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Do Educated Ethnic Minorities Choose Nonviolent Resistance?

4 Aug

Renat Shaykhutdinov has an interesting piece in the July 2011 issue of the Journal of Peace Education. From the abstract:

ethnic groups that enjoy a higher educational status are less prone to using violent strategies choosing instead peaceful protest. I test this hypothesis using data on 238 ethnic groups in 106 states from 1945 to 2000. The results of the statistical analysis indicate that groups with higher levels of educational attainment are more likely to engage in non-violent protest. Conversely, groups that enjoy lower educational status in their respective societies tend to use violent tactics.

The basic idea here is that ethnic minority groups that have better educational access and privileges than the majority (or “core”) population are more likely to use nonviolent protest to make territorial or group demands. Ethnic minorities that have no significant advantages (or the same educational access and privileges as the majority population) will be a little less likely to use nonviolent resistance, and ethnic minorities with observable disadvantages relative to the majority population should be more likely to adopt violence. You can read the article (linked above) to see the evidence he brings to bear on this question, his control variables, and the methods he uses.

This is a great, under-explored question with extremely important ramifications for the policy and advocacy communities. In general, we should probably think more about how learning shapes world politics. Moreover, I like Shaykhutdinov’s argument, mostly because I can get behind its policy implications (who is pro-educational-inequality-across-ethnic-groups and would say so in public?). Nevertheless, the article brings to mind a couple of issues for me.

  • What is the causal mechanism here? Shaykhutdinov argues that educational attainment (what he codes as “educational advantage” vs. “no significant educational advantage” vs. “educational disadvantage”) should reduce the propensity to use violence because education instills norms, values, and skills. I’d call this the “violence is for dummies” argument. This argument has some appeal, as well as some empirical support elsewhere in forecasting where nonviolent uprisings will occur. But we also knowthat a lot of the most dangerous terrorists or insurgents in the world have been educated elites–including many suicide terrorists. Those who use violence aren’t really dummies. Moreover, if education makes people less violent, then why do highly educated people in many societies commit the worst violence? Seemingly this argument would apply to government officials as well as to ethnic groups. But very highly educated people in the world have been some of the 20th Century’s greatest mass murderers (I’m thinking Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, of which many at the top were educated in France prior to returning to Cambodia and committing one of the world’s worst genocides). So why doesn’t educational attainment make violence go down in those cases too?

    Pol Pot

  • To me, one of the most important effects he may be picking up is the fact that ethnic groups that enjoy educational “advantages” may simply be “advantaged” in general. Privilege is privilege. I suspect that educational advantages would be highly correlated with business advantages, for example. The problem is that advantage–or status–may be explaining both the educational status of the groups and their adoption of different protest techniques. What I mean is that ethnic groups that enjoy privileges in society may not wish to threaten that privilege by appealing for more rights through violence. People with less privilege, on the other hand, are already starting from a lower point on the social totem pole. They likely already face considerable barriers to social, economic, and political satisfaction, and educational access is simply more of the same. It is precisely these conditions that may explain both their educational disadvantages and the grievances that they use to justify their violence. This is the classic endogeneity problem (and to be fair, there are no easy ways to overcome this problem statistically).
  • Does the type of education matter? Substance of education might be important. For instance, people who have spent their entire lives in parochial schools may have different feelings about nonviolent and violent resistance than people who have spent their entire lives in public schools. People who receive training in civil resistance methods during their education may be more likely to favor these methods over violence (and vice versa!). A potentially more precise (and theoretically defensible) type of education might be whether the ethnic group has had access to training from other civil resistance or civil society organizations on how to launch an effective nonviolent protest, versus contact with violent insurgents on how to train for a violent uprising.
  • Ironically, I think that oppressive regimes would much rather face a violent insurrection than a nonviolent one. Check out this creepy video released by the Iranian Interior Ministry to see what I mean:

Civil resistance campaigns are scary for autocrats. They don’t know how to competently respond to them. Violent insurgencies, on the other hand, are relatively easy for them to dispose of, using a wide range of repressive tools that are readily available to them. If we took Shaykhutdinov’s conclusions to their logical policy implications, therefore, scholarly-inclined autocrats might use this research as a pretext to generate more educational inequality among their ethnic groups. That way, they could continue to suppress these minority groups socially, economically, and politically, while also denying them the fundamental skills and knowledge required to launch effective nonviolent challenges to the regime. Yikes.

