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Amid turmoil, optimism for an era of peace

The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People Jonathan Schell, Henry Holt & Co.: 434 pp., $27.50

June 01, 2003|Jaroslaw Anders | Jaroslaw Anders is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C., who often writes about Eastern and Central Europe.

The 21st century is not starting well: terrorism of an unprecedented brutality and scale, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, trillions of dollars poured into high-tech armaments, old conflicts festering and new ones springing up in the most unusual places, failed states run by contending warlords, crumbling international institutions and sudden animosities breaking up old allies. The dream of post-totalitarian, post-Cold War harmony has long faded away. Some say it is 1914 all over again, the year that started it all. History has made a full circle.

Against this gloomy background, the main thesis of Jonathan Schell's new book may sound eccentric, even provocative. The author argues that by reaching its mind-boggling proportions and its destructive potential in the 20th century, war and mass violence have bankrupted themselves as instruments of international policy. What is more, they bankrupted themselves not only morally but also pragmatically: They stopped bringing results that were usually expected from them by politicians or communities using them against their neighbors to win new territories and resources, subjugate populations, create "security zones" or obliterate challengers for regional domination. Schell claims further that the 20th century, "the century of terror," was also a century of strenuous nonviolent action that proved its surprising effectiveness in the face of seemingly overwhelming power. Taken together these two developments provide humanity with an unprecedented opportunity. If we play our cards well, we may retire war for good and enter an era of lasting peace and cooperation.

Schell bases this vision on an analysis of what he calls the "war system," a set of actions and counteractions that throughout ages made practically every developed state prepare for war, expect war and accept war as the final arbiter of international conflicts of interest. We owe the first modern description of the system to the 18th century Prussian general Karl von Clausewitz, who understood that every armed conflict between contenders of roughly equal strength inevitably escalates until one side is rendered completely powerless. A limited conflict that can be started and stopped at will is a dangerous illusion. No combatant has a real incentive, wrote Clausewitz, to deliberately blunt his sword, because "sooner or later someone will come along with a sharp sword and hack off our arms."

As the military potential of modern industrialized states grew exponentially, creating ever sharper and more destructive swords, "the system" developed a logic of its own and started operating independently of the real interests and intentions of its creators. The logic was based on universal fear that "if war broke out, some small advantage won by a speedier or better-prepared rival would tip the scales of victory or defeat." Even a seemingly minor incident could provide one rival with an advantage leading to all-out victory. The best illustration of this principle was the Fashoda incident in 1898, in which England and France came to the brink of war over a minor dispute about a patch of Sudanese swamp. France, with the force of less than 200 soldiers, occupied the outpost in symbolic defiance of the British consolidating their imperial rule along the Nile. In response, London dispatched orders to its Mediterranean fleet to prepare for war with France. Even Queen Victoria was dismayed that a full-fledged conflict might break out over such a puny prize, and the French eventually backed down. In 1914 the world was not so lucky. Historians still debate what World War I was really about, but most agree that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by Bosnian nationalists in Sarajevo started a chain of events that no government was able to stop.

The war system, says Schell, started to grind to a halt after the end of World War II. The reason was the division of the world into two roughly equal politico-military blocs bristling with nuclear arms. The rule of "war to the limits" still applied, only this time the limits meant "mutually assured destruction," not only making the war between the superpowers unthinkable and impossible, but radically changing the meaning of military might. Nuclear threat -- argues Schell -- could not be applied, as was power of the conventional kind, to coerce the opponent into political compliance. Its only role was to prevent nuclear war from happening. Application of power was replaced by manifestation of power. "The battles that could not be fought physically," Schell writes, "were to be fought out instead on psychological terrain." The global war system did not collapse but became unusable.

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