The Long View: The Unconquerable World Book Review

At first blush, the argument in Schell's book seems plausible. After all, we all know that insurgencies are unbeatable, just look at Vietnam. Unfortunately, this is only plausible if you are well educated while at the same time not knowing much of anything. While it could perhaps be said that the VC was part of what broke American will to fight, the actual battle that conquered South Vietnam was fought with infantry, tanks, and artillery.

One can easily multiply examples, and John does here. The point is that history is a mass of details, and trying to reduce it to principles usually ends up obscuring more than illuminating. Which is true even of John's favorite metahistorians, Spengler and Toynbee.

However, keeping that in mind, this is still a pretty interesting book. I think this paragraph may be the most illuminating:

Could the author really not know that transnationalism is fundamentally post-democratic? International entities, such as the European Union, are designed to suppress populist impulses, and sometimes for good reason. In any case, the next enemy of liberal government will not be empire, or international corporations, but direct-action politics. The growing ecology of non-governmental organizations, radicals, and pressure groups despise the state and will not take election results for an answer. Nothing in politics is more tyrannical than minorities with a veto. 

Keep that in mind when you look at the American primary election results.

The Unconquerable World:
Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People
By Jonathan Schell
Metropolitan Books, 2003
433 Pages, US$27.50
ISBN 0-8050-4456-6


I picked up this book with some trepidation. The author, Jonathan Schell, is best known for “The Fate of the Earth,” a book written during the brief period in the Cold War when the Soviets seemed to be winning. In it, he argued that the West was morally obligated to forgo nuclear deterrence. Now comes the same author, arguing that the era of war has ended in world history. The future, he says, belongs to structures of peaceful cooperation among the world's peoples, which will redefine the institution of political sovereignty.

You must imagine my surprise in discovering that “The Unconquerable World” is a thorough and thoughtful book. It sheds new light, or light new to me, on the relationship of violence to political power. The author's account of the changing role of war in the international system is often provocative and sometimes illuminating. Nonetheless, I think the book is most valuable as an ideological formulation of the growing transnationalist movement. The implications for the future of the West and the world could be appalling.

According to the author, a dialectic has been running through history of the two ethics expressed by the near contemporaries, Virgil and Jesus. Virgil sang of “arms and the man,” of the use of force as the final arbiter in the world's affairs. Jesus, in contrast, advised his followers to put away the sword entirely, since those who lived by it would die by it. These traditions underlay the distinction between realism and idealism, public and private, even between state and church. In the 20th century, they developed to theoretical maximums, and turned into their opposites. War became peace by becoming too terrible to use, while peaceful cooperation became the only possible realism.

Let's start with war. The author gives a great deal of attention to Clausewitz's (variously formulated) dictum that war is politics conducted by other means. At any rate, that is what war should be. The problem is that, though governments wage war to change the enemy's behavior, war has a logic of its own. Absolute war, the ideal of maximum lethality, would leave a desert with no one to surrender. Absolute war conducted by both sides would destroy both combatant societies. This theoretical limit was reached in the 20th century, when nuclear weapons appeared. Nuclear weapons, however, necessitated the development of strategic deterrence. This had the effect of etherializing violence. Actual destruction of people and things was replaced by attacks on the enemy's morale.

Much the same happened on the conventional level, with the development of People's War and, most perfectly, of nonviolent resistance. Oddly, the author never cites another old military dictum (attributed to Bismarck, among others) that the one thing you can't do with bayonets is sit on them, but that is pretty much what he is talking about. Essentially, insurgents around the world, peaceful and violent, found that they could overcome overwhelming military force by patient erosion of the oppressor's will to coerce. The author tells us that this antithesis of conventional war achieved universal success by the end of the 20th century:

“The self-determination movement cut across all political dividing lines. No political system, feudal or modern, proved capable of resisting it. Neither monarchies (the Romanovs, the Hapsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, the Ottomans, Spain) nor military dictatorships (France under Napoleon, Portugal under Salazaar and Caetano) nor communist regimes (the Soviet Union; Vietnam, in its Cambodian venture) were able, in the long run, to perpetuate colonial rule. On the other hand, almost every political creed was adequate for winning independence. Liberal democracy (the United States in 1776, Eastern Europe in the1980s and nineties), communism (China, Vietnam, Cambodia), racism (the Boers of South Africa), militarism (many South American states), theocracy (Iran and Afghanistan in the 1980s), and even monarchy (Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century), have all proved adequate foundations on which to base self-determination.”