But not so fast, autocrats. I think the empirical relationship between educational advantage may be overstated a bit in Shaykhutdinov’s piece. Take a look at the cross-tabulation below (from the article).

What this table tells me is that the preponderance of ethnic groups in the sample are either advantaged or equal to society as a whole. Few ethnic groups in the sample (only 12 out of 238) were really disadvantaged, and among those that were, only 1 adopted a purely violent strategy. Among the most educationally privileged groups, however, over 15% resorted to a purely violent strategy (the highest percentage of all three categories), whereas only 10% of the educationally-equal groups used a purely violent strategy. A roughly equal percentage of them (38-39%) used nonviolent resistance. As such, the “middle” category of a “mixed” nonviolent and violent strategy is doing the most work in the statistical analysis. But the middle category is the one that is the most problematic fro the theory, since the theory relies on the notion that educationally-privileged ethnic groups should avoid violence, not use it occasionally.

To me, the cross-tabulation suggests that Shaykhutdinov’s hypothesis has little support. I am not sure if there is some colinearity in the regression that moves the coefficients into being significant, but my guess is that the substantive effects of educational equality are pretty small.

From my reading, here are the four key takeaways:

  • Shaykhutdinov should be commended for taking on a crucial question that needs further inquiry. We need more research on the relationship that education has on the choice to use nonviolent or violent resistance (or both), using methodological techniques that can help us to account for potential endogeneity.
  • There seems to be a weak positive association between educational advantage (as well as general education of the overall population) and the adoption of nonviolent strategies of protest, though the association needs further testing.
  • If Shaykhutdinov’s hypothesis is robust, then educational inequality may be a “structural” impediment to nonviolent mobilization. This means that people who want to promote the spread of nonviolent resistance (and reduce the spread of violence) should focus on improving the educational status of ethnic minorities in troubled countries.
  • If there ends up being no support for Shaykhutdinov’s hypothesis, we should be encouraged that educational inequality is not a “structural” impediment to nonviolent mobilization. Even the educationally disadvantaged should be able to adopt and practice nonviolent principles. This should scare autocrats, because it means that one of their tools–deprivation of educational rights–doesn’t really make a difference in terms of an ethnic minority’s ability to rise up and make demands of them.

Regardless, we need to know the answers to these vital questions. Kudos to Shaykhutdinov for taking the first cut.

Should Egyptians Use Violence? A Response to Cambanis

1 Aug

In yesterday’s Boston Globe, Thanassis Cambanis writes an article arguing that violence is necessary for revolutions to succeed. Tom Hastings has a nice piece that challenges a number of the claims Cambanis makes on empirical and logical grounds. In making his argument, Cambanis cites several academic studies by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, Ivan Arreguín-Toft, and Robert Pape to support his point.

Unfortunately, Mr. Cambanis misreads these studies. First, the only one that explicitly compares the success rates of nonviolent and violent revolutions is the study by Maria Stephan and myself. This study, published as an article in 2008 and as a book in 2011, examines all known major nonviolent and violent insurrections from 1900 to 2006 and finds that nonviolent resistance campaigns were more than twice as likely to succeed as violent resistance campaigns—a finding that directly contradicts Cambanis’s thesis.

Second, Mr. Cambanis writes

Robert Pape…studied terrorist attacks, aerial bombing, and other forms of coercion, and concluded that violence achieves strategic goals far more effectively than peaceful means. Ivan Arreguín-Toft…makes a similar argument about the critical role of violence for opposition movements in his book.

However, neither Pape nor Arreguín-Toft compares the effectiveness of violence with that of nonviolence or “peaceful means.” Pape’s 1996 book, Bombing to Win, compared the use of aerial bombing compared with conventional types of interstate military conflict. His 2005 book, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, argued that suicide terrorism campaigns tend to succeed when they target democratic regimes that are occupying foreign territories with different religious orientations.

In his book, How the Weak Win Wars, Ivan Arreguín-Toft looked at how the use of unconventional methods of conflict–such as guerrilla warfare–could succeed against militarily superior opponents who resorted to conventional battle techniques (he also argues that states can use “barbarism” to be victorious over weaker opponents using guerrilla warfare). However, his study is limited to inter-state conflict.

