A ‘responsibility to assist’? When and why civil resistance works

civilresistancePolicymakers should prioritize a “responsibility to assist” nonviolent activists and civic groups, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan contend. Strengthening civil society is a precondition for sustained democratic development and outside actors have an important role to play in assuring that civil resistance has a fighting chance.

“Nonviolent civil resistance movements have varied widely in terms of their duration, their success, their ability to remain nonviolent, and their cost in terms of human life,” they write for Foreign Affairs. “The basic trajectory of these recent movements — each successive one seemingly more violent and more geopolitically charged — has encouraged skepticism about the prospects for civil resistance in the twenty-first century. Such doubts are understandable but misplaced,” they argue, drawing on an extensive data set.

Between 1900 and 2006, campaigns of nonviolent resistance against authoritarian regimes were twice as likely to succeed as violent movements, they note:

Nonviolent resistance also increased the chances that the overthrow of a dictatorship would lead to peace and democratic rule. This was true even in highly authoritarian and repressive countries, where one might expect nonviolent resistance to fail. Contrary to conventional wisdom, no social, economic, or political structures have systematically prevented nonviolent campaigns from emerging or succeeding.

Liberal interventionists cited a “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify NATO’s intervention in Libya and have also invoked that argument in advocating for similar action in Syria. But the promise of civil resistance suggests an alternative: a “responsibility to assist” nonviolent activists and civic groups well before confrontations between civilians and authoritarian regimes devolve into violent conflicts.


“Civil resistance does not succeed because it melts the hearts of dictators and secret police. It succeeds because it is more likely than armed struggle to attract a larger and more diverse base of participants and impose unsustainable costs on a regime, Chenoweth and Stephan suggest:

Broad-based support for a resistance movement can also weaken the loyalty of economic elites, religious authorities, and members of the state media who support the regime. When such figures defect to the opposition, they can sometimes force the regime to surrender to the opposition’s demands, which is what happened with the Philippines’ People Power movement of 1983–86. Broad movements also enjoy a tactical advantage: diverse, nonviolent campaigns that include women, professionals, religious figures, and civil servants – as opposed to violent ones comprised of mostly young, able-bodied men trained to become militants – reduce the risk of violent crackdowns, since security forces are often reluctant to use violence against crowds that might include their neighbors or relatives. And even when governments have chosen to violently repress resistance movements, in all the cases under review, nonviolent campaigns still succeeded in achieving their goals almost half the time, whereas only 20 percent of violent movements achieved their goals, because the vast majority were unable to produce the mass support or defections necessary to win. In cases in which the security forces remain loyal to the regime, defections among economic elites can play a critical role.

“Even campaigns that possess the holy trinity of features — mass participation, regime defections, and flexible tactics — don’t always succeed,” they note:

Much depends on whether state authorities can outmaneuver the protesters and sow division in their ranks, perhaps even provoking nonviolent resisters to abandon their protests and strikes, lose their discipline and unity, and take up arms in response to repression. But even when nonviolent campaigns fail, all is not lost: 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.

But revolutionary campaigns can still maximize their chances of achieving more representative government — of bringing the successes of the street into the halls of power — if they develop so-called parallel institutions during the course of their struggles. Poland offers one of the best examples. In 1980, after some 16,000 workers launched a strike at the Gdansk shipyard, Polish labor groups, which had already been fomenting resistance to the Soviet-backed communist regime in Poland for a decade, formed Solidarity, a trade union that morphed into a civil resistance movement and gradually eroded the communist authority’s grip on the country. Solidarity published underground dissident newspapers, organized demonstrations and radical theater performances in churches, and resisted years of repression, including the imposition of martial law in 1981. Eventually, ten million Poles joined the group, which operated as a kind of shadow government, facilitating its ability to step into a leadership role as communism crumbled.

“During last year’s UN General Assembly meeting, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to a roundtable about the essential role that civil society has played in nearly every major social and political transformation of the last half century,” Chenoweth and Stephan recall, noting that he “called on governments to embrace civil society groups as partners and, in a slightly edgier appeal, pressed governments and nongovernmental organizations to come up with more innovative and effective ways to support groups and activists fighting against injustice and oppression.”


“But that raises the question of which forms of external assistance to nonviolent civic groups work and which ones don’t,” they write:

The idea of “do no harm” remains an anchoring principle for how outside governments and institutions should promote democracy and aid civil society groups in other countries. International support to such movements can take many forms, such as monitoring trials of political prisoners, engaging in solidarity movements to support the right of peaceful assembly, providing alternative channels of news and information, targeting warnings to security officials who might be tempted to use lethal force against nonviolent protesters, and supporting general capacity building for civic groups and independent media. But local actors are in the best position to determine which type of support is appropriate and if it is worth the associated risks.

Strengthening civil society is not only a precondition for sustained democratic development. It can also protect civilians from the worst excesses of violent repression. Although regimes may not refrain from using violence against peaceful protesters, history suggests that helping civic groups maintain nonviolent discipline — a practice that often requires coordination, preparation, and training — can ultimately minimize civilian casualties. In addition to staving off armed rebellion, sticking to civil resistance can insulate protesters from the most extreme forms of state violence by raising the costs of repression (although as Tunisia and Egypt proved, hundreds of protesters could still pay with their lives). Nonviolent movements are not as reliant on outside support as armed ones are, but the international community can help ensure that civil society groups maintain the space they need to exercise their basic rights of free speech and assembly while avoiding the temptation to turn to arms to pursue their goals.

“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,” they contend.

“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.”


Representative democracy ‘losing its luster’

4th revolutionAs Asian countries generate clever ideas for reforming government, the West’s greatest strength — representative democracy — is losing its luster, argue two leading analysts. Democratic governments increasingly make promises that they cannot deliver on and allow themselves to be captured by special interests or diverted by short-term considerations, according to The Economist’s John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.

This crisis of Western liberal democracy has been brewing for decades, but it has become acute in the last few years for three reasons, they write for the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs:

First is the increasingly unsustainable debt burden that Western states are carrying. The 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent global recession led to an explosion in public debt: according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, global public debt reached $50.6 trillion in 2013, compared with just $22 trillion in 2003. …..

The second factor that has thrown the deficiencies of contemporary Western governance into sharp relief is the rapid development of information technology. ….. Western governments have failed to harness the full potential of the digital revolution, often stumbling in their attempts to make themselves more Internet-friendly…..

The third ongoing test of Western-style liberal democracy is the impressive track records in recent years of other models, particularly the modernizing authoritarianism pursued by Asian countries such as China and Singapore. For the first time since the middle of the twentieth century, a global race is on to devise the best kind of state and the best system of government. Compared to during that earlier era, the differences between the models competing today are far smaller — but the stakes are just as high. Whoever wins this contest to lead the fourth revolution in modern governance will stand a good chance of dominating the global economy. 

“Westerners have long assumed that the ideals of freedom and democracy would ultimately take root everywhere and that all countries that wanted to modernize would have to adopt such values,” they note. “But the rise of authoritarian modernization in Asia puts this in jeopardy. To remain stable and prosperous and to maintain their positions as global leaders, European countries and the United States will have to embrace the goal of smaller, more efficient government.”

“The state is the most precious of human possessions,” the economist Alfred Marshall remarked in 1919, toward the end of his life, “and no care can be too great to be spent on enabling it to do its work in the best way,” note Micklethwait and Wooldridge, the authors of The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State (Penguin Press, 2014).

But citizens and leaders in the democratic world have lost sight of the fact that government can change.

“Somewhat ironically, these days it’s China’s authoritarian rulers, and not their Western counterparts, who are more likely to understand Marshall’s insights into the preciousness and malleability of the state,” they write:

Chinese leaders study the great Western political theorists — Alexis de Tocqueville is a particular favorite — and their bureaucrats scour the world for the best ideas about governance. The Chinese, it seems, realize that government is the reason why the West has been so successful. Until the sixteenth century, China represented the most advanced civilization in the world; after that, the West pulled ahead, thanks in part to three (and a half) revolutions in government that leveraged the power of technology and the force of ideas. Now, a fourth revolution has begun, but it isn’t yet clear which countries will shape it and whether they will draw mostly from the ascendant tradition of Western liberal democracy or from newer forms of authoritarian rule that have emerged in recent decades. 

Innovation shifts east

China is the obvious focus of the debate over the future of governance, Micklethwait and Wooldridgeassert:

The Chinese have produced a new model of government that directly challenges the Western belief in free markets and democracy. China has pioneered a form of “state capitalism” by selling off thousands of smaller companies but keeping equity stakes in more than a hundred big companies. The country has also revived its ancient principle of meritocracy by recruiting Chinese Communist Party members from top universities and promoting party functionaries based on their ability to hit various targets, such as eradicating poverty and promoting economic growth.

“The twenty-first century is sure to be shaped by ever-fiercer competition between states to figure out which innovations in governing yield the best results,” they contend.

