MORE THAN AT ANY OTHER time in history, a strong case can be made on pragmatic, utilitarian grounds that war is no longer necessary. Nonviolent statecraft need not be the dream of pacifists and dreamy idealists. It is within our reach.
Simply opposing war and documenting its tragic consequences is not enough. We need to be able to put forward credible alternatives, particularly in the case of efforts to rationalize war for just causes, such as ending dictatorships and occupations, engaging in self-defense, and protecting those subjected to genocide and massacres.
Some states have rationalized arming revolutionary movements that are fighting dictatorships. Some have even rationalized intervening militarily on these movements’ behalf in the name of advancing democracy. However, there are other, more effective means to bring down dictatorship.
It was not the leftist guerrillas of the New People’s Army who brought down the U.S.-backed Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. It was nuns praying the rosary in front of the regime’s tanks, and the millions of other nonviolent demonstrators who brought greater Manila to a standstill.
It was not the eleven weeks of bombing that brought down Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, the infamous “butcher of the Balkans.” It was a nonviolent resistance movement — led by young students whose generation had been sacrificed in a series of bloody military campaigns against neighboring Yugoslav republics — that was able to mobilize a large cross-section of the population to rise up against a stolen election.
It was not the armed wing of the African National Congress that brought majority rule to South Africa. It was workers, students, and township dwellers who — through the use of strikes, boycotts, the creation of alternative institutions, and other acts of defiance — made it impossible for the apartheid system to continue.
It was not NATO that brought down the communist regimes of Eastern Europe or freed the Baltic republics from Soviet control. It was Polish dockworkers, East German churchgoers, Estonian folksingers, Czech intellectuals, and millions of ordinary citizens who faced down the tanks with their bare hands and no longer recognized the legitimacy of Communist Party leaders.
Similarly, such tyrants as Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, King Gyanendra in Nepal, General Suharto in Indonesia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, and dictators from Bolivia to Benin and from Madagascar to the Maldives were forced to step down when it became clear that they were powerless in the face of massive nonviolent resistance and noncooperation.
History has shown that, in most cases, strategic nonviolent action can be more effective than armed struggle. A recent Freedom House study demonstrated that, of the nearly seventy countries that had made the transition from dictatorship to varying degrees of democracy in the previous thirty-five years, only a small minority did so through armed struggle from below or reform instigated from above. Hardly any new democracies resulted from foreign invasion. In nearly three-quarters of the transitions, change was rooted in democratic civil-society organizations that employed nonviolent methods.
Similarly, in the highly acclaimed book Why Civil Resistance Works, authors Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan (decidedly mainstream, quantitatively oriented strategic analysts) note that of the nearly 350 major insurrections in support of self-determination and democratic rule over the past century, primarily violent resistance was successful only 26 percent of the time, whereas primarily nonviolent campaigns had a 53 percent rate of success. Similarly, they have noted that successful armed struggles take an average of eight years, while successful unarmed struggles take an average of only two years.
Nonviolent action has also been a powerful tool in reversing coups d’état. In Germany in 1923, in Bolivia in 1979, in Argentina in 1986, in Haiti in 1990, in Russia in 1991, and in Venezuela in 2002, coups have been reversed when the plotters realized, after people took to the streets, that physically controlling key buildings and institutions did not mean they actually had power.
Nonviolent resistance has also successfully challenged foreign military occupation. During the first Palestinian intifada in the 1980s, much of the subjugated population effectively became self-governing entities through massive noncooperation and the creation of alternative institutions, forcing Israel to allow for the creation of the Palestine Authority and self-governance for most of the urban areas of the West Bank. Nonviolent resistance in the occupied Western Sahara has forced Morocco to offer an autonomy proposal which — while still falling well short of Morocco’s obligation to grant the Sahrawis their right of self-determination — at least acknowledges that the territory is not simply another part of Morocco.
