Jonathan Schell on the Choice We Face

The world faces a critical choice: whether to use military power or nonviolent political means to resolve our affairs. Jonathan Schell on this choice.

Melvin McLeod
1 November 2003
Photo by Jacob Valerio.

The world faces a critical choice: whether to use military power or nonviolent political means to resolve our affairs. In an interview with Melvin McLeod, Jonathan Schell talks about how our fate hinges on this choice.

How much should the Shambhala Sun concern itself with politics? It’s an interesting question, one we debate at the Sun and that, I think, divides our readers. Should a Buddhist magazine also address conventional political issues, subjects many other publications do, and may do better? My answer is no—and yes. No, we should not cover the conventional run of issues, policies and elections, the stuff of routine politics. Our job is to provide another viewpoint entirely. But also yes. I think we should address the biggest global issues, because these are spiritual issues. The future of humanity is a spiritual issue (which is only another way of stating the obvious truth that human suffering is a spiritual issue). On the big questions, whether political, psychological or moral, spiritual people must weigh in, and not least because often only spirituality describes the real cause and provides the answer.

My conversation with Jonathan Schell was about such questions, questions on which humanity’s future depends. Schell is best known for his 1982 work The Fate of the Earth, in which he argues for the abolition of nuclear weapons before—somewhere, someday—they are used. His new book is The Unconquerable World. We started with the title.

–Melvin McLeod

Melvin McLeod: The title of your book, The Unconquerable World, seems to be both a thesis and a call to action. What is the “unconquerable world”?

Jonathan Schell: It means that people in the world today are powerfully resolved to run their own affairs and have discovered the means to do so. More particularly, it means they have the will and the means to defy and defeat conquest from without. I think that in the modern age empires have become an infeasible project, whereas in the past empires could be built and last for many hundreds of years. Now there are new forces of resistance with a greater power to head off any imperial project in the first place.

Especially in the latter half of the twentieth century, people also demand to be free in the truer sense of not being subject even to a domestic dictator. We have witnessed the fall of a couple of dozen dictatorships and in almost every case the dictatorship was replaced by something freer—not true democracy in every case, but at least something that was freer than what had gone before.

Melvin McLeod: It seems to me that what motivated you to write this book was your belief that we have arrived at a crucial historical turning point, which you compare to the period leading up to the First World War. You feel that if we continue to rely on military force as the basis of international relations, we will suffer a cataclysmic event comparable to World War I, one that will lead to a long period of global violence. In fact, you fear that if we continue on this path we will condemn ourselves to a twenty-first century even bloodier than the twentieth.

Jonathan Schell: Actually I worked on this book for more than a decade, and the crisis was not as acute when I started the book as it was at the end. In fact the book was begun in rather a hopeful spirit, and I think it still has a hopeful foundation, because I try to describe underlying conditions for creating a peaceful world if only we would turn in that direction. But of course what happened was that we turned in exactly the opposite direction. At the end of the Cold War we were presented with almost a miraculous opportunity to turn slowly but decisively away from violence as the principal way of conducting international affairs. There were all kinds of historical conditions, including this impossibility of empire, that made this project far more feasible that it had been in 1919 or 1945.

I was trying to describe these hopeful developments, these positive foundations that had been slowly created, and lo and behold, as one century passed into another, it turned out that not only was the United States not going to seize the opportunity, but it was going to go 180 degrees in the wrong direction. So that’s why the crisis is so acute. We seem to have decided to rely once again on violence as the principal means of securing our safety, and I think that’s an even more desperate illusion than it was in 1914 or in 1939.

Melvin McLeod: Describe specifically the scenario you fear we are heading into.

Jonathan Schell: Obviously, our nuclear weapons are right at the heart of it. Surrounding those are biological and chemical weapons, although there are only a couple of the biological weapons that in my view deserve to be called weapons of mass destruction.

If the nuclear powers, beginning with the United States, insist on holding on to their very large nuclear arsenals, I don’t think there’s any hope of stopping proliferation of these weapons to other countries, and indeed we see that happening as we speak. Then we are heading into a condition of nuclear anarchy—multiple arms races running out of control, combined with shifting national rivalries of the kind we see between Pakistan and India or between Japan, North Korea and China. I don’t believe in inevitability, but there is then the immense likelihood of the first use of nuclear weapons since Nagasaki. When you consider the power of the nuclear weapon, that disaster could easily outdo in destructiveness the entire First and Second World Wars in just a day or two.

