The Will of the World  by JONATHAN SCHELL

  [from the March 10, 2003 issue of THE NATION]
Posted Thursday, Feb. 20, 2003

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. --The Editors

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.
[Posted Thursday, Feb. 20, 2003]