Jonathan Schell, a writer and teacher, has for many years provided insightful and lucid analyses of the human behavior imperiling our planet—and he has suggested ways of thinking and acting to bring about positive change. The student readings below, which are based on Schell's book The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (2003), offer opportunities for students to discuss, learn about, and act upon ideas for a cooperative and more peaceful world.
For many years Jonathan Schell has been writing and teaching about our violent world but also envisioning possibilities for positive change. In The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People (2003), Schell demonstrates that while the twentieth century reached unparalleled heights of violence in conventional and nuclear warfare, it also included many powerful, successful, nonviolent movements for social, economic, and political change. Through nonviolent civic action and the creation of international "structures of cooperative power," Schell sees the basis for lasting peace in the twenty-first century. The following readings provide an overview of key elements in his thinking.
Student Reading 1:
Two Vital Twentieth Century Lessons
"Totalitarian rule and total war each in its own way carried violence to its limits," Jonathan Schell writes of the twentieth century. "Violence was old, but total violence—violence that, as in nuclear conflict, can kill without limit...was new.... And war, when it laid hold of its ever more powerful instruments of destruction, was no longer war but annihilation, and annihilation was as unlike war as it was unlike peace." ( The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People )
In Schell's view, World War I (1914-1918) demonstrated the failure of the "balance of power" system and set in motion "a spiral of violence whose effects are still felt today." A global depression, the rise of Hitler and Stalin and totalitarian societies, particularly in Germany and the Soviet Union, led directly to World War II (1939-1945), the horrors of burning cities, incinerated bodies, Nazi extermination camps, the Soviet gulag, and U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A third "global struggle"—the Cold War between superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, and their allies—dominated most of the last half of the twentieth century and threatened a nuclear holocaust until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
The twenty-first century had hardly begun when 9/11 "drove home a truth that the world should never have forgotten but did: that in our age of weapons of mass destruction all buildings, all cities, all nations, all people can likewise be reduced to ash in an instant."
But, as Schell adds, the twentieth century provided "another, complementary lesson, less conspicuous than the first but just as important. It is that forms of nonviolent action can serve effectively in the place of violence at every level of political affairs." Schell cites these examples: "the promise of Mohandas K. Gandhi's resistance to the British Empire in India, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s civil-rights movement in the United States, the nonviolent movements in Eastern Europe and in Russia that brought down the Soviet Union, and the global success of democracy in its long contest with the totalitarian challenge."
The Congress Party in India adopted Gandhi's program in 1920 to combat Britain's long rule of their country. "The English have not taken India," Gandhi said, "we have given it to them." He also said, "I believe and everybody must grant that no Government can exist for a single moment without the cooperation of the people, willing or forced, and if people withdraw their cooperation in every detail, the Government will come to a standstill."
The British had their army and their guns. Gandhi and the Indian movement he led had "satyagraha," a Sanskrit word impossible to translate. It called for nonviolent action involving a refusal to cooperate with laws regarded as unjust and an open acceptance of the consequences. It played a major role in bringing India independence.
In the case of the U.S. civil rights movement, Southern sheriffs had high-powered hoses, clubs and guns, but Martin Luther King's nonviolent strategy brought African-Americans civil rights long denied, among them the vote.
Schell also cites as examples of successful and mostly nonviolent action in the twentieth century the overthrow of the Soviet Union's satellite regimes in Eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union itself. In Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, says Schell, political activists' strategy was to "bypass the (totalitarian) government and tackle social problems directly" by setting up independent institutions and building a civil society. "Our freedom begins with ourselves," Polish activist Adam Michnik wrote, and in Poland that meant help for families of workers jailed by the government, underground publications, a "flying university" in people's apartments, boycotts, and social organizations of all kinds. This activity helped build a movement led by the independent union federation Solidarity, which was later elected to lead Poland.
When Michnik and his colleagues began their struggle, "the iron law of the world dictated that revolution must be violent because violence was the foundation of power," Schell writes. "When they were finished and state after repressive state had been dissolved with little or no use of violence, a new law of the world had been written, and it read: Nonviolent action can be a source of revolutionary power, which erased the (totalitarian) regime from within and lays the foundation for a new state."
Schell writes that all these movements believed "that one should withdraw cooperation from destructive institutions; that means are more important than ends; that crimes shouldn't be committed today for the sake of a better world tomorrow; that violence brutalizes the user as well as his victim."
"Time after time," says Schell, "the power of nonviolent action showed itself, and time after time led to democratic government." He cites these examples: Greece, 1974; Spain, 1975; Argentina, 1982; the Philippines, 1986; South Korea, 1986; Chile, 1989. The most dramatic and powerful of these late-twentieth century civic movements for nonviolent change came in South Africa. There, a sustained mass movement led in 1990 to the release of movement leader Nelson Mandela, who had been imprisoned for 20 years. Soon afterwards, Mandela became the black president of a country that had had only white rulers and apartheid governments for a century.
Writes Schell: "The century of total violence was, however discreetly, also a century of nonviolent action."
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Schell writes of the twentieth century: "Violence was old, but total violence was new." What do you understand him to mean?
3. What does Schell view as two vital lessons of the twentieth century? Do you view them as "vital"? Why or why not?
4. How do you understand each of the Gandhi quotes? What was Gandhi's strategy to achieve India's freedom from the British empire? What is the power of this strategy? Of the strategies of Eastern Europeans to achieve freedom from the Soviet empire?
5. How is "nonviolent action a source of revolutionary power which erased the (totalitarian) regime from within"?
6. A key principle of those who believe in the power of nonviolent resistance to injustice is that "violence brutalizes the user as well as the victim." Do you agree? What evidence would support your view?
Student Reading 2:
Has the U.S. Gone "from Liberty to Force"?
Schell asks: Will the nations of the world, and especially the United States, the only superpower, continue on the old path, the devastating twentieth century path, of force and coercion? Or will it move into a new one marked by cooperation and consent?
In September 2002 the Bush administration released "The National Security Strategy of the United States." A key passage declares:
"While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively. We must deter and defend against the threat before it is unleashed...the President has no intention of allowing any foreign power to catch up with the huge lead the United States has opened since the fall of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago. Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing or equaling the power of the United States."
Schell's view of the Bush strategy: "A policy of unchallengeable military domination over the earth, accompanied by a unilateral right to overthrow other governments by military force, is an imperial policy. It marks a decisive choice of force and coercion over cooperation and consent as the mainstay of the American response to the disasters of the time. Any imperial plan in the twenty-first century tilts against what have so far proved to be the two most powerful forces of the modern age: the spread of scientific knowledge and the resolve of peoples to reject foreign rule and take charge of their own destinies." It is "the path of arrogance and ignorance" and will contribute to "catastrophe."
The U.S. attack on Iraq that began on March 19, 2003, was a dramatic example of this new strategy in action. After swift military action, regime change, and U.S. occupation of Iraq, its consequences after four years with no end in sight have included:
- a Sunni-based insurgency
- terrorists being attracted to Iraq and the creation of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia
- a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites along with ethnic cleansing
- death for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and more than 3,200 American troops
- maiming of tens of thousands of American troops and countless Iraqis
- the abuse and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq
- the creation of 4 million Iraqi refugees, about half of whom have fled their country
- loss of support for the war among the American people
- worldwide growth of mistrust, often hatred, of the United States
- a Bush administration decision to send more troops to Iraq
"Any imperial plan in the twenty-first century," Schell writes, "tilts against what have so far proved to be the two most powerful forces of the modern age: the spread of scientific knowledge and the resolve of peoples to reject foreign rule and take charge of their own destinies."
Schell asks: "Do American leaders imagine that the people of the world, having overthrown the territorial empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, are ready to bend the knee to an American overlord in the twenty-first? Do they imagine that allies are willing to become subordinates? Have they forgotten that people hate to be dominated by force?.... Could it be the destiny of the American republic, unable to resist the allure of an imperial delusion, to flare out in a blaze of pointless mass destruction?"
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What do you regard as the essential ingredients of the Bush administration's National Security Strategy? Why does Schell regard it as "imperial"? Do you agree? Why or why not?
3. Was the U.S. invasion of Iraq an example of this strategy in action? Why or why not? Can you cite significant consequences other than those listed in the reading?
4. Schell views the strategy harshly. Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
5. Why do you suppose Schell views "the spread of scientific knowledge" and "the resolve of people to reject foreign rule and take charge of their own destinies" as "the two most powerful forces of the modern age"? What evidence is there for each one? Can you cite evidence that any other force is more powerful?
6. How do you suppose that Bush administration leaders, including the president, would answer Schell's questions in the final paragraph? How would you assess their answers?
Student Reading 3:
Toward a Peaceful World
Schell writes that "the days when humanity can hope to save itself from force with force are over. None of the structures of violence—not the balance of power, not the balance of terror, not empire—can any longer rescue the world from the use of violence, now grown apocalyptic. Force can lead only to more force, not to peace. Only a turn to structures of cooperative power can offer hope."
There is another path, and it leads toward a cooperative world. "The agenda of a program to build a cooperative world would be to choose and foster cooperative means at every level of political life."
Among many possible specific plans, Schell selects four, not necessarily because they are comprehensive or the most important, but because "all bear directly on the choice between cooperation and coercion, and seem to me to be timely, realistic," and build "on foundations that already exist."
1. Abolition of nuclear weapons
"An agreement to abolish nuclear arms and all other weapons of mass destruction is essential for "any sane or workable international system in the twenty-first century. No tolerable policy can be founded upon the permanent institutionalization of a capacity and intention to kill millions of innocent people."
The "root of the nuclear predicament" is not nuclear hardware, Schell argues, but "the knowledge that underlies the hardware." Abolition of nuclear arms, unfortunately, cannot mean abolition of the knowledge that created them. But it must mean a system of rigorous inspection. Elements of it already exist through the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Violation of an abolition agreement would be very difficult, even unlikely. Experts agree that "a maximal regime of inspection" would make it hard for anyone to secretly construct a nuclear arsenal—though it does not eliminate the possibility, especially before an agreement takes effect. The "maintenance of a nuclear arsenal is highly complicated, requiring many hands and minds," says Schell. Such a secret would be "as hard to keep as the secret of the bomb itself." The Manhattan Project "secret" quickly leaked to the Soviet Union in the 1940s.
If a violator threatened the world, other nations "would be free to build and threaten to use their own nuclear arsenals in response, in effect deterring the violator." But as Schell points out, "Nuclear powers have repeatedly fought, and even lost, conventional wars against small, non nuclear forces" without ever using nuclear weapons. This was the case for the U.S. and the Soviets in Vietnam and in Afghanistan. Why? "Isn't it conceivable that heads of state are reluctant to use nuclear weapons simply because they don't want to kill millions of innocent people in cold blood at a self-stroke?"
"The rigorous global inspection system of an abolition agreement would be the ideal instrument to choke at its source the danger that terrorists will acquire weapons of mass destruction," Schell maintains. Terrorists might still be able to create them, but "the problem might be 98 percent solved, which is perhaps the most that can be hoped for."
2. International intervention in wars of self-determination to promote shared or limited sovereignty.
Popular government in the United States and elsewhere has demonstrated "that when power is cooperative rather than coercive—based on action willingly concerted rather than compelled—then, in the domestic sphere, at least, it does not have to be indivisible. It can be federated; it can be divided among branches of government and localities."
Europe, where national sovereignty was born, has created the European Union. As Helmut Schmidt, former chancellor of Germany commented, it "marks the first time in the history of mankind that nation-states that differ so much from each other nevertheless have voluntarily decided to throw in their lot together."
"Formulas for shared or limited sovereignty," Schell writes, "are also a necessary part of any solution to most wars of national self-determination." Northern Ireland, where "divided structures of power are being used to try to end a conflict," is one example. Other places where dual sovereignty might provide solutions for longstanding conflicts include Sri Lanka, where the Tamil Tigers want an independent state in the north; and Jerusalem, where Israelis and Palestinians contend for territory and religious buildings.
The Kurdish people live in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria under the sovereignty of others. Their need for sovereignty, says Schell, might addressed by granting every Kurd "two internationally recognized statuses—one as a citizen of a state, the other as a member of a nation." As state citizens, for example, Kurds would have "all the classical rights of individual liberty; as a nation, Kurds would control their own schools and speak their own language. One nation then could overlap many states, and vice versa." A similar solution might be possible in Canada for Quebec's culturally French people.
3. Enforcement of a prohibition on crimes against humanity
Schell envisions "an international community that fundamentally relies on consent and the cooperative power consent creates, but nevertheless reserves the right to resort to force in certain well-defined, limited circumstances. Ideally, force would play the restricted policing role it does in a democratic state. I say 'ideally,' because if an international police force is to be legitimate there must exist an international order whose legitimacy is generally recognized, and this is just what is largely missing in the world today."
Developing this legitimacy on "a few selected internationally agreed-upon principles" will not end war instantly. But it will move us toward a more peaceful world. One such principle on which there is already widespread agreement is "the obligation to prevent and punish crimes against humanity." After World War II, the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders responsible for atrocities established a precedent. More recently, a special international tribunal tried Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia, for crimes against humanity.
The International Criminal Court defines these crimes "as acts, including murder, torture, rape, forced disappearance, and persecution, when committed" systematically "against a defined group, whether ethnic, religious, racial, or national."
When a person kills another person, "the order of the national community is violated. When a state kills a people, the order of the international community is violated (and the state forfeits) its claim to represent them and opens itself to international intervention." In defending his order of genocidal attacks against the people of Kosovo, Milosevic cited the principle of national sovereignty. An appropriate answer to him: "How can you call yourself the sovereign representative of a people that you are seeking to destroy? Your genocide nullifies your sovereignty."
In calling for collective rights for peoples, Schell sees them as "increasingly protected by a coherent body of law." It would include the "negative right" not to be exterminated as well as the "positive right" to self-determination.
4. Foundation of a democratic league
The United Nations includes dictatorships. The NATO alliance consists of democracies, but its sole purpose is military. The European Union is also made up of democracies but focuses on economic concerns. In contrast, a democratic league would be committed to freedom.
Says Schell: "The simplest and most obvious direct contribution that such a league could make to international peace would be to pledge to resolve disputes among its members" without going to war."
Associated with this contribution would be a league's support for 1) elimination of weapons of mass destruction; 2) reductions in sales of conventional weapons to other countries; 3) efforts to restrain or end wars of self-determination; 4) anti-imperialism.
While only a people can create democracy through their "action and consent," a democratic league would also "give assistance to one another and to peoples already seeking to found or preserve democracy."
"Member nations would jointly resolve not to create or support repressive regimes, not to use armed force merely to advance commercial or other national interests, and in general to address international problems on a cooperative basis."
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Schell sees the choice for the U.S. and the world as between a) the continued use of force and coercion in international affairs, which he views as capable of leading only to more force and coercion, and b) a new path of nonviolence and cooperation "at every level of political life." Do you agree? Why or why not? Why does Schell think the continued choice of force and coercion can lead only to catastrophe? Do you agree? Why or why not?
3. Schell asserts that "any sane or workable international system" requires the abolition of nuclear weapons. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
4. Through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, most of the nations with nuclear weapons, including the U.S., have agreed to eliminate them, but have done nothing about this commitment. Why not? If you have no idea, how might you find out?
5. What do you think Schell means by the "nuclear predicament"? How do you understand his view that it is the "knowledge that underlies the hardware" of nuclear weapons that is at the root of the "nuclear predicament"?
6. Why does Schell view a violation of nuclear abolition as "unlikely"? Do you agree? Why or why not?
7. Schell sees possible solutions to conflicts in such places as Jerusalem and Canada. What basic principle is involved? Why was it crucial to the formation of the United States?
8. In the suggested solution to the Kurds' desire for self-determination, what is the difference between being a citizen of a state and being a citizen of a nation? Why might such a solution solve the Kurds' problem?
9. Why does Schell view the use of force, if necessary, by the international community in punishing crimes against humanity as a step toward a more peaceful world?
10. What might be one significant benefit of a democratic league?
1. Write a reflective essay in which you discuss your attitude toward a nonviolent strategy for political, economic and social change.
2. Schell is very critical of what he views as a United States movement toward hegemony, toward the attainment of imperial supremacy over all other nations. Write an essay in which you support or disagree with Schell's view. Cite specific evidence for your own.
3. Write an essay in which you discuss in detail the actions of someone you know personally who has made a positive contribution to the betterment of your family, neighborhood, or city. What did this person aim to accomplish? What were some of his/her key acts? How would you describe his/her behavior?
For further inquiry
1. Select for investigation one of the nonviolent movements cited in the first reading. Begin by framing a question to guide your inquiry. (The teacher may want to see "Thinking Is Questioning" and "The Plagiarism Perplex," which are available on this website, for detailed suggestions on an inquiry process that begins with questions.)
2. The Nuclear Posture Review of 2002 states the current U.S. policy on nuclear weapons. What are its key elements? Why does the U.S. regard its continued possession of nuclear weapons as essential? Consider also, for example, the following recent report: The head of the U.S. Strategic Command, General James Cartwright, told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. continues to need nuclear weapons " to respond promptly to globally dispersed or fleeting threats." Also necessary, the general said, is the Reliable Replacement Warhead. The U.S. has some 6,000 nuclear weapons. The Pentagon wishes to replace them with a "new generation" of warheads. (www.washingtonpost.com, 3/10/07)
3. Study some contested territory—Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Kosovo, Jerusalem. Using Schell's approach to issues of self-determination, propose a solution.
4. The Nuremberg trials after World War II were a first international effort to punish crimes against humanity. After making a preliminary investigation of what was involved in these trials, frame a question for a more specific inquiry.
5. Sales of conventional weapons are a huge international business. What is the U.S. role in this business? After an introductory investigation, frame a question for a more specific inquiry.
6. Study one of the successful nonviolent, democratic revolutions cited in the first reading. After getting an overview of the revolution, frame a question for a more specific inquiry.
Read The Unconquerable World . Then frame a question for further inquiry.
Creating a more cooperative world will take the work not just of governments but also of ordinary people, including students, who come together to develop and promote ideas as well as to press their government to enact them.
Have students name any individuals in their school or community who have acted and made a difference for the better. What was the problem? What did he or she do? How? What difference did their work make?
Consider with the class the suggestions that Schell makes. Might there be one on which students would like to develop a project for change? If there is one, how might they act on it? Some questions to consider:
1. What, exactly, is the project? Define it carefully.
2. Who will work on it? Doing what?
3. What does the group hope to accomplish? Perhaps begin by creating a vision statement.
4. What will be the work plan? What do students need to find out? How? Might there be opposition? Why? What strategies should students develop to respond to opposition?
5. What will each student do? Where and when will students meet? How will they evaluate progress?
If there is broad interest in ideas for creating a more cooperative world, but no specific one that students favor, perhaps organizing a school club on the subject might be another approach. What are the school rules for forming a club? Who will do what is necessary to create one? What will be the purposes of the club? When and where will it meet?
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org