The Common Good
May-June 2003

Coercion vs. Cooperation

by Richard Deats | May-June 2003

Jonathan Schell, author of such highly acclaimed books as The Fate of the Earth and The Gift of Time, has now written perhaps his most important work

Jonathan Schell, author of such highly acclaimed books as The Fate of the Earth and The Gift of Time, has now written perhaps his most important work, The Unconquerable World.

This prescient and visionary book provides a richly detailed history of the contrasting impact of what he calls coercive power and cooperative power in the shaping of nations and empires. Written after the end of the 20th century—the most violent and bloody in human history—Schell examines structures of violence such as authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and the war system itself, fruits of the widely held belief that superior force is the final arbiter in history. Although we have become hardened by the brutalizing impact of the past century of warfare, unparalleled in its destructiveness, Schell gives careful attention to an underestimated and surprisingly neglected parallel dimension at work in the lives of nations and peoples, that of cooperative power.

Drawing from the thought of Hannah Arendt and Mohandas Gandhi, Schell says that "rule based on violence is in its nature not only destructive but in the long run self-destructive; and that authentic, enduring power must be based on nonviolent action." Violence, remarks the author, is "always a mark of human failure and a bringer of sorrow," it is "broadly dysfunctional as a human instrument," it destroys "the ends for which it is employed," and it kills "the user as well as its victim"—it's "the path to hell on earth and the end of the earth" seen in all its horror from Verdun to Auschwitz to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The two world wars, fascism, communism, and other forms of dictatorship, bloody revolution and brutal repression, as well as ever more lethal forms of weapons of mass destruction, amply illustrate the dead-end effect of violence.

But alongside this widely studied aspect of coercive power at work in history, Schell traces the surprising resilience and growing influence of cooperative power in the lives of peoples and nations, gathering in influence and scope and exponential impact. Not only did the Gandhian movement in India nonviolently defeat the mighty British empire, military juntas and dictatorial regimes were brought down by nonviolent movements in places as varied as the Philippines, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Portugal, and even South Africa, where apartheid widely had been expected to end only after a long and bloody civil war. Most surprising of all was the collapse, "in a single cloud of dust," of the Soviet empire and the Soviet state by the irresistible peoples' movements in, for example, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Lithuania, East Germany, and Russia itself.

THE LONGING for freedom has repeatedly led to the throwing off of coercive power through nonviolence, called satyagraha by Gandhi and "living in truth" by Vaclav Havel. Freedom, democracy, and nonviolence are inescapably interrelated. As Schell says, "nonviolence is the element that reconciles freedom of the individual with the democratic exercise of power."

One of the timeliest aspects of The Unconquerable Power is the examination Schell brings to the present-day United States. Having surveyed the temptation of democratic states to develop imperial policies, he discusses the end of the Cold War and the refusal of the United States to significantly downsize its bloated military budget and policies, even though it no longer had the enemy they were designed to withstand. This great military power, combined with economic power and the absence of any rival superpower, has tempted the U.S. republic to become the U.S. empire, in practice if not in name. This tendency has been greatly accelerated by the policies of the Bush administration following Sept. 11, waging war abroad and curbing civil liberties at home. But, Schell warns, "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?"

Schell amply shows that coercive force will not defeat coercive force nor save us from an apocalyptic end. Violence cannot in the final analysis overcome violence. He points to a finer way, the cooperative path. "Nonviolence is the means by which the many can reclaim their rights and advance their interests," he writes.

Calling us to a higher destiny—what I would call God-given—Schell says that peace, social justice, and defense of the environment are a triad to pit against the imperial triad of war, economic exploitation, and environmental degradation. Lovers of freedom, lovers of social justice, disarmers, peacekeepers, civil disobeyers, democrats, civil rights activists, and defenders of the environment are legions in a single multiform cause.

When seen in the rich backdrop of Schell's historical analysis, the unfolding people's longing for freedom and peace and their achievements give us cause for hope and determination to neither flag nor fail in furthering a cooperative world community. We are indebted to Schell for this ultimately hopeful, empowering vision of "the unconquerable world" of "power, nonviolence, and the will of the people."

Richard Deats, editor of Fellowship, is the author of Martin Luther King Jr.: Spirit-Led Prophet. He has taught nonviolence around the world in his work with the Fellowship of Reconciliation for the past 30 years.

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