On Thursday night, Noam Chomsky addressed a sold out crowd of students and community members at the ’62 Center MainStage. Chomsky’s lecture at the College was the first in a semester-long series developed by the Lecture Committee on dilemmas in humanitarian intervention.
Christian Thorne, associate professor of English and chair of the Lecture Committee, introduced Chomsky, one of today’s most controversial and influential intellectuals. Chomsky’s work spans linguistics, cognitive science and philosophy, but he is also exceptionally active as a political commentator.
Thorne framed the critical questions that Chomsky aimed to answer in his lecture. “If you believe in human rights,” Thorne said, “how should you act on those beliefs? Can human rights be made real? Can they be enforced?”
Chomsky’s speech dealt with humanitarian intervention through three main threads: the resurgence of humanitarian intervention since the 1990s, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Chomsky conquered each issue in turn, sharing the perspectives that have earned him both applause and demerits internationally.
“I’ll make an effort to live up to the reputation of being disreputable,” Chomsky joked in his opening remarks to the audience. He began by discussing humanitarian intervention as a relatively novel hot button issue in international relations.
Chomsky clarified that the money being discussed by wealthy nations for humanitarian intervention “amounts to pennies” relative to these states’ overall spending. Placing more money towards humanitarian intervention could have major implications globally and save millions of lives. Yet, humanitarian intervention has evolved into a heated political issue and rarely is enacted without ulterior motives.
The concept of humanitarian intervention, according to Chomsky, regained prominence in the 1990s, when a slew of humanitarian disasters were seen globally from Rwanda to Kosovo. While interventions occurred before this period, Chomsky argued that those were of a defensive nature and that going forward the justification for intervention would need to shift.
The argument was formerly that “it was necessary to carry out interventions so that the world would be safe,” Chomsky said. The conclusion of the Cold War fundamentally changed these calculations, he claimed. “By 1990, that pretext was gone.”
“Anyone who believes any of the propaganda of the last 50 years would have expected NATO to dissolve,” Chomsky said. “But the opposite occurred. It expanded.”
NATO has now become a “global U.S intervention force,” in Chomsky’s view. He ended the lecture portion of the evening by explaining the role of R2P as a driver of modern humanitarian intervention. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty established R2P in the wake of the Rwanda genocide as a set of norms for the international community. Its aim is to prevent genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. After explaining the influence of R2P, he opened the floor to questions from the audience.
Community members and students inquired about a variety of topics, including the definition of terrorism and its relationship to humanitarian intervention, the status of current humanitarian dilemmas in Syria, the NATO intervention in Libya and his views on Israeli foreign policy.
In response to the terrorism question, Chomsky was blunt in his analysis of American foreign policy: “If you use [the official terrorism] definition from the U.S. Code, it follows that the United States is a leading perpetrator of terror,” he said. Chomsky also claimed that Israel is another leading state inciting terror.
“I’m pretty conservative. I’ve had the same views I had [on Israel] in the 1940s,” Chomsky said. “At the time, they were called Zionists, now they are called anti-Zionists.” Chomsky was denied entry into Israel last year due to his politics.
Chomsky argued that it remains hard to find true instances of humanitarian intervention, where the goals of intervention are solely to end atrocity. The only example he noted was Kosovo in 1999.
After Chomsky’s remarks concluded, he held a book signing in the lobby of the ’62 Center. As students approached, Chomsky fielded an array of unanswered questions.
When asked by a student about his current analysis of American foreign policy, Chomsky replied, “Any powerful nation will have rotten foreign policy.”