the world a less safe and secure place than it was before. If the United States’ priority was to eradicate terrorism, Chomsky’s argues, there are considerably more effective and rational ways of doing so than the strategies adopted in the wake of 9/11.

Chomsky attempts to explain this conundrum by making the distinction between security and control. He refers to a range of different foreign interventions since the Cold War, from US support for counter-revolutionary forces in Latin America during the 1980s to regime change in Iraq during the second Gulf war. The primary motive behind these interventions, Chomsky argues, was not national security but rather the ability to influence a country or region, with a view to maintaining or expanding the United States’ (and the corporate sectors’) economic and military interests. Although Chomsky probably articulates the distinction between security and control more explicitly than most, this view will come as little surprise to readers familiar with the radical critique of contemporary US foreign policy.

However, more intriguingly, Chomsky is also interested in the relationship between state behaviour abroad and the US federal government’s treatment of its own citizens. Chomsky suggests that maintaining state and corporate control abroad also entails restricting democracy at home. ‘Securing state power from the domestic population and securing concentrated private power are the driving forces in policy formation,’ Chomsky argues (p. 159). Chomsky therefore underlines the potential links—through the interrelated behaviour of different government departments within the same state—between interventionist foreign policy and oppressive domestic policy, policy that often disproportionately affects minority populations. Through this perspective, Chomsky avoids a common pitfall, as identified in a recent essay by the author Pankaj Mishra, of distinguishing between ‘an imperial dispensation that incarcerates and deports millions of people a year—disproportionately people of colour—and [one that] routinely exercises the right to assault and despoil other countries’.[ii]

As is the case with his other political writings, Chomsky’s chooses breadth over depth in Who Rules the World? It is written as an overview—from a radical perspective—of a range of different foreign policy issues. For this reason, whether or not Chomsky deserves to be included in more foreign policy syllabuses depends on the objectives of the course. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to see how Chomsky’s perspective on the motives behind foreign policy and how this relates to the situation on home soil has clear and particular relevance for American studies students, since they are expected to critically engage with both the domestic and foreign manifestations of American power.

The following monographs are recommended by the author of this review for further reading on Chomsky’s works, politics and activism:

Barsky, Robert, The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007)

Chomsky, Noam, Optimism Over Despair: On Capitalism, Empire, and Social Change (London: Penguin Press, 2017)

                         Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2013)

                         Occupy: Reflections on Class War, Rebellion and Solidarity (New Jersey: Zuccotti Park Press, 2013)

Smith, Neil; Allott, Nicholas, Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals [3rd edition] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016)

[i] Amy Goodman and Noam Chomsky, “Chomsky: Occupy Wall Street ‘Has Created Something That Didn’t Really Exist” in U.S.—Solidarity’”, Democracy Now! May 14, 2012 https://www.democracynow.org/2012/5/14/chomsky_occupy_wall_street_has_created, accessed July 14, 2019.

[ii] Pankaj Mishra, “Why do white people like what I write?, London Review of Books, Vol. 40, No. 4, February 22, 2018, https://www.lrb.co.uk/v40/n04/pankaj-mishra/why-do-white-people-like-what-i-write, accessed July 23, 2019.


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