Neither of these scholars is comparing the effectiveness of violence with nonviolent resistance. Civil resistance is well outside the scope of their studies, which compare which types of violence—suicide terrorism, guerrilla warfare, strategic bombings, indiscriminate repression, etc.—are more effective when confronting other types of violence—such as non-suicidal terrorism, conventional warfare, or selective repression. In fact, Arreguín-Toft explicitly excludes comparisons with nonviolent resistance, writing that his study is limited to comparisons and cannot speak to its effectiveness.

Third, Mr. Cambanis argues that

these gentle revolutions, it turns out, might be exceptions rather than the rule. There’s a backlash among some historians and political scientists that echoes the gut feeling of Egypt’s frustrated revolutionaries. They suggest, sometimes reluctantly, that regimes that insist on ruling by the gun, so to speak, might only be pushed aside by the gun.

He then cites the Pape and Arreguín-Toft studies as evidence of this backlash.

However, his depiction of the “backlash” mistakes the sequencing of the literature. Pape’s books were published in 1996 and 2005, and Arreguín-Toft’s book was published in 2005. Our study, which argues that nonviolent resistance is more effective than violence, was first published in 2008 (the book just came out in July 2011). In fact, we explicitly critique Pape and Arreguín-Toft for excluding comparisons of nonviolent methods of conflict from their comparisons. Their studies weren’t a “backlash” against the argument that nonviolent resistance works. If anything, our argument is the one challenging their conventional wisdom that violence works. The subtitle of our book, “The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” is meant to challenge Pape directly (the subtitle to his book is “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”). Although it may seem like splitting hairs to point out that Pape and Arreguín-Toft’s works came first, Cambanis’s claim that these scholars are “reluctantly suggesting” that violence is necessary after viewing all of the historical evidence is inaccurate. The historical evidence had not yet been published when they wrote their books.

Contrary to Cambanis’s argument, the historical record reveals rather dramatically that nonviolent resistance is strategically superior, and, in the end, often leads to much more democratic and stable societies than violent insurgency. Although Egyptians may be rightly frustrated with the pace and direction of the transition, they need only look to other recent cases—such as Libya or Yemen—to see the risks of using violence to attempt to improve their strategic positions. Our research indicates that if Egyptians resort to violence, their chances of success will drop by about half, the risk of civil war will steeply rise, and the chances for democracy in the foreseeable future will be considerably reduced.

Why Security Studies Should Take Nonviolent Conflict Seriously

31 Jul

This is a re-post from a March 1, 2011 piece I wrote for The Monkey Cage:

Recent events in the Middle East have revived interest in the theory and practice on nonviolent resistance. Pundits have rediscovered theoretical works by Gene Sharp and other theorists of nonviolent resistance, and have begun to pay more attention to ways that knowledge-sharing among practitioners of civil resistance has influenced these events.  At the same time, political scientists have been criticized for failing to predict the onset of these revolutions. Although such criticisms are not entirely fair, even those who did anticipate that change was coming in the Middle East did not anticipate that these dictators would fall to overwhelmingly nonviolent uprisings.

I would argue that part of this failure to grasp the power of nonviolent mass resistance emerges from a tunnel vision within political science—and within security studies in particular—that privileges the study of violence and often neglects civil resistance as a viable form of political contestation. Even those who study revolutions do not typically distinguish between nonviolent, violent, and “mixed” methods of resistance, despite the fact that the type of resistance method these movements select may have discernable effects on their outcomes.

It is time for security studies to take nonviolent conflict seriously, and to incorporate such episodes and their dynamics into the canonical literature.

In fact, many of the concepts and strategic dynamics that dominate in the security studies literature are perfectly compatible with those discussed in the literature on nonviolent conflict. For instance, a key for any actor in an asymmetric conflict is to attack the opponent at its weakest point and, if possible, to create divisions within the opponent. Ivan Arreguin-Toft argues weaker powers can do this by adopting indirect (or “guerrilla”) strategies against stronger opponents that use direct (or “conventional”) strategies. Gil Merom and Robert Pape have made the argument that democracies are particularly susceptible to challenges by violent non-state actors, because they create unsustainable divisions within democracies. But few have directly compared how nonviolent challenges would line up compared with violent ones, because most of the security studies literature assumes that the most forceful, effective means of waging political struggle entails the threat or use of violence.

