IF any single grand theory emerges from the tangle of literature on international affairs, it’s probably this: Beware of single grand theories. An important corollary is to be especially wary of single grand theories based on historical uniqueness — the premise that today we just happen to teeter at the fulcrum of history.
But Jonathan Schell, a columnist at The Nation and a longtime advocate of nuclear disarmament, is not a cautious soul. In ”The Unconquerable World,” he argues that what we are witnessing today is nothing less than the end of armed conflict as we know it. The ”war system” that long pitted nations against one another is dying, undone by politics and the development of ever more potent weapons. A new, nonviolent approach to politics is about to take its place.
Unfortunately, ”The Unconquerable World” doesn’t really work as foreign policy big-think. Schell has not produced the kind of simple, elegant coherence that made other recent grand ideas, like Francis Fukuyama’s ”end of history” and Samuel Huntington’s ”clash of civilizations,” such hits. His theory is too complex and nuanced to make for dramatic reading, yet not plausible enough to satisfy the serious student. The vision he paints of his imagined future is a glorious one. But he gives us frustratingly few ideas as to how, exactly, we’re supposed to get there.
The problem with war, Schell writes, is that in the course of the last century it ceased to function the way that Clausewitz described it: as a ”final arbiter” of conflict between states. This failure resulted from two simultaneous trends, one coming up from the bottom, the other down from the top. First, ”people’s war,” which started with Napoleon’s mass mobilizations of citizen-soldiers, was perfected in the 20th century by Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, who used popular guerrillas to overwhelm larger and better-equipped conventional armies. The introduction and proliferation of nuclear weapons, meanwhile, made great-power conflict all but unthinkable. Actual war fighting became less important than the appearance of advantage — at least during the cold war, when Soviet and American strategists feinted and shadow-boxed but rarely landed a punch.
Schell argues that the combination of asymmetrical people’s war and nuclear stalemate has made traditional combat obsolete. To buttress his case, he considers four famous revolutions, in each of which, he argues, bloodshed actually played far less of a role than is usually recognized.
The reader may be surprised by Schell’s examples — England’s Glorious Revolution, as well as the American, French and Russian revolutions — since at least two of these, the French and Russian revolutions, are remembered as particularly gory. But Schell’s point is that though each of these rebellions may have become bloody, most of the killing came late in the game. The real revolutions occurred earlier: in the hearts and minds of the people, not on the field of Mars. Political battles for popular loyalty should thus be considered far more important than military struggles.
Turning away from conflict, Schell charts what he calls a ”parallel history”: the rise of purely nonviolent action. In Gandhi’s self-reliant and fiercely ascetic satyagraha and the later huge, bloodless revolutions that undermined the Soviet empire, Schell finds great hope for how political change might occur in the future; in them, he sees ”violence disrupted or in retreat.”
Of course, now is a particularly awkward time to be writing about the triumph of nonviolence. As Schell himself notes, despite all the hopeful signs — the rise of popular self-determination, the end of ideological division in the West and the growth of liberal democracy — the world today faces even more threatening trends, like globalized economic exploitation and nuclear weapons proliferation.
And there is another danger that strikes Schell as more menacing still: America’s current ”Augustan” inclinations. Cursed with too much power and under attack, the Republic has betrayed its roots by giving in to the temptations of empire. Force and bluster have replaced diplomacy, and the once peaceful nation now ”approaches the world with a drawn imperial sword.” The results, Schell predicts, will be disastrous. And they will be Washington’s fault.
Well, perhaps. But if retaliating against the attacks on New York and Washington was a mistake, just what Schell thinks the United States should have done is never made clear. Instead, in the book’s final, most vexing sections, he proposes a number of bland steps toward world community that the nations of the planet should take together. The list includes gradual nuclear disarmament, the formation of a vaguely defined ”democratic league” and the universal prosecution of crimes against humanity.
Sounds good; in fact, the list looks remarkably similar to the international agenda of virtually every liberal democracy except this one. Therein lies a problem that Schell refuses to deal with: how to get the United States to agree to such measures, which many Americans view as threatening their jealously held sovereignty. Schell has little to recommend here, other than to call for a sort of global nonviolent revolution, based on a quasi-mystical notion of ”cooperative power.”
It’s not hard to see the difficulties with this approach. Schell’s attacks on current American policy, which build quietly throughout the book before floridly erupting at the end, are so strident that they will alienate all but a very self-selected readership. Consider a passage like the following: ”Could it be the destiny of the American republic, unable to resist the allure of an imperial delusion, to flare out in a blaze of pointless mass destruction?” Well, perhaps. But not likely, no matter how distasteful one finds the language of the Bush administration. And so it’s hard to take the author of such words seriously.
A larger problem is Schell’s obstinate rejection of the fact that even in 2003 warfare can and does still play a vital role in world affairs — and not only vital, but sometimes positive. Politicians from Bosnia and Kosovo to Afghanistan and East Timor credit their own freedoms — indeed, their very lives — to the kind of armed intervention that Schell excoriates. And now many Iraqis are doing the same.
”The days when humanity can hope to save itself from force with force are over,” Schell insists. A nice thought, but not everyone in Rwanda or Congo would agree. In fact, their complaint is that, on the contrary, no one was willing to exert force on their behalf.
THE UNCONQUERABLE WORLD
Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.
By Jonathan Schell.
433 pp. New York:
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $27.50.