Melvin McLeod: Yet, using the World War I analogy again, you argue that as unimaginable as that tragedy would be, the greater and worse effect would be its subsequent impact on human history, as World War I led to the rise of the totalitarian states, World War II and the Holocaust.

Jonathan Schell: If we go over the nuclear threshold it’s hard to predict what would come next. Would that set in motion a spiral of violence, as the First World War did at the beginning of the twentieth century, which would last throughout the twenty-first century? Or is it conceivable that people would learn a lesson? I’m rather pessimistic about that, because if we were unable to be sensible about weapons of mass destruction in a time of peace—I’m thinking of the end of the Cold War in the 1990’s—how likely is it that the world is going to come to its senses in the midst of inconceivable mayhem and destruction such as the world has never experienced?  The use of even a single nuclear weapon would be a watershed in history greater than anything we can conceive or imagine.

Melvin McLeod: War had become inevitable well before the actual start of World War I. You believe we have not yet reached the point where the spiral of violence is unavoidable. You think we can still step back from the brink. But don’t many people around the world, including leaders on both sides, believe that we are now in a war, even that World War III has already started?

Jonathan Schell: One of the great differences between the period before World War I and now is that once the decision to go to war was made in 1914 there was no pulling back. All of the armies of all of the greatest powers were condemned at that point to fight total war, to fight to the finish, and that’s what they did. Today it’s very different. Even though the United States has announced an intention to dominate the world with its unsurpassed military force, it actually does not now dominate the world in that way. The process of attempting to do so would involve many, many stages, and if it is true that an imperial enterprise is not feasible in the twenty-first century, then at each of those steps there is going to be unexpected trouble that will force reconsideration.

I think that’s exactly what we’re seeing in Iraq right now. It’s turning out that overthrowing a regime is one thing and putting in a regime which we like and that supports us is a totally different thing. So far it looks beyond our capacity, for the reason that I set forth in The Unconquerable World; namely, that we’re up against this force of the human spirit that wants to run its own affairs and not to be dominated by another power, no matter how benign—and we are not very benign as a matter of fact.

The key question is making a judgment about the character of this enterprise. My judgment is that the entire imperial enterprise of taking over other people’s countries and trying to impose your own system of government is something that is bound to fail. If we lived in a world that was fundamentally different, in which it was possible to do all that, well, you might be for it. But the fact is we’re living in the world we do live in, and we have to make judgments based on that.

So I expect the United States to fail. I take no joy in it. But I’m not rooting for us to win either, because I think the whole project is misbegotten. Edmund Burke, who opposed the British military campaign in the United States during the revolution, warned, “Our victories early on in the war can only complete our ruin.” Now, did he want the British to lose? No. But he thought the whole thing was impracticable and that the more the British won, the bigger the defeat was going to be when it came. That’s the way I see this situation.

Melvin McLeod: You seem to feel that whether or not the U.S. pursues these imperial ambitions is the decisive factor. Aren’t there more basic historical forces—north versus south, anti-modernity, divisions of religion, identity or wealth, degradation of the natural and human environment—that will determine the course of history more than a single political factor?

Jonathan Schell: Even back in the 1990’s when I started writing this book it was clear that the intersection of the spread of weapons of mass destruction with these unextinguished local fights, such as India and Pakistan, had the makings for major disaster. All the things you mention were out there during the 1990’s. The difference was that there appeared to be wise and enlightened policies for dealing with these underlying difficulties. We could engage in concerted nuclear disarmament on a global basis. That is an absolute necessity, because I’ve always believed that it will be impossible to stop proliferation without disarmament by those who already have nuclear weapons. There could have been all kinds of assistance to poor countries, joining the Kyoto process, strengthening international law—all those good things that weren’t going to produce miracles overnight but did certainly present a positive and sensible approach to these underlying problems. These kinds of policies were on the table after the end of the Cold War and before there was any September 11th.

But what I did not expect—and maybe I’m showing my naiveté here—is that at the beginning of the twenty-first century the United States would rear up as a world-menacing empire. I knew that we could be arrogant, that we were the only superpower and all that, but I did not imagine that we would conceive a scheme—which is clearly laid out in White House documents—for dominating the world through military superiority. This I did not imagine.

