In The Unconquerable World Jonathan Schell tells the story of the evolution of the logic of war and political power in a way that might just give it a happy ending after all.

When pacifists argue for the effectiveness of nonviolent solutions in severe political conflicts, it’s easy to be skeptical. Pacifists begin with the belief that violence is always an inappropriate way to settle such conflicts, and so one suspects that they will view the evidence about the effectiveness of nonviolent and violent methods not so much with the goal of comparing the methods objectively, but of justifying the view that the nonviolent methods are wholly sufficient.

So it helps, I think, that Schell is not a pacifist. And he belongs to the modern tradition of nonviolent resistance scholarship that sees it not so much as a moral repudiation of war and conflict, but as an important and underappreciated technology with which to succeed in such conflict.

In particular, Schell sees mass nonviolent action as the latest step in what has been a long and varied evolution of the craft of warfare. His introductory chapters give a history of how the theory and practice of war have changed over the centuries, and what forces — social, technological, and otherwise — have driven these changes.

People frequently look at war as being a constant, death-and-taxes-like fact of life: Sure, war has changed over the years as technology has changed, but this has mostly been quantitative — ultimately it’s still just Cain & Abel writ large. Schell challenges this view, pointing out that war has a particular logic to it and that this logic has undergone radical and fundamental changes several times in history in reaction to changes in technology and social organization.

Over the centuries, violent war evolved from armies battling for supremacy as “politics by other means,” to the nuclear MAD / balance of terror policy in which display & politics came to the forefront while force was necessarily restrained.

Meanwhile, “people’s war” was emerging and challenging the idea that military superiority was sufficient for victory. You could have superior technology, numbers, and technique; you could hold a nuclear weapons monopoly; you could win every battle; you could conquer all the territory; and still you could lose if the population refused to cave in and submit.

At first “people’s war” was at least in part guerrilla war, and usually culminated in a conventional war battle that forced the loser to withdraw. So “people’s war” just attached different coefficients to Violence and Politics in the equation in which they both seemed a necessary part. But over time, a form of “people’s war” developed in which violent tactics weren’t necessary — or even useful.

Revolutionaries came to believe that violent insurrection carried too high a risk of strategic failure, and that only through successful nonviolent mass action could worthwhile goals be reliably retained — in Václav Havel’s words, “a future secured by violence might actually be worse than what exists now; in other words, the future would be fatally stigmatized by the very means used to secure it.”

Gandhi was the Clausewitz of this variety of warfare, and Schell spends many pages talking about his theories of nonviolent conflict and how he developed them. He also compares and contrasts them with other, similar forms of nonviolent revolt that emerged in and eventually dismantled the Soviet empire — and with the American revolution, taking to heart John Adams’s contention that the revolution had already succeeded before the first battle of what is called the Revolutionary War.

Schell is at his best when he is writing about this sort of bottom-up people power.

Unfortunately, he ends his book by presenting a program for international reform that almost entirely concerns states and governments remaking the international order in a top-down fashion.

Some of his ideas in this area I found interesting — such as his suggestion that unitary state sovereignty is a model that is on its way out. In its place, he suggests that international and transnational bodies will bear some of the load (he explicitly disclaims “Wilsonian” plans for world government, but some of his proposals seem to have the same essence), and he also promotes the idea of the rise of quasi-sovereign nations-without-states, to allow for some sort of self-determination for stateless peoples like the Kurds.

Schell points to the negotiations over the future of Northern Ireland as an example of how the diffusion and distribution of sovereignty gave both sides in the conflict less of an all-or-nothing goal to fight for and enabled them to imagine a future of peaceful coexistence.

Two examples that came to my mind, but that Schell doesn’t discuss, were 1) the transnational enforcement bodies that accompany regional trade agreements, and 2) the sort of experiments like those taking place in parts of Europe where religious/cultural minorities can elect to bypass the civil judiciary and have their cases heard in sharia-law courts.

It is frequently observed that the community of nations is an anarchy — there is no central authority with a monopoly on violence. During the Dubya administration in particular, the U.S. has dreamed of assuming the throne and ending this state of affairs. Certainly many Americans think that the world needs a single sovereign power with the will, ability, and wisdom to remove threats to world peace, and it just so happens they know just the right fellows for the job too. But recent history has made a laughing stock of that variety of hubris. Schell considers the neoconservative imperial international order to have all the drawbacks of the Wilsonian vision, with none of its idealism. Sounds about right.

If the community of nations is an anarchy, without a central authority that holds a monopoly on violence, I wonder if the models of the development of nonauthoritarian order that are found in anarchist theory might be helpful here? Or alternatively, perhaps these models can be better-informed by the varieties of order that have emerged on this scale?


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