You are here

Illegal but Legitimate: A Dubious Doctrine

University of Edinburgh

The 2004–2005 Gifford Lectures were originally to be delivered by Professor Edward Said. His untimely death in September 2003 meant that the Gifford Lectures were given by Dame Margaret Anstee, Dr. Stephen Toulmin and Professor Noam Chomsky in memory of Professor Said.

In his lecture Illegal but Legitimate: A Dubious Doctrine for the Times, Professor Noam Chomsky examines the use of force in international affairs and how its legitimacy has been understood over time. He begins his lecture by explaining how efforts made during the twentieth century, particularly at the end of World War II, were meant to save humans from the curse of war. Yet he warns that current American military programs and stance carry the risk of ‘ultimate doom’. Efforts to end war embodied in the United Nations Charter were reiterated by a UN panel that included President George H. W. Bush’s National Security Adviser not long before Professor Chomsky was to give his Gifford Lectures. Dr. Chomsky pointed out that this reaffirmation of the charter principles included the provision that force was to be deployed only by the UN Security Council except in cases covered by Article 51 of the charter, where nations are allowed to act in self-defense until the Security Council acts, providing that the circumstance that allows such defensive action must involve a threat that is ‘instant, overwhelming and leaving no choice of means or moment of deliberation’. Any other use of force, according to Professor Chomsky, is a war crime under the meaning established by the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. The UN panel said it would be dangerous to relax the Article 51 standard because there would be too great a risk for unilateral action. The United States, however, seems to ignore the principle of universality, arguing that it need not apply to itself the rules applied to others.

Professor Chomsky believes that Western intellectual elites have made a case for military intervention being legitimate even if illegal. In terms of American public opinion, however, a large majority, according to Professor Chomsky, rejects the bipartisan consensus that encourages the use of military force, believing instead that force should be used only in self-defense. This difference between public opinion and the policy choices of the political elite reflect a democracy deficit in the United States.

Professor Chomsky is critical not only of the current (2001–2008) Bush administration but also of the Clinton administration, saying that the Clinton doctrine (which stated the U.S. will, if it chooses, resort to unilateral use of military power to defend its vital interests such as uninhibited access to markets, energy supplies and strategic resources) was even more expansive than President Bush’s doctrine of preemptive war. Citing the historian John Lewis Gaddis, Dr. Chomsky traces the historical roots of Bush’s doctrine of preemptive war to President John Quincy Adams when he encouraged Andrew Jackson to take Florida from the Seminole Indians, saying expansion is the path to security. Professor Chomsky identifies three rhetorical pillars upon which this expansive notion of the role of force in American foreign policy rests: first, a belief in America’s moral virtue; second, a view that it is America’s mission to redeem the world; and third, a faith in America’s divinely ordained destiny. This mission animates the Bush/Blair policy of invasion of Iraq, seen as bringing democracy to Iraq after the initial justification, stopping the spread of WMD after Iraq’s refusal to obey UN resolutions, proved lacking.

Professor Chomsky cites instances when the United States has argued that it is exempt from international law; for example, the case of Nicaragua v United States, brought before the International Court of Justice, in which Nicaragua stated that the United States illegally mined its harbour. The United States refused to give the court jurisdiction over the matter. Chomsky also offers statements by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson indicating that appeal to notions of international law are not germane in certain political contexts.

Professor Chomsky closes his prepared remarks with a question raised by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, ‘Shall we put an end to the human race or shall mankind renounce war?’

Larry Pullen