Who’s Got the Power?

David Moberg

In Andover, Mass., IBEW members at the defense contractor Raytheon yell at workers crossing the picket line during a strike over job security and benefits.
Over the past century, the destructive nature of war has changed dramatically. As a result, argues Jonathan Schell, the world now faces two stark options: continuing along a path of military coercion to settle disputes, a path that leads toward eventual armageddon, or pursuing a nonviolent, political path toward new and more democratic institutions—including a revised notion of national sovereignty—to resolve conflict.

It’s a choice facing people everywhere in the world, but because of the overwhelming power of the United States, the most fateful decision will be whether that country chooses to be an empire or a republic. Given the increasingly open defense of a new American empire, there’s an urgency to Schell’s argument. But he offers an incomplete roadmap for avoiding the dire alternative of global annihilation.

Schell, a Nation Institute fellow and author of the bestselling The Fate of the Earth, contends that violence has now “become dysfunctional as a political instrument. Increasingly, it destroys the ends for which it is employed, killing the user as well as his victim. It has become the path to hell on earth and the end of the earth.” His evidence includes the deadly battles of World War I, as well as the concentration camps and nuclear bombs of World War II. But the prospect of nuclear conflict clearly is the main reason why he believes war is dangerously obsolete. Beyond the spread of weapons of mass destruction, he writes, the big dangers facing the world today are the proliferation of ethnic, religious, national and class-based conflicts and the risk of disproportionate response to these conflicts by the United States.

In the ideal type of war, Carl von Clausewitz wrote in his classic study of warfare, two armed forces fight without constraint to the death and defeat of one side. But in real war, politics must be in command, and defeat is as much moral—a decision of the loser not to keep fighting and to submit to the will of the victor—as it is physical. As war was transformed by the democratic revolution starting in the late 18th century—and the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution and imperialism—warfare increasingly defined the nation state and created a “war system” that often generated conflicts on its own. But with nuclear weapons, a new balance of terror emerged that relied especially on the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, maintaining the appearance of being ready to use nuclear weapons. In this complex psychological war, superpower leaders could only privately reveal their hesitation to engage in mutually assured destruction, for fear of upsetting the balance of terror.

Alongside this transformation of war among states, a new kind of war was also emerging out of the movements for national liberation and social revolution. In “people’s wars,” such as those fought in China and Vietnam, politics and war were fused and, more than in conventional war, politics was not only a weapon of war but the final arbiter of victory. There was also a parallel development of another approach to social change and conflict that was intensely political, but also spiritual and nonviolent, as exemplified by Gandhi and his notion of satyagraha, “truth-action” or active non-cooperation with oppressive institutions and figures.

While there was a widespread belief among many political philosophers and leaders in the West that state power depended on a monopoly of force and that revolution required violent overthrow of the government, Gandhi argued that the crucial prop to rulers was the consent and cooperation of the ruled. By withholding cooperation, people could bring down regimes nonviolently. Yet the expression “nonviolent” does not adequately convey the positive assertion of the power of individuals to work together for a common goal that Schell posits as the alternative to violence. He sees the same popular power at work in the movements—described by Czech leader Vaclav Havel as “living in truth”—that undermined Communist regimes in the old Soviet bloc.

There is a hidden history of the power of nonviolent, political direct action that Schell presents as an alternative to violence. He argues that in many classic revolutions in the West—the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 in England, the American war for independence, and the French and Russian revolutions—violence played a secondary role. The turning point came when popular forces organized themselves and support drained away from the ruling powers, not primarily as a result of particular military actions. The violence associated with the French and Russian revolutions mostly came in the aftermath of the shift in power.

Whether the ultimate victory involved military action or not, both people’s war and nonviolent “cooperative power” depended heavily on a political struggle, directed not only against the rulers but also toward some positive vision of an alternative way of governing society. Schell embraces Hannah Arendt’s view that power flows from people acting out of a common purpose and that violence is antithetical to power—not its essential force. He finds hopeful models in the American civil rights movement, the popular movements that undermined Communism in Eastern Europe, and the nonviolent overthrow of military or repressive regimes in countries such as Greece, Portugal, Chile, Argentina, the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Africa.

