The Unconquerable World

Jonathan Schell

Metropolitan Books, 2003. 433 pp. $27.50

Review by Philip M. Mouch
Published Spring 2004

I expect two – contrary – reactions from those who do not like Jonathan Schell's The Unconquerable World. The first is to complain that Schell's proposals are too idealistic. The second is to complain that his evaluation of the current world situation is too pessimistic. Denial that the world is in a desperate situation and that we should and can do something about it seems ubiquitous these days. Schell's book is a welcome antidote to much of what is being written today.

The Unconquerable World is part history, part political theory, and part philosophical analysis. Its main thrust is to draw out lessons from the past and see how we might apply those lessons today to create a more peaceful world. Let me not scare away readers, though. Very little is presumed in the pages and Schell provides enough background that the reader will easily follow along without drowning in the details.

The main character of the book is what Schell calls "the global war system". Long thought of as the final arbiter of human conflict, war has taken a prominent role in the last three centuries of human history. Schell begins with an overview of the philosophy of war as conceived since Clausewitz. Clausewitz argued that the logic of war is one of extremes. Each side in a conflict will raise their efforts in order to defeat the opponent.

What Clausewitz was describing was a change from the aristocratic wars of the past to a new kind of warfare that arose in large part because of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Schell traces the forces that influenced this shift from a more modest sort of warfare to a much more widespread kind of war that we see at the end of the eighteenth century. Schell identifies four such forces. The first is democratic revolution, which brought a patriotic and nationalistic zeal to the battlefield. Scientific and industrial revolutions enhanced the ability of nations to wage war. Finally, imperialism spread the wars of Europe over the whole globe.

Two more recent developments have served to change the nature of war even further. The first is an outgrowth of the scientific contributions to war: nuclear weapons. However, unlike other developments, nuclear weapons have had the paradoxical result in limiting war, rather than allowing for its further escalation. With the introduction of nuclear weapons, the threat of annihilation became very real. If war were allowed to go to its logical extreme, the human race would end and it would be the end of the war system. With the dawn of the Cold War, the global powers found themselves limited to small regional wars, in order to avoid the annihilation threatened by the development of nuclear weapons.

The second development which served to upset the global war system is "people's war". Tracing its development from Mao in China to Vietnam and Algeria, Schell makes the case that the political victories - winning over the hearts and minds of the populace - enabled outnumbered and outgunned local forces to overthrow imperial rulers. Thus, owing to political loses in Vietnam and at home, did the United States lose the war in Vietnam. Conflicts, previously dominated by force, had become more complex.

After setting this stage, Schell moves to the history of nonviolence in part two of the book. He starts, perhaps predictably, with Gandhi, but there is nothing predictable about where he goes from there. He looks at four revolutions: Britain's Glorious Revolution of 1689, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution. In each he finds a crucial role played by nonviolence. Schell ends this history with perhaps nonviolence's most widespread and stunning victory, the downfall of the Soviet Union.

What each of these examples speak to is the true power of nonviolence. Indeed, taking cues from Gandhi, Arendt, and Eastern European writers such as Adam Michnik and Vaclav Havel, Schell suggests other terms instead of 'nonviolence', since it seems strange to suggest the power of such a path can best be defined in terms of what it is not. Havel's 'living in truth' perhaps comes the closest to an English equivalent of Gandhi's 'satyagraha'. More often, though, Schell refers to it as 'cooperative power', to distinguish it from coercive power.

In addition to the remarkable power that nonviolence has, Schell draws out an important point from these historical examples, namely that nonviolence, in order to truly succeed, cannot simply resist the oppressor. Building a civil society is crucial in that it provides for the needs of those oppressed, while essentially side-lining the oppressing system. This method of construction together with resistance succeeded in India and Eastern Europe. It is also important to note that nonviolence in the revolution does not guarantee nonviolence in the new government, as the French and Russian revolutions make so very clear.

But how should we take these lessons and apply them to the world today? The last thirty years of the twentieth century saw, as Schell puts it, an agreement in the Western World upon democracy as the preferred form of government. This has cooled the fires of war in the West, only to set up new conflicts with the so-called Third World countries. Now there is little left of the terrirtorial imperialism, but it has been replaced by economic imperialism.

The first attempt to bring the world into one society, and hence eliminate war, Wilson's League of Nations, failed. Schell argues that the League failed in large part because of the war system. Nations were unwilling to give up the reliance on force and were unwilling to sacrifice their sovereignty to such an organization. Indeed, the sovereignty of nations must be overcome, according to Schell, to ever hope for a civil society in the international arena. This was impossible under the war system, but now that has changed. The obvious national example for division of power is the United States' federal system. But, as Schell points out, the example of division of power among nations, rather than simply within one, is occurring now in the birth and growth of the European Union.

Violence still exists in the world, and there are two solutions offered for it. The first is more violence. Since nuclear weapons prevented the United States and the Soviet Union going to war against one another, perhaps further proliferation of such weapons will create a balance worldwide to prevent war. Schell is understandably skeptical of this suggestion. Likewise, relying on his discussion of cooperative power and the distinction between it and coercive power, Schell is skeptical of the United States' solution to violence by conquering the world and forming an Empire. Such coercive power eventually undermines itself, and even if the United States could succeed in conquering the world, much would be lost in the attempt and its empire would ultimately crumble.

Thus, the path of cooperation seems the only one truly available. As the lessons of history have shown, this will require building an international society as well as tearing down the weapons of mass destruction that threaten annihilation. This is not something that must be done over night, but can be something that is worked towards in stages, slowly enough that nations may be assured of the cooperation of others.

Schell ends the book elaborating briefly on this path, making and arguing for four specific proposals to help reach this end. His case, throughout the text, is compelling. While reading the book, one is struck, alternatively, by feelings of despair at the world's situation and by feelings of hope that there are opportunities that we are in a unique opportunity to reach for. This is a mark of strength in any book. And it is gratifying that Schell finds a way to end with the note of hope, properly leavened with caution.


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