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Noam Chomsky: Trump Represents Severe Threats to "Organized Human Life"

November 20, 2017
Lucien Crowder and Noam Chomsky / Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Noam Chomsky, a noted linguist and a pointed criticic of US foreign policy speaks with Bulletin of Atomic Scientist's senior editor Lucien Crowder about the Trump administration's policies on climate change, nuclear modernization, North Korea, and Iran -- and about an intensification of "the extremely severe threats that all of us face." According to Chomsky, the US, under Trump and the Republican Party, is racing toward disaster.


Noam Chomsky: Trump Represents
Severe Threats to "Organized Human Life"

Lucien Crowder / Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and Taylor & Francis Online

(November 18, 2017) -- In this tumultuous first year of Donald Trump's presidency, some observers would argue that humanity's prospects for survival are more tenuous than at any time in recent memory. Noam Chomsky would be among those observers.

In this interview, Chomsky argues that the Trump administration -- by withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, undermining the Iran nuclear deal, and failing to pursue a negotiated settlement with North Korea -- has "sharply increased" the severe threats that humanity faces. Chomsky identifies a "very dangerous growth of irrationality" in the United States, warns of "incipient totalitarianism," and bemoans the "extreme, contrived, dedicated, organized stupidity" that in his view underlies Republican policies on climate change.

BAS: I'd like to begin by reading a short excerpt from remarks that you gave at an event in New York last December, and I'll follow that up with a question. You said "The threats that we now face are the most severe that have ever arisen in human history. They are literal threats to survival. Nuclear war, environmental catastrophe -- these are very urgent concerns that cannot be delayed. They became more urgent on November 8th . . . "

Taking into account everything that has happened since January 20th, do the threats you identified in December appear more urgent, less urgent, or about the same? I ask because I don't think the answer is necessarily obvious -- in many ways, Trump has done exactly what he signaled he would do during the campaign.

Chomsky: He has done what he signaled he would do and that, as predicted, sharply increased the threats. The withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the series of executive actions which have accelerated the use of fossil fuels, reduced regulations -- all of these combine to intensify the very severe threat of environmental catastrophe.

And it is very severe. You can have a look at an article in this morning's newspaper -- you can take almost any morning. Today, there happens to be an article on the likely effects of global warming on the Arctic permafrost, which nobody really understands, but which might lead to a severe, in fact nonlinear, rapid intensification of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere.

We're very close to a point that is known to have happened about 125,000 years ago when the temperature was only slightly above what it is today but, as [Nobel Prize winner and former Energy Department secretary] Steven Chu has discussed, sea level was six to nine meters higher.

You can imagine what the effects of that would be on organized human life. The United States alone, under Trump and the Republican Party, is racing toward disaster, refusing to take the steps that the rest of the world is taking -- haltingly, but at least moving toward.

The threat of nuclear war has indeed increased. There was a good reason why shortly after Trump's inauguration the Doomsday Clock was moved a half minute closer to midnight. Since then, we have learned more, which is even more frightening.

In early March, the Bulletin carried an extremely significant article which should be making headlines everywhere ["How US nuclear force modernization is undermining strategic stability: The burst-height compensating superfuze"] -- about the modernization program of nuclear weapons initiated under Obama and carried forward under Trump. The readers of the Bulletin know the contents, but the significance is extremely great.

Right now, the Trump administration has indicated pretty clearly that it's going to try to undermine the Iran deal -- the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. They've made it clear that they're going to try to find a way to claim that Iran is in violation.

Little attention is paid to the fact that the Trump administration right now is in violation of the agreement. I'll quote the agreement. It calls upon the US to "make best efforts in good faith . . . to prevent interference with the realization of the full benefit by Iran of the sanctions lifting."

The Trump administration is apparently working hard to try to persuade Europe to interfere with this. The agreement also calls on the United States to "refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalization of trade and economic relations with Iran." Of course, they're doing exactly that.

Similarly, in the case of North Korea, though fortunately the hysterical rhetoric has somewhat abated, there were very severe threats. There are possibilities in negotiation, [though] there's very little attention being given to them.

The vast increase called for in the military budget at the expense of things the country really needs, again, intensifies the threats. I think it's fair to say that yes, as you said, Trump and the Republicans are living up to their pre-election promises. Predictably, these are having the effect of intensifying the extremely severe threats that all of us face.

BAS: That leads right into my next question. Some people would be prepared to argue that the Trump administration is the most dangerous the US has ever had. Since you've witnessed a few presidential administrations, I thought I'd ask -- when it comes to the technology-based threats to human civilization that the Bulletin covers -- is Trump necessarily more dangerous than all of his predecessors?

Well, there has never been an administration here, or for that matter anywhere, which is committed openly to trying to undermine the prospects for organized human life in the not-very-distant future. That is exactly the meaning of the stand of Trump and the Republican leadership on climate change. Unfortunately, it's a harsh thing to say -- but think it through, and it's unfortunately quite accurate.

Although Trump is leading the way, we should bear in mind that it is the entire Republican Party leadership. If you go back to the primary debates last fall, every single candidate either denied that what is happening is happening, or said "Maybe it is, but we shouldn't do anything about it." That's the moderates -- Jeb Bush and John Kasich.

In other words, 100 percent say: "Let's do nothing about the most severe threat that humans have faced in their existence" -- and one that is coming along. This is no joke. The rise in sea level [discussed by Steven Chu] would have drastic effects on human life.

Chu goes on to point out that about 800 million people live within 10 meters of sea level. In many areas, this would be disastrous, and that's only one effect. The steps that are being taken, including the radical deregulation -- every day has new examples -- are extremely harmful to the country itself and also an enormous danger for the future.

Now I'm going to pose a tough question. Where the Trump administration and the future of human civilization are concerned, if you had to identify the single most disturbing action taken or statement made to this point, what might you choose?

I'll put aside the Twitter statements about fire and fury and so on, and assume that those are just random remarks. The most dangerous steps, I think, are essentially the two that I've mentioned. [It's] the call for maximizing the use of fossil fuels, including the most dangerous, and eliminating the apparatus that constrains them; and the threats to undermine the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action -- the Iran deal -- which could have unpredictable but possibly quite enormously dangerous effects.

There is a major conflict going on, as everyone knows, between the US, the Saudi bloc, and the Iran-Russia bloc. That could blow up into severe dangers -- not to speak of the extremely dangerous threats at the Russian border. [For example, NATO and the Russian military are operating in close proximity in the neighborhood of the Baltics], which could explode, even by accident, into something uncontrollable. We're living in extremely hazardous times.

I think we should take quite seriously the comments of [former Defense Department secretary] William Perry, a person not given to exaggeration -- conservative, careful. He has [said] that he is terrified not only by the existing situation with regard to the potential for nuclear war, but also by the lack of concern for it, which is in a way even more terrifying.

BAS: You mentioned Russia. Let me pose an idea -- it's meant to be a little provocative. Couldn't you argue that, as far as the Washington-Moscow rivalry is concerned, the world is actually safer today than it has been in a long time? The Cold War is long over.

The nuclear arsenals on both sides are much smaller than they used to be. Putin and Trump, for reasons that remain a little unclear, display less antipathy toward each other than Putin and Obama did. Is all this a reason to sleep better at night than you might have done in the 1950s and 1960s?

I should say that, of all of Trump's positions, the one that makes most sense is his occasional indication of efforts to reduce tensions with Russia and improve relations. That makes very good sense. To the extent that it's being pursued, which unfortunately is minimal, that would be a sensible policy. However, the threats are extremely severe, particularly the ones I've mentioned.

The stance of the United States in its modernization program, as described in the Bulletin, is the stance of a country that is aiming at a first strike. Now, of course, I assume that the United States is not aiming at a first strike, but any potential victim -- in this case Russia -- would have to take that into consideration.

That means, if there are any of the kinds of accidents that have occurred over the past years, the false signals and so on, it's possible that the Russian leadership might assume the use-them-or-lose-them stance.

"We're under attack by the first strike and our only chance is to try to do as much damage as we can" -- in which case human life is essentially over. That's a possibility. The threats on the Russian border, even of jet planes buzzing each other or some small accident, could blow up very quickly.

We've been very lucky in the past. You go back to the Cuban Missile Crisis. There were cases where we came extremely close to a very likely nuclear war. The case of the Russian submarines -- which is now known, was not at the time -- which were under attack by US destroyers, and were close to using nuclear-tipped torpedoes, which could have sparked a general nuclear war . . . Fortunately, Vasili Arkhipov, one commander, refused to use them, but it was awfully close, and it's not the only time.