This wave of successful movements for greater freedom and democracy has not, however, eliminated the threat of violence in international affairs. Indeed, Schell argues that there is a nightmare scenario in which freedom within a country, such as the United States, generates a power for the government that can in turn be directed toward oppressing others, but at a cost of turning that same repression back upon its own people. So far, attempts to replace empires with a liberal internationalism of world government that could reduce the use of violence among states have foundered on notions of national sovereignty, which hold that power is indivisible. While that might apply to the use of coercive power, federalism and separation of powers in U.S. government clearly demonstrate how cooperative power is divisible and could be shared between nations and supranational bodies.

There are movements—global justice, feminist, environmentalist and peace—that could be united, Schell suggests, to press for abolition of nuclear arms and weapons of mass destruction, international intervention to resolve the frequently ethnic-based wars of self-determination with new models of sovereignty (as in the Good Friday agreement to resolve the Northern Ireland conflict), action against crimes against humanity, and the founding of a “democratic league” to support democratic principles.


While this program sounds admirable, Schell gives few hints about how people might organize to achieve these ends. As long as the United States remains a dominant power with increasingly clear imperial ambitions, his proposals would be either dead letters (nuclear abolition) or perverted (a “democratic league” dominated by the United States would yield a narrow definition of democracy). But how can American movements organize in a way that turns this country away from such imperial ambitions? Just attacking Bush as an imperialist, or arguing in defense of republican government, won’t make much headway politically.

This leads to a second issue: Unless these global movements representing “cooperative power” are able to win control or at least substantial influence over a significant number of powerful states (ultimately including the United States), then the movements themselves will be limited in what they can accomplish. The strategy for changing the international order requires not only citizen movements but sympathetic governments, and the model of overthrowing a Caetano in Portugal or Suharto in Indonesia doesn’t work for building a new international order.

Also, despite taking note of the history of imperialism, Schell gives surprisingly little attention to the economic underpinnings of the global political order, the “war system,” and even ongoing civil wars. War and violence are not only pursued for economic motives, but economic ambitions are usually present in some form. In any case, redressing the inequities of today’s global economy is essential for creating a more peaceful, democratic international order. The European Union, which Schell admires for its attempts to “delaminate” sovereignty to create a more peaceful continent, would probably not succeed without its prosperity and efforts to raise living standards of the poorer members.

The specter of nuclear war still haunts the world, but it certainly hasn’t persuaded leaders of nations or political movements that violence is unthinkable. Despite Schell’s argument that war has become dysfunctional, semi-functional wars are likely to continue. We haven’t yet seen the backlash from the U.S. blitzkrieg in Iraq, but the Pentagon hawks are clearly not deterred by any fear of igniting a global firebomb as they contemplate the next war. They see war as extremely functional.

Part of any backlash is likely to be in the form of terrorism. Schell correctly argues that global cooperation, not unilateral U.S. action, is the best solution to global stateless terrorism like that represented by al-Qaeda. He also argues that abolition of existing stocks of weapons of mass destruction will make it more difficult for terrorists to get their hands on such weapons, but he acknowledges that the scientific genie is out of the bottle. With the knowledge of how to make such weapons easily available, abolition will be a tougher sell. But the balance of terror policies from the Cold War will have no effect on terrorists such as Osama bin Laden.

Schell has made a valuable contribution in emphasizing how politics has become more important than military action, even at a time when the United States has amassed a techno-military advantage over every other nation. The solutions to the threat of war consequently will have to be as much political, including economic policy, as they are steps toward dismantling the machinery of war. Schell also raises hopes that the political movement for change can be both nonviolent and successful, thus helping to break a cycle of violence that could destroy us all.

David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

In These Times August 2022 Cover
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue