et. al.: Dramatic Proof Non-Violence Trumps Armed Revolt!

Posted on 21st August 2014 in Uncategorized

If you came here today to learn about the latest IoT breakthrough, chill out: there are more important issues than technology, and this is certainly one of them!

In case you’ve had your head down all summer working on your new app or IoT device, the world is quickly going to hell in a hand basket, with violence from Ferguson, MO to The Ukraine.

Isn’t there a better way to handle our conflicts?

In fact, there is: non-violent protest, and, for those of you who share my passion for data, there are hard numbers to back up my contention!

NPR had a story this morning about a great new book from Columbia University Press, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: the Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. It studied conflicts from more than 100 years and shows that non-violence is not only twice as effective as violent uprisings in achieving the protestors’ goals, but ushers in more stable peace afterwards. Here’s how the book blurb summarizes their findings:

For more than a century, from 1900 to 2006, campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals. By attracting impressive support from citizens, whose activism takes the form of protests, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other forms of nonviolent noncooperation, these efforts help separate regimes from their main sources of power and produce remarkable results, even in Iran, Burma, the Philippines, and the Palestinian Territories.

“Combining statistical analysis with case studies of specific countries and territories, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan detail the factors enabling such campaigns to succeed and, sometimes, causing them to fail. They find that nonviolent resistance presents fewer obstacles to moral and physical involvement and commitment, and that higher levels of participation contribute to enhanced resilience, greater opportunities for tactical innovation and civic disruption (and therefore less incentive for a regime to maintain its status quo), and shifts in loyalty among opponents’ erstwhile supporters, including members of the military establishment. 

“Chenoweth and Stephan conclude that successful nonviolent resistance ushers in more durable and internally peaceful democracies, which are less likely to regress into civil war. Presenting a rich, evidentiary argument, they originally and systematically compare violent and nonviolent outcomes in different historical periods and geographical contexts, debunking the myth that violence occurs because of structural and environmental factors and that it is necessary to achieve certain political goals. Instead, the authors discover, violent insurgency is rarely justifiable on strategic grounds.”

Chenoweth & Stephan compiled data from 323 campaigns from Gandhi’s campaign beginning in 1919 to the protests that ousted Thai PM Thanksin Shinawatra in 2006. “This global data set covers all known nonviolent and violent campaigns (each featuring at least 1,000 observed participants) for self-determination, the removal of an incumbent leader, or the expulsion of a foreign military occupation from 1900 to 2006. The data set was assembled using thousands of source materials on protest and civil disobedience, expert reports and surveys, and existing records on violent insurgencies.” 

I’ve got this stuff on the brain right now because I’m reviewing my oldest’s dissertation proposal, which deals with whether bottom-up, community-based counter-insurgency military strategies might not be better than top-down, central government-centered ones. It seems to me that these are variations on the same theme.

In a companion article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, “Drop Your Weapons: when and why civil resistance works,” Chenoweth & Stephan wrote:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, no social, economic, or political structures have systematically prevented nonviolent campaigns from emerging or succeeding. From strikes and protests to sit-ins and boycotts, civil resistance remains the best strategy for social and political change in the face of oppression. Movements that opt for violence often unleash terrible destruction and bloodshed, in both the short and the long term, usually without realizing the goals they set out to achieve. Even though tumult and fear persist today from Cairo to Kiev, there are still many reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the promise of civil resistance in the years to come.” (my emphasis)

But what of outside players, especially the US? They suggest that, rather than a knee-jerk response of sending in our troops to support protestors, that there may be a more successful response: “a ‘responsibility to assist’ nonviolent activists and civic groups well before confrontations between civilians and authoritarian regimes devolve into violent conflicts.” Are you reading, Sec. Kerry & President Obama? Chenweth & Stephan suggest:

“Policymakers should prioritize a ‘responsibility to assist’ nonviolent activists and civic groups, rather than only seeking to protect civilians through military force, as in NATO’s Libya intervention. Of course, civil resistance campaigns are and must remain homegrown movements. But in recent years, the international community has done much to undermine civil resistance by quickly and enthusiastically supporting armed actors when they arrive on the scene. Syria’s tragedy is a case in point. Although regime repression, supported by Iran and Russia, undoubtedly helped turn a principally nonviolent uprising into a civil war, external actors could have done more to aid civil resistance and prolong the original nonviolent uprising. They could have helped encourage, coordinate, and exploit for political gain regime defections (including from key Alawite elites); demanded that Assad allow foreign journalists to remain in the country; accelerated direct financial support to grass-roots nonviolent networks and local councils; and provided more information to Syrian activists about what it takes to remain nonviolent under highly repressive conditions. Instead, the international community provided political recognition and sanctuary to armed actors, supplied both nonlethal and lethal aid to them, and helped militarize the conflict, undermining the momentum of the nonviolent movement. There was no silver bullet for effectively aiding the nonviolent Syrian opposition. But speed and coordination on the part of external actors, particularly early on in the revolution, were lacking.

Syria highlights the moral and strategic imperative of developing more flexible, nimble ways to support nonviolent resistance movements. The local champions of people power will continue to chart their own future. But outside actors have an important role to play in assuring that civil resistance has a fighting chance.”

Chenoweth & Stephan offer an explanation based on their studies, of the logic — which I find compelling — about why mass protests are more effective.

Unlike armed resistance, which scares the daylights out of a lot of rational people who might take part in peaceful protests (duh!), non-violence attracts “a larger and more diverse base of participants [in the NPR interview they specifically mentioned the large numbers of women who play a prominent role in protests. Shoot your mom? Not so fast..].” They find three common elements in effective campaigns: “… they enjoy mass participation, they produce regime defections, and they employ flexible tactics.”  The big campaigns just bring daily life to a messy halt that’s hard to overcome: “When large numbers of people engage in acts of civil disobedience and disruption, shifting between concentrated methods such as protests and dispersed methods such as consumer boycotts and strikes, even the most brutal opponent has difficulty cracking down and sustaining the repression indefinitely.”  As one soldier they quoted in the NPR story said about why he defied orders to shoot point-blank at protesters, he was afraid he’d be shooting his own kids! And it’s not just soldiers who turn: the elites who keep things running also turn, and things quickly grind to a stop.

They also stress that the successful non-violent campaigns take a lot of planning, and usually play out over a number of years, gradually gaining strength.

The strategy doesn’t always work, but even then, not all is lost over the long haul:

“…. from 1900 to 2006, countries that experienced failed nonviolent movements were still about four times as likely to ultimately transition to democracy as countries where resistance movements resorted to violence at the outset. Nonviolent civic mobilization relies on flexibility and coalition building — the very things that are needed for democratization.”

They also look closely at some of the current examples that seem to undercut the argument for non-violence, namely, Libya, Egypt, and Syria. I thought the Syrian situation was particularly relevant, because massive civil disobedience never really got off the ground before violence broke out, undercutting widespread support among the general public:

taking up arms against the Assad regime’s inevitable brutality destroyed any chance of maintaining the open support for the Syrian opposition on the part of significant numbers of Alawites, Christians, and Druze — minorities who were represented among the nonviolent movement and were crucial to any inclusive, successful civil resistance. The subsequent civil war has alienated many former participants in and supporters of the revolution, and in many ways, it has fortified the regime. And the costs have been enormous.”

I urge you to read the entire Foreign Affairs article. When I can, I’m going to read the whole book.

I’ve done a lot of things that I’m proud of over my career, but none that makes me more proud than the first thing I did as an adult: going through the arduous process of being classified as a conscientious objector during Vietnam and taking two years out of my career to do alternative service as a teacher in an anti-poverty program’s day-care center. Thank you, Haverford College, for gently instilling those values in me, and thank you, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, for this dramatic proof that non-violent protest works!

Now, back to our regularly-scheduled programming…

 

 

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