This would be important if it were true, but it isn't. For instance, the author tells us that all empires ended between 1776 and 1991. In fact, though the British left India, the Republic of India remains the Mughal Empire, conducted by other means. The People's Republic of China is roughly the empire of Qing times, disembarrassed of the Manchu Dynasty. The author's specifics are also sometimes questionable. We are told: “The Japanese were the first -- but unfortunately not the last -- antiguerilla force to whom it occurred that if the guerrillas were the fish and the people were the water, then one way to fight guerillas was to drain the water.” Actually, the earliest example of this strategy I can think of was the mass detention of civilians in “concentration camps” during the Boer War, a ruthless procedure that was entirely successful. One might argue that Boer self-determination finally succeeded, because South Africa eventually became independent. How the final defeat of the Confederacy in the American Civil War accords with the principle of unconquerable self-determination is not clear. Maybe the South will rise again.

To pick a small nit, the author overlooked one of the great successes of People Power in world history: the achievement between 1861 and 1865 of national autonomy by the Kingdom of Hungary within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was done peacefully, through the creation of parallel institutions, in the face of strong opposition from Vienna. It greatly facilitated the Hungarians' oppression of the Slavs within their territory.

It is true that the great European colonial empires evaporated soon after the middle 20th century, but this arguably had more to do with the debellicization of Europe than with increased ungovernability of the colonies. Even the Communist victory in Vietnam can be attributed to the eclipse of the power of the American presidency after the Watergate scandal. The Republic of South Vietnam was not overthrown by an insurgency; it was conquered by conventional arms.

Nonetheless, the author's account of theories of cooperative nonviolence is well worth considering. In his interpretation, nonviolent politics fully comprehends a principle that People's War and strategic deterrence only groped toward: all conflict is fundamentally psychological. Violence can therefore be replaced by cooperation at every level of human interaction.

Gandhi's philosophy of “satyagraha” is clearly the book's favorite. The term is famously untranslatable Sanskrit, meaning something along the lines of “holding fast to being” or “holding fast to truth.” The truth here includes the essential autonomy and dignity of each human being; this truth is not just anthropology, but an aspect of the reality of God. Satyagrahis will act in accordance with truth even if the powers of the world command them to do otherwise. They will not obey unjust laws or cooperate with an unjust system, which Gandhi eventually decided the British Raj to be. They will not merely resist unjust structures, but try to create structures of their own, which will be consistent with human dignity.

Satyagrahis will in all cases follow the principle of “ahimsa,” of non-injury. They will not use violence, even on the intellectual level: the wordless certainty of truth precludes dogmatism and excessive insistence on abstractions. However, ahimsa also requires an unlimited willingness to suffer injury rather than to lose hold of the truth.

Ideas similar to these appeared all over the world in the second half of the 20th century. The interesting thing was that, though Martin Luther King might cite Gandhi, the principle of non-violence in the Civil Rights Movement in America seems to have been a largely autonomous development. The same was true in the Civil Society Movement, to give one name to the variety of organizations and informal groups that developed in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. In that context, the impulse was less religious, but only in degree: Solidarity in Poland was based in large part on Catholic social doctrine, and Vaclav Havel's idea of “Being” resembles Gandhi's Divine Truth. A bigger difference, perhaps, was that the Eastern Europeans were intent on creating and defending a private sphere that the state could not violate. Gandhi, in contrast, was keen to encourage Indians to greater social and political engagement.

There were purely secular versions of much the same insights. Hannah Arendt, for instance, wanted the spirit kept out of politics entirely. God is too powerful a concept to allow for compromise, she argued, and compromise is necessary if the world is to be livable. Be that as it may, she greatly advanced the theory of non-violence, at least in the author's estimation, by showing that political theorists have been wrong about the role of violence in politics.

Even the sunniest philosophers of the Social Contract had assumed that political power was based on violence. Good governments differed from bad, in this view, only in that they used violence predictably, by consent, and for the common good. Arendt said, in contrast, that violence is the opposite of power. Power is a collective, cooperative capacity: it implies people working autonomously toward a common goal. Violence means destruction, or (if I understand the argument) a level of supervision so close that it coerces both the perpetrator and the victim. The author suggests that, rather than go against the common use of language, it might be better to consider that violence is also a kind of power, but that we should distinguish between coercive and cooperative power. If we do that, the conflict between sovereignty and international order can be resolved.

In the author's view, the problem with the modern era was that war was central to the way the world worked: “A fatally flawed global system required a full systemic substitute.” Woodrow Wilson actually tried to fulfill this requirement at Versailles, but his alternative system was arbitrary, and maybe unworkable. The difficulty was not merely that collective security would have required political will that probably wasn't there. For international bodies to do the sort of things that Wilson envisioned, such as control or forbid the manufacture of some classes of weapons, or oversee the treatment of ethnic minorities, it would be necessary to mitigate some of the powers of state sovereignty, as sovereignty has been understood since the Westphalian settlement of 1648.