The same concept of attacking the opponent at its weakest point applies to nonviolent conflicts, except that I would argue that nonviolent mass movements are actually superior at undermining regime opponents through asymmetric approaches. This is not because of the “moral high ground,” but rather because their reliance on nonviolent resistance confounds their opponents, whose usual response to internal challenge is to use force. As Qaddafi’s response to the Libyan uprising shows, many dictators are willing to use force against nonviolent protestors; however, this is seldom costless for these dictators. They usually pay a major price in the form of loyalty shifts among security forces or civilian bureaucrats, who are more likely to defect to a nonviolent opposition—especially one that appears to represent diverse constituencies within the country—than to a violent campaign, where their survival is not assured. This may be because violence causes the opponent to cohere and unite. Thus, violent movements play to the regime’s strengths, whether they use indirect or direct approaches.

Another good reason for security studies scholars to pay attention to nonviolent resistance is that dictators themselves seem to fear mass nonviolent uprisings far more than violent insurgencies, as evidenced by this fascinating propaganda video released by the Iranian Interior Ministry several years ago. Authoritarian regimes view nonviolent resistance movements as threatening subversive, precisely because they have fewer tools with which to deal with them without provoking backfire.

Ironically, violent insurgencies may be much easier for dictators to deal with, given that the insurgents confront repressive regimes using methods in which such regimes have a decided resource advantage. The ideal situation for Mubarak would have been for him to face a violent pro-democracy rebellion. He was quite experienced in putting down violent uprisings. This is why he took such pains to employ agents provocateurs to force nonviolent protestors to react with violence—and why we should expect authoritarians in other Middle Eastern regimes to attempt the same tactic. But in the Egyptian case, even when Mubarak’s regime unleashed a wave of armed agents provocateurs, the protestors were prepared to maintain discipline and refuse to escalate their actions, which would have undermined their legitimacy and given Mubarak’s security forces the pretext to repress them. Instead, that repression backfired, inspiring near-universal condemnation, resulting in ever more committed mobilization by pro-democracy protestors, and leading to the total refusal of the Egyptian security forces to comply with Mubarak’s orders.

Given the historical potency of nonviolent resistance, why have security studies scholars avoided studying it? I think that there are a few reasons.

  • The first challenge is that people hear the word “nonviolent,” and they assume that these movements are “passive,” “weak,” “pacifist,” or “activist.”
  • Second, it’s difficult to overcome skepticism about whether nonviolent resistance can work against brutal regimes, or whether it can effectively confront extremely “powerful” countries.
  • Others may think that nonviolent campaigns only succeed when they have help from foreign powers or the international community.
  • Some may think the study of nonviolent conflict must be constrained by interminable endogeneity issues, because nonviolent campaigns only emerge in situations where change is already on the horizon—where victory is already assured, so it is “safe” to organize a nonviolent revolution. According to this view, mass nonviolent mobilization is a consequence of regime transitions or self-determination rather than the cause.
  • And finally, nonviolent resistance may be viewed as extraordinarily difficult to measure—a preconception that has no doubt stymied interest and efforts to collect such data.

Most of these concerns are misplaced.

  • First, well-organized nonviolent resistance campaigns are anything but passive. They are active, coercive campaigns prosecuted by unarmed civilians, often with a great deal of training, planning, and strategic forethought similar to what one might observe on the battlefield. This is why I prefer the term “civil resistance” to terms like “nonviolent resistance” (which defines the activity as the mere absence of violence), or “nonviolence” (which implies a moral or philosophical point of view that opposes the use of violence on moral grounds).
  • Second, civil resistance campaigns are highly effective. In a forthcoming book, Maria Stephan and I find that among major nonviolent resistance campaigns from 1900-2006, over half succeeded, almost all in excessively brutal regimes where victory was certainly not assured at the outset. Compared with a success rate of only about 25% for violent insurgencies, this figure is especially striking.
  • Next, in these nonviolent campaigns, people weren’t necessarily organizing because they saw weakness in their opponent regimes; they organized to create that weakness by attacking the regime at its most vulnerable points (ranging from specific economic sectors to forcing security force defections within the regime).
  • Among the cases we study, foreign aid tended to have no effect on the outcomes of the campaigns—in fact, sometimes foreign aid undermined the legitimacy of the campaign to its own participants.
  • And finally, nonviolent resistance is possible to conceptualize in a way that lends itself to robust inquiry using a variety of empirical methods for causal inference. Projects under the headship of Doug Bond, Doug McAdam and John McCarthy, J. Craig Jenkins, and others make this clear. Whether these efforts have been convincing is open to debate, but similar attempts to measure violent events have been no less problematic.

