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Very Briefly on Chomsky

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Noam is taking some deserved hits for this, as well as some that aren’t quite deserved.  I think it’s best to view Chomsky as of limited utility as a theorist of international politics.  When I say “limited utility” I mean it; he has some utility, but that utility is limited.  In younger days, a friend (an engineer who had never read anything about international politics except for Chomsky) repeatedly insisted “For God’s sakes, Rob, read Chomsky!”  My rejoinder was “For God’s sakes, Nate, read something that’s not Chomsky!” That said, I think that Chomsky probably offers a bit more than most political scientists who study international relations are willing to concede; he writes about subjects that hover at the edge of the discipline, but that are quite important and that don’t receive enough attention.  At the same time, his vision of international politics is badly impoverished by a set of elementary misunderstandings.

  1. Reductionism is probably the most consistently annoying problem with Chomsky’s approach.  He’s not the worst example of a writer who substitutes lazy quasi-Marxist analysis for sophisticated analysis of why states do things, but he’s pretty bad.  The “elite Beltway consensus” theory of foreign policy behavior extant in the progressive blogosphere is limited in its own ways, but is a hell of a lot more sophisticated in terms of connecting interests and ideas with foreign policy that Chomsky’s crude economic approach.
  2. A second major problem is his US-centric approach.  Like neoconservatives, Chomsky acts and writes as if the United States is the source of all activity in the international sphere; dictators rise and fall at our behest, multilateral institutions collapse or persist based on our interests, etc.  Chomsky rarely bothers to turn the lens that he uses to analyze American foreign policy on any other country.  Again, he’s better than some; Chomsky was never much of an apologist for the Soviet Union.  Moreover, a focus on the United States is understandable in terms of a political program to attack US foreign policy.  However, one can’t begin to understand the genuine dynamics of international politics without recognizing that the factors that motivate the United States often motivate other countries as well.
  3. Chomsky’s understanding of international law is simply terrible.  He doesn’t know much about the content, and he doesn’t know much about the process, which leads him to say things that are either flat wrong or that are mystifyingly stupid.  For Chomsky, international law is more of a rhetorical cudgel/trope than an actual body of law and process of producing legal agreement.  In particular, the notion that international law is somehow “leftist” in orientation is really quite odd; I recall his famous debate with Foucault which left Michel simply flummoxed at Chomsky’s naivety with regard to what international law is, how it’s produced, and what it means for the pursuit of left wing politics.

And so this isn’t so much “LEAVE NOAM ALONE!!!,” as “recognize what Noam Chomsky can offer, and recognize the serious shortcomings in his approach to international politics.”

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