On Power and Ideology: Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

The New School for Social Research, September 19, 2015

Published at Democracy Now: Part I, Part II, Part III

The role of concentrated power in shaping the ideological framework that dominates perception, interpretation, discussion, choice of action, all of that is too familiar to require much comment. Tonight I’d like to discuss a critically important example, but first a couple of words on one of the most perceptive analysts of this process, George Orwell.

Orwell is famous for his searching and sardonic critique of the way thought is controlled by force under totalitarian dystopia. But much less known is his discussion of how similar outcomes are achieved in free societies. He’s speaking, of course, of England. And he wrote that although the country is quite free, nevertheless unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force. Gave a couple of examples, provided a few words of explanation, which were to the point. One particularly pertinent comment was his observation on a quality education in the best schools, where it is instilled into you that there are certain things that it simply wouldn’t do to say—or, we may add, even to think. One reason why not much attention is paid to this essay is that it wasn’t published. It was found decades later in his unpublished papers. It was intended as the introduction to his famous Animal Farm, bitter satire of Stalinist totalitarianism. Why it wasn’t published is apparently unknown, but I think perhaps you can speculate.

Orwell’s observations on thought control under freedom come to mind in considering the raging debate today about the Iran nuclear deal, which currently occupies center stage. I should say it’s a raging debate in the United States, virtually alone. In almost everywhere else, the deal has been greeted with relief and optimism and without even a parliamentary review. This is one of the many striking examples of the famous concept of American exceptionalism.

The fact that America is an exceptional nation is regularly intoned by virtually every political figure, and, I think more revealingly, the same is true of prominent academic and public intellectuals. Can select almost at random. Take, for example, the professor of the science of government at Harvard. He’s a distinguished liberal scholar, government adviser. He’s writing in Harvard’s prestigious journal, International Security, and there he explains that unlike other countries, the “national identity” of the United States is “defined by a set of universal political and economic values,” namely “liberty, democracy, equality, private property, and markets.” So the U.S. has a solemn duty to maintain its “international primacy” for the benefit of the world. And since this is a matter of definition, we can dispense with the tedious work of empirical verification, so I won’t spend any time on that.

Or let’s turn to the leading left-liberal intellectual journal, The New York Review. There, a couple of months ago, we read from the former chair of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that “American contributions to international security, global economic growth, freedom, and human well-being have been so self-evidently unique and have been so clearly directed to others’ benefit that Americans have long believed that the [United States] amounts to a different kind of country.” While others push their national interest, the United States “tries to advance universal principles.” No evidence is given because it’s again a matter of definition. And it’s very easy to continue.

It’s only fair to add that there’s nothing at all exceptional about this. American exceptionalism was standard for every great power, very familiar from other imperial states in their days in the sun—Britain, France, others. And this is true, interestingly, even from very honorable figures from whom one might have expected better—so, John Stuart Mill, for example, in England, to mention a significant case—which raises interesting questions about intellectual life and intellectual standards.

Well, in some respects, American exceptionalism is not in doubt. I just mentioned one example: the current Iran nuclear deal. Now, here the exceptionalism of the United States, its isolation, is dramatic and stark. There are actually many other cases, but this is the one I’d like to think about this evening. And in fact, U.S. isolation might soon increase. The Republican organization—I hesitate to say “party”—is dedicated to undermining the deal, in interesting ways, with the kind of unanimity that one doesn’t find in political parties, though it’s familiar in such former organizations as the old Communist Party—democratic centralism, everyone has to say the same thing. That’s one of many indications that the Republicans are no longer a political party in the normal sense, despite pretensions, commentary and so on.

The former Republican Party has now become a “radical insurgency” that’s abandoned parliamentary politics. I’m quoting two highly respected, very conservative political commentators, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute. And in fact, they may succeed in increasing sanctions, and even secondary sanctions on other countries, and carry out other actions that could lead Iran to opt out of the deal with the United States—with the United States, that is. That, however, need not mean that the agreement is nullified. Contrary to the way it’s sometimes presented here, it’s not a U.S.-Iran agreement. It’s an agreement between Iran and what’s called P5+1, the five veto-holding members of the Security Council plus Germany. And the other participants might agree to proceed—Iran, as well. They would then join China and India, which have already been finding ways to evade the U.S. constraints on interactions with Iran. And in fact, if they do, they’ll join the large majority of the world’s population, the Non-Aligned Movement, which all along has vigorously supported Iran’s right to pursue its nuclear programs as a member of the NPT. But remember that they are not part of the international community. So when we say the international community opposes Iran’s policies or the international community does some other thing, that means the United States and anybody else who happens to be going along with it, so we can dismiss them. If others continue to honor the deal, which could happen, the United States will be isolated from the world, which is not an unfamiliar position.

That’s also the background for the other element of Obama’s—what’s called Obama’s legacy, his other main foreign policy achievement, the beginning of normalization of relations with Cuba. On Cuba, the United States has been almost totally isolated for decades. If you look, say, at the annual votes in the U.N. General Assembly on the U.S. embargo, they’re rarely reported, but the U.S. essentially votes alone. The last one Israel joined. But, of course, Israel violates the embargo; they just have to join, because have to join with the master. Occasionally, the Marshall Islands or Palau or someone else joins. And in the hemisphere, the United States has been totally isolated for years. The main hemispheric conferences have foundered because the United States will simply not join the rest of the hemisphere in the major issues that are discussed. Last one in Colombia, the two major issues were admitting Cuba into the hemisphere—U.S. and Canada refused, everyone else agreed—and the U.S. drug war, which is devastating Latin America, and they want to get out of it, but the U.S. and Canada don’t agree. Now that’s actually the background for Obama’s acceptance of steps towards normalization of relations with Cuba. Another hemispheric conference was coming up in Panama, and if the United States had not made that move, it probably would have been thrown out of the hemisphere, so therefore Obama made what’s called here a noble gesture, a courageous move to end Cuba’s isolation, although in reality it was U.S. isolation that was the motivating factor.

So if the United States ends up being almost universally isolated on Iran, that won’t be anything particularly new, and in fact there are quite a few other cases. Well, in the case of Iran, the reasons for U.S. concerns are very clearly and repeatedly articulated: Iran is the gravest threat to world peace. We hear that regularly from high places—government officials, commentators, others—in the United States. There also happens to be a world out there, and it has its own opinions. It’s quite easy to find these out from standard sources, like the main U.S. polling agency. Gallup polls takes regular polls of international opinion. And one of the questions it posed—it’s posed is: Which country do you think is the gravest threat to world peace? The answer is unequivocal: the United States by a huge margin. Way behind in second place is Pakistan—it’s inflated, surely, by the Indian vote—and then a couple of others. Iran is mentioned, but along with Israel and a few others, way down. That’s one of the things that it wouldn’t do to say, and in fact the results that are found by the leading U.S. polling agency didn’t make it through the portals of what we call the free press. But it doesn’t go away for that reason.

Well, given the reigning doctrine about the gravity of the Iranian threat, we can understand the virtually unanimous stand that the United States is entitled to react with military force—unilaterally, of course—if it claims to detect some Iranian departure from the terms of the agreement. So, again, picking an example virtually at random from the national press, consider the lead editorial last Sunday in The Washington Post. It calls on Congress—I’ll quote—to “make clear that Mr. Obama or his successor will have support for immediate U.S. military action if an Iranian attempt to build a bomb is detected”—meaning by the United States. So the editors, again, make it clear that the United States is exceptional. It’s a rogue state, indifferent to international law and conventions, entitled to resort to violence at will. But the editors can’t be faulted for that stand, because it’s almost universal among the political class in this exceptional nation, though what it means is, again, one of those things that it wouldn’t do to say.