Those interested in pursuing research related to this topic have many reasons to be encouraged. First, there is considerable potential for fruitful inquiry on the causes, dynamics, outcomes, and consequences of civil resistance as a potent force in confronting powerful state interests. Possible areas for further research include explaining the onset of specifically nonviolent mass campaigns (as opposed to their violent counterparts), explaining variation in the success and failure of different nonviolent campaigns, researching the causes and effects of shifts from nonviolent to violent methods (or vice versa), exploring diffusion effects among movements, measuring and assessing the effects of different tactical choices, evaluating the international dimensions of domestic civil resistance, and exploring the long-term political, social, and economic consequences of civil resistance in post-conflict societies.

Second, there is already a wealth of case-based information that can inform such future studies. A number of scholars and practitioners have unwaveringly advocated and carried out the study of nonviolent conflict for decades, resulting in a voluminous body of work that is just waiting for mainstream security studies scholars to dive into. Moreover, some groups, such as the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, exist for the expressed purpose of spreading knowledge about the dynamics of nonviolent resistance, and are extremely generous in providing scholars with opportunities to do so.

Nonviolent resistance is here to stay as a powerful force for change in the world. I hope security studies scholars will pursue research that affords civil resistance the prominence it deserves in the field.

A Skeptic’s Guide to Nonviolent Resistance

31 Jul

In anticipation of a variety of critiques concerning my op-ed, “Give Peaceful Resistance a Chance,” New York Times (March 10, 2011), I have assembled a set of 15 Frequently Asked Questions by civil resistance skeptics. I can empathize with these concerns, because I once shared them myself—before I embarked on this project and was surprised by what I found. I would have included more caveats and more detail in the op-ed itself, but the (excellent) editorial staff at the Times had to limit the content for space. Furthermore, I wasn’t able to reference the many different authors whose ideas have inspired me on this subject, but a quick look at any of my published works or blog posts on nonviolent resistance will show that my research builds on a wide range of previous scholarship.

1. What do you mean by nonviolent resistance? How is it different from nonviolence?

Nonviolent (or “civil”) resistance is a method of coercion in which unarmed civilians actively apply sanctions or withdraw cooperation from their governments. Not all participants in civil resistance are pacifists, and nonviolent resistance does not succeed simply because of the moral high ground. Nonviolent resistance includes diverse tactics such as strikes, protests, go-slows, stay-aways, sit-ins, demonstrations, and other forms of civil disobedience. Nonviolence, by contrast, is a philosophical position that rejects the use of violence on moral grounds. For more information, check out this site.

2. Aren’t arguments in favor of nonviolent resistance hopelessly naïve?

They would be naïve if the argument was based on the proposition that nonviolent campaigns succeed because the “good guys always win.” That is certainly not the case, and suggesting as much would be both misleading and dangerous. That said, historical evidence from 1900 to 2006 suggests that once nonviolent campaigns have achieved a critical mass of supporters, civil resistance campaigns have worked more often than they have failed. This is true even in brutal regimes. 30 of the nonviolent campaigns we studied took place in countries that rank as autocracies (between -7 and -10 on the POLITY IV scale). All 30 of these nonviolent campaigns faced massive repression from their opponent regimes, yet 21 of them (70 percent) succeeded. That success rate is higher than average for nonviolent campaigns facing other types of regimes.

3. How can you call the Egyptian revolution a success? Didn’t it usher in a military government?

I would call it a success (for now), because the campaign had a direct and discernable impact on Mubarak’s stepping down—an outcome that few would have imagined before the uprising took place. The post-Mubarak era is still shaping up, but two things are especially important to remember. First, the nonviolent resistance is still going on, with pro-democracy activists remaining committed to seeing through reforms. Second, the military and security forces were willingly repressing pro-democracy movements in Egypt for years; it was the mass, nonviolent demonstrations that created cracks in the military, both among senior leadership and within the ranks. According to reports, one Egyptian demonstrator said that he did not see the military intervention as a coup, but rather that “This is them consenting to the people’s demand.”

4. The Middle East has more violent conflicts than almost any other region in the world. Can nonviolent resistance really work there?