BAS: Speaking of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons is sometimes described as a Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion, which is sort of an appealing formulation. But I wonder if you see the two situations as particularly comparable.

Chomsky: No, I don't. The Cuban Missile Crisis, remember, was caused by prior events. It was a reaction to prior events. One was Kennedy's refusal of Khrushchev's proposal to mutual sharp reduction of offensive military weapons, which in fact Khrushchev initiated on his own. Kennedy's administration considered it and responded by a huge build-up of military force, even though the United States was far ahead, presumably.

It's generally assumed, probably correctly, that one of Khrushchev's motives was to try to address the imbalance of force by sending missiles to Cuba -- a highly adventurous and dangerous move. That was one goal. The other, very likely, was Operation Mongoose, Kennedy's terrorist war against Cuba, which in fact, if you look at the plans, was designed to lead to an insurrection and possible US invasion in October 1962.

We don't know for certain that Castro and Khrushchev were aware of that, but they may well have been. That's when the missiles were placed. Now, nothing like that is happening in North Korea. It's a different situation -- dangerous enough, but different.

The second difference is that there was -- well, this is really not a difference. In the Cuban missile case, there was a very simple way to resolve it and [it was] finally more or less taken -- mutual withdrawal of missiles from Cuba and from Turkey, where there were obsolete missiles in line for withdrawal. They were being replaced by more lethal Polaris submarines.

In the case of North Korea, there appears to be a reasonable path toward negotiations and amelioration of the crisis. China and North Korea have in fact repeatedly offered an agreement -- a mutual freeze.

North Korea would freeze its development of nuclear weapons and missiles, and in return, the United States would call off the threatening military maneuvers on North Korea's border, which even include flights by nuclear-capable B-52s. All of that is extremely threatening to North Korea for obvious reasons.

Calling those off in return for a freeze in [North Korea's nuclear] programs would sharply reduce tensions and would open the way to further negotiations to, if possible, denuclearize the peninsula, which could succeed. If you look at the historical record, North Korea may be the ugliest regime in the world -- certainly, it is in competition for that -- but nevertheless, they have followed a pretty rational, tit-for-tat policy.

They have responded to US provocations by expansion of their nuclear system. They've responded to positive steps by reducing it and, in one case, in 2005, even agreeing in principle to dismantling it if the US followed through on its obligations under the agreement, which the US essentially rescinded at once.

But there are indications that negotiations could significantly lessen the crisis right now and open the door to a diplomatic settlement, which is the only real hope for the decent survival not only of the Koreans, but of the world much more broadly, considering the nature of the threat.

BAS: But in any event, any resolution on the Korean peninsula is going to be more complicated than what stopped the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Chomsky: What stopped the Cuban Missile Crisis was a letter by Khrushchev. It was suggesting a public mutual withdrawal of missiles. Russia would withdraw the missiles from Cuba and in return the United States would withdraw the Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

Again, these were scheduled for withdrawal because they were being replaced by far more lethal and, at the time, invulnerable Polaris submarines. That was the proposal. Actually, Kennedy didn't quite accept it. He accepted it as a secret agreement, but not a public agreement. Fortunately, Khrushchev agreed to that, or else we wouldn't be having this discussion.

BAS: The two threats that the Bulletin covers most exhaustively are nuclear war and climate change. They're very different kinds of threats. Nuclear war has potentially civilization-ending consequences, but nuclear weapons haven't been used in wartime since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Climate change, on the other hand, is happening, and if it isn't addressed properly, it will cause great suffering for a whole lot of people -- but it won't be the end of human civilization. I realize this is something of an apples-and-oranges comparison, but just speaking for yourself, which threat worries you more?

Chomsky: The threat of climate change worries me more because I am hoping that the miracle that has gone on since 1945 will continue -- and it is a miracle. If you look at the record, it is absolutely shocking. There's time after time where a human intervention, sometimes almost at the last minute, averted a nuclear war.

We can at least hope that leaders will continue to be -- or even actors -- because remember, since Eisenhower on our side, and presumably something similar on the Russian side, the authority to use nuclear weapons was subdelegated.