Sometimes the doctrine takes quite a remarkable form, and not just on the right, by any means. So take, for example, the Clinton Doctrine—namely, the United States is free to resort to unilateral use of military power, even for such purposes as to ensure uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources—let alone security or alleged humanitarian concerns. And adherence to this doctrine is very well confirmed and practiced, as need hardly be discussed among people willing to look at the facts of current history.

Well, The Washington Post editors also make clear why the United States should be prepared to take such extreme steps in its role of international primacy. If the United States is not prepared to resort to military force, they explain, then Iran may—I’m quoting—Iran may “escalate its attempt to establish hegemony over the Middle East by force.” That’s what the president, President Obama, calls Iran’s aggression, which we have to contain. For those who are unaware of how Iran has been attempting to establish hegemony over the Middle East by force—or might even dream of doing so—the editors do give examples, two examples: its support for the Assad regime and for Hezbollah. Well, I won’t insult your intelligence by discussing this demonstration that Iran has been seeking to establish hegemony over the region by force; however, on Iranian aggression, there is an example—I think one in the last several hundred years—namely, Iranian conquest of two Arab islands in the Gulf under the U.S.-backed regime of the Shah in the 1970s.

Well, these shocking Iranian efforts to establish regional hegemony by force can be contrasted with the actions of U.S. allies—for example, NATO ally Turkey, which is actively supporting the jihadi forces in Syria. The support is so strong that it appears that Turkey helped its allies in the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, to kill and capture the few dozen fighters that were introduced into Syria by the Pentagon a few weeks ago. It’s the result of several years and who knows how many billions of dollars of training. They did enter and were immediately captured or killed, apparently with the aid of Turkish intelligence. Well, more important than that is the central role of the leading U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, for the jihadi rebels in Syria and Iraq, and, more generally, for Saudi Arabia having been—I’m quoting—”a major source of financing to rebel and terrorist organizations since the 1980s.” That’s from a study, recent study, by the European Parliament, repeating what’s well known. And still more generally, the missionary zeal with which Saudi Arabia promulgates its radical, extremist, Wahhabi-Safafi doctrines by establishing Qur’anic schools, mosques, sending radical clerics throughout the Muslim world, with enormous impact. One of the closest observers of the region, Patrick Cockburn, writes that the “Wahhabisation” by Saudi Arabia—”The ‘Wahhabisation’ of mainstream Sunni Islam is one of the most dangerous developments of our era”—always with strong U.S. support. These are all things that wouldn’t do to mention, along with the fact that these pernicious developments are a direct outgrowth of the long-term tendency of the United States, picking up from Britain before it, to support radical Islam in opposition to secular nationalism. These are long-standing commitments.

There are others, like U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, who condemn Iran’s destabilization of the region. Destabilization is an interesting concept of political discourse. So, for example, when Iran comes to the aid of the government of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan in defense against the assault of ISIS, that’s destabilization, and we have to prevent it, if not aggression, perhaps. In contrast, when the United States invades Iraq and kills a couple hundred thousand people, generates millions of refugees, destroys the country and sets off a sectarian conflict that’s tearing Iraq and, by now, the whole region to shreds, and, on the side, increases terrorism worldwide by a factor of seven, just in the first year, that’s stabilization, part of our mission that we must continue for the benefit of the world. Actually, the exceptionalism of U.S. doctrinal institutions is quite wondrous to behold.

Well, going on with The Washington Post editors, they join Obama’s negotiator, Obama’s Clinton negotiator, Dennis Ross, Thomas Friedman, other notables, in calling on Washington to provide Israel with B-52 bombers, and perhaps even the more advanced B-2 bombers, and also huge, what are called massive ordnance penetrators—bunker busters, informally. There’s a problem: They don’t have airstrips for huge planes like that. But they can use maybe Turkey’s airstrips. And none of this is for defense. These are not defensive weapons, remember. All of these weapons are offensive weapons for Israel to use to bomb Iran, if it chooses to do so. And, you know, since Israel is a U.S. client, it inherits from the master the freedom from international law, so nothing surprising about giving it vast supplies of offensive weapons to use when it chooses.

Well, the violation of international law goes well beyond threat; goes to action, including acts of war, which are proudly proclaimed, presumably, because that’s our right—as an exceptional nation again. One example is the successful sabotage of Iranian nuclear installations by cyberwar. The Pentagon has views about cyberwar. The Pentagon regards cyberwar as an act of war, which justifies a military response. And a year ago, NATO affirmed the same position, determined that aggression through cyber-attacks can trigger the collective defense obligations of the NATO alliance, meaning if any country is attacked by cyberwar, the whole alliance can respond by military attacks. That means cyberwar attacks against us, not by us against them. And the significance of these stands is, again, something that wouldn’t do to mention. And you can check to see that that condition is well observed.

Perhaps the United States and Israel are justified in cowering in terror before Iran because of its extraordinary military power. And it’s possible to evaluate that concern. For example, you can turn to the authoritative analysis, detailed analysis, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the main source for such information, last April, which conducted and published a long study of the regional military balance. And they find—I’ll quote—”a conclusive case that the Arab Gulf states have … an overwhelming advantage [over] Iran in both military spending and access to modern arms.” That’s the Gulf Cooperation Council states; that’s Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates. They outspend Iran on arms by a factor of eight. It’s an imbalance that goes back decades. And their report observes further that “the Arab Gulf states have acquired and are acquiring some of the most advanced and effective weapons in the world [while] Iran has [been essentially] forced to live in the past, often relying on systems originally delivered at the time of the Shah,” 40 years ago, which are essentially obsolete. And the imbalance is, of course, even greater with Israel, which, along with the most advanced U.S. weaponry and its role as a virtual offshore military base of the global superpower, has a huge stock of nuclear weapons.

There are, of course, other threats that justify serious concern and can’t be brushed aside. A nuclear weapon state might leak nuclear weapons to jihadis. No joke. In the case of Iran, the threat is minuscule. Not only are the Sunni jihadis the mortal [enemies] of Iran, but the ruling clerics, whatever one thinks of them, have shown no signs of clinical insanity, and they know that if there was even a hint that they were the source of a leaked weapon, they and all they possess would be instantly vaporized. That doesn’t mean that we can ignore the threat, however—not from Iran, where it doesn’t exist, but from U.S. ally Pakistan, where the threat is in fact very real. It’s discussed recently by two leading Pakistani nuclear scientists, Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian. In Britain’s leading journal of International Affairs, they write that increasing fears of “militants seizing nuclear weapons or materials and unleashing nuclear terrorism [have led to] the creation of a dedicated force of over 20,000 troops to guard nuclear facilities. There is no reason to assume, however, that this force would be immune to the problems associated with the units guarding regular military facilities,” which have frequently suffered attacks with “insider help.” In other words, the whole system is laced with jihadi elements, in large measure because of the—of what Patrick Cockburn described, the “Wahhabisation” of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia and with the strong support of the United States, ever since the Reagan administration. Well, in short, the problem is real enough, very real, in fact. It’s not being seriously addressed. It’s not even discussed. Rather, what we’re concerned about is fantasies, concocted for other reasons, about the current official enemy.

