A Conversation with Jonathan Schell

In 1982, Jonathan Schell wrote "The Fate of the Earth," a bestseller about the grim realities of nuclear proliferation that galvanized millions of readers and became a cornerstone of the movement to abolish nuclear weapons.

He has published nearly a dozen books in the years before and after "The Fate of the Earth," but with his newest book, "The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People," Schell may again have the chance to spark another national conversation; this time, about the growing dangers of military power and the need for nonviolent solutions to geopolitical conflicts.

schellTo write a book about nonviolence at a time when the U.S. government is increasingly at war with the world takes a rare sort of intellectual bravery. But Schell, who spent more than a decade researching and writing the book, pulls no punches. "In a steadily and irreversibly widening sphere, violence, always a mark of human failure and a bringer of sorrow, has now also become dysfunctional as a political instrument," he writes.

I met Schell recently in Barcelona where, with seven other progressive American journalists, we were panelists at a conference in honor of World Press Freedom Day. We were a diverse, lively group, our political views ranging from the moderate Tina Rosenberg of the New York Times to the radical Robert Jensen from the University of Austin.

"The Unconquerable World" came out the day after Schell arrived in Barcelona and was promptly reviewed, and as he said, "savaged" in the New York Times. Schell took this disappointment with equanimity; I got the sense that his is a deeply attentive nature no matter what his surroundings or situation. There amid the fantastic whimsy of Gaudi's Barcelona, the Catalans – who had declared their passionate opposition to the war on Iraq at a 1.3 million-person peace march in February down the broad tree-lined Rambla Catalyuna – put us all at ease.

He gave me a copy of the book and I began reading it on the long flight back to the States. It's a searching, eloquent inquiry into war and the nonviolent movements that have grown up alongside war, as well their champions, from Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to Woodrow Wilson and Hannah Arendt.

Recently, Schell came through San Francisco and we met to talk about his book and how it was being received. "What's been very happy for me," he said, "is that as I've gone around the country, in the community of opposition I've had very warm and encouraging responses and this is hugely meaningful to me. I feel that if this can happen then I'm reaching the people I want to reach."

In your introduction you say that it's the business of your book to describe changes that, even as they have made our world more perilous, have made the chance for world peace greater than ever before. Can you summarize?

Jonathan Schell: I try to trace two long, parallel and interconnected developments. The first is the fantastic increase and growth in the means of violence and warfare, which extends really from gunpowder right down to nuclear weapons – which are a true turning point in the history of warfare, because in effect they make it impossible. Victory and defeat are ruled out and it just turns into mutually assured destruction for all, as they said during the Cold War.

I trace that development, which leads to the edge of the annihilation of the human species. And as part of that you also find that there's a transformation of warfare that's occurring at what you might call the root level of warfare, which is the "people's war." And people's war turns out to be a means whereby militarily and technically and economically weak countries can defeat the great powers of the 20th century. And not just once or twice but absolutely uniformly. So it's a kind of amazing and unexpected development because in conventional warfare you're always taught that the superior military force wins. But in people's war, the superior military force loses, consistently.

Like in Vietnam?

Vietnam, the Chinese revolution, and in fact, at the end of the day, all of the empires of the 20th century, save one – the one we're sitting in – are gone! They bite the dust. So that's all one huge line of development, which is a very profound transformation in the nature of war. It doesn't mean war is impossible because you see Iraq, and there are plenty of wars in the world, but they tend to become these wars that go on within countries, like in Rwanda, or Sri Lanka or in the Sudan, almost quasi civil wars or inter-ethnic struggles like Yugoslavia.

So that's all one long development which I think of as a sort of bankruptcy of violence. Not that violence ever was a wonderful thing, it always was a tragedy and a horror, but now it really has become increasingly bankrupt on its own terms; in other words, it doesn't even bring the victory that was always the temptation for war.

But then I trace another development of which people's war is also a part. Really I think it's a new kind of power that has been slowly developing and in a way to me that's the more interesting part of the book because it means that a means of existence whereby peoples can defeat superior violence has become more and more effective. So people's war is a part of that. But then it occurred to some people; well, if we can defeat great powers with inferior violence, maybe we can do without any violence at all.

And Gandhi did that. And they did it in bringing down the Soviet Union too, the Solidarity movement in Poland, the movements in Eastern Europe, which were very inspiring to me, and then eventually it flooded into Russia and Russia itself dropped out of the Soviet Union and then that was the end! And all of that was sort of like a process of what the writer Leonard Woolf called the "world revolt." This was the world revolt against the imperial powers.

Do you see this as a historical trend that's been building, these nonviolent revolutions?

Absolutely! It comes and it goes, but I do see it as a historical trend that's been building. I think people's war was sort of a halfway point, but the Soviet Union came down almost without warfare. It's an astounding thing, and I don't think we've looked at that enough. So I try to look at that and ask a question: What is it that permitted these local peoples to resist and defeat imperial domination?

And Mao and Ho Chi Minh gave an answer: They said, it's politics, it's revolutionary politics. It means if you win the hearts and minds of the people, then even if you're militarily weaker, you will have strength that will prevail at the end of the day – and they were right.

What are the various ingredients in a culture that enables it to successfully carry off nonviolent resistance, and do you think they exist in the U.S.?

They are a strong energetic will of millions of people to pursue what they believe in and the willingness to make sacrifices for that. That's above all. Does it exist in the U.S.? Not very much, but more than, let's say, six months ago.

You're referring to the peace movement..

The peace movement and the global justice movement. And as I have gone around I have detected a sort of seething anger – admittedly among a minority – about what's going on. I think there is a new energy out there that can be very powerful. You know, Margaret Mead said that a dedicated minority can change the world and nothing else ever has. And I believe that's true. I mean, you have to win over a majority, you have to speak to your fellow citizens who disagree with you, you have to persuade them, but if you don't have that dedicated minority to begin with, that's not going to happen.

