Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell


Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute.

Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell



‘Perhaps the most impressive argument ever made that there exists a viable and desirable alternative to a continued reliance on war’ The New York Times on The Unconquerable World

Consistently one of the most influential and eloquent voices in the debate about global warfare and the arms race Jonathan Schell talks here about how nations should use ballots, not bullets – law, not war.

War has always been a horrible thing. Unfortunately, throughout most of history, it has also been highly useful. With war, you could defend your country, take control of someone else’s country, spread your religion, seize trade routes, acquire natural resources, found an empire. But in the late twentieth century, the usefulness of war was radically diminished.  Nuclear weapons made world war impossible. This alone was a tremendous revolution. Victory in wars between great powers – and all that could be obtained by victory – was ruled out. At the same time, in a very different process, small countries were learning to defend themselves.  As a reporter in Vietnam, I witnessed this at first hand. The US had overwhelming firepower.  In fact, it won every engagement. But it lost the war. Why?  Because it couldn’t shake the political will of the Vietnamese people to win their independence from foreign powers.  Soon, the Soviet Union had a similar experience in Afghanistan. And in fact all the great empires of the last century, from the British to the Soviet, have collapsed. 

The twentieth century was a time of unprecedented violence.  Yet it was also a time of non-violence. Even as violence was being used on an unprecedented scale, alternatives to it were being discovered.  Gandhi’s non-violent resistance to British rule was one.  He was the main pioneer of what I have called cooperative power.  This tradition was gloriously continued by the non-violent protests that brought down the Soviet Union.

The results of cooperative power – the collapse of all the world’s great empires has been surprising.  But at root it is something very simple.  It is the power of people united in their resolve to act together energetically but without violence for what they believe in.  As I see it, the liberal democratic form of government is a kind of institutionalization of this.  After all, it is a way of running your affairs by ballots, not bullets – by law, not war.  The spread of liberal democracy, which accelerated so dramatically at the end of the twentieth century, may have been the most important “peace movement” of them all. What makes the phenomenon all the more striking is that so many of these government were installed by non-violent revolutions, as happened, for example in Spain, the Philippines, and South Africa. Non-violent revolution leads naturally to democratic government because both are based on cooperative power.

The United States has now embarked on a policy of military superiority and global hegemony.  It has asserted a right to unilaterally overthrow regimes it does not care for. But this policy, which tramples over the US’s finest traditions, will be a failure.  The US will embark on wars that it can’t win.  It will find itself trying to occupy those nations for decades, as it did in Vietnam.  It will also estrange the rest of the world, whose good will and acceptance is essential, both for its well-being and the good of the world. Its contribution to the world will be lost if, in a daze of arrogance, we approach the world with a drawn imperial sword.

The United States is faced with a choice between being a republic and being an empire. Empire and republicanism are based on opposite and antithetical principles.  Empire is based on force. A republic depends on consent. James Madison said that a government that imposes its will of foreign peoples will soon impose itself on the domestic population.  We see this already in the breakdown of the traditional balance of powers and the erosion of civil liberties in the United States since the war on terrorism was launched. 

The US faces an alternative between a foreign policy that, like the present one, depends primarily on force, using cooperative means only as an adjunct, or its reverse, the hegemonic or imperial path: a policy that depends on a cooperative approach with other nations, and uses force only in a marginal role, as a last resort, and then normally in concert with other nations.  In my opinion, a United States determined to act in concert with its allies would be a more, not a less, powerful presence in the world.