“The liberal democracies of the Western world still enjoy a significant leg up in terms of wealth and political stability. But it’s not yet clear whether the West will be able to summon the sort of intellectual and political energy that, for the past four centuries, has kept it ahead in the global race to reinvent the state.”


US needs ‘interventionist, internationalist’ foreign policy, says Obama

Barack ObamaThe United States will continue to provide global leadership and advance democracy but with less recourse to military power, President Barack Obama announced today, outlining a new foreign policy doctrine that is “both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral.”

The new approach will draw on soft power and financial incentives to combat terrorism through international partnerships, including a $5bn Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund to support partner states in areas such as the Sahel.

“The United States is the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century passed, and will likely be true for the century to come,” Mr. Obama said in a graduation speech to West Point cadets. 

“What makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions.”

“Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will,” he said. “The question we face … is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead.”

“America’s support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism; it is a matter of national security,” he told the audience.

“The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership, but U.S. military action cannot be the only—or even primary— component of our leadership in every instance,” he said. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

Obama countered his critics by reiterating his belief that there are moral and national security motives for foreign interventions in certain circumstances.

“We have a real stake – an abiding self-interest – in making sure our children grow up in a world where schoolgirls are not kidnapped; where individuals aren’t slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political beliefs,” he said.

“When a typhoon hits the Philippines, or girls are kidnapped in Nigeria, or masked men occupy a building in Ukraine – it is America that the world looks to for help. The United States is the one indispensable nation.”

“Democracies are our closest friends and are far less likely to go to war. Economies based on free and open markets perform better and become markets for our goods. Respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror,” he said:

A new century has brought no end to tyranny. In capitals around the globe — including, unfortunately, some of America’s partners — there has been a crackdown on civil society. The cancer of corruption has enriched too many governments and their cronies and enraged citizens from remote villages to iconic squares.

And watching these trends, or the violent upheavals in parts of the Arab world, it’s easy to be cynical. But remember that because of America’s efforts — because of American diplomacy and foreign assistance, as well as the sacrifices of our military — more people live under elected governments today than at any time in human history. Technology is empowering civil society in ways that no iron fist can control. New breakthroughs are lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. And even the upheaval of the Arab world reflects the rejection of an authoritarian order that was anything but stable, and now offers the long-term prospect of more responsive and effective governance.

From Brazil to India, rising middle classes compete with us, and governments seek a greater say in global forums. And even as developing nations embrace democracy and market economies, 24-hour news and social media makes it impossible to ignore the continuation of sectarian conflicts, failing states and popular uprisings that might have received only passing notice a generation ago.

But U.S. support for democracy and human rights “has been very weak during his years in office—in Russia and China, in Iran and Egypt, in Venezuela and Cuba,” according to Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle East policy at the Council on Foreign Relations:

America has not effectively challenged dictators, nor has it defended human rights activists and journalists when repressive regimes jailed them. “Engagement” with regimes has been the most important goal. To state now that support for human rights “goes beyond idealism—it’s a matter of national security” is nice, but if that is all true, where has he been since January 2009? 

Even Obama’s supporters worry that the president’s caution can become an excuse for inaction, the FT’s Geoff Dyer reports:

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser, says that he believes Mr Obama often has the right instincts but that “he does not always translate that into diplomatic strategies to achieve his goals”.. . .

The root cause of much of the angst about Mr Obama has been his public wobble last September over whether to launch Tomahawk missiles against Syria, culminating in the walk on the White House lawn when he decided to punt the issue to Congress. Outside of the Middle East, few US allies were worried about the details of the proposed Syria strike: what rattled them was the sight of a US president making a threat and then deciding he did not have the political authority to carry through with it…..

Countries such as China and Russia appear to have found new ways to gradually chip away at US influence, pursuing territorial claims in Crimea or the South China Sea in a manner that fall well short of casus belli.

“With such a structural shift in international politics, the US will need to operate in different ways, but we are still struggling to come to terms with the new reality,” says Jeremy Shapiro, a former Obama administration official now at the Brookings Institution.

Re-Thinking Democracy Promotion Amid Rising Authoritarianism

The crisis caused by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the threat to freedom posed by kleptocratic autocracies. The world is watching how the democratic community of nations responds to Putin’s brazen attack not only against Ukraine but against the very concept of freedom and the ability of people to choose their own political destiny.

Much is at stake, for authoritarian regimes pose a danger not only to their own populations through suppression of human rights but to others as well. This requires a re-examination of democracy promotion, the threats it faces, and how best to advance it.