So I think there are the stirrings of that. I think we possibly have the makings of that in this country, as we have in times past, like the civil rights movement, for example, so I think those are reasons for not despairing.

You must be alarmed at the way the Bush Administration is using military force to get its way in the world. If they continue down this path, what will happen? And what are our alternatives?

Well again, the principal theme of this book, which I was thinking about before there ever was a Bush Administration, is that in the long run it is not military power but political power, that triumphs. That's the lesson of people's war, that's the lesson of Solidarity in Poland, that's the lesson of Gandhi in India. In other words, if you actually want to run other countries, you have to do it on the ground. You can't pick up the garbage from 35,000 feet. A B-52 bomber cannot put the bandages on somebody's wound in a hospital. As somebody said to Napoleon, you can't mine coal with bayonets. So, even as the U.S. is triumphing militarily, it's losing politically – spectacularly!

Just with this one absurd war in which we can't even find the weapons of mass destruction that were supposed to justify it, we seriously alienated the planet. The human species did not like what we did. You can measure this, you can look at opinion polls; this is not an historical detail, this is a major political fact with major political consequences for the future and for the present too. So I think that this really is a bid for a kind of military domination over the earth, I think it's bound to fail, which doesn't mean that we don't have to take it seriously. On the contrary, it can bring unimaginable destruction and mayhem, depending on how far it goes, including the use of nuclear weapons, either against the United States or by the United States or both. So it's an urgent matter to stop it sooner rather than later.

Along those lines, all the millions of people around the world and in the U.S. who opposed the war – how can we not lose the momentum of the peace movement in all its disparate parts, how can it become a viable force in U.S. politics?

You and I talked about this a little before [in Barcelona] and I think there are two aspects to it. We have to find the instrumentalities whereby we can exist in our own space; you're doing it here, with AlterNet. The development of independent media is not just key, it's absolutely essential, it's a condition of success. But just as this is going on, I think that in other spheres we need to create an activist base that can be sustained.

One idea that I've had is to gather something together that is quite visible and dramatic that puts the resistance movement on the map in an unmistakable way to the mainstream. One thought I have is to have a kind of American Porto Alegre. A conference that is a mass event, 100,000 people – or maybe two of them, one on each coast – that would consist of 1,000 seminars, 1,000 speeches, stalls, literature, networking like crazy, a huge scene. And maybe its theme would be against the empire and for democracy. Pro-democratic and anti-imperial. But above all, pro-democratic, that's the key. But real democracy, participation of the people, by the people, for the people. We have a tradition like this in the United States, it exists. There's a lot to draw on.

The second part is that we do have to go to the mainstream, we do have to persuade, we do have to get involved in electoral politics and there compromises will absolutely have to be made. We do have to make a noise in the mainstream media and change the mainstream media. So this is not a ghetto policy, I don't think there should be a sort of protest ghetto. The point is to exist in our own right so that we can influence the society at large.

It would be a mistake to choose between those two strategies; both are necessary, as I see it.

It's unfortunate that many on the left have rejected electoral politics.

Elections are a fabulous tool for bringing about change – if you use them! You have to infuse them with your energy. There's something tautological about rejecting elections. It's like an admission of defeat. It's very bad to admit defeat when you're in a movement. It's a big mistake. You should try to win! You may fail. There's no victory guaranteed in this world, in life. But you should aim to win and really change things.

I want to give you a chance to respond to critics who reject your vision of a nonviolent future and say that warfare is an essential tool in the foreign policy arsenal. In particular, this sentence from "The Unconquerable World" seems to have inflamed them: "The days when humanity can hope to save itself from force with force are over."

I don't want to be longwinded ... but that sentence is the summation of a long argument that I make. There actually are situations when I think force would be justified, for instance to stop a crime against humanity that is in progress, such as the genocide in Rwanda. In that case, I would have favored international intervention. So, I'm not an absolute pacifist.

But when I said that what I meant was, throughout history, there has been a sort of system whereby people have attempted to stop war by building up military forces. You know, there's the old Roman saying, "If you want peace prepare for war." And at the heart of that idea is the concept of balance. Now, sometimes that worked; very often it failed. It worked until 1914 [when World War I broke out] and then it pushed the world into an abyss. Nevertheless, it was a kind of strategy.

Then when nuclear weapons came along, it led to the nuclear balance of terror. Which was this mutually assured destruction thing. In which if anyone started anything, everyone would be blown up and they called that a balance. But now, even that nuclearized form of balance is being fatally undermined by nuclear proliferation. In other words, a balance of terror – which I always thought was a bad idea anyway – only works with two powers. It only has a chance of working with two powers, let me put it that way. With eight, 10, 12, 20 nuclear powers? No balance is possible. You cannot find an equilibrium.

All you have to do is imagine that three or four countries change sides – and history is full of that – and immediately the balance is upset. So when I say that we can't save ourselves from force with force, I'm very specifically saying that the idea of a balance of power, which has been the specific means by which people have tried to save themselves from force by force, is no longer workable in the age that looms ahead. It's a very specific point I'm making, it's not just a rhetorical flourish of some kind. So in that broad sense, I think we have to find some other bulwark of safety, which is a cooperate system of politics, not a coercive one.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Confidence that there is a better and more peaceful alternative that is both hopeful and practical than this path of escalating warfare that we seem to be on. In other words, a belief that if we turned away from this militarized path, there really is solid ground to set our foot on – if we would only decide to do so.

Tai Moses is a senior editor of AlterNet.

For more information about "The Unconquerable World" or to find out when Jonathan Schell is reading in your city, visit HenryHolt.com.

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