Opponents of the Iran nuclear deal maintain that Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons. U.S. intelligence can discern no evidence for this, but there is no doubt at all that in the past they have, in fact, intended to do so. And we know this because it was clearly stated by the highest authorities in Iran. The highest authority of the Iranian state informed foreign journalists that Iran would develop nuclear weapons “certainly, and sooner than one thinks.” The father of Iran’s nuclear energy program, former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, expressed his confidence that the leadership’s plan is “to build a nuclear bomb.” And a CIA report also had, in their words, “no doubt” that Iran would develop nuclear weapons if neighboring countries do, as of course they have.

All of this was under the Shah, the “highest authority” just quoted. That is during the period when high U.S. officials—Cheney, Rumsfeld and Kissinger—were urging the Shah to proceed with nuclear programs, and they were also pressuring universities to accommodate these efforts. My own university was an example, MIT. Under government pressure, it made a deal with the Shah to admit Iranian students to the nuclear engineering department in return for grants from the Shah. This was done over the very strong objections of the student body, but with comparably strong faculty support. That’s a distinction that raises a number of interesting questions about academic institutions and how they function. The faculty or the students of a couple years ago would have a different institutional place. Opponents of the nuclear—in fact, some of these MIT students are now running the Iranian nuclear programs.

Opponents of the nuclear deal argue that it didn’t go far enough. You’ve heard a lot of that. And interestingly, some of the supporters of the deal agree, demanding that it go beyond what has been achieved and that the whole Middle East should rid itself of nuclear weapons and, in fact, weapons of mass destruction generally. Actually, I’m quoting Iran’s minister of foreign affairs, Javad Zarif. He is reiterating the call of the Non-Aligned Movement—most of the world—and the Arab states, for many years, to establish a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East. Now that would be a very straightforward way to address whatever threat Iran is alleged to pose. But a lot more than that is at stake. This was discussed recently in the leading U.S. world arms control journal, Arms Control Today, by two leading figures in the international anti-nuclear movement, two scientists who are veterans of Pugwash and U.N. agencies. They observe that “The successful adoption in 1995 of the resolution on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East was the main element of a package that permitted the … extension of the [Non-Proliferation Treaty].” That’s the most important arms control treaty there is, and its continuation is conditioned on acceptance of moves towards establishing a weapons of mass destruction-free zone, a nuclear-free zone, in the Middle East.

Repeatedly, implementation of this plan has been blocked by the United States at the annual five-year review meetings of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, most recently by Obama in 2010 and again in 2015, a couple of months ago. The same two anti-nuclear specialists comment that in 2015 this effort was again blocked by the United States “on behalf of a state that is not party to the [Non-Proliferation Treaty] and is widely believed to be the only one in the region possessing nuclear weapons.” That’s a polite and understated reference to Israel. Washington’s sabotage of the possibility, in defense of Israeli nuclear weapons, may well undermine the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as well as maintaining dangerous instability in the Middle East—always, of course, in the name of stability. This is, incidentally, not the only case when opportunities to end the alleged Iranian threat have been undermined by Washington—some quite interesting cases; no time, and I won’t go into them. But all of this raises quite interesting questions, which we should be asking, about what actually is at stake.

So, turning to that, what actually is the threat posed by Iran? Plainly, it’s not a military threat. That’s obvious. We can put aside the fevered pronouncements about Iranian aggression, support for terror, seeking hegemony over the region by force, or the still more outlandish notion that even if Iran had a bomb, it might use it, therefore suffering instant obliteration. The real threat has been clearly explained by U.S. intelligence in its reports to Congress on the global security situation. Of course, they deal with Iran. And they point out—I’m quoting U.S. intelligence—”Iran’s nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy.” Right? It’s part of Iran’s deterrent strategy—no offensive policies, but they are trying to construct a deterrent. And that Iran has a serious interest in a deterrent strategy is not in doubt among serious analysts. It’s recognized, for example, by U.S. intelligence. So the influential analyst, CIA veteran Bruce Riedel, who’s by no means a dove, he writes that “If I was an Iranian national security planner, I would want nuclear weapons” as a deterrent. And the reasons are pretty obvious.

He also makes another crucial comment. He points out that Israel’s strategic room for maneuver in the region would be constrained by an Iranian nuclear deterrent. And it’s, of course, also true of the United States. “Room for maneuver” means resort to aggression and violence. And it’s—yes, it would be constrained by an Iranian deterrent. For the two rogue states that rampage freely in the region—the United States and Israel—any deterrent is, of course, unacceptable. And for those who are accustomed and take for granted their right to rule by force, that concern is easily escalated to what’s called an existential threat. The threat of deterrence is very severe, if you expect to resort to force unilaterally at will to achieve your goals, as the U.S. and, secondarily, Israel do commonly. And more recently, the second U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, has been trying to get into the club, pretty incompetently, with its invasion of Bahrain to prevent mild reformist measures, and more recently its extensive bombing of Yemen, which is causing a huge humanitarian crisis. So for them, a deterrent is a problem, maybe even an existential threat.

That, I think, is the heart of the matter, even if it wouldn’t do to say or to think. And except for those who hope to fend off possible disaster and to move towards a more peaceful and just world, it’s necessary to keep to these injunctions. These are things that wouldn’t do to say, wouldn’t do to think—you don’t read about them, you don’t hear about them—but they are, I think, the heart of the issue. Thanks.

Q & A

“How has the United States supported radical Islam?”

As I mentioned, just as Britain did before it. I won’t comment on the British rule, but if you want to learn about it, there’s quite a good book on it by a very good British diplomatic historian, Mark Curtis, who discusses in detail, going back to the documentary record, how England, Britain supported radical Islam during its period of dominance. The U.S. has done it always. The major center of radical Islam, extremist radical Islam, is Saudi Arabia, unquestionably. They are the source of the Wahhabization of the region, which Patrick Cockburn points out is one of the major developments of the modern era. Who’s the main supporter of Saudi Arabia? You are. You know, that’s where your tax dollars go. It’s been for a long time. Right now tens of billions of dollars of arms being sent under Obama, but it goes way back.

In fact, the strong U.S. relation with Israel developed out of this. The United States and Israel had close relations, but not unusual, through the 1950s and early ’60s. That changed in 1967. What happened in 1967? Israel performed a huge service to the United States and its Saudi Arabian ally. Saudi Arabia has been and remains the center of extremist, radical, fundamentalist Islam, with offshoots in the jihadi movements and so on, including ISIS. At the time, the center of secular nationalism was Nasser’s Egypt, and there was a conflict between the two of them. In fact, they were at war. They were at war in the Yemen at the time. Israel administered a very serious blow to secular nationalism. It devastated the Egyptian army and Syria, and it saved Saudi Arabia and offered a great boon to the United States. And, in fact, if you check back, it’s at that time that the unusual—in fact, unique—relationship between Israel and the United States developed.