The American Interest, Freedom House and Johns Hopkins-SAIS invite you to

Re-Thinking Democracy Promotion Amid Rising Authoritarianism

Monday, June 9, 2014 9:00 am – 5:00 pm. Kenney Auditorium, Paul H. Nitze Building, 1740 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20036

Click here to RSVP

Conference Agenda

9:00-9:30 Registration and Coffee

9:30–9:40 Opening Remarks

Charles Davidson, Publisher and CEO of The American Interest and Board Member of Freedom House 

9:40 – 10:00 Democracy Promotion in the World of Vladimir PutinSpeaker via Recorded Video:

Francis Fukuyama, Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University and Europe Center Research Affiliate

10:00 – 10:40 200+ Years of American Values in Foreign Policy


Walter Russell Mead, Editor-at-Large at The American Interest and James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College

10:40 – 11:00 Coffee break 

11:00 – 12:15 Do the Internal Affairs of Other Nations Matter to Us?


Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

Michael Mandelbaum, Christian A. Herter Professor and Director of the American Foreign Policy program at SAIS

Richard Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations

Moderator:Paula Dobriansky, Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Board Member of Freedom House 

12:15 – 1:00 Lunch

1:00 – 2:15 The Authoritarian Temptation – And the Need To Push Back Speakers:

Josef Joffe, Publisher and Editor of Die Zeit and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford

Robert Kagan, Senior Fellow at Brookings

Moderator: Charles Davidson

2:15 – 3:45 The Authoritarian Threat


Andrew Nathan,Professor at Columbia Universityand Board Member of Freedom House

Zainab al-Suwaj, Co-founder and Executive Director of the American Islamic Congress and Board Member of Freedom House

Ruth Wedgwood, Edward B. Burling Chair in International Law and Diplomacy at SAIS and Board Vice Chair of Freedom House

David J. Kramer, President of Freedom House


Carla Anne Robbins, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Clinical Professor National Security Studies Baruch College/CUNY

3:45 – 4:00 Coffee Break

4:00 – 5:00 How Can We Do Better?


Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy

Thomas Carothers, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 

Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President of Freedom House


Adam Garfinkle, Editor of The American Interest

5:00 Closing Remarks by David J. Kramer

‘Weakened West’ confronts return of geo-politics

Whether it is Russian forces seizing Crimea, China’s aggressive claims in its coastal waters, Japan’s increasingly assertive strategy of its own, or Iran trying to use alliances with Syria and Hezbollah to dominate the Middle East, old-fashioned power plays are back in international relations, says a leading analyst.

The United States and the EU, at least, find such trends disturbing, Walter Russell Mead writes in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs:

Both would rather move past geopolitical questions of territory and military power and focus instead on ones of world order and global governance: trade liberalization, nuclear nonproliferation, human rights, the rule of law, climate change, and so on. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, the most important objective of U.S. and EU foreign policy has been to shift international relations away from zero-sum issues toward win-win ones. To be dragged back into old-school contests such as that in Ukraine doesn’t just divert time and energy away from those important questions; it also changes the character of international politics. As the atmosphere turns dark, the task of promoting and maintaining world order grows more daunting.

But Westerners should never have expected old-fashioned geopolitics to go away. They did so only because they fundamentally misread what the collapse of the Soviet Union meant: the ideological triumph of liberal capitalist democracy over communism, not the obsolescence of hard power. China, Iran, and Russia never bought into the geopolitical settlement that followed the Cold War, and they are making increasingly forceful attempts to overturn it.

“The realities of personal and political life in post-historical societies are very different from those in such countries as China, Iran, and Russia, where the sun of history still shines,” Mead argues. “It is not just that those different societies bring different personalities and values to the fore; it is also that their institutions work differently and their publics are shaped by different ideas.”

Axis of weevils – no appealing brand

But Mead’s alarmism is based on a colossal misreading of modern power realities, counters Princeton University’s G. John Ikenberry:

It is a misreading of the logic and character of the existing world order, which is more stable and expansive than Mead depicts, leading him to overestimate the ability of the “axis of weevils” to undermine it. And it is a misreading of China and Russia, which are not full-scale revisionist powers but part-time spoilers at best, as suspicious of each other as they are of the outside world. True, they look for opportunities to resist the United States’ global leadership, and recently, as in the past, they have pushed back against it, particularly when confronted in their own neighborhoods. But even these conflicts are fueled more by weakness — their leaders’ and regimes’ — than by strength. They have no appealing brand.

Mead’s vision of a contest over Eurasia between the United States and China, Iran, and Russia misses the more profound power transition under way: the increasing ascendancy of liberal capitalist democracy, he replies in Foreign Affairs:  

To be sure, many liberal democracies are struggling at the moment with slow economic growth, social inequality, and political instability. But the spread of liberal democracy throughout the world, beginning in the late 1970s and accelerating after the Cold War, has dramatically strengthened the United States’ position and tightened the geopolitical circle around China and Russia.

It’s easy to forget how rare liberal democracy once was, Ikenberry writes:

Until the twentieth century, it was confined to the West and parts of Latin America. After World War II, however, it began to reach beyond those realms, as newly independent states established self-rule. During the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, military coups and new dictators put the brakes on democratic transitions. But in the late 1970s, what the political scientist Samuel Huntington termed “the third wave” of democratization washed over southern Europe, Latin America, and East Asia. Then the Cold War ended, and a cohort of former communist states in eastern Europe were brought into the democratic fold. By the late 1990s, 60 percent of all countries had become democracies.

Although some backsliding has occurred, the more significant trend has been the emergence of a group of democratic middle powers, including Australia, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Korea, and Turkey. These rising democracies are acting as stakeholders in the international system: pushing for multilateral cooperation, seeking greater rights and responsibilities, and exercising influence through peaceful means.

Such countries lend the liberal world order new geopolitical heft. As the political scientist Larry Diamond has noted, if Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Turkey regain their economic footing and strengthen their democratic rule, the G-20, which also includes the United States and European countries, “will have become a strong ‘club of democracies,’ with only Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia holding out.” The rise of a global middle class of democratic states has turned China and Russia into outliers — not, as Mead fears, legitimate contestants for global leadership.

But the Obama administration is failing to organize and mobilize emerging democracies, according to The Economist:

Obama has been an inattentive friend. He has put his faith in diplomatic coalitions of willing, like-minded democracies to police the international system. That makes sense, but he has failed to build the coalitions. And using diplomacy to deal with the awkward squad, such as Iran and Russia, leads to concessions that worry America’s allies. Credibility is about reassurance as well as the use of force.

Credibility is also easily lost and hard to rebuild. On the plus side, the weakened West, as we dubbed it after the Syrian debacle, is still stronger than it thinks. America towers above all others in military spending and experience (see article). Unlike China and Russia, it has an unrivalled—and growing—network of alliances. In the past few years Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines have all moved towards it, seeking protection from China. And events can sway perceptions. Back in 1991 George Bush  

China, Russia and Iran have different values, but all oppose this system of liberal pluralism, commentator David Brooks writes for the New York Times:

The U.S. faces a death by a thousand cuts dilemma. No individual problem is worth devoting giant resources to. It’s not worth it to spend huge amounts of treasure to establish stability in Syria or defend a Western-oriented Ukraine. But, collectively, all the little problems can undermine the modern system. No individual ailment is worth the expense of treating it, but, collectively, they can kill you.

Replacement era will not be modern or nice

Brooks quotes his Yale colleague Charles Hill, formerly a “legendary” State Department official:

“The ‘category error’ of our experts is to tell us that our system is doing just fine and proceeding on its eternal course toward ever-greater progress and global goodness. This is whistling past the graveyard.

“The lesson-category within grand strategic history is that when an established international system enters its phase of deterioration, many leaders nonetheless respond with insouciance, obliviousness, and self-congratulation. When the wolves of the world sense this, they, of course, will begin to make their moves to probe the ambiguities of the aging system and pick off choice pieces to devour at their leisure.

“This is what Putin is doing; this is what China has been moving toward doing in the maritime waters of Asia; this is what in the largest sense the upheavals of the Middle East are all about: i.e., who and what politico-ideological force will emerge as hegemon over the region in the new order to come. The old order, once known as ‘the American Century’ has been situated within ‘the modern era,’ an era which appears to be stalling out after some 300-plus years. The replacement era will not be modern and will not be a nice one.”

U.S. ‘projecting weakness and uncertainty’

Stanford University’s Francis Fukuyama [above - a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy] and Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, agree with Mead that “old-fashioned geopolitics is back,” Nathan Gardels writes for the Huffington Post:

The economic interdependence among nations today, in 2014, is no more immune from violent conflict than it was during the first globalization at the turn of the 20th century when it all broke down and ended in world war in 1914. Today, Fukuyama argues, economists and financial analysts who believe military conflict is out of the question have “their heads in the sand,” not recognizing the intensity of nationalist rivalry in East Asia.

In this dangerous environment, both Fukuyama and Ferguson contend, the U.S. is projecting weakness and uncertainty, thus inviting conflict instead of warding it off.