Acceptance speech upon receiving the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s 2003 Distinguished Peace Leadership Award, November 15, 2003

Jonathan SchellI am honored to be honored, and especially in the company of David Krieger and Richard Falk, who are for me true heroes of the nuclear age.

I want to talk about violent and nonviolent means of change. We gather in a dark time. Our country, in what seems to me a wrong turn of truly epic proportions, has turned to force, to violence as the mainstay of its policy, not only abroad but at home as well, menacing and constricting constitutional freedom at home, while approaching the world with a drawn imperial sword. And yet I want to speak of something hopeful.

I think that in the twentieth century, we witnessed the bankruptcy of violence, broadly speaking. You all probably know the saying “War is the final arbiter.” It means that if you want to find the powerful ones in a given situation, look for the people with the guns. Or, in the words of Max Weber, who really spoke not just for a tradition of thought as long as history but also for a common-sense understanding, “politics operates with very special means, namely power backed up by violence.”

Or as Vladimir Lenin said, “Great problems in the life of nations are decided only by force.” This was thought to be true in revolution, and obviously, all the more so in war. Indeed, I’d say that the conviction that force was always the final arbiter was not in truth so much an intellectual conclusion as a tacit assumption on all sides—the product not of a question asked and answered but of one unasked.

I want to question the truth of this assertion. I argue, in fact, that force, always a tragedy for both user and the one upon which it is used, has become less and less effective in deciding political matters. Indeed, the history of the twentieth century, I argue, holds a lesson for the twenty-first. It is that in a steadily and irreversibly widening sphere, violence, always a mark of human failure and bringer of sorrow, has now also become dysfunctional as a political instrument.

The domain of force has been squeezed on two sides. First, at the top of the system, has come the nuclear revolution, which, by rendering war between the greatest powers unthinkable, has ruled out the kind of global war that twice broke out in the twentieth century. The paralyzing influence of nuclear arms extends far below the superpower level, deep into the realm of conventional war, helping to render conventional war between fully fledged nation-states a rare thing compared to earlier times.

Those of you familiar with the work of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation know what this nuclear stalemate meant and still means: that our species stood, and still stands, on the brink of its annihilation. And you know too what solution this Foundation recommends, and that I recommend, too: Get rid of those weapons, get rid of them in Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, India, but also in China, Russia, France, England and, yes, here in the United States. As John Kennedy said to his good friend, the British Ambassador Ormsby Gore, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Our world will never make any sense until we get rid of these things.” His insight, born as the responsibility for the future of the United States and the whole human species bore down upon him in that mortal crisis is as critical for the twenty-first century as it was for the twentieth, even more so. And it holds true, of course, for all the weapons of mass destruction.

And yet, this evening I’m not going to talk more about that great, necessary, common sense objective of our time. For it seems to me that if you propose to get rid of something—in this case, weapons of mass destruction, which stand at the apex of the structures of force, you need something to replace it with. What’s wonderful is that even in the midst of the twentieth century something began to appear—not perhaps a full-fledged answer, but the beginnings of the answer, the foundations.

If at the superpower level, political matters cannot be decided by force, something else has to decide—and something else did decide with the Cold War, for example. What was that something? This brings me to the pressure on warfare—or, more specifically, on imperial conquest—from the other side, the underside, so to speak. If we look at the recent history of empire, surely the most notable fact is that all of the empires that stood at the beginning of the twentieth century–the British, the French, the Dutch, the German, the Portuguese, and so forth—have all gone under the waves of history. The same is true of the fascist empires that arose in the nineteen-thirties.

There is something in this world that does not love an empire.

The great pioneer was of course Mohandas Gandhi, who began his campaign against imperial rule at the beginning of the twentieth century. Surprisingly, he found hope in religious faith. Reversing centuries of tradition, which had taught that God was to be sought above all in monasteries and desert places, he said of his pursuit of God, “If I could persuade myself that I should find Him in a Himalayan cave, I would proceed there immediately. But I know that I cannot find Him apart from humanity.” The aim of his life would be to “see God,” but that pursuit would lead him into politics. “For God,” he said, reversing centuries of tradition in a phrase, “appears to you only in action.”

Gandhi overcame the suspicion that if spiritual energies were released into the political world, the result would be more destructive than constructive. We don’t need to go beyond September 11th to see how true that is. Or, we can look to our own religious fundamentalists who look forward to something called “the rapture,” in which the faithful will be flown up to heaven while everyone else perishes.

What Gandhi offered was two essential correctives: he insisted that a spiritualized politics must be nonviolent. And also that it must be tolerant. He insisted on something else, though, that is equally important. He declared—I would say discovered—that not only should the power of government depend on the consent of the people but that it actually did so, and that was true of dictatorships as well as democracies.

We know the result, although it took a long time: the British were forced to quit India. We may wonder, though, whether it was restricted to India. The end of the Soviet Union gives an answer. The activists who brought down that leviathan seemed to rediscover—but also to remodel and vary—Gandhi’s scheme.

Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident, and later president of the Czech Republic, spoke of “living in truth”—the title of an essay he published in 1978. Living in truth stood in opposition to “living in the lie,” which meant living in obedience to the repressive regime. Havel wrote: “We introduced a new model of behavior: don’t get involved in diffuse general ideological polemics with the center, to whom numerous concrete causes are always being sacrificed; fight ‘only’ for those concrete causes, and fight for them unswervingly to the end.”