And in fact it continues after that. I could give more examples if there was time. But that has been a consistent pattern. There are a few exceptions here and there. So sometimes the United States has supported secular Islamic states. The most extreme and interesting example is Saddam Hussein, who was greatly loved by the Reagan administration and by the Bush I administration. I could give you the details, but they were so supportive of Saddam Hussein that he was even given a gift that otherwise only Israel has been granted, no other country. He was permitted to attack a U.S. naval vessel, killing a couple of dozen American sailors, and to get away with it with just a tap on the wrist. Israel had done the same thing in 1967. Saddam Hussein did it in 1987. And the friendship for Saddam Hussein was so enormous that he was granted that right. And that was a secular state. In fact, George Bush number one even invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the United States for advanced training in nuclear weapons production. That’s a pretty supportive relationship. So there are cases where the United States has supported secular Islam, but typically it’s radical Islam that has been the beneficiary of U.S. support, like Britain before it.

“Why isn’t the United States doing more to help Syrian refugees?”

Well, that’s a question you should ask yourselves. Why aren’t we doing more? After all, we’re pretty munificent already. I think 2,000 have been accepted, after several years’ wait. But yes, that’s a very serious question. Can be generalized. There are other refugees. What about people fleeing from Honduras? The main—that’s the main source of what’s called the refugee crisis here. Most of them are coming from Honduras. Why? Well, something happened in Honduras a couple years ago. There was a military coup, which overthrew the democratic government. The United States was about the only country that gave its support. And the result of the military coup is a real horror story. It was bad enough before, but it’s become horrendous since. So people are fleeing, and therefore we have to build, you know, a mile-high wall on the Texas border or wherever it is. So, yeah, these are fair questions.

“The Obama doctrine vis-à-vis Syria?”

It’s a good question. Washington hasn’t a clue. It’s obvious. And it’s a little hard to fault them for that. It’s very hard to think of a constructive outcome to this utter disaster.

The United States has taken a somewhat hands-off position, except that it’s supporting its allies, who are very clear. As I mentioned, Turkey, a NATO ally, has been supporting the al-Qaeda-related jihadi front, namely the al-Nusra Front, a couple of others. The Gulf states, also U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, where they have been strong supporters of what’s now become the Islamic State—technically, Saudi Arabia, the government, no longer—claims no longer to support them directly, but surely did in the past, and funders from the Gulf—wealthy Gulf states are still presumably funding them, as they have in the past. It’s pretty open in the case of Qatar. So there’s—these are indirect U.S. policies.

The only conceivable hope for some resolution of this horrendous crisis, which is totally destroying the country, is the kind of negotiated settlement that was worked on by serious negotiators, like Lakhdar Brahimi, an international negotiator, very respectable, sensible. And the main idea, which—shared by any analyst with a grey cell functioning, is some kind of negotiated settlement which will involve the Assad government, like it or not, and involve the opposition elements, like it or not. There can’t be negotiations that don’t involve the parties that are fighting. That’s pretty obvious, just as South African negotiations had to involve the leadership of the apartheid state. There’s no other way. They can’t have other negotiations. It’s perfectly obvious that the Assad government is not going to enter into negotiations that are based on the condition that it commits suicide. If that’s the condition, they’re just going to keep destroying the country. That unfortunately is the—has been the U.S. position of the negotiations. U.S. and its allies have demanded that negotiations be based on the precondition that the Assad government will not survive. It’s a horrible government, and I’d like it not to survive, but that’s a prescription for destroying Syria, because it’s not going to enter into negotiations on those terms.

Right now, and in fact in the past, these have been proposals pretty much supported by the Russians. And, in fact, you may not have seen this, but for those of you who read the international press, British press, a couple of days ago there was a very interesting revelation that in 2012 the Russians had apparently presented a proposal for an interim regime which would not include Assad, and it was turned down by the United States and the West. That was reported in practically the entire British press—Guardian, The Independent, Daily Telegraph, across the spectrum. Didn’t appear in the United States for a while, but finally it did appear, not in print, as far as I can tell, but in an online edition of The Washington Post, where there’s an article of the usual type. It sort of mentions that this is rumored, but can’t take it seriously, and, you know, so on, probably didn’t mean it, and so on and so forth. Well, OK, you can draw your own conclusions.

But as far as—if you ask what the Obama doctrine is, it doesn’t exist. We saw the Obama doctrine a couple of weeks ago when the Pentagon sent in these 50 fighters, who had been trained for years, and they were immediately captured, killed, or just defected, by Turkey’s ally, the al-Nusra Front, as I mentioned, apparently with Turkish intelligence support. Now that’s the doctrine, is nothing, except to support the allies, which are in fact supporting jihadi forces. But what the doctrine ought to be, I think, is pretty clear. What the chances are for settlement of those terms is hard to say—not very high. But if you can think of an alternative, you should present it. No other alternative has been proposed.

“What do you think about the antics of Donald Trump, in tangent to your earlier idea about American exceptionalism?”

Well, actually, I think we should recognize that the other candidates are not that different. I mean, if you take a look at—just take a look at their views. You know, they tell you their views, and they’re astonishing. So just to keep to Iran, a couple of weeks ago, the two front-runners—they’re not the front-runners any longer—were Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. And they differed on Iran. Walker said we have to bomb Iran; when he gets elected, they’re going to bomb Iran immediately, the day he’s elected. Bush was a little—you know, he’s more serious: He said he’s going to wait ’til the first Cabinet meeting, and then they’ll bomb Iran. I mean, this is just off the spectrum of not only international opinion, but even relative sanity.

This is—I think Ornstein and Mann are correct: It’s a radical insurgency; it’s not a political party. You can tell that even by the votes. I mean, any issue of any complexity is going to have some diversity of opinion. But when you get a unanimous vote to kill the Iranian deal or the Affordable Care Act or whatever the next thing may be, you know you’re not dealing with a political party.

It’s an interesting question why that’s true. I think what’s actually happened is that during the whole so-called neoliberal period, last generation, both political parties have drifted to the right. Today’s Democrats are what used to be called moderate Republicans. The Republicans have just drifted off the spectrum. They’re so committed to extreme wealth and power that they cannot get votes, can’t get votes by presenting those positions. So what has happened is that they’ve mobilized sectors of the population that have been around for a long time. It is a pretty exceptional country in many ways. One is it’s extremely religious. It’s one of the most extreme fundamentalist countries in the world. And by now, I suspect the majority of the base of the Republican Party is evangelical Christians, extremists, not—they’re a mixture, but these are the extremist ones, nativists who are afraid that, you know, “they are taking our white Anglo-Saxon country away from us,” people who have to have guns when they go into Starbucks because, who knows, they might get killed by an Islamic terrorist and so on. I mean, all of that is part of the country, and it goes back to colonial days. There are real roots to it. But these have not been an organized political force in the past. They are now. That’s the base of the Republican Party. And you see it in the primaries. So, yeah, Trump is maybe comic relief, but it’s just a—it’s not that different from the mainstream, which I think is more important.

“U.S. exceptionalism has existed since the”—what’s that?


NOAM CHOMSKY: “… since the doctrine of manifest destiny in the 18th”—actually 19th—”century. What has changed?”

Well, what’s changed is the capacity to implement the doctrines. So take, say, the Monroe Doctrine, 1823. The Monroe Doctrine essentially declared that the United States must rule the hemisphere. It didn’t say it in those words, but that’s what it amounted to. And it was the intellectual father of the Monroe Doctrine, it was John Quincy Adams, who was also the intellectual author of manifest destiny. Well, there was a problem. This was the 1820s. There was a deterrent. The deterrent was Britain. Britain was the hated enemy. They were the big military power, and they prevented the United States from achieving its first foreign policy goal. By “foreign,” I mean outside the national territory. That’s also aggression, but it’s not called aggression, but conquest of the national territory, what’s now the national territory. Of course, there was a war, against the indigenous population, who were exterminated and expelled. But the first so-called foreign goal was to take over Cuba. Goes back to the 1820s. Couldn’t do it. British navy was in the way.

John Quincy Adams, who was an astute ground strategist, pointed out to his colleagues that we just have to wait. He said, “Sooner or later, U.S. power will increase, British power will decline. And,” as he put it, “Cuba will fall into our hands by the laws of political gravitation, just the way an apple falls from the tree,” which indeed happened. Over the 19th century, U.S. power increased, British power declined. The U.S. was able to take further steps in the Western Hemisphere. And in 1898, in fact, it was able to conquer Cuba. That’s—if you go to school in the United States, you learn that the United States liberated Cuba in 1898. In fact, the U.S. invaded to prevent Cuba from liberating itself from Spain, which is what happened. And since—after that, it just became a virtual colony, until liberation finally in 1959, and ever since then the United States has been trying to reverse it.

And the same is true generally. The United States did not—it was a—it may have been—it was probably the richest country in the world back in the early 19th century, but not the most powerful country. Britain was the most powerful. France was a powerful country. And that changed over the years, especially with the First World War and finally with the Second World War. So, exceptionalism has greatly expanded as power expanded. And I say again that this exceptionalism was also true of other great powers during their day of imperial power and domination.

“World leaders will meet in New York City next week for a new set of global anti-poverty targets, sustainable development goals. Do you think these targets are sufficient?”

That has an easy answer: two letters. And furthermore, nothing will be achieved. That’s pretty safe to say.

“Can you comment on the important of WikiLeaks cables?”

Now, they’ve been really revealing. You learn a lot from them. Some of them are really interesting, including ones that aren’t discussed much. I mean, most of them you’ve seen. But, for example, one of the WikiLeaks—one interesting question that should be on everybody’s mind is: What is the basis for the extraordinary relationship between the United States and Israel? There are a lot of reasons for it, but one interesting aspect was revealed by a WikiLeaks cable, which I think wasn’t reported.

One of the cables listed—of the leaks, listed a document, an internal U.S. document, Pentagon document, which listed the top strategic priorities of the United States, regions in the world that were so important that we had to protect them at all costs. There were maybe—I forget how many, a dozen or so. One of them was right outside Haifa, Rafael military industries, major military industry. That’s one of the main places where drone technology has been developed. The links between U.S. and Israeli high-tech military industry are extremely close. In fact, in this case, Rafael, the biggest industry, our ties are so close that Rafael actually moved its management headquarters to Washington, where the money is.

Well, what that tells you, that gives an interesting insight into the nature of the relationship. Israel is now—does play a major role—small country, but good high-tech industry, and it plays a major role in repression and aggression. It’s developed—the Israeli arms fairs, where they sell their arms, they advertise, correctly, that they have developed advanced means of repression and control, and that the arms that they’re displaying are battlefield-tested, namely against the Palestinians. So they’ve refined the techniques of control. And they contribute to that all over the place—in Central America, even in the United States. They’re providing advice on how to bar Honduran immigrants, say, from coming to the United States. They help train police and so on, many examples.

Well, that’s only one case, but there have been many other cases of the WikiLeaks materials. It’s really worth reading through them, not just the ones that, you know, do get reported, but many other ones. There’s actually a volume that just came out on WikiLeaks, which is important reading.

“Do you think that U.N. foreign policy is—U.S. foreign policy, sorry, is driven exclusively by economic interests? What other factors influence U.S. foreign policy, and to what extent?”

That’s quite an interesting question. It’s certainly not driven entirely by economic interests. In fact, there are very striking cases. Usually, by and large, the U.S. foreign policy, like other major states, is driven by the dominant domestic forces. That’s kind of natural. And the dominant domestic forces are, of course, the corporate sector. That’s not in question. So, by and large, foreign policy is driven by their interests. And what I—the Clinton Doctrine, which I quoted, is an obvious case, but there are plenty of others. However, there are exceptions, and there are very interesting ones.

Actually, Iran is an exception, quite an interesting one. And that goes back to the first U.S. serious involvement with Iran. Iran was a kind of a British virtual colony. The British were involved in preventing Iran from developing, getting—either economically or politically. But that changed in 1953, when Britain was too weak to overthrow the parliamentary regime, and the U.S. took over and carried out—basically, carried out the coup that installed the Shah. Something quite interesting happened at that time. The United States government wanted U.S. energy corporations to take over 40 percent of the British concession. It was a British—the British were taking Iranian oil. But the Eisenhower administration wanted U.S. energy corporations to take 40 percent of it. That’s an economic interest. They didn’t want to. They didn’t want to for good reasons. It was much cheaper then to get oil from Saudi Arabia, so that just for straight business reasons they didn’t want to have to go to Iran. And furthermore, they were concerned that that might harm their relations with the Saudi dictators, Saudi family that essentially owns and runs the country, and they didn’t want to bother with that. The U.S. government actually forced them, forced the oil companies, to take a 40 percent concession. The Eisenhower administration threatened them with antitrust suits and other threats, if they didn’t do it. So, of course, they backed down and did it. That’s pretty unusual.

And I think it’s happening now, too. We don’t have documents from the present period. You know, you get documents from earlier periods. But you can be pretty confident that the U.S. energy corporations would be delighted to break into the Iranian market. They don’t like the idea every other—just about every other major country is sending, you know, business delegations, investors and others to try to profit from the opening of Iran, which they support, and the U.S. energy corporations and other U.S. businesses are blocked by state power. And you can be sure that they don’t like it. If we had access to their internal deliberations, I’m sure it would say that. Well, that’s a case where state power, in this case, overwhelms even economic interests. Iran has to be punished. Iran committed a serious crime: They disobeyed orders. And you don’t disobey orders. One of the major doctrines of international affairs, which doesn’t appear in the literature, is the Mafia doctrine. International affairs are run like the—very much like the Mafia. The godfather does not tolerate disobedience. It’s much too dangerous. So, if some small storekeeper somewhere, say, doesn’t pay protection money, the don doesn’t accept it. You send their goons to beat him to a pulp, even if you don’t need the money, because others might get the idea, then things might start to erode. That is a dominant principle of international affairs. In fact, that was the reason for the 1953 coup, when you look back. And it’s also the reason why—for U.S. hostility to Iran, which is extreme. I mentioned the support for Saddam Hussein. That was an attack on Iran, and a serious one. But they defied orders. They overthrew a U.S.-imposed tyrant. They thumbed their nose at the United States. And you don’t get away with that.

Actually, Cuba is very similar, since Cuba is extremely—the hostility to Cuba is quite interesting. I mean, for decades, ever since polls were taken, the majority of the U.S. population has been in favor of normalization of relations. OK, it’s normal to disregard the population in a democracy—they don’t count. But what is unusual in this case is that major sectors of U.S. economic power have been in favor of normalization, big sectors—pharmaceuticals, energy industries, agribusiness. They’ve all wanted to get into the Cuban market. And the state has blocked it, which is quite unusual. And there’s another case where state power has overwhelmed even the power of its major domestic sources. In fact, these are two quite striking examples. And it’s the same thing. And in the case of Cuba, we know it. If you go back to the Kennedy administration, you know, when the war against Cuba really took off, it was very explicit. The State Department said we can’t tolerate what they called successful defiance of U.S. policies, that go back to the Monroe Doctrine. Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy’s Latin American adviser, reported to him the report of his Latin American mission, said the problem is the Castro idea of taking matters into your own hands, which appeals to others in the hemisphere where people suffer similar repression, and you can’t let that idea spread. It’s the Mafia doctrine again, powerful enough to sharply conflict with economic interests. So there are cases, but they’re rare. And they’re illuminating.

