The Will of the World

The Will of the World

Jonathan Schell, who last week compellingly argued "The Case Against the War" in these pages, this week assesses the power and meaning of the global antiwar demonstrations.


February 15, 2003, the day 10 million or so people in hundreds of cities on every continent demonstrated against war in Iraq, will go down in history as the first time that the people of the world expressed their clear and concerted will in regard to a pressing global issue. Never before–not during the Vietnam War, not during the antinuclear demonstrations of the early 1980s–had they made known their will so forcefully by all the means at their disposal. On that day, history may one day record, global democracy was born.

Several elements unexpectedly (isn't the spontaneous expression of a people's will always unexpected?) snapped into place, like the components on an assembly line. One was a concatenation of opinion polls, showing that in the vast majority of the countries in which people were free to express their views, they opposed war against Iraq unless sanctioned by the United Nations. In every European country, a majority of the public supports this view. In Italy, whose government supports war, 85 percent of the public opposes it. Elsewhere, the figures are the same. In Thailand, for example, 75 percent oppose a war. In Uruguay, the figure is 79 percent. In Pakistan, it is 60 percent. Even in the United States, where poll results were mixed, a New York Times poll showed that 56 percent of the public favored war only with UN sanction. The news brought by these polls is political dynamite. Once upon a time, public opinion polls were of only secondary importance. Now, as every officeholder knows, they have moved to center stage. They are a prime currency of power: Poll numbers in the political realm are the equivalent of stock prices in the corporate realm. Polls are, in effect, periodic off-year elections, which not only may predict the real elections on which continuation in power depends but also affect the moment-to-moment ability of leaders to pass legislation, to rally the public to a cause and so forth. Their importance in the present context was revealed unmistakably when Gerhard Schröder of Germany and Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea won the leadership of their countries on peace platforms.

The worldwide demonstrations put faces on these numbers. It was as if the antiwar majorities around the world were saying, "You have heard about us in the opinion polls; you have seen our views expressed in percentages and graphs: how many are against war under any circumstance, how many against it without a UN vote, how many think it's all about oil and so forth. Well, here we are–in our millions, yet each of us a visible individual, carrying an individual sign, often homemade (in New York, one read, My Planet, Right or Wrong), as if some global schoolteacher had given us all the following assignment: Say what's wrong with the war on Iraq in ten words or less." The shift from answering a pollster's question at dinnertime to marching on the street was a critical one. Of all the possible forms of participation, giving your view to a pollster is probably the least active. Indeed, poll respondents must not be governed by self-propulsion, which is the essence of political participation; they must be chosen and contacted at random by the pollster. Otherwise, the result will be biased. Marching in a demonstration, by contrast, is among the most active forms of participation in political life. Demonstrators have bestirred themselves, put off other plans, braved the elements, flung themselves into action. They mean business. Even a passionate, engaged minority can, by appearing en masse in the streets, have a powerful influence on the body politic. When, as in the present case, the demonstrating minority is the tip of a majoritarian iceberg, the effect is multiplied many times over.

When terrorists attacked the Pentagon and knocked down the World Trade Center on September 11, everyone marveled that nineteen men had coordinated their actions for evil with such efficiency. On February 15, 10 million coordinated their actions for good. February 15 was the people's answer to September 11.

The splendor of this global display of opinion was only thrown into sharper relief by the public silence in the countries where expression of public opinion is not allowed. The Chinese people were notably missing from the instant global agora. So were the North Koreans. The latter were in fact present at gigantic demonstrations–but these were compulsory ones, organized by the government, not to call for peace but to participate in grandiose and absurd birthday celebrations for the dictator Kim Jong Il. He loves his people so much that on his birthday he permits them to eat white rice two days in a row. In Iraq, too, there were compelled demonstrations designed to mimic the spontaneous ones elsewhere, but there, as in North Korea, forced peals of praise for the head of state were the order of the day.

The leadership of the European Union, which had been divided on the war, got the point of the demonstrations on their continent soon enough. In a meeting of the EU's heads of state on Monday, it voted to give the UN inspectors in Iraq more time. It called for a peaceful solution–with war to be considered "only as a last resort"–because, the official statement said, "it is clear that this is what the people of Europe want." Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, said even more simply, "People want peace." In fact, people wanted peace on every continent where public opinion could be measured.

One more element has been of the first importance. Not only has the human species made its will known; it also possesses an institution–now in session–for effectuating that will: the United Nations. The UN is often denigrated as a "debating society." One reason is that a "democratic deficit" is built into its very structure. No one elects its representatives. Like agency heads or cabinet ministers, they are appointees, creatures of government. To national publics, therefore, the UN often seems remote, abstract and, above all, powerless. The clear expression of the world's will repaired the UN's democratic deficit. It is entirely fitting at this moment that South Africa has invoked a provision of the Charter that permits the voices of countries of the General Assembly to be heard in the elite Security Council. The great majority have expressed opposition to war.

The UN delegates are still not elected, and the public is still not invited to sit at their councils, but now they have the wind of public opinion at their backs. They are "representatives" in a way that they have never been before. For the first time in the history of the institution, the "we the peoples of the United Nations" invoked in the UN Charter is not an abstraction. The "we" has spoken–not through its governments but directly to its representatives in the international body. Moreover, it has done so in the name of the goal that is the UN's prime reason for existing: peace. The United States and Great Britain have sought to use the UN as an instrument of war. The world has said No.

Can a war that the world and its assembled representatives have explicitly rejected still occur? Unfortunately, it can. Yet the events of February 15–and their repercussions in Europe and elsewhere–have radically altered the calculus of possibilities. Before the 15th, the war seemed unstoppable–inevitable. This alleged inevitability, indeed, has probably in fact been the strongest of the "arguments" for the war. Now, for the first time, it is conceivable that if enough people place enough specific, concrete pressure on their governments, the war can be prevented.

We–that is, we, the peoples of the earth–have examined the case for war against Iraq and rejected it. We have stepped forward onto the streets of our cities and looked at ourselves, and have liked what we saw. We know our will. Now we must act. We can stop the war.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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