Wikimedia Commons

On Tuesday, the Yale Political Union hosted a debate where participants discussed the American empire and whether or not it should end.

The debate featured linguist and author Noam Chomsky, who is currently laureate professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona and institute professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chomsky spoke in the affirmative in what was Chomsky’s second YPU debate appearance; in 1971, Chomsky was the guest speaker for “Resolved: That American Foreign Policy will Inevitably Lead to More Vietnams.”

“We initially considered reviving the same resolution [as the 1971 debate] but decided against that exact wording to avoid pigeonholing the debate too much,” YPU President Emma Knight ’23 wrote in an email to the News. “In [Resolution Committee] for this debate, members expressed interest in debating the merits of American imperialism, a concept we thought would ‘split’ our members nicely.”

Chomsky started with a 30-minute speech detailing what he said were atrocities committed by America in the name of spreading democracy, and noted that the United States has been at war almost every year since its founding, “almost always aggressively.”

Chomsky spoke about American international relations history, beginning with the American Revolution and stating that one of the main reasons colonists decided to revolt was due to the 1763 Royal Proclamation’s restrictions on moving into “Indian territory.” In addition, he detailed more recent events such as the 1965 invasion of Indochina and the 2003 US-British invasion of Iraq.

“The belief in the U.S. commitment to human rights and rule of law and so on is a religion,” Chomsky said. “It’s a religion you are trained in at universities like Yale. That is what you are trained to believe, in the religion of transcendent purpose. But sometimes it’s worth looking at abusive reality and thinking maybe that’s reality. That’s the way the victims look at it.”

After his speech, students were able to ask Chomsky questions.

In response to a student question on whether there was a better alternative to America’s “reign,” Chomsky suggested that should the United States ever fall from its current status as a world power, another country does not necessarily need to fill America’s role.

“This is not a zero-sum game,” Chomsky said. “There is no rule that says some monstrous society must rule the world. Nobody can. That’s the idea behind the United Nations at least.”

The first student speaker in the negative was former YPU President Milan Vivanco ’21. Vivanco said he agreed in general that many aspects of United States foreign policy and global leadership could be critiqued when responding to Chomsky, but made two major observations in its defense.

Vivanco first argued that Chomsky seemed to be overweighting America’s highly visible foreign policy failures. Vivanco said a significant amount of focus should be given to the less visible but nevertheless impactful economic policies that the United States has pursued directly through USAID or multilateral organizations such as the World Bank.

While Vivanco recognized some of Chomsky’s criticisms of American foreign policy hypocrisy, he suggested that there might be some “misconstruing” as to what constitutes an empire.

“The structure and style of empires, in my view, differ,” Vivanco said during the debate. “They differ in their nature, they differ in the narratives they espouse and they certainly differ in the sort of normative weight of their actions. It’s not clear to me that the United States is any kind of empire as colonial or religious empires of the past. Nor does it seek to be so in its form or its rhetoric.”

Vivanco said that a “utopian” international stage where one state does not dominate the rest seems unlikely in the “short and medium-term.”

“If we do end the American empire, it’s not clear to me what the alternative is, and anything that I can imagine is deeply uncompelling as opposed to the potentially redeemable qualities of an American empire that’s focused, oftentimes erroneously, sure, but oftentimes correctly, towards democracy and human rights,” Vivanco said.

Should America’s global power decline and another political power with different values take its place, those new values could lead to geopolitical anarchy and mass human rights abuses, Vivanco said.

YPU Vice President Mathis Bitton ’23, who is also a staff columnist for the News, argued in the affirmative. Among other points, he argued that the United States should make substantive cuts to their defense spending and focus the empire’s resources domestically.

If the United States were to employ those tactics, Bitton said in the debate, “we would no longer be an empire. What we would be is an influential nation which serves as an example for others to emulate, not as a sovereign for all to obey.”

The resolution passed with 26 votes in the affirmative, 23 in the negative, and two abstaining.

Alex Ori | alex.ori@yale.edu