Just look to the recent past, and you’ll see that the answer is yes. The Iranian Revolution is the most striking example. Although many associate the revolution with Ayatollah Khomenei’s bloody purges of the non-Islamist elements in the post-revolutionary regime, the campaign that brought Khomenei to power was a nonviolent, mass movement involving more than two million members of Iranian society. Palestinians have made the most progress toward self-determination and lasting peace with Israel when they have relied on mass, nonviolent, civil disobedience, such as the demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, and protests that dominated the First Intifada from 1987-1992. If there is a lesson from these two cases, it is that the victories of these nonviolent campaigns were cut short by violent infighting, which ultimately bloodied their legacies. For those who remain skeptical, I recommend the book Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization, and Governance in the Middle East, in which Maria Stephan and her co-authors detail the numerous civil resistance campaigns that have existed in the Middle East and Arab world.

5. Why did the nonviolent revolution in Libya fail? Could it have ever succeeded?

First, the nonviolent movement may have over-relied on a single tactic—protests—to pursue their aims. In Unarmed Insurrections, Kurt Schock argues that when movements rely too much on rallies or protests, they become extremely predictable—in other words, they become sitting ducks for regime repression. Successful movements will combine protests and demonstrations with well-timed strikes, boycotts, go-slows, stay-aways, and other actions that force the regime to disperse its repression in unsustainable ways. For example, during the Iranian Revolution, oil workers went on strike, threatening to cripple the Iranian economy. The Shah’s security forces went to the oil workers’ homes and dragged them back to the refineries, only for the workers to work at half pace before staging another walk-out. This type of repression is untenable because it requires a massive coordination of regime resources and effort.

Second, the campaign did not have adequate leverage over the security forces. Part of this may have been due to the spontaneity of the movement. But Col. Qaddafi also recognized what was going on in Egypt and Tunisia, and so he relied on foreign mercenaries to crack down on the nonviolent protests, knowing that mercenaries would not hesitate to shoot unarmed Libyan civilians. Moreover, even his regular military is deliberately decentralized in a way that doesn’t allow for overconcentration of power (presumably to avoid coups). This foreclosed the possibility that the military could confront Qaddafi and demand that he leave the country, as happened in Egypt. In this case, Qaddafi had a pretty savvy response. I don’t know whether this precluded the possibility that the people could have won using nonviolent resistance, but items #6, #7, and #10 deal more directly with that.

6. Doesn’t the failure of the nonviolent resistance in Libya disprove your argument that nonviolent resistance works? And aren’t the Libyan rebels justified in using violence given the circumstances?

All of the arguments I make are based on probability, not certainty. Here’s what I know: a campaign doesn’t succeed simply because it is nonviolent. Nevertheless, note how the largest gains the Libyan opposition made were during the nonviolent struggle, which involved massive protests that shut down the country, numerous defections from key regime functionaries, and even the nonviolent overtaking of Benghazi. For several days, it seemed as though Qaddafi’s fall was imminent, before the campaign reacted to Qaddafi’s repression with violence. So, I certainly wouldn’t argue that Libya disproves my point.

Currently, the rebels are at a major force disadvantage and probably won’t succeed without foreign intervention. Whether or not they are “justified” in using violence is beside the point, and I am not faulting them or blaming them for doing so. But my overall claim is that their resort to violence greatly reduces the probability that they will succeed, if the historical record extends to this case. To put it more concretely, their chances of success are probably somewhere between 0% and 20%.

7. Many campaigns start out as nonviolent, but become violent after their opponent regimes crack down on them. Aren’t some campaigns forced to use violence?

In most cases, I don’t think so, although I could be wrong. Ralph Summy took up this question in a 1994 article called “Nonviolence and the Case of the Extremely Ruthless Opponent.” Basically, there is almost always a way to circumvent regime repression, if the movement organizes and commits itself to a patient strategy (see Gene Sharp’s various publications on different types of nonviolent strategies). Almost all major civil resistance campaigns have faced violent repression in one form or another. Although campaigns should obviously avoid being targeted by repression whenever possible, some campaigns are able to exploit such repression to raise awareness for their cause, a dynamic that Brian Martin calls “backfire.” The bottom line is that even totalitarian regimes have to rely on agents to implement their repression.

The Serbian student movement Otpor (several of whom have developed an online resource for other nonviolent movements) faced terrible repression from the Milosevic regime, but the campaign maintained nonviolent methods and, because of that, ultimately created loyalty shifts among security forces that allowed the movement to succeed. As Michael Walzer puts it: “It is not so easy to reach the last resort. To get there, one must indeed try everything (which is a lot of things)—and not just once, as if a political party or movement might organize a single demonstration, fail to win immediate victory, and claim that it is now justified in moving on to murder….It is by no means clear when they run out of options….What exactly did they try when they were trying everything?”

8. How can you say these nonviolent movements will usher in a new wave of Middle Eastern democracies? Couldn’t they just as easily usher in a new era of military dictatorships, or populist theocracies?

I don’t share the cynicism about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East, but my assertion about the likely onset of democracy in the Middle East is, too, based on the historical record. In Chapter 8 of our forthcoming book, Maria Stephan and I looked at the cases of nonviolent and violent resistance from 1900-2006. Using data from the POLITY IV dataset, we find a high correlation between the presence of nonviolent campaigns (versus violent campaigns) and the presence of democracy five years after the campaign ends. In our study, we control for a variety of other factors that make countries likely to become democratic. If you are familiar with Robert Putnam’s book Making Democracy Work, these results may not surprise you. The bottom line is that higher levels of political participation and civil society organizing lead to higher levels of democracy.

Importantly, though, if the Middle Eastern revolutions turn into violent conflicts like Libya, then the prospects that democracy will spread are nil. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the Burmese pro-democracy movement, put it well: “It is never easy to convince those who have acquired power forcibly of the wis­dom of peaceful change.”

9. Aren’t dictators afraid of mass nonviolent movements because they fear that the movements will turn violent?

Hardly. They’re afraid of these movements because they don’t know how to deal with the massive withdrawal of cooperation. The typical tool they use is repression. But you can’t repress all of the people all of the time—especially if they engage in nonviolent methods of dispersion—because you have to rely on security forces’ and footsoldiers’ sustained obedience to do so. Most dictators sense a real dilemma when facing nonviolent campaigns, and will use all kinds of propaganda to try to undermine them, to make them start obeying again, or to make them feel like they have to resort to violence. A great irony is that most dictators would have an easier time dealing with an armed insurgency (where anything goes) than with a mass nonviolent campaign (where anything the dictator does could backfire).

10. But what can campaigns do when they face brutally repressive opponents like Qaddafi?

First, they could respond to regime violence by switching tactics—from more concentrated tactics like protests to more dispersed tactics like stay-aways or strikes. Second, they could appeal to the widest possible base of participants so as to attract as much participation as possible. This may help them to forge those indispensible links with regime elites. Third, they could maintain discipline and avoid the temptation to respond to regime provocations with violence, because resorting to violence may undermine their domestic bases of participation and support, and it may also make security forces more likely to obey orders to repress the movement.

Take the case of Chile under Pinochet. In a country where political opposition was often met with torture and disappearances, engaging in visible mass protest would have been highly risky for those opposing the Pinochet government. However, in 1983, civilians began to signal their discontent by coordinating the banging of pots and pans—a simple act that demonstrated the widespread support behind the civilians’ demands, and that Pinochet would not be able to suppress with the repressive tools at his disposal (incidentally, this tactic was replicated from a campaign in the early 1970s, when the middle class was protesting then-president Allende’s economic policies). People also walked through the streets singing songs about Pinochet’s impending demise—a practice that so irked Pinochet that he banned singing. Such a move only demonstrated his weakness, not his strength. Ultimately, Pinochet held a referendum in 1988 on the question of whether he would serve an additional eight years as president. Opposition leaders took the opportunity to organize nonviolent direct actions that focused on coordinating “No” votes, obtaining an independently verifiable vote count, and holding Pinochet accountable to the results. The coalition was extremely successful on all counts, mobilizing extremely diverse sectors of Chilean society to vote. When it was clear that Pinochet had lost, the military ultimately sided with the people, and Pinochet stepped aside after a new president was elected the following year. For a fuller account, see Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall’s chapter on Chile in A Force More Powerful.

11. Don’t nonviolent resistance campaigns only succeed when armed wings support them?

Generally, no. Some cite the African National Congress as an example of a group whose use of urban guerrilla tactics improved the bargaining position of the nonviolent antiapartheid movement, thereby improving the overall cause. However, I am skeptical that armed wings help. Instead, they simply give regimes a pretext to crack down on the nonviolent movements. Moreover, having an armed wing will dissuade many potential participants from joining. And, it will reduce the likelihood that the regime divides in its fight against the campaign.

12. Don’t nonviolent campaigns only work when they have support from outside?

Decidedly no—at least not if this refers to direct material support to opposition groups. Our data from 1900-2006 show that less than 10% of all nonviolent resistance movements received material support from outside states, and that among those that did, the aid did nothing to further their cause. Although direct foreign assistance can help violent revolutions, foreign aid to a nonviolent campaign may undermine its critical source of strength—participation. Foreign aid can dissuade activists from participating because they perceive the campaign to be a puppet of a foreign power, thus making it appear less legitimate, or because they feel that because the campaign has become rich, it no longer needs the support of the people. However, there are many legitimate ways for foreign governments to support nonviolent activists and human rights defenders, and certain forms of external assistance during critical phases of nonviolent movements proved to be very useful. My co-author, Maria Stephan, likes to recommend A Diplomat’s Handbook for Democracy Development Support as a source on this subject. Violent campaigns, on the other hand, benefit tremendously from foreign state support: it increases their chances of success by nearly 20% in most cases.

13. Are you arguing that the Obama administration should be actively supporting these nonviolent movements?

That depends on the type of support. The Obama administration has taken considerable criticism for avoiding a more active role in supporting these pro-democracy movements. This criticism may be misplaced, because our research shows that direct foreign aid can undermine a nonviolent campaign (see #12). While it does not seem that massive amounts of outside money have helped nonviolent campaigns achieve success, Western governments should instead use diplomatic leverage to pressure the regimes to reform, keep the countries open to foreign media, name and shame human rights violations, support independent media and civil society capacity-building, provide “moral support” to the opposition through verbal encouragement, and threaten to withdraw economic and security aid from regimes that refuse reforms. The Diplomat’s Handbook includes cases where different forms of external support have been used, but our study does not systematically test these types of strategies.

14. How do you measure nonviolent campaigns?

There’s a lot that goes into this answer, so I’ll simply refer you to my research page, where you’ll find the codebook and data set under “Strategic Nonviolent Resistance.” My book with Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, is due out this summer with Columbia University Press, and I will provide extensive data and appendices on my website when the book is released.

15. I took a look at your research page and take issue with your coding decisions, data, and methods.

I encourage you to create your own study incorporating your criticisms. Let’s start a dialogue on the subject.

In Search of the Rational Insurgent

31 Jul

Rational /ˈraʃ(ə)n(ə)l/*


1. based on or in accordance with reason or logic

2. able to think sensibly or logically

Insurgent /ɪnˈsəːdʒ(ə)nt/*


1. a person fighting against a government or invading force; a rebel or revolutionary.

In this inaugural post, I’d like to introduce the mission of this blog. My primary purpose is to challenge the conventional wisdom that violent insurgency is necessary or effective in confronting oppression, and to highlight nonviolent methods of resistance as viable alternatives to violence. Toward this end, this blog will feature scholarly research, media accounts, and reports from activists about the use of nonviolent direct action, or “civil resistance,” in ongoing conflicts around the world–especially in places where violence seems endemic. But first, let me tell you about the blog’s title.

Rationality is a decision process. A rational individual decides what she wants. Then she chooses strategies that have the best chances of allowing her to achieve her goals. She does this without allowing emotions, moral beliefs, or other entanglements interfere with her reason. She is a utility maximizer.

Insurgency is a state of rebellion. An insurgent is committed to changing the political, economic, or social status quo, and is often willing to fight and die for a cause. Sometimes the fight is justified, sometimes it isn’t. But the stakes are always high.

Today, we see a lot of insurgency without a lot of rationality. People who resort to violence for political goals rarely seem to be utility maximizers. They choose violent methods that have very little likelihood of yielding returns. They tend to continue to use violence long after it has proven to be futile. They attack their allies as often as they attack their enemies. They don’t bother making explanations for their attacks. They seem to use violence for violence’s sake.

A rational insurgent would rarely see violence as necessary, because she would know that nonviolent resistance has a much higher chance of success, even against brutal opponents. The rational insurgent would use nonviolent methods of change not to seize the moral high ground, but because it is the most logical choice in most contexts.

This blog aims to demonstrate why nonviolent resistance is the method of choice for the rational insurgent. I will develop explanations for why this is the case in subsequent posts. However, I have no particular political agenda to promote here, and I make no moral judgments about the use of violence in conflicts beyond utilitarian ones. I am much more interested in methods than outcomes. But I am committed to debunking inaccurate myths about nonviolent and violent resistance. And I would love to convince people who are currently using (or justifying) violent means of struggle to abandon (or denounce) those methods whenever they are unnecessary. I welcome guest posts and will entertain comments.

*Oxford English Dictionary.