"The reasons for my concern"
Noam Chomsky on U.S.foreign policy
Excerpts from Noam Chomsky's written responses
from Celia Jakubowicz June 13, 1983
Source: C.P. Otero, ed., Language and Politics (Black Rose, 1988),
The main reasons for my concern with U.S. foreign policy are
that I find it, in general, horrifying, and that I think that
it is possible for me to do something to modify it, at least to
mitigate some of its most dangerous and destructive aspects. In
the concrete circumstances of my own society, where I live and
work, there are various ways to do this: speaking, writing, organizing,
demonstrating, resisting, and others. Over the years, I've been
engaged in a variety of such activities.
The foreign policy of other states is also in general horrifying
-- roughly speaking, states are violent to the extent that they
have the power to act in the interests of those with domestic
power -- but there is not very much that I can do about it. It
is, for example, easy enough for an American intellectual to write
critical analyses of the behavior of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan
and Eastern Europe (or in supporting the Argentine generals),
but such efforts have little if any effect in modifying or reversing
the actions of the U.S.S.R. Rather, such efforts, which are naturally
much welcomed by those who dominate the ideological institutions
here, may serve to contribute to the violence of the American
state, by reinforcing the images of Soviet brutality (often accurate)
that are used to frighten Americans into conformity and obedience.
I do not suggest that this is a reason to avoid critical analysis
of the U.S.S.R.; in fact, I have often written on the foreign
policy of the Soviet state. Nor would I criticize someone who
devotes much, even all his work to this task. But we should understand
that the moral value of this work is at best very slight, where
the moral value of an action is judged in terms of its human consequences.
In fact, rather delicate judgments sometimes arise, for people
who are committed to decent moral values. Suppose, for example,
that some German intellectual chose in 1943 to write articles
on terrible things done by Britain, or the U.S., or the Jews.
What he wrote might be correct, but we would not be very much
The same comments hold for a Soviet intellectual who devotes
himself to a critical analysis of U.S. atrocities in Southeast
Asia or Central America (or to the American support for the Argentine
generals). What he says may be correct; its significance, for
people being bombed or terrorized or tortured within the domains
of American power and influence is negligible, possibly even negative.
These are truisms, constantly denied by intellectual servants
of state power who, for obvious reasons, pretend not to understand
them and typically criticize those who act in accordance with
decent moral principles as having a "double standard"
I try to concentrate my political activities -- writing included
-- in areas where there is some moral significance to these activities,
hence primarily in areas where people I can reach may act to change
policies that are abhorrent, dangerous and destructive. Of course
there are other factors that influence my choices, facts about
my personal history, etc., which are of no interest here. One
can have many reasons for engaging in political action. If the
reasons are to help suffering people, to avert threats or catastrophes,
and so on, then the criteria are fairly clear. For an American
intellectual, these criteria dictate a prime concern for policies
undertaken and pursued here, whether in the international or domestic
In some intellectual circles, it is considered naive or foolish
to be guided by moral principles. About this form of idiocy, I
will have nothing to say.
I should emphasize that I have tried to follow these criteria
(qualified by matters of personal interest and personal history)
in all of the areas of political action in which I have been engaged.
Writing has been only one part of this and in fact a rather small
part. I do a vast amount of speaking, and for many years was engaged
in direct action of one sort or another (demonstrations, resistance,
Here questions of tactical judgment arise. In the current
situation here, there are a number of contributions that intellectuals
can make to the struggle for peace and justice.... One is to serve
as a "resource," to provide information and analysis.
American intellectuals are highly privileged. They have the kind
of training, facilities, access to information and opportunity
to organize and control their own work that enable them to make
a very significant contribution to people who are trying to escape
the confines of indoctrination and to understand something about
the real world in which they live; in particular to people who
may be willing to act to change this world. For the same reasons,
they can be active and effective as organizers. Furthermore, by
virtue of their privilege, intellectuals are often "visible."
They can exploit their privilege in valuable and important ways.
For example, if actions of civil disobedience are undertaken by
people who do not enjoy the privilege that is very unequally distributed
in a class society, they are likely to be neglected, or crushed
by force. If people who enjoy such privilege play a visible role
in such actions, the danger of state violence is considerably
lessened (in the U.S., not everywhere), and the effectiveness
of the action may also be enhanced.
These are quite substantive issues, which constantly arise
in all forms of political action. People make different decisions,
based on their tactical judgments and personal preference, as
to how to distribute their commitments and actions among the various
possibilities that the society allows. Some of my closest friends
have chosen to dedicate themselves almost completely to organizing
and direct action. I've chosen a somewhat different mixture, and
it has varied at different times. In the 1960s, for example, I
was much more involved in direct action on both foreign policy
and domestic issues than I am today, the reasons being a different
judgment as to how I can most effectively use my energy, my talents,
and my privilege.
The reasons I have devoted most of my writing and direct political
action -- though not all of it -- to problems of foreign policy
are several. In part, it reflects a judgment as to relative importance:
the impact of U.S. foreign policy on millions of people throughout
the world is enormous, and furthermore these policies substantially
increase the probability of superpower conflict and global catastrophe.
In part, it reflects my feeling that while many people here do
excellent and important work concerning crucial domestic issues,
very few concerned themselves in the same way and with the same
depth of commitment to foreign policy issues. In part, I suppose,
it reflects personal factors which, again, are of little interest
In the domain of foreign policy, I have tried to focus my
energies in areas that are not only significant, by the criteria
just mentioned, but also relatively ignored.... Putting it a bit
crudely, it is best to tell people that which they least want
to hear, to take up the least popular causes, other things being
equal. These are, of course, transitory and sometimes personal