Failed States | Noam Chomsky

Summary of: Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy
By: Noam Chomsky


Dive into the compelling world of ‘Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy’ by Noam Chomsky, where you’ll explore the darker side of the United Nations and the United States’ role within it. In this summary, you’ll discover how some nations, particularly the United States, exert their influence over international law and definitions, experience special treatment in waging war, and sometimes fall short in promoting democracy abroad. Furthermore, the book raises vital questions about the state of democracy within the United States itself. Prepare to be informed and intrigued, as you gain a deeper understanding of global politics and the powers that drive it.

The UN’s Undemocratic Nature

Often perceived as a bastion of international democracy, the United Nations (UN) is not as egalitarian or impartial as it seems. In reality, certain countries, especially the United States, exert disproportionate influence over the organization, shaping policies to suit their interests, while flouting international law. This influence can even extend to altering the UN’s definitions of critical terms like “torture.” The resultant discrepancy between American and international interpretations represents a troubling gap, exposing potential abuses of power within the institution.

Contrary to popular belief, the United Nations does not grant equal say to every nation. Notably, the United States wields significantly more influence within this organization than other countries. This power is partly attributed to the US holding a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, an elite group responsible for ensuring global peace and security.

Aside from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia also hold permanent council membership, allowing them to occasionally disregard international law. The potential for corruption is exemplified by the Security Council’s Oil-for-Food Program. Initially designed to enable Iraq to trade oil for humanitarian aid, it was misused by Saddam Hussein to amass $1.8 billion in kickbacks. Despite being aware of the corruption, the United States, due to its influential position, managed to avoid sanctions.

Moreover, the United States even enjoys preferential treatment in the definition of key terms, such as “torture.” According to the US Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, only acts resulting in organ failure or death qualify as torture—significantly at odds with the definition in international law. The Geneva Convention defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” to achieve various nefarious objectives.

This disparity between American and international definitions illustrates the worrying extent to which the United States can bend the rules at the UN, prompting urgent concerns over unbridled influence and possible abuse of power within this supposedly democratic institution.

Double Standards in Wartime

The United States often bypasses the United Nations’ rules on waging war, allowing it to take preemptive action in the name of self-defense. This special treatment has been utilized not only by the US but also by other nations, which raises questions about the legitimacy of this practice and the double standards that are applied.

The United Nations upholds that force can only be deployed once authorized by the UN Security Council or in an act of self-defense in response to an armed attack. Despite this, the United States has not hesitated to act independently, selectively interpreting these rules to serve its own interests.

Former US President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” provides a critical example of how this unfolds. The Bush administration claimed that terrorism posed such a significant threat to the nation’s security that preemptive action was required, leading to the invasion of Afghanistan in acts of anticipatory self-defense.

Following this perspective, other countries should also possess the right to anticipatory self-defense, even against the United States. Between 1960 and 1961, the CIA carried out numerous bombings and attacks in Cuba that could classify as terrorism. Similarly, pre-9/11 threats of American military action against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban could also be viewed as justification for preemptive defense.

This pattern of actions taken in the guise of self-defense demonstrates the complex web of approval and the double standards applied in waging war worldwide.

Looming Threats: Nuclear and Climate

The end of the world might be closer than we think due to two significant dangers: nuclear attacks and climate change. Nuclear weapons are now more widespread, and the probability of an unintended or unauthorized attack is escalating. Further, the risk of terrorist groups acquiring nuclear waste material to create bombs is also growing. The United States has done little to address these global threats, particularly in dismantling its nuclear arsenal. Additionally, climate change presents a considerable danger, but the United States has been resistant to meaningful action. During the 2005 G8 summit in Scotland, the US was the only nation to decline immediate measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, citing insufficient evidence to act. In both cases, economic interests prevail, taking precedence over the potential consequences of these impending threats. The United States seems willing to risk war to maintain its economic power, ignoring evident dangers to humanity’s continued existence.

Curbing Cuba: Hidden Priorities

When Fidel Castro established a communist government in Cuba in 1959, it deeply unsettled the United States, due to Cuba’s proximity. In response, the US not only imposed an economic embargo but also actively sabotaged Cuban infrastructure. This aggressive stance aimed at forcing the Castro regime to submit to the United States, preventing other nations from becoming too independent. In fact, the US government spent considerable resources targeting Cuban financial transactions, even more than tracking terrorist financial dealings. This reveals a greater concern with curbing communism than combatting terrorism.

In 1959, Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba and the establishment of a communist government worried US politicians. Cuba’s close proximity to the US (only 90 miles away by sea) was especially troubling. As a result, the United States felt compelled to topple Castro’s regime, even going so far as to treat the Cuban population as legitimate targets.

This belief led to a lasting US economic embargo on Cuba. However, the US did not stop at economic warfare; they also resorted to destructive actions such as burning plantations, factories, docks, and ships. Latin American scholar, Louis Pérez, highlights the driving force behind this relentless aggression: the United States could not accept Cuba’s refusal to submit.

This defiant stance by Cuba triggered fears in the US that other states might seek increased independence, thereby reducing their reliance on the US for financial and security needs. Consequently, the US heavily invested in antagonizing Cuba. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) allocated considerable resources to investigate “suspicious financial transactions” related to terrorism, with a disproportionate focus on Cuba.

In a stark example from April 2004, OFAC directed just four employees to track financial dealings of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, while assigning nearly two dozen to scrutinize transactions with Cuba. Between 1990 and 2003, OFAC collected only $9,000 from 93 terrorism-related investigations while acquiring $8 million from 11,000 Cuban financial record investigations. This disparity highlights the United States’ priority to limit communism over combatting terrorism, contradicting its own rhetoric regarding democracy promotion abroad.

Democracy vs. Economic Priorities

The United States has long claimed to prioritize the promotion of democracy around the world, citing it as a key aspect of their foreign policy. The “Bush Doctrine” and Reagan’s National Endowment for Democracy are just two examples of this. However, when it comes to practice, the United States’ economic interests seem to take precedence, resulting in contradictions and questions about their true intentions. Take, for instance, the 2005 opening of an oil pipeline in Azerbaijan, where the former US Energy Secretary praised the country’s efforts – despite reports of the Azerbaijani government cracking down on pro-democracy demonstrators. This raises concerns about whether the promotion of democracy is truly a genuine priority, or simply a guise to protect and maintain American global economic interests.

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