ANTHONY ARNOVE: I think this has to be the last one. We got all of these, but time’s running out.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Oh, OK. “What is intelligence?”

Well, it’s something that’s lacking in certain places. Let’s put it like that. Than


What can we expect from the hospital of the future?

Over the next 30 years, innovations like telemedicine and virtual reality will vastly improve the healthcare experience for patients and providers

doctor hand digital display
Coming to a screen near you? Doctors and patients will benefit from advances in technology. Photograph: MixAll Studio/Getty Images/Blend Images

Imagine a surgeon is perched in front of a telecommunications console in New York City while his patient lies on an operating table 3,870 miles away at a hospital in Strasbourg, France. From the console, the physician remotely guides the movement of a three-armed surgical robot named Zeus to remove the 68-year-old patient’s diseased gallbladder. The operation takes less than an hour, and the patient recovers as expected, returning home two days later.

Sounds like something out of science fiction, doesn’t it? It’s not.

The transatlantic procedure actually happened in 2001. Known as Operation Lindbergh, named after American aviator Charles Lindbergh, the breakthrough event marked the world’s first complete, successful telesurgery procedure. It set a strong foundation for the role this technology could play in disrupting the boundaries of traditional healthcare and ushering the industry into the future.

So what does this medical revolution look like? With all the progress made in health innovation these days – advances in surgical robotics, virtual reality (VR) therapies and Internet of Things (IoT) diagnostic tools, just to name a few – it’s easy to picture the hospital of 2050 as a place where exam rooms look like a scene from The Jetsons, artificial intelligence takes the place of practitioners and every instrument connects to the cloud.

Realistically, however, changes in the healthcare industry are much more incremental, innovation experts in the field say, though that may not be the case for long.

The virtual doctor is in

One medical advancement gaining momentum, and which many healthcare providers believe will be a significant factor in the future of patient care, is telemedicine. Building on Operation Lindbergh, it’s based on the idea of physicians being able to deliver virtual care to patients any time, anywhere.

Telemedicine can be a tool to provide virtual care to underserved areas and places where demand for specialists is especially high. It can also be used to monitor patients with chronic illnesses and even save lives. For example, stroke patients’ chances of recovery depend greatly on rapid diagnosis and treatment. Emergency vehicles outfitted with computerized tomography (CT) scans and telemedicine devices can allow neurosurgeons to evaluate potential stroke sufferers and recommend a course of treatment en route to the hospital, thereby reducing the patient’s chance of permanent disability.

“Telemedicine inserts a layer of technology between physician and patient, which can be used to seamlessly insert sensors and computational algorithms that provide a more comprehensive and enabling way to diagnose and treat patients,” explains Yulun Wang, the chairman, chief innovation officer and founder of InTouch Health. His company has built robots that allow specialists to examine patients remotely – it currently services about 1,500 hospitals worldwide. He also founded Computer Motion, the company behind the robotic system Zeus used in Operation Lindbergh.

doctor robot intouch
InTouch Health’s robots enable faraway physicians to examine patients. Photograph: InTouch Health

Ultimately, Wang says, telehealth services can help reduce costs – the US spent an estimated $3tn on healthcare in 2014 and 2015 – as well as improve outcomes and become the core methodology of healthcare delivery in the future. He adds that he expects it to one day be as accessible as online banking.

“Most healthcare delivery will be done virtually, instead of in person” 30 years from now, he predicts. “In fact, all healthcare delivery that can be done virtually will be, because it’s more convenient for the patient and more efficient for the provider.”

And put to work in conjunction with other emerging technologies, telemedicine can achieve more. “Artificial intelligence, such as machine learning, will be integrated cohesively into healthcare delivery through telemedicine so that big data sets can be gathered and analyzed to improve global care, like population health,” Wang says. “It will also improve individual care by matching the specifics of a patient’s diagnosis and treatment plan through millions of comparable cases.”

Design-focused approach

Lorna Ross of the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation says solutions for more accessible, efficient and affordable healthcare experiences for patients shouldn’t rely solely on smart devices, but also on human-centric designs. That’s why her team works closely with practitioners and patients to look for opportunities and test solutions to spur innovation across Mayo Clinic’s locations.

The Center for Innovation’s projects have so far explored how redesigned exam suites can enhance patient-physician interaction, improved how staff members educate and prepare dialysis patients for care, and examined additions to Mayo’s prenatal care offerings like in-home monitoring and appointments via webcam.

“We use experimentation to build people’s tolerance for change,” says Ross, the center’s director of design. “These mechanisms we use to get people unstuck are important because healthcare is a fundamentally conservative community. Things don’t change very fast, so design is probably one of the most effective ways of [giving someone] confidence to let go of what’s known and safe and to embrace something that’s risky.”

2050 and beyond

As technology advances and the healthcare industry moves toward more outpatient procedures, telemedicine and self-monitoring, Ross foresees that in 2050, patients will only go to hospitals for complicated surgeries and emergencies. There’s also growing evidence, she says, that technology like virtual reality will be more widespread in medicine.

A 2015 report by Global Industry Analysts Inc. estimates the global market for virtual reality in healthcare will reach $3.8bn by 2020 as interest grows in expanding the tech for medical training, practice, psychiatry, rehabilitation and other uses. For example, some neurosurgeons are already using VR to get a sneak peek of a patient’s brain prior to surgery, so they can do the procedure more safely and efficiently.

Virtual reality is also being piloted at hospitals as a possible replacement for medication for post-operative pain management. Gaming and meditation programs are used as distractions to redirect a patient’s recognition of pain.

Ross also envisions a future in which IoT-powered exam rooms or smart spaces can capture conversations between physicians and patients and automatically upload key data in real time – freeing healthcare providers from clerical work.

“It’s not about what these tools can do, but what [doctors] don’t have to do,” she explains. “The interest we have is finding tools that free up physicians’ time to really focus on delivering the people-to-people care that we need.”

And what about computers and artificial intelligence taking the place of healthcare providers in the future? Well, she warns, don’t count human doctors out yet.

“I think there’s potential for partnering human intelligence with probability tools and analytics,” Ross says. “I think it could help with precision around diagnoses and treatment options and being able to bring quantitative data to the point of care. But it could never replace what happens on the human-to-human level.”



The key players at the Paris climate summit

The draft negotiating text for a global deal is in. These are some of the people who will now decide the outcome of the talks

Laurent Fabius, COP 21 president and France’s foreign minister, holds up the draft Paris outcome on 5 December 2015
Laurent Fabius, COP 21 president and France’s foreign minister, holds up the draft Paris outcome on 5 December 2015. Photograph: IISD

As ministers from countries around the world fly in for the crunch second week of the UN climate talks in Paris there are still significant areas of disagreement, but also optimism at the talks that a deal can be done. The negotiating text has been pared back to just over 20 pages – a much better position than at the equivalent point at the Copenhagen talks in 2009. Here are some of the key individuals who will decide the outcome of the talks.

Christiana Figueres – United Nations

Christiana Figueres at climate talks in Paris on 5 December
Christiana Figueres at climate talks in Paris on 5 December. Photograph: IISD

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has been involved in the long-running UN climate change talks since 1995, first as part of the Costa Rican delegation involved in crafting the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, and since 2010 as the UN’s climate change chief. Having experienced at first hand the travails of the Copenhagen summit in 2009, which ended in a deal but was derided for the scenes of chaos and vicious recriminations that marked its conclusion, she has been determined to learn from those mistakes.

Her background – she comes from a well-connected political family in Costa Rica, where her father served as president three times and was credited with leading his country to stable democracy – has assisted her in gaining the confidence of developing countries, while liaising with the rich nations which have often dominated past talks. Her exhaustive knowledge of the cumbersome UN negotiating process has also proved invaluable, helping her to steer the development of the proposed new agreement through a series of lead-up meetings.

The Paris conference is a make-or-break moment for the UN climate negotiations, which began in 1992. Current commitments on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, declared by all the world’s major economies at Copenhagen, will run out in 2020, and this conference is aimed at putting plans in place for the next decade. This will be crucial, if the world is to stay within the threshold of a 2C temperature rise above pre-industrial levels, regarded by scientists as the limit of safety beyond which the effects of extreme weather are likely to become catastrophic and irreversible. If Paris fails, the world will be left without an agreement on collective action to solve this global problem.

Direct in manner, but with a sense of humour and moments of fire, Figueres has needed every ounce of energy and dynamism to bring these talks to their final stages. These will be her last UN negotiations: next year, she will step down from her role, leaving, she hopes, a lasting legacy.

Todd Stern – US

Todd Stern attends a meeting to prepare the way for the climate conference’s final negotiations
Todd Stern attends a meeting to prepare the way for the climate conference’s final negotiations. Photograph: Thibault Camus/AP

The tall thin figure of Todd Stern has been a fixture at UN climate negotiations for nearly 20 years, since he was asked to head the White House preparations for the Kyoto protocol in 1997.

The State Department negotiator’s path through both worlds – the White House and the international climate negotiations – is closely linked to that of John Podesta, the powerful Democratic strategist who brought Stern into Bill Clinton’s White House.

When George Bush was president, Stern joined a law firm and became a fellow at the Centre for American Progress, the thinktank founded by Podesta. In 2007, the two men teamed up for a report arguing the next US president should make a low carbon economy a top priority.

Hillary Clinton brought Stern back into the administration in 2009 after she became secretary of state.

Within the frequently histrionic world of climate negotiators, Stern, 64, a Harvard-educated lawyer and father of three sons, is seen as cautious and low-key, never flashy.

He chooses his words with a lawyer’s precision, and is unapologetic about his devotion to the minutest detail of the negotiations, including commas.

But over the past six years, he has in his quiet and relentless way carried out a revolution in the way the negotiations have approached climate change.

His first task was killing off the Kyoto protocol, a legally binding treaty which put the onus for fighting climate change almost entirely on rich countries such as the US, Europe and Japan.

In tandem, Stern tried to end the rivalry between the two big climate polluters – the US and China. Stern made his first approach when he accompanied Clinton to China on her first visit as secretary of state. But the real movement came in 2013 after John Kerry became secretary of state.

The deal, announced at a summit in Beijing in November last year, was widely seen as a breakthrough for the talks – and for Stern’s designs to sweep away the last relics of Kyoto.

In its place, Stern made headway with the idea that all countries had to engage in fighting climate change, although developing economies would not be required to cut emissions until a later date.

Instead of the legal treaty of Kyoto, he argued the only way to fight climate change was on a volunteer basis, with each country setting its own targets for emissions reductions and other actions. Stern insisted peer pressure would eventually compel countries to deepen their cuts and so achieve the goal of limiting warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels.

Only time will prove whether he was right.

Hollande and Ban Ki-moon arriving at COP21 talks on 30 November
François Hollande and Ban Ki-moon arriving at COP21 talks on 30 November. Photograph: Francois Pauletto/Demotix/Corbis

Laurent Fabius, Ségolène Royale, Laurence Tubiana and François Hollande – France

François Hollande, president of France, has been much in evidence for his country’s hosting of these crucial talks. Welcoming world leaders on the opening day, he made clear his determination to strike a deal: “Never have the stakes been so high, because this is about the future of the planet, the future of life.”

Laurent Fabius, foreign minister and president of COP 21, has taken charge of the talks and the lead-up to them. In frequent meetings with counterparts in other countries throughout the year, on a variety of subjects, he has never failed to squeeze in the issue of climate change, and press governments to come forward with plans to reduce emissions and, in the case of developed countries, finance for poor nations.

His has been the key role, finding out from other governments their targets and concerns, forming a bridge between nations that have historically had differences, and liaising closely with the UN to understand how the unwieldy process can be managed.

Laurence Tubiana at the Paris summit on 5 December
Laurence Tubiana at the Paris summit on 5 December. Photograph: IISD

The attacks on Paris, in which 130 people died and scores more were badly injured, marked a watershed. Fabius’s concerns switched immediately to the safety of the French people, and combating Isis, calling on other nations to act in concert. There was brief doubt as to whether the summit would go ahead. He made the decision to stop the planned march by civil society groups, because of security concerns. When the talks end, his role will revert to fighting terrorism as a key international priority.

Fabius is joined by Ségolène Royal, minister of ecology, sustainable development and energy. She has championed the concerns of the poor nations at these negotiations, insisting repeatedly that the rich world must assist them in reducing emissions and coping with the effects of climate change. Economic development has sometimes been seen as running counter to environmental well-being. She has been determined to reconcile the two, arguing that no development can be durable if it damages the environment.

On a personal level, relations between Hollande, Fabius and Royal have sometimes been strained. Hollande and Royal have four children together, parting in 2007 after Hollande began a relationship with Valérie Trierweiler. Relations between Fabius and Royal have also been said to be fractious at times. Fabius ran against Royal for the presidential nomination in 2007. She was defeated by Nicolas Sarkozy, with whose wife, Carla Bruni, Fabius was said to have had an affair.

In the negotiation rooms at the talks, the key figure for the French is Laurence Tubiana. She has experience in international negotiations, advised former French prime minister Lionel Jospin, and has served as director of the International Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations.

Su Wei and Xie Zhenhua – China

Su Wei speaks with Laurence Tubiana, and ADP co-chair Ahmed Djoghlaf at COP21 in Le Bourget, Paris
Su Wei speaks with Laurence Tubiana, and ADP co-chair Ahmed Djoghlaf at COP21 in Le Bourget, Paris. Photograph: IISD

Two contrasting personalities lead China’s delegation at the climate talks. Su Wei is known for being one of the toughest negotiators around, described by one delegate as China’s “attack dog”. Minister Xie Zhenhua tends to strike a more flexible pose, often smiling and exchanging jokes with reporters and aides, and willing to consider compromises. “Good cop, bad cop,” is how one observer puts it.

China’s position at these talks has changed markedly. Blamed for helping to cause the collapse of negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, the country nevertheless signed a declaration there enshrining its first commitments on curbing emissions under the UN. In Durban, at a further round of talks in 2011, the proposal on the table was for a pathway to a new global agreement to kick in from 2020, when the Copenhagen commitments expire.That agreement is now the subject of the crunch conference in Paris. But if China had been allowed its way, Paris would never have happened.