The Westphalian sovereign was designed for war: a single, absolute authority that, ideally, rules a single people in a single territory. For centuries, political theorists from extreme democrats to advocates of absolute monarchy assumed that sovereign power must be one and indivisible. Happily, this is not the only possibility. Only the power of coercion is logically indivisible. The power of cooperation can easily be divided, and often is. The riddle is solved by locating the source of sovereignty in the people. The people do not necessarily exercise this power directly. They can create a sovereign organ of government; they can also create more than one such organ, if they so choose. This is how some federal systems work. The “We the People” of the US Constitution are also the people of the several states. The existence of governments at different levels creates no logical problem (though I might point out that it occasions a lot of litigation).

Since the combination of nuclear deterrence and the universal triumph of self-determination have made war unusable at all levels, we are no longer in the position of Wilson at Versailles. We need not replace the war system all at once, but bit by bit, as seems convenient. The author suggests four bits, simply for purposes of illustration: a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons, and eventually all weapons of mass destruction; a consistent policy for intervention by international entities in wars of national liberation; the effective punishment of crimes against humanity; and the creation of a league of democratic states to preserve and defend democracy.

What the author does not want to happen is a world empire, particularly a world empire led by the US. The book becomes nearly apoplectic when discussing the recently adopted US policies of preemption and regime change, perhaps because those policies give different answers to the proliferation issues that so preoccupy the author. He tells us: “Empire, the supreme embodiment of force, is the antithesis of self-determination. It violates equity on a global scale. No lover of freedom can give it support.” This is merely wrong. It has frequently been the case, in ancient and modern times, that imperial structures provided the only possible effective protection for civil liberties and the safety of minorities. Beyond that, though, it is hard to take altogether seriously the author's exhortation to Americans to abandon the imperial path and embrace their republican tradition.

Sounding oddly like Patrick J. Buchanan, the authors says “in a republican America dedicated to the creation of a cooperative world, the immense concentration of power in the executive branch would be broken up, power would be divided again among the three branches...civil liberties would remain intact or be strengthened; money would be driven out of politics, and the will of the people would be heard again.” Could the author really not know that transnationalism is fundamentally post-democratic? International entities, such as the European Union, are designed to suppress populist impulses, and sometimes for good reason. In any case, the next enemy of liberal government will not be empire, or international corporations, but direct-action politics. The growing ecology of non-governmental organizations, radicals, and pressure groups despise the state and will not take election results for an answer. Nothing in politics is more tyrannical than minorities with a veto.

The international system did not transcend war at the end of the 20th century. Rather, it made the United States an essential feature of the system. The end of the Cold War left a remarkably demilitarized international system. America spends more on the military than the other major countries combined, of course, but that level of spending is not an anomaly in a demilitarized world: it is the demilitarized world's predicate. In effect, most of the world was content to let the US provide global security services, if any were needed.

The new configuration is still tentative, and may not work. It is entirely possible that the US will fail to eliminate weapons of mass destruction in hostile hands; perhaps it will not be able to establish a secure political and economic order in the world. 911 made clear that much more effort is needed; maybe more than the US alone is able or willing to supply. If so, the result will be mere chaos, like an extended version of the 1930s. There is no real alternative.

This brings us to the elements of pure delusion in the book. The author recognizes that “'people's wars' became 'peoples' wars'” after the empires broke up, and that these battles between ethnic and religious fragments can go on forever. This is why he wants a reliable system of humanitarian intervention. Of course, he also wants gradual disarmament at all levels, so it is not clear just who might intervene. In any case, he makes it a first principle that peace cannot be secured by even the implied threat of force: “The cooperation of governments, not their antagonism, is the indispensable precondition for a successful policy of opposing and reducing terrorism of any kind.” He recognizes that no treaty could be certain to prevent the manufacture of nuclear weapons. He says that nuclear-inclined states will be dissuaded by “virtual arsenals.” The prospect of setting off an arms race, in a world where knowledge of how to build nuclear weapons is universal, will prevent any state from trying to “bully the world.” What would prevent a state from bullying or invading its neighbor is nowhere explained.

This frivolity about matters of life and death is inherent in satyagraha itself. That philosophy is really a kind of spiritual existentialism. With its emphasis on autonomy and on freedom despite all consequences, it has some points of contact with Julius Evola's political spirituality. Satyagrahis are, at base, engaged in a program of irresponsible self-expression. On a political level, satyagraha is a movement of opposition. It can undermine the powers that be, perhaps, but it cannot build a livable political order. That would involve engaging the world outside the self.

Of course, to the practitioners of this form of “self-determination,” mere government is epiphenomenal. “That is why I take the keenest interest in discussing vitamins and leafy vegetables and unpolished rice,” said Gandhi. All those leafy vegetables did little to limit the intercommunal bloodbath that attended the end of the Raj. Today's transnationalism would take the anarchy global. 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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