So you’re absolutely right—there are underlying problems in the world that precede the threat posed by the United States. It’s a very important point, because it means that it won’t be enough just to stop the imperial drive of the United States, because that is really only a misconceived response to these underlying problems. You have not to just stop the misconceived response; you then have to craft the positive, sensible, enlightened response to those problems.

Melvin McLeod: The hope you find for the world is in the power of nonviolent political action, which you argue became increasingly important relative to military power over the course of the twentieth century. It’s the lesson we’ve learned repeatedly in the twentieth century, that in the long run an army cannot defeat a people.

Jonathan Schell: That’s it exactly. There’s a wonderful quote I use in the book from George Washington, of all people, when he was en route to the military victory in Yorktown that ended the war. He had actually suffered a long string of defeats, but he understood that what was most important was not for his army to win battles against the British but to survive, to endure. Because he knew the British would eventually tire and leave. He summarized that in a comment he made to civilian supporters: “We may be beaten by the British, but here,” he said, pointing to the crowd, “is an army they will never conquer.” The army may be defeated but the American people cannot be conquered. It was a subtle distinction but a very important one, and it foreshadowed the whole development you referred to when you said that armies can not defeat peoples.

Melvin McLeod: In your book you give a number of examples of the successful use of nonviolent political action. These are not minor; they are great, historical events achieved through political power, ranging from the nonviolent campaigns of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., to the collapse of the Soviet system, to the ending of European empires. Which examples do you feel are the most relevant and inspiring for our situation today?

Jonathan Schell: As far as more hopeful and constructive efforts, above all there was the anti-war movement before the Iraqi war broke out. This involved the confluence of four factors that made it something without historical precedent. One was simultaneous demonstration all over the earth, organized very quickly. It was certainly the broadest antiwar movement that ever existed. Number two was the fact that public opinion polls all over the world revealed opposition to the war. You could actually say—and back it up with fact—that the human species was against this war. So the demonstrations were not, as is so often the case, protesting majority opinion; they were expressing it. On top of that, most governments in the world opposed the war too—not all of them but the great majority. Finally—and I think people have not made enough of this—all this opposition achieved expression in votes at the United Nations, where the United States was visibly unable to bully and coerce the members of the Security Council into supporting its war resolution.

So to me the rise of this movement, even though it failed to stop the war, was an immensely hopeful development. It holds the seeds of great hope for the future, because now that the war is going badly it has left behind a foundation that can serve us very well as we move into the next stages.

The other thing that I regard as a very hopeful expression of political power is the European Union. After all, it was Europe that dragged us into the two world wars of the twentieth century, but the wonderful thing is that they learned from the experience. They asked themselves, How can we stop this from happening again? And they came up with a very specific idea, which was to very gradually create a new, politically innovative structure, which has turned out to be the European Union. It’s been a slow, very deep organic process that was specifically geared to bring peace in the most war-like region in the world. In the process they have established precedents that are of the greatest importance for the world as a whole.

Above all the Europeans have learned to live without full national sovereignty. Each of the countries has surrendered significant portions of its sovereignty to the union. It isn’t a complete surrender, its not federalism like what we have in the United States, but it’s a very significant surrender. To make these kind of hybrid forms—mixed sovereignty, limited sovereignty, pooled power, power sharing—work in one of the most prosperous and important parts of the world is something of huge promise for the future. And I think it’s no accident that these very countries were the ones who opposed the American invasion of Iraq. They had a different idea of how the world should run, and a better idea.

Melvin McLeod: In the book you write, “Jesus’ counsel [to put down the sword] was rejected for political affairs, except among a few people, regarded by almost everyone as dreamers or fools, blind to the iron laws that govern the political world.” On the other hand, you quote the great American diplomat George Kennan, who talked about the “naiveté of realism,” and we can think of many examples of hard-headed “realists” who were blind to the importance of political factors. So who’s really naive?

Jonathan Schell: In political science, what’s called “realism” is a school of thought that holds that force is the final arbiter in almost all political affairs. If you look at the history of the twentieth century, it’s obvious that there was considerable truth in the realist view. Especially in the first half of the century, those who had more guns did win and did decide what happened next.