Subdelegation may still endure, though that information is classified. The pilots on the Chrome Dome Mission during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the B-52s flying all over the world -- about a third of the force, with nuclear weapons at hand -- the pilots have claimed that they had authority to use the weapons. I don't know if that's true, but they claim it. We can at least hope that the realization that [nuclear war would] lead to virtual destruction of human life may impede destructive actions.

In the case of climate change, it's inexorable. It's going on. The threats are severe. In a couple of decades, they could be extremely severe. We could be reaching a point of nonlinear effects, such as the release of methane, which leads to unpredictable, undoubtedly horrible consequences.

Maybe human life will survive among the Inuits or adapt to the climate on some mountain above a tropical valley somewhere -- things like that. Organized human life is in serious danger.

The melting of the permafrost might -- we don't know, but it might -- release deadly microbes, which could cause a severe pandemic, which could have terrible consequences. We're already almost at the limit of the use of known antibiotics, in large part because of industrial meat production, which is another lethal contribution to [threats to] human survival. That's not the only threat of a pandemic, but it's one. That's something else to be deeply concerned about.

It's pointless to go on because they're too easy to list, but we're facing really severe dangers. Instead of addressing them, which we can do -- they're all controllable -- instead of addressing them, we're pouring huge amounts of money, enormous amounts of money, into intensifying the means of destruction, like the nuclear modernization programs. It's almost surreal.

BAS: As I know you're aware, well over 100 nations recently passed a treaty banning nuclear weapons. The treaty looks certain to enter into force this year even though no nuclear-armed nation has signed the treaty. The idea is that over time the ban treaty will establish a new international norm that will induce the nuclear-armed states to get serious about completing general nuclear disarmament.

You follow international relations very closely. What's your prognosis? How likely is it that a numerous but relatively powerless group of nations can eventually prevail upon the most powerful nations to give up the ultimate instruments of their military might?

Chomsky: That's up to us. Can a mass popular movement be created in the United States and other nuclear states which will compel their governments to recognize that we must eliminate these severe threats to human survival?

It could happen. You go back to the early '80s -- there was indeed a very significant antinuclear movement in the United States with enormous [public] support, which had some impact on policy -- not enough, but some. That can be revived, recreated, and I think that's about the only hope that this treaty will go into effect -- not just in the United States, but primarily here.

BAS: You're saying that you think it takes domestic pressure in the nuclear-armed countries? The international pressure is not going to work?

Chomsky: As far as I can see, the nuclear-armed countries are not going to respond to the pressure from the -- as you point out -- the powerless states. They never have in the past and they're unlikely to now.

BAS: Now I'm going to touch on a topic that might sound slightly fantastical, and I hope it turns out to be fantastical. We've heard a great deal about fascism lately. It occurs to me, where nuclear weapons are concerned, there's not much historical record to help us understand what a fascist approach to nuclear weapons might be -- if fascists ever took power somewhere and got nuclear weapons.

The historical timelines of nuclear weapons and fascism don't really intersect. We've seen nuclear weapons in the hands of democratic countries, communist countries, authoritarian regimes, an apartheid state. You could argue that all those countries, with the exception of the US in 1945, have handled their nuclear weapons in much the same way. Is there any reason to believe that a fascist approach to nuclear weapons would be any different from anyone else's?

Chomsky: The term "fascism" is pretty vague. The crucial features of fascism that are relevant here are pretty much duplicated in North Korea, and their policies have been those of rational possession of nuclear weapons. They're using them clearly for deterrence. Nobody thinks that the North Korean leadership is intent on vaporizing itself, which would be the immediate effect of any aggressive act.

It's a horrible regime, but they're very pragmatic and have been committed to defending the regime from being destroyed. They have one means of doing that, namely deterrence. They've also been committed to economic development.

It's recognized, though not widely reported, that the regime is intent on economic development, which is important. They can only do that in a limited way, with the extreme burden of weapons production, which gives them a strong incentive to accept an agreement -- something like the 2005 agreement according to which, as security expert Leon Sigal has written, "North Korea pledged to abandon 'all nuclear weapons and existing weapons programs.'"

But the Bush administration immediately undermined that. Could it have worked? We don't know, maybe. The Clinton North Korea framework agreement more or less worked for about 10 years. Not totally -- there was some cheating around the edges. When it was ended under Bush's provocations, North Korea had no nuclear weapons. Maybe it was preparing to build them, but it didn't have them.

