July 4 2001

Hegemony or Survival Part Two

By Noam Chomsky

European observers find it "a paradox" that "a country willing to spend more than $100bn on an unproven project to blow up incoming nuclear warheads as they enter the atmosphere would opt not to pay less than a thousandth of that amount to help prevent plutonium falling into the hands of `rogue states'," while knowing full well that "any `rogue bomb' is far more likely to arrive in a suitcase or by truck or boat than in a conspicuously launched missile that has a return address clearly marked on it" (Julian Borger, Guardian Weekly, May 24). The other current choices that enhance the threat to survival seem, on the surface, equally paradoxical. The paradox is resolved when the values of hegemony and survival are properly ranked, and other advantages of military programs to which we return are factored in.

As Vijay Prashad pointed out in his recent commentary on SDI and BMD (June 18), the primary issue is not BMD but control of space, also a bipartisan program. These crucial facts reached general public awareness with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's announcement of overhaul of the Pentagon's space programs, "sharply increasing the importance of outer space in strategic planning." The new plans call for "developing weapons systems for outer space" a "power projection" from space, which means "putting offensive weapons into space" (NYT, May 8; Christian Science Monitor, May 3). The plans were outlined in the report of the second Rumsfeld panel, released in January (the first, in October 1998, warned of missile attack threats, apparently influencing Clinton's decision to accelerate BMD programs). The report of the second panel concludes that space warfare is "a virtual certainty," and calls for the development of anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) (in violation of the 1972 ABM treaty) and placing weapons in space (in violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty).

Reviewing these plans in Foreign Affairs (May 2001), Michael Krepon, former President of the Henry Stimson Center, notes that they contain an internal contradiction: ASATs are far easier to develop than BMD, and an adversary's ASATs will nullify any BMD program by disabling the satellites on which it relies. The contradiction can be overcome only "by utterly dominating space in the ways suggested by the Rumsfeld report," with offensive weapons and an escalating arms race in space as others inevitably take countermeasures. He recommends, instead, strengthening the existing treaties -- which have been observed, he notes. That would make good sense if the goal were survival rather than hegemony.

The US Space Command holds that "In the future, being able to attack terrestrial targets from space may be critical to national defense. U.S. Space Command therefore is actively identifying potential roles, missions, and payloads for this probable new field of battle." The basic rationale was explained in its brochure "Vision for 2020." The primary goal is announced prominently on the front cover: "dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment." This is the next phase of the historic task of military forces. "During the westward expansion of the continental United States, military outposts and the cavalry emerged to protect our wagon trains, settlements, and railroads" -- acting solely in self-defense, we are to understand, perhaps pursuing the well-intentioned but failed efforts "to lead, guide and help Native Americans [among others] toward the right side of history" (Bacevich), America's historic mission for the world. And "nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests." The next logical step is space forces to protect "U.S. National Interests [military and commercial] and Investments." The US role in space should be comparable to that of "navies protecting sea commerce," though now with a sole hegemon, far more overwhelming than the British Navy in centuries past.

The Space Command is of course aware of Krepon's dilemma, and plans to overcome it by "Full Spectrum Dominance": overwhelming military dominance on land, sea, and air as well as space, so that the US will be "preeminent in any form of conflict," in peace or war. The need for such dominance will mount as a result of the increasing "globalization of the economy," which is expected to bring about "a widening between `haves' and `have-nots'," an assessment shared by US intelligence in its projections for 2015 (contrary to the underlying economic theories, but in accord with reality). The widening divide may lead to unrest among the have-nots, which the US must be ready to control by "using space systems and planning for precision strike from space" as a "counter to the worldwide proliferation of WMD" by unruly elements -- a predictable consequence of the recommended programs, just as the "widening divide" is an anticipated consequence of the preferred form of "globalization."

The Space Command could have extended its analogy to "navies protecting sea commerce" and the military "defending" expanding interests. Navies, and the military generally, have played a prominent role in technological and industrial development throughout the modern era. Also to corporate consolidation: the noted pacifist Andrew Carnegie relied heavily on naval contracts in building the first $1 billion corporation, US Steel. Militarization of space offers similar opportunities for the current era. "In terms of international technological potential," economic historian Clive Trebilcock writes, "the ability to produce the largest gunmountings around 1910 was roughly equivalent to the ability to manufacture space vehicles around 1980." The task of constructing huge machines to fire projectiles from a moving platform at a moving target was one of the most complex engineering problems of the day, leading to major advances in metallurgy, electronics, machine tools and manufacturing processes. Quick-firing guns and advanced rifle production also posed challenging tasks for engineering and manufacture, which could be undertaken by "civilian" industry thanks to government contracts, which "played a vital part in removing the risk barriers from mass production" and preliminary research and development (R&D). The results were transferred directly to the automotive and other major modern industries. These developments a century ago were a large step forward from earlier stages, when the "American system of Manufactures" astounded the world, based on 40 years of investment and R&D in the US Ordnance Department at the Springfield Armory and elsewhere, laying the basis for "a world revolution in mass production." Earlier, advances in guncasting from the mid-18th century laid the basis for iron production and use of steam engines, and were "instrumental in facilitating the rise of large-scale industry, indeed in creating the factory system." The same factors persisted after World War II, but with a qualitative leap forward, this time primarily in the US, as the military provided a cover for creation of the core parts of the modern high tech economy. None of the beneficiaries want to see the closing of what Trebilcock calls "the military bank, spending through the public purse, [which] has proved a massive paymaster of scientific development," technological and industrial as well.

Promoting advanced industry has been a leading objective of military planning since World War II, when it was recognized by business leaders that high-tech industry could not survive in a competitive "free enterprise" economy and that "the government is their only possible savior" (Fortune, Business Week). Reagan's SDI was peddled to the business world on these grounds. Maintaining "the defense industrial base" -- that is, high-tech industry -- was one of the factors brought to congressional attention by President Bush when he called for maintaining the Pentagon budget immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall had eliminated the Russian pretext. Militarization of space is a natural next step, which will be propelled further by the anticipated arms race. Others too are well aware of its economic potential. Retreating from his earlier critical stance, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder stated in March that Germany would have a "vital economic interest" in developing BMD technology, and must be sure that "we are not excluded" from technological and scientific work in the field. Participation in BMD programs could strengthen domestic industrial bases generally in Europe, it is expected (see Defense Monitor, March 2001).

For such reasons, the US has recently refused to join the rest of the world in reaffirming the Outer Space Treaty (joined in 1999 and 2000 by Israel, in 2000 by Micronesia), and has blocked negotations at the UN Conference on Disarmament since its current sessions opened in January. China and Russia have called for demilitarization of space; Russia proposed further moves, including reduction of warheads to 1500 and creation of nuclear-free zones. "The U.S. remains the only one of the 66 member states to oppose launching formal negotiations on outer space," Reuters reported in February; also reported in the Deseret News (Salt Lake City), in virtually the only coverage of the Conference in the US media. On June 7, China again called for banning of weapons in outer space, but the US refused, having "consistently blocked the start of negotiations in the UN disarmament conference on preventing an arms race in outer space" (Financial Times, June 8).

Again, that makes good sense if hegemony, with its short-term benefits to elite interests, is ranked above survival in the scale of operative values.