Jonathan Schell: Give peace a new chance

Twenty years ago, Jonathan Schell galvanised anti-nuclear politics. Now he champions non-violent change in our war-torn world. John Freeman meets him in New York
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The Independent Culture

Jonathan Schell has been feeling optimistic lately. Sitting in his office at The Nation Institute in New York, the rosy-cheeked 60-year-old writer seems to have come a long way from 1982. Then, he scared the bejesus out of readers with The Fate of the Earth, a book that imagined the possibility of nuclear holocaust. Today, if you listen to Schell, there's a revolution in non-violence on the rise, and it could be coming to a city near you.

"It's true that there's no figure on the scale of Gandhi in the world at present, or even Vaclav Havel," says Schell, citing two figures he talks about in his provocative new book, The Unconquerable World (Allen Lane, £20). "But I don't think that the power of people's hearts and minds is expressed solely through such figures. I think it can take different expressions. And I think the global protest movement [over the war in Iraq] is one of those expressions."

If this is true, and protest against the Iraqi war makes future combat less likely, than it will be a happy addendum to The Unconquerable World. Ten years in the making, Schell's book puts forth the notion that war as a rational form of conflict came to an end in the 20th century. Battles between superpowers turned into an end-game because of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, wars like Vietnam proved that superpowers could not colonise smaller countries. "The days of Empire are over," says Schell. "People, even small, weak people, have found ways to kick out large powers - and have done so with amazing success during the 20th century."

At the same time that fighting back worked, Schell argues, a simultaneous movement in non-violence began to arise. "Even during the 20th century when you saw the most extreme uses of force in reported history," he says, "something else was developing: something more promising and open. I see it in Gandhi's revolution, and I see in the non-violent fall of the Soviet Union, especially in the Solidarity movement. What I'm suggesting is that if we want to get off the path we're on - with force as the mainstay of foreign policy - then there is some solid historical ground underfoot."

This is a bit of a counter-intuitive argument, to say the least, but it turns out there's some historical basis to it, dating back to the 17th century. In the middle of The Unconquerable World, Schell explores the roots of modern non-violence by examining four revolutions: in France, China, America and Russia. He argues that what was essential in each was not the terrible bloodshed which announced their finales, but the change in hearts and minds which came before armed combat. "That is what makes everything else possible," Schell says in the cadence of a man used to speaking slowly to make himself heard. "Without such a change, no amount of violence will be successful; with such a change, you don't even need violence."

Schell realises that a vast gulf lies between this nifty theory and the realities of our world today. To get us there Schell believes the US would have to have a massive shift in priorities. "Right now, the US has turned to force as the mainstay of foreign policy. As I see it, force should be pushed way out to the margins." Schell's blueprint for the future would also include greater focus on human rights, burgeoning international law, more reliance on the UN and, of course, nuclear disarmament.

Schell's position on nuclear weapons has not softened in the 22 years since The Fate of the Earth. If anything, it has hardened. "In the matter of nuclear weapons," he says, "I am what some people would call a radical because I think that we should aim at a world entirely without nuclear weapons. From my point of view, it's even absurd to call that radical. Which is radical - letting life go on or wiping ourselves off the face of the earth?"

As admirable as Schell's ideas sound, they seem especially far-fetched while the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war remains in place. Still, it's hard to brush Schell side as a wishful thinker. He has a way of seeing the future - and making it happen.

In 1967, he published The Village of Ben Suc, a searing book of Vietnam reportage that predicted the failure of Pentagon policies long before the last helicopter left Saigon. The Time of Illusion (1976) articulated what is now a commonplace idea: that image and substance have replaced meaning in politics. Finally, with The Fate of the Earth, Schell almost single-handedly gave the anti-nuclear movement its second wind with his apocalyptic vision of a nuclear war - and his strident call for Americans to take responsibility for their futures.

Schell began writing The Unconquerable World long before the Bush administration came to power, but didn't feel compelled to scrap his thesis after September 11 or the unveiling of the Bush doctrine. "I honestly did not expect that the US would step forward with an explicit plan to, in effect, dominate the world by force. I believe this is an epic folly; that the verdict against imperial rule will stand." True to his vatic sensibility, Schell is worried about the consequences. "For me the real question is what form will that backfire take, and how long will it take, and will we all survive the fall-out of this failure?"

