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Amid turmoil, optimism for an era of peace

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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.”

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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.

Another change that first brought war to its extremes, and then rendered it -- in Schell’s view -- impracticable, was the emergence of what he calls “people’s wars” -- armed popular movements that spoiled the military game by simply refusing to acknowledge defeat. As the precursor of this new form of warfare, Schell mentions Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s conquest. Its perfect form was probably Mao Tse-tung’s Chinese peasant army during World War II. The novelty was not partisan warfare, which existed before, but mass political mobilization of civilians that rendered support to guerrillas and made them practically undefeatable. As demonstrated late in Vietnam and Afghanistan, this strategy allowed poor, technologically backward nations and limited numbers of poorly armed warriors to withstand and repel giants like the United States or the Soviet Union. The price, Schell writes, was the thorough militarization of politics and the turning of civilians, including women and children, into semi-combatants and victims. The military regime imposed on civilians usually continued after the end of hostilities.

Schell convincingly argues that both nuclear armaments and “people’s wars,” while marking two extremes of physical violence, at the same time largely reduced war’s political payback. They also “dematerialized” military power. Actual fighting, whenever it occurred, was meant less to produce tangible material results and more to communicate the will of the opponents. The obvious costs and dangers of this method of communication, says Schell, were the signal that the “war system” has been damaged beyond repair. At the end of the 20th century, writes the author, “violence, always a mark of human failure and a bringer of sorrow, has now also become dysfunctional as a political instrument.”

The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the unraveling of the bipolar balance of nuclear powerlessness did not, in Schell’s view, restore the old system of balance of power, arms races and alliances. The availability of modern technologies led to unprecedented proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear arms, which came within reach of scores of new countries. This, in Schell’s opinion, created a highly unstable, irrational and dangerous situation. The response of the United States was to try to bring some order into the chaos by using its unique hegemonic advantage. In other words, says Schell, America seeks to act as a pacifying empire ready to wage fast, limited “disarmament wars,” the first of which we have just witnessed in Iraq.

In Schell’s view, this is the latest attempt to use coercive power in order to maintain peace in the world. Should it succeed, it might indeed result in a period of Pax Americana similar to the times of relative calm during the apex of the Roman Empire. Yet Schell believes the United States will almost certainly fail in this endeavor, and if it insists on following the imperial path, it may bury the chance of more durable peace based on multinational cooperation. Policing the whole world may prove too daunting a task even for the United States because running an empire, even a benevolent one, involves forcefully curtailing other people’s freedom -- a proposition that in our times is likely to trigger sustained resistance. Besides, an empire must not only suppress enemies but also create economic and administrative institutions applicable to highly diverse cultures and traditions, and in Schell’s view America’s record in this area -- in what we call today “nation building” -- is less then stellar.

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In addition, America’s unquestionable military advantage may in fact accelerate the run to obtain nuclear arms -- as is apparently happening with North Korea, and possibly Iran -- because “the bomb” is the cheapest, perhaps the only, way to give the hegemonist pause. In addition, Schell points out that whenever republics became involved in imperial enterprises -- and they did it even more eagerly than monarchies or tyrannies -- the empire eventually destroyed the republic. Republican might deployed in the world in the empire-building frenzy, he says, “not only creates nightmares for other nations but recoils upon its possessors, extinguishing the freedom from which it arose.” One may comment that America has probably more reason to trust the resilience of its democratic institutions and the republican instinct of its citizens than did ancient Athens and Rome, 17th century Holland or even 19th century Britain. Still, it would be wise to keep historical precedents in mind.

If rational application of violence can no longer save us from random or accidental violence, what can? Having outlined the bankruptcy of the “war system,” Schell proceeds to demonstrate that the unending river of historical violence was accompanied by a more discrete yet significant stream of nonviolent cooperative action, which in fact accounts for most of the positive breakthroughs in human history. The foundations of British liberal rule were laid in 1688 during the battle of Salisbury Field -- the battle that famously did not take place because William of Orange, despite his advantage, wanted to negotiate the English crown rather than claim it by force. Schell argues also, following John Adams, that the real American Revolution was achieved mostly by peaceful means and was complete before the Revolutionary War, which was simply a defensive war against British counterrevolutionary intervention.

