Noam Chomsky and the neocons don’t agree on much, but they do agree on one thing. The US is a very influential superpower. Of course the neocons think it is mostly a force for good, whereas Chomsky tends to see the dark side. I am skeptical of both views. (Chomsky has a new book entitled “Who Rules the World?” I haven’t read it yet, but I am pretty sure that I already know his answer.)

I don’t doubt that the US is a superpower, and that it’s been fairly influential at times, but I do not share the confidence of many other people that we know how the US has shaped the world. On questions of counterfactuals, I’m a radical agnostic.

Let’s start with the neocons. They might point to the way the US saved Western Europe in the two world wars, or our service to small countries such as South Korea, Panama, Bosnia, Kuwait, etc., in the period since WWII.

That’s all very plausible, but what are the counterfactuals? What if we had let the North easily conquer South Korea in 1950? The Korean War was quite destructive, and it’s not implausible that the death toll would have been at least a million lower in a quick war. Of course the counterargument is that North Korea, arguably the world’s worst government, would now rule over 75 million unfortunate souls, not 25 million. That’s a very strong argument, but I think we overestimate our ability to visualize the nature of a communist government in a united Korea that was not always on a war footing. Maybe just as bad, but perhaps it would have ended up more like China. We simply don’t know.

And suppose the US had not saved Western Europe in WWI—what then? Perhaps Germany would have won the war, or more likely it would have ended in stalemate. In that case does Hitler take power in 1933, or does Europe recoil from a long, horrific and pointless war by creating the EU in the 1920s? (By the way, there was a push to create an EU in the 1920s, even in the poisonous atmosphere of post-Versailles Europe.)

I have two problems with Chomskyian analysis. First, Chomsky’s always talking about how this or that right wing thug took power with US support. Let’s assume that’s true, and that the US is morally culpable. It still doesn’t tell us whether the US actually caused the right wing thug to take power. I am skeptical for two reasons. First, there are lots of leaders that the US clearly didn’t like, which we were unable to remove. If the CIA could just snap its fingers and get rid of Saddam or Castro or Kim, then why didn’t it? I suppose there are good arguments that we have less influence in some countries than others, but I see an even bigger problem with the Chomskyian view–it seems quite plausible that people like Pinochet would have taken power even if the US had been neutral. The Chilean military certainly had the ability to do so if they wished. And they clearly seemed to have wished to do so. So was the US actually all that influential? Maybe, but I’m not convinced.

My other problem with the Chomskyian view is that the counterfactuals always seem quite murky. Suppose the Truman administration had intervened in China during the late 1940s, and kept Chiang Kai Shek in power. And suppose that over the next few decades Chiang had killed a million Chinese in various anti-communist crackdowns. In other words, something like what happened in Indonesia in 1965. Wouldn’t Chomsky have claimed that the US had blood on its hands, just as he made that claim about the 1965 anti-communist atrocities in Indonesia? And yet we now know that the counterfactual in China was far, far worse. Does Truman have blood on his hands for (mostly) staying neutral, as Chomsky would have recommended?

My general views are as follows:

1. The developing world is a place full of human rights violations on a massive scale. The US intervenes heavily in the developing world. Where we fail, the government will commit lots of human rights violations. Where we succeed the government will commit lots of human rights violations. Net effect? Who knows. The Middle East is a perfect example. Where we intervene (Iraq, Afghanistan) things are bad. Where we mostly stay out (Syria, Yemen) things are bad. Things were bad in Libya before we intervened, and things have been bad ever since we intervened.

2. The neocons are biased in favor of American power, and hence I don’t trust their claims about the beneficial effects of a muscular foreign policy. Chomsky is biased against the US, which often leads him to be an apologist for some pretty awful anti-American regimes. So I don’t trust him either. Ideally you’d want a wise, dispassionate observer to evaluate the effect of US policy, a Tyler Cowen or a Scott Alexander. They’d be much better than the neocons or Chomsky, but in the end I wouldn’t even trust them. I just think the world’s too complex; the counterfactuals are too hard to predict. (In fairness, they may have the same view, I don’t know.)

3. One thing is clear—US intervention is very costly in terms of American lives and money. Thus my agnosticism about the effects of US policy pushes me in the non-interventionist direction.

4. But I’m not an isolationist ideologue. Unlike other libertarians, I don’t view intervention as necessarily an anti-libertarian policy. Thus it seems to me that defense agreements among like-minded free countries (NATO, plus Japan, Australia, New Zealand, etc.) have been quite successful since WWII. I don’t even think they are costly for the US. We choose to spend a lot on the military, but NATO does not force us to do so. NATO would be strong enough to deter attack even if the US spent only 2% of GDP on the military. So why don’t we? If NATO is the neocon’s strongest argument, then Chomsky’s is probably those cases were we provided tacit support to someone like Pol Pot or Saddam, out of spite toward countries that had humiliated the US. Are there any presidential candidates who have a reputation for being highly vindictive? (I’ll say this; Gary Johnson is not the worst on that score.)

5. I suspect both the neocons and Chomsky are right in at least some of their claims. But I also think they each know far less about the world than they think they know. Don’t let mood affiliation influence how you see cause and effect. The world is not a simple story with good guys and bad guys, just lots of shades of gray, and lots of unpredictable side effects.

PS. I just finished a very good travel book called “Indonesia, etc.” which I highly recommend to people interested in social science. The book gave me the impression that the US has less influence in places like Indonesia than we might assume.

PPS. Of course the US has a big influence in ways that are far removed from foreign policy, such as improvements in seed technology, medical advances, Hollywood films, music, etc.