Policymakers 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.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
“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.”