Which brings us back to nuclear weapons. Given the ease with which al-Qa'ida keeps surfacing, it's not hard to imagine the worst. Schell puts some of the blame on the Bush administration. "It's really mind-boggling," he says, voice rising, "because if you take them at their word, then they are worried about proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. If that's the case, then you have to ask: Why didn't they tend to North Korea before Iraq, since North Korea was a much greater threat? Why didn't they address themselves to the so-called loose nukes in Russia? Why on earth did [the US] coddle a dictatorship in Pakistan when it was opening what's now being called a nuclear Wal-Mart?"

A secondary concern to this worst-case scenario would be how the US would react if attacked on its soil again, but Schell believes the tide has turned and revenge would not be so easily endorsed. "I'm not sure that Americans wouldn't, to a certain extent, blame the administration for failing to protect them from an attack. After September 11, it seemed to me that people had a very natural and almost inevitable reaction, which is to rally in support of the one person who in this genuine national crisis and emergency was charged with protecting them... It was very difficult for many months to suggest that you should not only criticise and challenge [Bush], but actually try to replace him with somebody else. But now - thanks to the coming election - people have really arrived at that point."

It is a testament to the breadth of Schell's argument that nearly every dominant news story of the day - from the crisis in Haiti to the train bombings in Madrid to the prosecution of executives involved in US accounting scandals - relates to his thesis and can be ground through it. Schell grows so engrossed in discussing his book and the world that he neglects to comment on a vociferous protest outside a secondary school eight floors below his offices. The cluttered disarray of Schell's bookshelves, floor and desk suggests this is not an uncommon moment of absorption.

There are times, though, when his zeal gets the best of him. Take the UN, for instance. Schell says that "the United Nations can't be any better than the countries that make it up; and especially those in the Security Council, and among those, especially the permanent five members. Now that the US has decided to take things into their own hands and has declared the Security Council irrelevant, of course the UN doesn't work very well. This is not the fault of the UN per se, it's simply the fault of the nations that make up the UN."

To blame a failure of the UN on its nations alone feels a bit like saying Chelsea lost not because it was a bad team, just that it had bad players. Still, Schell makes a convincing case that the non-violent movement is alive and powerful today. Even though the protest over Iraq didn't stop the war, Schell believes its energy has been absorbed into the rallying Democratic Party. "You had a very powerful expression of anti-war sentiment in the candidacy of Howard Dean. Then people asked themselves whether he could really win the nomination and they switched over to Kerry, who adopted a lot of his rhetoric and some of his political positions."

It's a long road to the US presidential elections in November, and Bush is just beginning to spend his reported $200m war chest. Still, Schell has faith that voters will continue to press for a change in foreign policy and, if not that, in administration. It will be an interesting fight, he says, but hardly a revolution. "I don't see a great deal going on outside the electoral process, but that doesn't disturb me. I'd rather see it going into the electoral contest and bring down Bush, frankly, and I hope it will. I think there's a real chance now."

Biography: Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell was born in New York in 1943 and graduated from Harvard University in 1965. He spent a year in Tokyo, and returned to the US through Vietnam, where he witnessed an American raid on the village of Ben Suc. His observations were published in The New Yorker and turned into his first book, The Village of Ben Suc (1967). He followed it with The Military Half, (1968) another story based on reporting in Vietnam. From 1967 to 1987, Schell was a staff writer at The New Yorker, and in 1973 won a prestigious George Polk award for his journalism. He has written about Richard Nixon in The Time of Illusions (1976) and Observing the Nixon Years (1989). His book on nuclear disarmament, The Fate of the Earth (1982), was an international bestseller and an inspiration for anti-nuclear movements. His other works include The Gift of Times and History in Sherman Park. Now a visiting professor at Yale University and Harold Willens Peace Fellow at The Nation Institute, Jonathan Schell lives in New York with his wife and three children.