The talks at Durban carried on for 36 hours beyond their deadline, with non-stop marathon negotiating sessions. The EU, which proposed the 2015 agreement, had assembled a broad but fragile coalition of developed and developing countries. In the final hours, only two held out: China and India.

China’s situation at the talks is complicated by political realities in Beijing. The country’s environment ministry pushes for domestic action on pollution, and the foreign ministry wants China to be seen as a constructive player on the international stage, but the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) traditionally takes a more hardline view at the UN.

Its Durban stance was a result of that. Since then, however, after China finally backed down and agreed the timetable for Paris, the country has shown more public willingness to negotiate on climate change. Previously, for instance, China refused to set a date for when its emissions would peak. Late last year, President Xi Jinping stood with President Obama of the US to announce a peaking year, 2030, which is now its offering at the Paris talks. China has also contributed billions to the Green Climate Fund, for poorer developing countries.

Having agreed a peaking year, and contributed to finance, China’s aim is now to hold developed countries to what it perceives as their obligations. Whether that involves blocking a deal judged too weak, or not in the Chinese national interest, will depend on Xie and Su, and their instructions from Beijing.

Susheel Kumar and Prakash Javadekar – India

Susheel Kumar
Susheel Kumar Photograph: IISD

India has taken one of the hardest public lines in the first week of these talks, and in the lead-up to them. The country was notably late in submitting its national plan on curbing emissions, known as an INDC – intended nationally determined contribution – which focused on renewable energy.

Narendra Modi, leader of the world’s biggest democracy, has publicly argued that it would be “morally wrong” to let rich countries off the hook for their historical emissions. This line has been continued by India’s senior environment official, Susheel Kumar, of the ministry of environment, at the talks.

India’s negotiators have opposed phrasing in the text that would include developing countries that are “in a position to do so” among those making voluntary contributions to climate finance, and the inclusion of a 1.5C temperature limit which many of the poorest nations want.But its hard line has been counterbalanced by a strong focus on technology and energy. On the first day, India announced an alliance of 120 countries to pursue solar power, and said it would focus on other renewables as a way of reducing its future reliance on coal. These are potentially important achievements that could change the shape of emissions growth across the region.

With its huge population and rapidly developing economy, India under Modi is proud of its role on the world stage, and will be pivotal at the talks. Minister Prakash Javadekar, who will lead for the second week, is said to have a friendly demeanour in meetings, and is more inclined to want to present India as a supporter of international processes than some of the “old guard” in the delegation. But if the government wants to be seen as a beacon for other developing nations, in the model of China, it will also have to show it is not harming the least developed countries by refusing to agree measures that would help them.

Miguel Arias Cañete – European Union

Miguel Arias Cañete
Miguel Arias Cañete, presents the European commission’s targets on climate action in Brussels, ahead of the COP21 summit. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

Taking over as European commissioner for climate and energy just over a year ago, Miguel Arias Cañete had a full portfolio: plans for an unprecedented “energy union” across the EU; reinvigorating Europe’s energy industry amid the recession and Euro crises; and the COP 21. So far, he has pressed forward with all three.

A genial man, with a background as a conservative politician, the Spaniard gives every appearance of enjoying his role, and his relationships with Latin America are undoubtedly helpful. Latin America will play a key role, as some of those nations – notably Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua – have sought to obstruct agreement in the past, while others are more willing to compromise. Cañete seems to have ridden out early controversies and objections to his role from campaigners, who were angered by his previous large shareholdings in oil companies, now sold.

But his affable manner should not fool his counterparts into thinking the EU will be a pushover – he has stated firmly that Europe will not accept a weak deal. “There is no plan B if Paris should fail,” he told the Guardian earlier this year, and he has repeated his determination since.


COP 21_ Climate Change

1. What is the problem?

The world is getting warmer

The average temperature of the Earth’s surface has increased by about 0.85°C (1.4F) in the last 100 years. Thirteen of the 14 warmest years were recorded in the 21st Century, with 2015 on course to set another record.

How years compare with the 20th Century average

is set to be the warmest year on record

10 warmest years

10 coldest years

JFMAMJJASONDMonths-0.8-0.6-0.4-0.220th Centuryaveragetemperature+0.2+0.4+0.6+0.8+1.0ColderHotter

Source: NOAA


2. Why is this happening?

Greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide

Scientists believe that gases released from industry and agriculture (known as emissions) are adding to the natural greenhouse effect, the way the Earth’s atmosphere traps some of the energy from the Sun.

Human activities such as burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. Carbon-absorbing forests are also being cut down.

The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is now higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years and reached a record high in May this year.

Monthly average CO2 concentration (parts per million)


Scripps CO2 Program, data from the Mauna Loa Observatory

3. What are the effects?

Arctic sea ice melt

Higher temperatures, extreme weather events and higher sea levels are all linked to a warming climate and could have a drastic effect on the world’s regions.

Since 1900, sea levels have risen by on average about 19cm globally. The rate of sea-level rise has accelerated in recent decades, placing a number of islands and low-lying countries at risk.

The retreat of polar ice sheets is an important contributor to this rise.

An area of sea ice roughly 10 times the size of the UK has been lost when the current day is compared with average levels from the early 1980s.

Median (1981-2010)
Sea ice extent (minimum)

Arctic sea ice min. extent: 1980, 7.8 million sq km. 2015, 4.6 million sq km

  1. 1980
  2. 1985
  3. 1990
  4. 1995
  5. 2000
  6. 2005
  7. 2010
  8. 2015
Area chart showing the decline in sea ice from 1980 to 2015

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center

4. What does the future hold?

Higher temperatures and more extreme weather

The scale of potential impacts is uncertain.

The changes could drive shortages in freshwater, bring about major changes in food production conditions and cause a rise in the number of casualties from floods, storms, heat waves and droughts.

This is because climate change is expected to increase the frequency of extreme weather events – however linking any single event to global warming is complicated.

Projected temperature change (1986–2005 to 2081-2100)

If greenhouse gas emissions peak between 2010-2020 and then decline substantially (RCP2.6)

If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise throughout the 21st century (RCP8.5)

Source: International Panel on Climate Change – Fifth Assessment Report (AR5)

5. What can be done?

World’s top ten greenhouse gas emitters

The top 10 greenhouse gas emitters make up over 70% of total emissions

China 24%
USA 12%
EU 9%
India 6%
Brazil 6%
Russia 5%
Japan 3%
Canada 2%
DR Congo 1.5%
Indonesia 1.5%

Source: Carbon Brief, figures are for 2012

6. Limiting the damage

By the end of October, 146 countries had submitted national climate plans on curbing emissions that are expected to form the cornerstone of a binding, global treaty on climate change.

According to a UN report, submissions in their current form point to a rise of 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

Scientists have determined that if temperature rises surpass 2°C, this will lead to substantial and dangerous climate impacts, which will hit the world’s poor in particular.

Average warming (°C) projected by 2100

If countries do not act
Following current policies
Based on Paris pledges

Source: Climate Action Tracker, data compiled by Climate Analytics, ECOFYS, New Climate Institute and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.



Design by Emily Maguire and Tom Nurse, development by Steven Connor and Punit Shah. Written and produced by Nassos Stylianou and Paul Rincon