Why was this “living in truth”? Havel’s explanation constitutes one of the few attempts of this period, or any other, to address the peculiarly ineffable question of what the inspiration of positive, constructive nonviolent action is. By living within the lie, that is, conforming to the system’s demands, Havel says, “individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.” A “line of conflict” is then drawn through each person, who is invited in the countless decisions of daily life to choose between living in truth and living in the lie.

Living in truth—directly doing in your immediate surroundings what you think needs doing, saying what you think is true and needs saying, acting the way you think people should act—is a form a protest, Havel admits, against living in the lie, and so those who try to live in truth are indeed an opposition. But that is neither all they are nor is it the main thing they are. That is to say, if the state’s commands are a violation deserving of protest, the deepest reason is that they disrupt this something—some elemental good thing, here called a person’s “essential existence”—that people wish to be or do for its own sake, whether or not it is opposed or favored by the state or anyone else.

Havel rebels against the idea that a negative, merely responding impulse is at the root of his actions. He rejects the labels “opposition” or “dissident” for himself and his fellow activists. Something in him craves manifestation. People who so define themselves do so in relation to a prior “position.” In other words, they relate themselves specifically to the power that rules society and through it, define themselves, deriving their own “position” from the position of the regime. For people who have simply decided to live within the truth, to say aloud what they think, to express their solidarity with their fellow citizens, to create as they want and simply to live in harmony with their better ‘”self,” it is naturally disagreeable to feel required to define their own, original and positive “position” negatively, in terms of something else, and to think of themselves primarily as people who are against something, not simply as people who are what they are.

For Havel, this understanding that action properly begins with a predisposition to truth has practical consequences that are basic to an understanding of political power: Under the orderly surface of the life of lies, therefore, there slumbers the hidden sphere of life in its real aims, of its hidden openness to truth. The singular, explosive, incalculable political power of living within the truth resides in the fact that living openly within the truth has an ally, invisible to be sure, but omnipresent: this “hidden sphere.” Thus in 1978 did he foresee the downfall of the Soviet Union.

Now you may wonder why, in the United States of 2003, I’m talking about Mohandas K. Gandhi in the early 1900s and Vaclav Havel in the 1970s. In the first place, the two historical events I have cited were not marginal. These were the two greatest empires of the time. The British empire was the one on which the sun was supposed never to set. But it did set. And the most important reason was probably the nonviolent resistance organized by Gandhi.

The Soviet empire was no detail of the twentieth century. Who would have thought that that colossus, with its immense nuclear arsenal, its Red Army, its KGB, all of those instruments of force in the hands of a totalitarian state, would melt away one fine day like the morning dew? And who would have thought that this would happen substantially without violence? Who would have thought it? Well, Havel thought it and Lech Walesa, the electrician who led the Solidarity trade movement, thought it, and they did it. “We did it,” Lech Walesa told a Joint Session of the US Congress, “without breaking a single pane of glass.”

I could give many more examples. I think all democratic activism is of this character. This is what I hope can turn around the policies of the United States. But also every empire that was standing at the beginning of the twentieth century had fallen by its end. And that goes for the fascist empires—the Japanese and the German—that arose at mid-century.

There is something in this world that does not love an empire.

There is another aspect of this business that is close to home. Revolution without violence, of the kind that occurred in India and the Soviet Union—and also in Spain, Greece, Portugal, the Philippines, Serbia, and any number of other countries that I can mention—has tended, much more than the violent kind to lead to liberal democratic rule. What is democratic rule, after all, including the American Republic, but a means of governing oneself without violence—of transferring power without tank fire at the local television station, without torture in the basement?

So these two things go together. The one is a good solid foundation for the other. A third thing goes with them, though this is less developed—something very familiar: simply the gradual strengthening and thickening of the rule of law, in the form of agreements, treaties, international organizations, governmental and otherwise. These are the counterpart in international affairs of nonviolent revolution at the level of the street and liberal democracy at the level of the national state.

I mentioned the nuclear dilemma. Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, 182 countries have agreed to do without nuclear weapons. The treaty provides in its Article VI that the existing nuclear powers should join the 182 in living without nuclear arms.

If I’m right that the nonviolent political power—sometimes called people power—is at the bottom of both the collapse of the world’s empires in the twentieth century and is a promising new foundation for democratic government, then what a colossal error it is for the United States to get back into the imperial business. For it does seem to me that the United States is indeed engaged now in the enormous folly of seeking to reinvent imperialism for the twentieth century.

The spread of democracy is a wonderful thing—if I’m right it is a necessary foundation for peace—and it can happen. But it cannot be advanced by force, and still less by the creation of a new empire, an idea that is as unworkable as it morally mistaken. Empire, the embodiment of force, violates equity on a global scale. No lover of freedom can give it support. It is especially contrary to the founding principles of the United States.

“Covenants, without the sword, are but words,” Hobbes said. Since then, the world has learned that swords without covenants are but empty bloodshed. Can cruise missiles build nations, in Iraq or elsewhere? Does power still flow from the barrel of a gun—or from a B-2 bomber? Can the world in the twenty-first century really be ruled from 35,000 feet? Modern peoples have the will to resist and the means to do so. Imperialism without politics is a naive imperialism. In our time, force can win a battle or two but politics is destiny.

Perhaps you have read the news this morning. In Baghdad over the last several weeks there have been a series of devastating explosions. Now again today there have been explosions, but this time the American command has announced that we are the ones doing it.

But these explosions cannot build democracy–not in Iraq and not in the United States, where democracy is also in danger.

The point I want to leave you with is not only that violence is futile, but that the antidote and cure—nonviolent political action, direct or indirect, revolutionary or reformist, American or other—has been announced. May we apply it soon to our troubled country and world.