But at the same time, and less noticed, there were very, very important and sweeping events that taught another lesson. All of the empires that were standing at the beginning of the century had collapsed by the end, with the possible exception of the American. Was it military force which achieved that? No, the people who won their independence didn’t possess a fraction of the military forces that their imperial opponents possessed. It had to be something else. It was another kind of power. It proved itself in the real world, and it was the power of nonviolent action.

Melvin McLeod: I wonder if the decision whether to use military or political means doesn’t depend on the situation. For instance, I would argue that the Palestinian cause would have been far better served by a Gandhi than an Arafat, that at least in the period since the Oslo Accord the use of mass nonviolent means would have been far more effective than terrorism. On the other hand is the case of Nazi Germany. The nonviolent domestic opposition to Hitler, such as the White Rose, was quickly martyred. Most of the German opposition knew the best chance they had was to try to assassinate Hitler.

Jonathan Schell: I’ve longed believed that the Palestinians would have been better served by a Gandhi and nonviolent movement than by violence. But in writing this book I’ve had to acknowledge to myself that I am not a pacifist. To be a pacifist you have to be unable to imagine any situation in which you would support the use of violence. I can imagine such situations, and opposing Hitler, although I wasn’t alive at that time, would in all likelihood have been one of them.

But part of my argument is that the world has changed historically. The shape of decisions is different now from the shape of decisions in 1939. Most notably, we live in the nuclear age. So the option of destroying a Hitler-type regime, which in our time would be a nuclear-armed regime, by military means is simply not open, just as it was not open during the Cold War. So I’m suspicious of abstract arguments, saying that just as I would have opposed Hitler in 1939, so I would oppose a totalitarian regime today. That overlooks these profound historical changes. I hope I don’t overlook matters of fundamental principle, but my argument is very much rooted in an historical analysis, in what I see as a profound revolution that has occurred in the domain of force.

Melvin McLeod: What is your opinion of the role of religion in political movements? On one hand, much of the aggression in the world today is at least partly motivated or justified by religion. On the other hand, many of the great nonviolent movements, such as Gandhi’s campaigns in South Africa and India, the civil rights movement in the U.S. and Solidarity in Poland, found their strength, inspiration and central organizing principle in religion.

Jonathan Schell: The question is the translation of spiritual principles, such as ahimsa, the principle of non-harm advocated by Gandhi, or Christian nonviolence to the political sphere. There have been two kinds of objections to the infusion of spiritual energy into politics. One is that it could breed fanaticism, and the other is that it will enfeeble religion—that politics is a realm in which the sword rules, so it’s a mismatch.

I think that one of the most fascinating and remarkable things that happened during the twentieth century—and Gandhi was the key figure—was that people found new ways of introducing spiritual principles and energies into politics, ways that avoid the traditional objections. But this isn’t anything that could be done simply or easily. It required a political and spiritual genius, namely Gandhi, to open the door. Others have been experimenting with and refining those techniques—“techniques” isn’t the word I want—those practices throughout the twentieth century. Consider for instance the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. That commission deploys a spiritual act, namely forgiveness, into the political realm. But it’s very complicated; a process of translation, so to speak, has to occur. You have to tease out what religion means and what it doesn’t mean in the political realm. And it turns out there are all kinds of difficulties, trade-offs, paradoxes. You have to surrender a measure of justice to get the truth. There’s a tension between justice for the victim and forgiveness for the perpetrators, and those balances are very hard to strike. They’re fully as complicated and messy as other political processes, but nevertheless the operation has been extremely valuable.

Likewise, the Eastern European movement against the Soviet Union in a certain sense applied the Christian principle of nonviolence, even though they weren’t dogmatic believers in it. It is very hard to tell whether they were doing it for pragmatic reasons, because they didn’t have the military force to challenge the Soviet Union, or whether they were doing it for moral and spiritual reasons, because they felt that the practice of violence would corrupt them and corrupt any regime they would found. I find it very interesting that when people have succeeded in bringing spiritual principles to bear in the political realm, it’s a very subtle and difficult matter to tell how much is pragmatic and how much is spiritual. What I am clear about is that this is hugely refreshing and positive for the political light of the world.

By the way, I would argue with you about Solidarity. The Catholic Church was indeed important, but there was an amazing degree of spontaneity in the rise of the movement that occurred in the factories of Gdansk and later elsewhere in Poland. I do believe in spontaneous movements that then create institutions or find leadership. That’s the way I think it works.

Melvin MacLeod: I feel some of the most significant political struggles in the world today are going on within the world religions. The debates between the fundamentalist and moderate wings of the various religions also revolve around issues of aggression versus non-aggression, and their outcome will have significant impact on world politics.

Jonathan Schell: I agree with you completely. I think that’s one reason interfaith efforts have a particular importance right now. Interfaith conversation, dialogue, is always a positive and noble thing, but now it’s become a kind of political necessity as well. Also, if a movement of tolerance that goes across religions could develop and become prominent, it could be a counter-force to the fundamentalist tendencies that have grown up within each religion.

Melvin MacLeod: You’ve made a case for the vital necessity of choosing nonviolent means as the basis of both domestic and international politics, and not seeing military force as the final arbiter. I’d like to conclude by asking how we can put this into effect, individually and collectively.

As a dissident, Vaclav Havel espoused the principle of “living in truth.” That meant living without espousing or supporting any of the regime’s lies. Even if one lost one’s liberty or property, one would have the greater satisfaction of living as a genuine human being, with honesty and values. In a dictatorship, that’s a hard choice to make in practice, because of the severe penalties, but an easy problem intellectually, because the regime is so egregious that it’s very clear what the lies are. But how do we “live in the truth” in a democracy, where the problem is the opposite—there are few penalties but it’s hard to pin down the truth and the lies.

Jonathan Schell: Let me try to address this. I have thought about it. You know, dictatorships invade the lives of their citizens. Havel gives the example of a brewer who was forced to make bad beer. The government came in and said, here’s how to make beer. And it was bad beer. So that brewer’s living in truth was to refuse to make the bad beer and to make the best beer he could. And in a sense that’s easier, because the decision is forced upon you. Either you follow the command of the gentleman at your door, or you refuse it and you go off to jail.

In the West we have electoral systems that in effect leave us alone. They do not force political decisions upon us. Quite the contrary, the people in government are very content to go about their political business without any interference from the citizens, if the citizens will let them. So the situation of the citizen in a liberal democracy is far different from the situation of a citizen in a dictatorship.

Well, what to do? The existence of that electoral system is an opportunity, but what it requires is an exceptional degree of initiative. You could call it a failing that there’s nothing in our system that forces the citizen to take political action. It’s very easy in the United States or any of the parliamentary democracies to live an apolitical life. So, whereas what was required under a dictatorship was exceptional courage, what citizens in democracies have to do is overcome apathy and inertia. They have to hurl themselves into action and reappoint themselves as the sovereigns of their own country. In theory they already are, but in fact they are not because they’re not doing anything. In a way it’s terribly easy, but it must be very difficult at the same time, because it happens so rarely that people appoint themselves to assume these political responsibilities that are theoretically theirs but that have in fact lapsed.

Melvin MacLeod: And for that to happen on a large scale, there must be something around which people can organize and which inspires them, whether it’s a leader, a religious belief, a platform or an injustice. If there is to be a mass political movement to take us in a different direction, away from the global catastrophe you fear, what could that rallying point be?

Jonathan Schell: I can give you one that I think is worth organizing around and agitating about. It’s the choice for the United States between empire and democracy. If the United States becomes an imperial power, I don’t think it can remain a democracy. I think an imperial project will entail a domestic transformation in which we lose the republic. The Roman example, which was very much on the mind of the founding fathers, teaches that you can lose the republic if you turn yourself too much into an empire. I think we already see the beginnings of such a domestic transformation: weakening of the separation of powers, curtailment of civil liberties, the huge transfer of money from the poor to the rich, a system of centralized command, corruption of politics by money.

All of these things are part of a domestic transformation that is the homeland, if I may use that word, counterpart to the imperial drive abroad. So I would like to see a movement that is itself democratic in the United States arise to fight for democracy and against empire. That would be a very good principle for organizing and I see it beginning to happen.

Melvin MacLeod: So that’s essentially a negative principle—to stop something bad from happening.

Jonathan Schell: Also pro-democracy. But that’s right, we have to stop this. And at the same time we should be asking, What is the right way to do this? What is the better way? What are the tremendous opportunities that history offered us, especially at the end of the Cold War, that we passed up but are still open? You know, the anti-war movement was a very strong foundation. I do see the beginnings of good things.

Melvin McLeod

Melvin McLeod is the Editor-in-Chief of Lion’s Roar magazine and Buddhadharma.