In the final years of German occupation of Denmark and Norway during WWII, the Nazis effectively no longer controlled the population. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia freed themselves from Soviet occupation through nonviolent resistance prior to the USSR’s collapse. In Lebanon, a nation ravaged by war for decades, thirty years of Syrian domination was ended through a large-scale, nonviolent uprising in 2005. And last year, Mariupol became the largest city to be liberated from control by Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine, not by bombings and artillery strikes by the Ukrainian military, but when thousands of unarmed steelworkers marched peacefully into occupied sections of its downtown area and drove out the armed separatists.
Almost all of these anti-occupation movements were largely spontaneous. What if, instead of spending billions for armed forces — governments would train their populations in massive civil resistance? Governments mainly justify their bloated military budgets as a means to deter foreign invasion. But the armies of the vast majority of the world’s nations (which are relatively small), could do little to deter a powerful, armed invader. Massive civil resistance may actually be a more realistic means of resisting takeover by a more powerful neighbor through massive noncooperation and disruptions.
The efficacy of nonviolent resistance against state actors has become increasingly appreciated. Can nonviolent resistance also be useful in dealing with nonstate actors, particularly in situations involving competing armed groups, warlords, terrorists, and those who don’t care about popular support or international reputations? Even in the cases of what could be referred to as “fragmented tyrannies,” we have seen some remarkable successes, such as in war-torn Liberia and Sierra Leone, where primarily women-led nonviolent movements played a major role in bringing peace. In Colombia, the Guatemalan highlands, and the Niger Delta, there have been small-scale victories of nonviolent resistance against both state security forces and notorious private armed groups, giving a sense of what might be possible if such strategies were applied in a more comprehensive manner.
What about cases of systematic persecution bordering on genocide, which has been used as an excuse for the so-called responsibility to protect? Interestingly, the empirical data show that so-called humanitarian military intervention, on average, increases the rate of killing, at least in the short term, as the perpetrators feel they have nothing to lose and the armed opposition see themselves as having a blank check with no need to compromise. And, even in the long term, foreign intervention doesn’t reduce the killings unless it is genuinely neutral, which is rarely the case.
Take the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo: while the Serbian counterinsurgency campaign against armed Kosovar guerrillas was indeed brutal, the wholesale ethnic cleansing — when Serb forces drove out hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians — came only after NATO ordered the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to withdraw its monitors and began bombing. And the terms of the cease-fire agreement that ended the war eleven weeks later were pretty much a compromise between the original demands by NATO at the Rambouillet meeting prior to the war and the counteroffer by the Serbian parliament, raising the question as to whether an agreement could have been negotiated without eleven weeks of bombing. NATO had hoped that the bombing would force Milosevic from power, but it actually strengthened him initially as Serbs rallied around the flag as their country was being bombed. The young Serbs of Otpor, the student movement that led the popular uprising that eventually toppled Milosevic, despised the regime and were horrified by the repression in Kosovo, yet they strongly opposed the bombing and recognized that it set back their cause. By contrast, they say that if they and the nonviolent wing of the Kosovar Albanian movement had gotten support from the West earlier in the decade, the war could have been avoided.
The good news, however, is that the people of the world are not waiting for a change in the policies of their governments. From the poorest nations of Africa to the relatively affluent countries of Eastern Europe; from communist regimes to right-wing military dictatorships; from across the cultural, geographic, and ideological spectrum, democratic and progressive forces have recognized the power of mass strategic nonviolent civil resistance to free themselves from oppression and challenge militarism. This has not come, in most cases, from a moral or spiritual commitment to nonviolence, but simply because it works.
Can we say with confidence that military force can never ever be justified? That there are always nonviolent alternatives? No, but we’re getting close.
The bottom line is that the traditional rationales for militarism are becoming harder and harder to defend. Regardless of whether or not one embraces pacifism as a personal principle, we can be far more effective in our advocacy for nonviolent statecraft if we understand and are willing to advocate nonviolent alternatives to war, such as strategic nonviolent action.
Copyright © Tikkun magazine
STEPHEN ZUNES is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and serves as cochair of the board of academic advisors for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.