Even the Russian Revolution, despite its bellicose mythology, happened mostly without bloodshed, although the Bolsheviks later used terror in order to cling to power and to eliminate political competition. Schell devotes much attention to Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance in India, and to the dissidents in communist Eastern Europe, who instead of working against the government, chose rather to build civil society by creating independent networks of learning, information and humanitarian assistance to the victims of the regime. The fact that the Soviet empire -- a highly militarized, ruthless (though probably much weaker than was assumed) and totalitarian regime -- yielded practically without bloodshed and engendered, at least in Europe, mostly liberal democracies is probably the strongest argument for supporting Schell’s main proposition: In the last resort, the power of mass refusal and self-organization trumps the power of coercion.

According to Schell, the bloody history of the 20th century brought into focus both the futility of military power and the effectiveness of peaceful action. Taken together, those two discoveries should provide a powerful incentive for overcoming the past militarist tendencies and finding new ways to manage international relations. In his view, such change should not take form of the “third round of Wilsonism” -- a formal system of international organizations depending on the goodwill of state governments -- but rather develop as a coalition of miscellaneous forces and groups that would monitor the state of the world, alert public opinion, suggest solutions and provide manpower to carry them out. He envisions a global revolution that would be “loosely coordinated, multiform, flexible, based on common principles and a common goal rather than on a common blueprint,” in other words following the model worked out by the dissident movements in Eastern Europe.

This is probably the best future scenario that has been offered in recent years. Yet Schell’s is a vigilant brand of optimism. He lists new, promising circumstances, such as the demise of totalitarianism, the revival of liberal democracy and the growing influence of popular will on political decisions, but he also points out how much needs to be done, both physically and conceptually (our notions of sovereignty and self-determination are in need of radical redefinition), and how many opportunities have been already lost. He also does not promise a utopia, only a world in which inevitable conflict and rivalry will call for more reasonable solutions than expensive armaments and military brinkmanship. The right ingredients are already there. What humanity needs to make a decisive step into the future is a “decision to exist.”

But can even that much come to pass? After all, this noble, idealistic and well-argued book provides new, ingenuous arguments for an old proposition: War, as a tool of rational policy, does not make much sense. Of course it does not, and probably never did. It would be hard to mention one war whose results neatly coincided with the designs of its architects and advocates. It was known since the times of Homer that war is a costly, unwieldy and capricious instrument. Its paybacks consistently fall short of expectations; its allegedly final arbitration can be rescinded with the slightest shift in the balance of power spawning new, equally bloody and futile wars. None of this, however, prevented wars from happening, perhaps because war never was deployed in a fully rational manner. Let us not be deceived by the huge military bureaucracies, the apparatus of analysis and planning, all the endless councils, expert opinions and computer simulations.

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War draws much of its energies, and much of its perverse allure, from mythology, hubris, fear, religious frenzy, moralist zeal and grandiose historical visions. It is not a certainty that technological and social developments that Schell describes so convincingly will suffice to put those demons to sleep. What we are talking about, after all, is a radical change in human culture, a moral revolution, a collective rising to a “higher level of consciousness” -- all the beautiful things that the past decades taught never to expect from ourselves. Schell seems quite aware of humanity’s faults, and his scenarios of hope counterpoint with somber warnings. What if one day, perhaps soon, humanity may face a tragedy it is still incapable of imagining? Would it find enough moral fortitude to withstand the blow, or will it plunge into a suicidal cycle of hatred and violence? “In the face of these questions,” writes Schell, “predictive powers dim. But attempts at prophecy are in any case the wrong response. Decisions are required.” Dare we not hope that at least some of those decisions will be right?

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