Book Review: “Failed States, the Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy”, by Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky, Failed States, the Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (Penguin Books)  320pp., 2007, $5.95

By Andreas Themistocleous

The term failed states has been used by social and political scientists, in order to identify countries that present serious and lasting malfunctions[1]. Failed states are usually characterized by internal instability, major social contradictions, and ethnic and/or religious conflicts; while the most common example of a failed state is Somalia[2]. However, Chomsky’s book Failed States, the Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy offers a different approach to the issue through redefining the content of the terminological basis. This new conceptual framework introduces a set of factors determining the US as the greatest failed state. In this light, Chomsky develops a multidimensional analysis in order to examine various aspects that compose the USA’s identity as a “failed state” in both its domestic and foreign policy.

Although this book is comprehensive, it could be seen as a continuation of Hegemony or Survival, Chomsky’s previous book. The purpose of this reference arises from the fact that, in Failed States, he has expanded his approach on the “democratic deficit” that characterizes the domestic socio-political structure of the US. Accepting the key aspects that define a failed state, Chomsky raises the question of whether the socio-political structures and wider governance system make the US as a prosperous democracy. In this context, the basic argument that occurs to demonstrate the “failed” US role as a democratic superpower, are its great domestic social and economic contradictions.

More specifically, the economic, social, and political contradictions between the American people, is a phenomenon that was created by the nature of the system and cannot be changed because of its design. In support of this argument, Chomsky highlights that, while throughout the years (1989-1998) the wealth in the US was increased by 42%, the salaries of citizens either remained constant or decreased. Therefore, the neoliberal model of massive privatizations, which was intensified under President Reagan, not only did it raise the living standards of the citizens, in contrast, it  brought significant and adverse changes. Additionally, the author gives emphasis on the negative impact of the mass media, to the temperament and critical thinking of the American people[3].

 Thus, the various pieces that shape the puzzle of the U.S. domestic realities are directly related to the “undemocratic” aspects of its foreign policy. That is, the failure of the government to secure conditions of prosperity for the people in connection with the low level of ideological and political confrontation (mainly because of the role of large corporations and the media), far from legitimizing the role of the US as an international “policeman”, arbiter and protector of the global order.

 On the other hand, Chomsky overwhelmingly criticizes the US foreign policy by analyzing his argument against  the assertion  the US has the right, duty, and obligation to intervene militarily within other countries  with the excuse of  democratic functioning, protection of human rights, and the prevention of the international terrorism threats (9 / 11 onwards). More Specifically, Chomsky addresses the question of U.S. foreign policy through a comprehensive historical overview of various regional and international conflicts and its role in each case separately.

 Furthermore, his analysis clarifies the fact that among the different cases there are important distinctions, both in terms of time and space. He clarifies that, regardless the legality of the US’s actions (with or without UN backing), moral legitimacy is not implied. Apart from the direct military interventions (Afghanistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia, etc) the criticism includes a set of cases where US involvement was indirect (Arab-Israeli conflict, Middle East, Nicaragua, Haiti, etc). Chomsky strongly focuses his attention on the period of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq in 2003. This particular case constitutes the most important evidence for the enhancement of the argument on anti-democratic credentials in the U.S. foreign policy. The intervention in Iraq not only did it have the moral legitimacy of the American people, but not even under the legal umbrella of the UN.

 In addition, Chomsky puts into the failure of the US in a different level. The arrogance displayed by the Bush administration in the Iraqi intervention in 2003, defying the UN Security Council decision for non-intervention, was continuously accompanied by the systematic bypassing of fundamental international conventions. Two of the main cases mentioned in the analysis are the Geneva Convention regarding the rights abuses of prisoners in Guantanamo, and the Kyoto protocol on the issue of climate change. In both cases, although its substantial role in shaping decisions, the US not only did it fail to implement these decisions, but also did not take any new regulations on countering the effects of climate change and environmental transformation, while Guantanamo, is continually being treated the same way. Lastly, Chomsky also strongly criticizes the failure of the US to implement the decisions on reductions in nuclear weapons.

 Based on the above, it becomes clear that Chomsky in Failed States: The Abuse of power and assault on democracy, makes a scathing attack on US policies and tactics, both at the level of domestic administration and foreign imperialistic strategies. The key element identified to support his argument on the failed American state is the “democratic deficit” that characterizes the contemporary American reality. Also, it becomes very clear from the beginning that Chomsky supports each of his arguments, by using numerous documentations.

However, his highly caustic, sarcastic, and sometimes ironic writing style, could lead to negative comments about the book as a whole[4]. Additionally, the strong aversion to the American/neo-liberal system and particularly during the period of George W. Bush (emphasis on the invasion of Iraq) is a key element of subjectivity regarding the process of drawing conclusions upon the questions that initially set to the reader[5]. In parallel, the absoluteness and exclusiveness of apportioning blame to the U.S., for the vast majority of the existing issues in the international political scene, could be attributed to the writer’s tendency of subjectivity and unilateralism[6]. Nevertheless, it is undisputed that this book offers an interesting new approach to international policies both in terms of the US foreign policy, but also a comprehensive critique of traditional Western theoretical perspectives.

[1] Newman, E. (2009), “Failed States and International Order: Constructing a Post Westphalian World”, Contemporary Security Policy, Volume 30, No.3, pp. 21-25; Ghani, A. and Lockhart C, 2009, Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World, (Oxford University Press: New York) pp. 3-7

[2] Rotberg, R. (2002), “Failed States in a World of Terror”, Foreign Affairs, Issue 81, pp.1–13.

[3] Chomsky, N. (1991), Media control: the spectacular achievements of

Propaganda, (Seven Stories Press: New York)

[4] Beaumont, P. (18 June 2006), The Observer, Viewed 16 November 2011, available at

[5] Kovar, S. (2008), “Failed States: The Abuse of power and assault on democracy by Noam Chomsky”, Review by Simon Kovar, viewed 16 November 2011, available at

[6] Freedland, J. (2006), “Homeland Insecurity”, The New York Times, Viewed 12 November, available at


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