How would a fascist regime react? We do have one case, Nazi Germany, where they concluded that they couldn't produce them in time. If they had produced them, I don't even want to dream of the consequences.

BAS: Is there anything in particular we haven't touched upon that you would like to discuss?

Chomsky: I think there is a very dangerous growth of irrationality, notably in the United States, and to some extent elsewhere. This is extremely threatening. It's irrationality combined with sharp polarization, with the creation of bubbles in which people reinforce only their own beliefs.

All of this is an extreme danger, particularly when we have an administration which is fanning the flames. Significant efforts have to be taken at every level -- education, organization, activism, which includes the left, incidentally -- to counter this highly threatening cultural phenomenon, which could maximize the huge threats that we face.

BAS: When you say "irrationality," are you referring to –

Chomsky: Take a look at the beliefs. The beliefs that people have [according to public polling] are just astonishing. On issue after issue, people are believing the craziest things. The mechanism is more or less understood. Unfortunately, the internet is contributing to it by creating this tendency to retreat into a bubble of self-reinforcing beliefs.

Among Republicans, a recent YouGov poll showed an enormous percentage saying they believed Trump over anything in the news media, including even Fox News. That's a sign of incipient totalitarianism -- when a leader is worshiped as a deity and what he says overwhelms any amount of evidence that might be available.

Actually, a majority agreed that if Trump proposed to delay the 2020 election on the grounds that there was voter fraud, which is basically nonexistent, they would accept it. Those are very threatening facts. This is quite apart from things like the belief that Obama is a Muslim born [outside] of the United States. Twenty-five percent of Republicans think he may be the Antichrist.

This is, again, unique to the United States -- the enormous power of fundamentalist religious beliefs, that the world was created 10,000 years ago, things like that. These are all extremely dangerous developments. Not just developments -- they've existed for a long time -- but are now being sharpened and intensified in the current feverish political climate, with a lot of fanning the flames from the highest authorities.

BAS: I wonder which direction it goes in more. Are political leaders responding to the existing prejudices of their voters, or is it more that people end up believing things that they have been told too many times?

Chomsky: It's mutually reinforcing, but there has been a development over the past 40 years, roughly. Both political parties have moved well to the right during the neoliberal period. So today's New Democrats, Clinton-style Democrats, are pretty much what used to be called moderate Republicans.

Bernie Sanders was described, and described himself, as a revolutionary. If you look at his programs, they're basically New Deal liberalism, programs of the kind that wouldn't have surprised Dwight Eisenhower very much. The Republican Party, meanwhile, has gone so far to the right that it's just off the political spectrum.

They cannot get votes for their actual program of service to the wealthy and corporate power at such an extreme. If they formulate it clearly, they won't get any votes. So they've been compelled to mobilize a base, which has always more or less existed, but was never organized as a major political force -- evangelical Christians, ultranationalists, white supremacists, and others. At that point, the mutual reinforcement takes place.

In fact, if you look at the Republican primaries in the last 12 years or so, every time a candidate emerged from the base, he or sometimes she -- Michele Bachmann -- was so extreme that the Republican establishment mobilized its forces to destroy them and were able to do it. This time they weren't able to do it, but it's been happening every four years as the party shifts farther and farther to the right and is compelled to rely on that kind of base.

BAS: There's a tendency in contemporary American life that I've heard referred to as militant ignorance. I can remember back so far -- but would you say that this is a tendency that has been noticeably increasing over the years?

Chomsky: It's always been there. I think it's increasing, but it's also becoming more organized, prominent, and active. In the past, it was latent. Now it's right in the front. When Bobby Jindal, former Republican governor of Louisiana, a couple of years ago warned that Republicans were becoming the stupid party, there was a point to that -- and it's a matter of principle.

Global warming is maybe the most extreme case. It takes extreme, contrived, dedicated, organized stupidity to deny the severity of what is right before our eyes. There are Republican leaders who do recognize it. Some of the most striking moments during the primaries were those occasional comments by Jeb Bush and John Kasich when they said, "Yes, it's probably happening, but we're not going to do anything about it, because we shouldn't."

As Kasich put it [at an energy conference last year], "[W]e are going to dig [coal], we are going to clean it, and we are going to burn it in Ohio, and we are not going to apologize for it."

What's the right word for that? I don't know.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.




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