Chomsky: Unilateral force a frequent historical choice
The resort to unilateral force in international affairs by powerful states, and the establishment of its legitimacy, has a long documented history, according to well-known author and speaker Noam Chomsky.
Chomsky, Institute Professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, delivered the 14th annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom Oct. 28 before an overflow audience at Honigman Auditorium in the Law School. He called his talk "Illegal but Legitimate: A Dubious Doctrine for the Times."
As expressed in the United Nations charter, Chomsky said, unilateral aggression by a country carries the risk of "ultimate doom." There is, however, a well-documented history of arguments that powerful countries have used to justify unilateral acts of war, despite it being called the "supreme crime" in the U.N. charter and recognized as such by the World Court, he said.
Contemporary justification for ignoring the prescription against unilateral aggression can be traced to the definition of war crimes by the Nuremburg Tribunal following the Second World War, asserted Chomsky. "If both sides committed war crimes, such as the aerial bombardment that decimated cities during the conflict, the crimes will not be subject to prosecution," he said. "That definition has a deep moral flaw. The moral principles against which these crimes should be measured are universal, in that they apply to individuals or states."
"This crucial exception to universal values by so-called enlightened nations has become so entrenched that even raising the question is seen as an abomination," Chomsky said. Highly regarded legal scholars have argued that the postwar consensus subjecting the rule of force to the rule of law should be scrapped as a result of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear conflict, he said, admitting he was expressing the liberal opinion on the matter.
There was a postwar consensus that the world should be safe from further global warfare, Chomsky said. Yet subsequent actions taken by the most powerful nationsincluding the United Statesthat are seen as "enlightened," have put the world at risk of the "ultimate doom" described in the U.N. charter, he said. "The so-called enlightened states can claim anticipatory self-defense, because they have the power to declare at will, while basking in self-praise," Chomsky said.
He cited the NATO bombing of Kosovo as evidence of what the eminent South African jurist and war crimes investigator for the War Crimes Tribunal, Richard Goldstone, has called "illegal but legitimate" actions by states.
There is a wide gap between the general public view of the world and the elite, intellectual view, Chomsky said. "On the one hand, liberal public opinion says that we should accept the jurisdiction of world courts, sign the Kyoto protocols on global warming, look to the U.N. to take the lead, and otherwise rely on diplomatic means to deal with international crises, and to use force only when there is imminent danger," Chomsky said. The elite don't take this into account; it's not heard in political campaigns, nor is it reported in the media, he said.
The opposing view, Chomsky continued, is that powerful nations such as the United States have the unilateral right to pursue pre-emptive wars. "That view precedes 9/11 and is held by the current administration," Chomsky said.
As an example, Chomsky cited the rejection by the United States of World Court jurisdiction in the Nicaraguan conflict. "The State Department legal advisor at the time argued that most of the world cannot be counted on to share our view on unilateral action and, in fact, often opposes on important international questions." That view says that we reserve to ourselves the determination of when we will act, that it falls within our domestic jurisdiction as determined by the U.S., Chomsky said. "The Bush and Clinton doctrines of pre-emptive war are based on this concept," he said.
Chomsky traced the idea of justifying pre-emptive war from the1818 attack on Florida by General Andrew Jackson in the first Seminole War through the Bush administration's invasion of Afghanistan. The historical record should give us pause, he said. "Unilateral intervention by force, which is reserved to the most powerful states, has led to the most serious abuses," he said. "This doctrine of pre-emptive war should be challenged, at least by those who can exercise their freedom to help avoid the threat of 'ultimate doom.'"
Chomsky has written and lectured widely on linguistics, philosophy, intellectual history, contemporary issues, international affairs and U.S. foreign policy. His works include "At War with Asia"; "For Reasons of State; Peace in the Middle East?"; "Reflections on Language"; "The Political Economy of Human Rights"; "The Culture of Terrorism"; "Middle East Illusions"; "Hegemony or Survival," and many others.
The Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture series is dedicated to three faculty members who were suspended from the University in 1955 for refusing to give testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1954.
The event's sponsors included the Office of the President, Academic Freedom Lecture Fund, American Association of University Professors-U-M Ann Arbor Chapter, Office of the Vice President for Communications, LSA, Department of Linguistics, and the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs.